Gär Traynor – From Flight Attendant To Civil-Rights Pioneer

Gary Traynor was born in 1947 in the small town of Eugene, Oregon where he was raised by his mom and step-father.

Always knowing he was “different” Gary moved to Los Angeles where he came out as a gay man and shortened his name to ‘Gär’ (adding the umlaut over the ‘a’ every time he signed his name for some extra panache). Like many other gay men at the time he decided to become a Flight Attendant and joined United Airlines in April 1973.

AIDS Diagnosis

Gär was diagnosed with HIV in December 1982 after developing Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), a rare type of cancer caused by a virus that affects the skin, mouth and sometimes internal organs. KS was and still is one of the signs of late stage HIV, known then as AIDS.

He immediately came under the care of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Bowyer Clinic and Doctors Michael Gottlieb and Jermoe Groopman, who were pioneering new treatment strategies for KS and other AIDS related illnesses.

Dr Groopman contacted United on February 8, 1983 to inform them of Traynor’s diagnosis. He informed them that Traynor needed weekly chemotherapy treatment but he was still capable of continuing working for the airline in his current role.

United was initially sympathetic and allowed him to continue working. But Gär was one of the earlier victims of the newly emerging illness and as more people were diagnosed and the ensuing hysteria surrounding AIDS began to grow, attitudes began to change.

Gär later described how some of his colleagues “were quite concerned about being near me,” after seeing his KS lesions and learning of his diagnosis.

Lack of knowledge at the time around the transmission of AIDS and fear of catching the virus began to grow among the flight attendant community and and these fears soon reached airline management and America’s crew union the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA).

Wings Clipped

United’s initial reaction soon soured and on May 23, 1983 the carrier produced a “safety bulletin” on AIDS to assure workers they could not contract the disease through casual contact. Despite the reassuring bulletin the airline (and many others at the time) quickly removed Traynor and other FA’s whom they knew had AIDS, and some they merely suspected, from their roles.

Speaking on ‘The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour’ Traynor explained his removal from his flying duties: “A week after my diagnosis. I informed United, and if I was going to be taking chemotherapy for the cancer it may involve some schedule conflicts. That was fine, there was no problem until six months later I was called into the office at eight o’clock in the morning by one of the supervisors and told, effective immediately, that I was on a medical leave of absence. And this was their choice, not mine.”

One of the crew members who the airline suspected of having AIDS was New York based Russ Manker. Makner had had no official AIDS diagnosis but had been displaying some symptoms. This was enough for United’s management to ground him until he attended a specialist to get a diagnosis.

In July 1983, after numerous examinations and blood tests the doctor explained that Manker: “Does not, at the moment, fit the case definition for even a prodrome of the AIDS syndrome…. In the present context I could see no clear justification for denying Mr. Manker his job.” Armed with this information Manker headed to United’s HQ in Chicago and was allowed back to work. However, after just half a day’s training the company doctors sent him home. 

Bruce Hall a Chicago based FA with United was treated appallingly after reporting for work one day after being diagnosed with AIDS in January 1984. The airlines doctor allegedly told him to “Go home, stay home and don’t come back….we don ’t have people like you working for us.”

Later that year Hall was examined by another company doctor who explained that he was still fit enough to work as crew. However, the doctor concluded that he should still remain grounded due to “communicability and hyst. concerns,” ‘hyst’ obviously referencing the AIDS hysteria that was gripping the country. 

Despite continued reassurances that Traynor was able to safely continue his onboard duties, he was contacted by his base supervisor to tell him that he would now be placed on to a permanent medical leave of absence from June 28.

A month later he received a letter from the airlines Vice President of Medical Services Dr. C.R. Harper explaining the airlines decision to remove him from his duties stating: “Although the indications are that the disease is transmitted by intimate physical contact and/or accidental inoculation with blood products, the exact method of transmission is in fact not only controversial but at this point time conjectural.” He continued: “Since the bulk of the duties as a flight attendant involve food and beverage handling, it was felt in the interest of United’s flying public that you not perform these duties.”

A Bitter Battle

But Gär and his fellow grounded crew members were not about to take this lying down and they decided to fight their employer. Their battle also began to raise awareness of the disease as the press heard of the unfolding story, leading to much public scrutiny at a time when most people believed that AIDS was merely a gay illness.

Gär’s case encountered numerous delays but instead of just sitting around doing nothing he decided to begin working with the newly emerging AIDS activists and charities. He began by joining the Los Angeles City-County AIDS Task Force, a committee of 24 that advised the city’s mayor and county’s board of supervisors on AIDS policies.

His enforced medical leave from the airline meant that he was able to attend the first ever national meeting of AIDS activists in Denver, Coloardo in June 1983 where, for the first time, people living with the condition were able to to offer their first-hand knowledge of AIDS, alongside doctors working in the field and gay community leaders.

AIDS activists unfurl a banner at a gay and lesbian health conference in Denver.
(Image courtesy of John Schoenwalter)

After moving to San Francisco to be with his partner, he joined the newly formed ‘People With AIDS – San Francisco’ (PWA-SF), who were eager to promote his case against United. The group went to the airline and demanded that he be reinstated, which United immediately rebuffed.

