Friday, 20 May 2011


 The Hello Sailor: Gay Life on the Ocean Wave exhibition 

I love a man in uniform, especially sailors in the Navy. It’s the stuff of vintage gay porn. Now many of those stories come to life in the exhibition Hello Sailor: Gay Life on the Ocean Wave that opens at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax this week.

The original exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool (part of National Museums Liverpool) focuses on the life of British gay sailors aboard ocean liners and merchant ships beginning in the 1950s up to the 1980s. The Canadian component compares that experience to the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex mariners in Canada up to the present day.

“One of the great things about sea life is that it’s very (accepting) – you can be all kinds of unusual,” U.K. researcher Jo Stanley, who traveled to Halifax for the exhibit's launch, told the Canadian Press. “There is kind of no such thing as 'normal' at sea, so there was that sense of freedom.”

RMS Carinthia
Stanley co-wrote the 2003 book Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea with Paul Baker after hearing stories from female stewards of men who “preferred shopping over brawling.”

Stanley's work became the focus of a 2006 exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, where it remains on permanent display. “(Seafaring) was their university, in a way,” says Stanley, who comes from Halifax, England. “But I think most of them were attracted to the fact that it was a fun job. It involved travel, it involved partying around, there was lots of solidarity. It was the ideal job to do if you were a gay man.”

RMS Scythia
Halifax Maritime Museum of the Atlantic curator Dan Conlin points out since passenger service for Canadians wasn’t as prominent at that time, there wasn’t the same “gay oasis.”

Conlin told Global News that “many of the (Canadian) gay and lesbian mariners who shared stories with the museum said there was a ‘sailor first’ identity.” 

It was illegal for gay men and women to serve openly in Canada’s armed forces until 1992. Conlin notes, “The worst homophobic treatment tended to come from shore side institutions, especially in the Canadian Navy prior to 1992, when they had witch hunts seeking to entrap gay men (and women).” 

Sailors dressed as showgirls
on board the Queen Mary
However, on British ocean liners (both my parents, for example, sailed to Canada from Liverpool during the great ocean-liner era, my father on Cunard's RMS Scythia and my mom on the luxury liner RMS Carinthia, which later became a floating casino in Hong Kong harbour), Stanley says the vast majority of stewards were gay men who were open about their sexuality.

There were drag shows and nighttime performances of musical theatre on board ships, and it wasn't unusual to spot men cavorting in brightly-coloured feather boas and stilettos. Gay sailors even had their own secret language they could use to communicate with each other around straight men.

The exhibition also shows how gay pubs were popular in ports and their nearby red-light districts. Some pub patrons joined the British merchant navy so that they could liver freer live gay lives, after hearing seafarers’ tales in local pubs. Foreign ports, especially Hong Kong, New York and Montreal, also offered opportunities to see shows with big-name stars.

UPDATE: Hello Sailor: Gay Life on the Ocean Wave ran at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax until November 27, 2011. The exhibition has been on permanent display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock, Liverpool, UK, since December 2011.

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