The Isolated Lives of North Dakota's Gay Oil Field Workers
Though attitudes are slowly shifting in the conservative state, gay men who come for lucrative work in the booming Bakken shale formation often feel pressured to keep their identities hidden.
A conversation on Grindr in Williston, North Dakota
My one and only liaison in the oil fields of western North Dakota was with a 23-year-old truck driver. Like most such encounters in the oil patch, ours originated on Grindr, the mobile hookup app for gay, bisexual, and curious men. He sent me a photo, and we traded some biographical details. A few hours later, he was in my room at the Williston Super 8.
After our rendezvous, as the November night air dipped below ten degrees, we took shelter in his car to smoke cigarettes. I was only going to be in the state for 48 more hours, but we made tentative plans to go shooting the next day. I was less interested in exercising my Second Amendment rights for the first time than in extending our easy fling. He just needed to see whether he could get off work that day—no small task for someone accustomed to 16-hour shifts, six days a week.
I'll never really know whether he was able to get time off or not, but when he told me he had to work, it seemed plausible enough. This is a sacrifice made by nearly all those who have flocked to find jobs in North Dakota's booming Bakken shale formation. When you're working in the fast-paced, physically exhausting oil economy, there's little time for romance.
"You make money up here and you leave," another gay worker, a 23-year-old who works for a company that rents and sells motors to drill wells, told me. "That kind of puts a damper on relationships."
And it leaves little time for gay men to build a community. Attitudes are shifting, but the state's socially conservative heritage still looms large. Same-sex relationships are often intensely private—if not wholly covert—affairs, and LGBT-friendly spaces remain exasperatingly limited. Online platforms like Grindr provide a means for some gay workers in the area to connect with one another. But the sorts of fleeting and—for the most part—one-on-one interactions they enable don't do much to break the overall sense of solitude.
Homophobia never lingers far from the surface. "I was at a bar the other night, when this guy started calling me a 'fucking queer,'" Jon Kelly, a burly 29-year-old real estate developer who moved to Williston four years ago, told me. "I've been out for ten years, and nobody's ever said that to me."
Kelly tried to defuse the situation. But when the drunken taunting wouldn't stop, he was left with no other option: "I punched him in the face, knocked him down to the ground," Kelly told me. "And I told him, 'You just got your ass beat by a fucking queer.'"
At Outlaws' Bar & Grill, a steakhouse in Williston, I met Jim, a 52-year-old twice-divorced Wisconsin native with two sons. Jim used to run his own advertising business, but it fell apart in the 2008 recession. After struggling to pay off his debt, he decided to move to North Dakota to take a job in what's euphemistically called saltwater disposal, the process of pumping water-like fracking waste deep underground.
"I'm pretty much in the closet," Jim told me. "I just don't want to have to deal with all that comes with it—you know, with all the questions. I think, for me, it's all about meeting Mr. Right. If I met Mr. Right, then I'd be more open."
The closet is still a major institution in the Bakken. Over the course of a week in North Dakota, I spoke to more than a dozen workers in a similar situation. Some are in the closet for fear of losing their jobs. Others figure the risk of creating friction at the workplace isn't worth their peace of mind.
Like the vast majority of employers in the state, most companies in the oil patch do not provide discrimination protections for gay and trans workers. That means, if you're a roughneck who's out on the job—or a truck driver, or a welder, or a pipe fitter—your boss can probably fire you for being gay, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Protections exist at some of the bigger international companies that have set up shop—Halliburton and the Norwegian oil giant Statoil, for instance. But this often means little in practical terms, since the industry relies so heavily on subcontracted labor. "You might be working for Statoil, but you're actually an employee of another company, so those protections may not be there through your employer," said Joshua Boschee, a state legislator who's working to pass a ban on employment and housing discrimination against LGBT people.
During the day, Jim often cruises Grindr, looking for other "masculine" types. There's no shortage of them: the guys who sport beards and tattoos—some heavy-set, some more fit—and self-identify with the app's "rugged" tribe or insist on "masc only." Other than scouring social apps—and if you can't bear the small talk, there's always Craigslist—there aren't a whole lot of ways for Jim to meet Mr. Right.
There are no gay bars in North Dakota. From the oil fields, the nearest one is seven hours away, in Winnipeg. The state's three biggest cities, Bismarck, Grand Forks, and Fargo, offer the occasional drag show, but they, too, are hours away from the Bakken.
Minot, a growing city of 46,000 on the eastern edge of the patch, is the closest there is to a gay mecca in these parts. A few years ago, James Lowe, a 36-year-old Minot native, and his friend James Falcon helped organize a series of quarterly LGBT dances and weekly meet-ups, but internal disagreements brought them to a halt. Last year, the group Pride Minot held weekly viewing parties for the TV show RuPaul's Drag Race, and it plans to do the same for the show's upcoming season.Today, there are a couple of Minot bars that are known for attracting a sizable gay male clientele—a mix of locals, airmen, and oil hands willing to make the trek.
Compared with Williston, the Magic City—as Minot is known—has a cosmopolitan feel. At the Starlite Club, a karaoke bar in a strip mall next to the local airport, I hung out with several gay men, a bi woman, and a self-described "fag hag." An otherwise straight crowd, decked out in the state's familiar modern cowboy aesthetic, grooved to country-rock anthems from Kellie Pickler, Alabama, and the Zac Brown Band. When the bar closed, at one, I was introduced to Essy Parizek, an owner of Starlite who doubles as its karaoke emcee.
"We don't care," Parizek told me when I asked what made her spot one of the few LGBT beacons of the Dakotas. "We just want everyone to have fun—that's what it's all about."
There is something of a growing community in Williston at the center of the oil industry as well. Jon Kelly throws occasional house parties for his queer friends. The gatherings are small, but Kelly sees them as evidence of broader progress.
"There are the beginnings of a scene here," Kelly said. "Over the last few years, more and more people are willing to be open about it."
Jason Marshall and Cody in Lignite, North Dakota. Jason and Cody are one of the area's few openly gay couples.
Jason Marshall, a 36-year-old roustabout, or oil-rig handyman, recently accepted an offer to operate a natural-gas-processing plant in Lignite, a sleepy town of 150 near the Canadian border. In a rare move for the area, his new employer offers benefits to him and his partner, Cody, who is considering adopting a more androgynous gender identity. Cody said he's not too worried about the reception in his new town. "It's just better not to mention that stuff," he said.
Countless others—poor, alone, and horny—struggle to find comfort in the Bakken. "I just really don't know what to think of these people," said a gay 22-year old who recently moved to Williston from Las Vegas. "It's a weird city, man. If there was no money here, I wouldn't live here."