And so the group decided to go for more dramatic action – a citywide boycott of the airline. Key gay activists such as Harvey Milk signed up and soon Gär and his partners faces were across various local and national newspapers.

By now the Gär Traynor vs. United Airlines arbitration case was ready to be heard, led by neural arbitrator Martin Wagner and a five member judicial panel. United hired medical expert Dr. Kevin Cahill of the New York City Board of Health, who had recently published a book called ‘The AIDS Epidemic’. A particular point raised in the book and pushed home by Cahill at the hearing was the opinion that there may be other ways, apart from blood and semen, that AIDS could be transmitted, including ‘food preparation.’ This opinion, it was hoped, would be enough to justify United’s decision to ground Gär and his colleagues.

Fighting Gär’s corner was the AFA who had hired medical experts Doctors John Philip Phair and David Ostrow of Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. They argued that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) remained adamant that transmission could only occur via blood or semen. This was backed up by testimonies from doctors and nurses, who had worked closely with AIDS patients and not contracted the virus.

Wagner and the team looked closely at health care workers diagnosed with AIDS, who were allowed to continue working in their profession. From studying these findings he later concluded: “It is the chairman’s opinion that the foregoing observations and conclusions… refute a conclusion that an employee afflicted with AIDS should be removed from an attendant position on a per se basis and that, if such a conclusion is appropriate in the attendant-patient relationship in a hospital setting, it is equally valid in the flight attendant relationship to the flying public.”

The tide was turning in Gär’s favour and after reaching these conclusions, Wagner began to look at how Mr Traynor had been unfairly treated by United, grounded without even being looked over by a company doctor.

This lead Wagner to believe that the lack of examination was “clearly a homophobic and AIDS-phobic thing on their [United’s] part,” as any other medical condition would be checked by a company doctor to ensure the crew member was fit to fly. Wagner also had ample evidence from Gär’s own doctors that he was, and always had been, fit to fly.

Patricia Friend of the AFA went on to say: “They [United] were convinced that, if the people who who were buying tickets knew that there were flight attendants working in the airplane who were HIV positive, that they would stay away in droves… So it was all about their image.”

Winning The Battle But (Temporarily) Loosing The War

At the end of 1984 the ruling was in. Gär Traynor was awarded a full year and a half in back pay and had won his job back. He was so angry with the airline that he subsequently chose not to return.

The AFA now also had a precedent that could be cited in other AIDS related grievances. More broadly, any person with AIDS would regain the right to work.

However, United still managed to find a loophole in the ruling regarding the removal of staff members with HIV/AIDS.

In 1985 a United FA called Robert Butler was diagnosed with AIDS. He was declared healthy enough to continue working but the airline refused. A grievance was filed and a settlement was quickly negotiated. Unlike Gär who was placed on unpaid medical leave, Butler received a large financial sum and would remain on United’s books, being paid as if he were still a full time crew member. 

This “solution” from United continued until May 1988 when the airline finally resolved its approach to dealing with people with HIV/AIDS. FA’s with the virus were now able to work for as long as their health would allow them.

The problem now was educating passengers and fellow employees, that a person with AIDS need not be treated differently to any one else. Educational materials were prepared by the airline and AFA union and it was made very clear that the company would no longer back any concerns raised by fellow employees about working alongside someone with HIV/AIDS.

A Largely Unknown Lasting Legacy

Sadly Gär Trainer did not live to see this change in policy and attitude by his employer. He passed away on March 13, 1987.

For many years Gär’s only lasting legacy was his patch on the NAMES project AIDS Memorial Quilt, started in San Francisco in 1987. His battle against United to change its policies and his work with the LA Aids Task Force and PWA-SF was largely forgotten.

Gar Traynor’s patch on the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

That was until the publication of the incredible book ‘Plane Queer Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants’ by Phil Tiemeyer, where much of the information for this article was sourced. 

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s had a devastating effect on the gay community and, as so many male crew members are/were gay, it also massively impacted the aviation community. Not only did male crew at the time lose friends and loved ones in horrific numbers, they also became the target of the growing wave of fear, scaremongering and scapegoating. This was further exasperated by the false accusation of Air Canada crew member Gaëtan Dugas being “Patient Zero” and responsible for spreading HIV across North America.

Had it not been for Gär Traynor having the strength and determination to stand up to his employer at a time when people living with AIDS were seen as a blight on society, then the discrimination faced by Flight Attendants living with AIDS may have gone on for much longer.

United Airlines Today

Thankfully today, United is nothing like the airline it was back in the 1980s. The carrier fully supports the LGBTQ community stating: “At United, we recognize, embrace and celebrate the differences that make our customers and employees unique. We’re committed to creating an inclusive work environment while contributing to the diverse communities we serve.”

Indeed the airline became the first US airline to fully recognise domestic partnerships and provide comprehensive fringe benefits in 1999. It partners with various LGBTQ groups such as National Gay Pilots Association and offers community outreach projects, hosting and participating in numerous events that allows the airline to support and give back to the LGBT community.

© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air

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