Here’s a small but interesting exhibition on the first floor of the Maritime Museum.
‘Hello Sailor! – Gay Life on the Ocean Wave’ looks at crew life on passenger and merchant ships between the 1950s and 1980s when being at sea was one of the few places gay men could be themselves.
Hello Sailor! flags up a period of great social change. Until 1967 homosexuality was illegal and gay men were often persecuted and prosecuted. Many chose a life in the Merchant Navy where there was greater tolerance of camp and effeminate men.
Gay culture has been a feature of seafaring life for centuries but it is still largely a hidden one even today. Hello Sailor! reveals this hidden history for the first time in a major museum. It shows how on board ship gay men were welcomed in catering but engineers, pursers and officers had to be more cautious as they could face hostility or lose their jobs.
There was a great diversity among gay men at sea during this period. Some were out, camp and casual while others remained in the closet and wary. Lesbian women were less evident on board ship and were more discreet.
Hello Sailor! shows how life at sea contrasted with life at home. There is a recreation of a steward’s cabin featuring a flamboyant dress of the type worn during camp crew shows. Film clips of shows from the 1950s and 1960s feature interviews of seafarers who appeared in them.There are photographs and other ephemera from the period such as hand-made posters advertising shows. Gay seafarers talk about their lives in taped interviews. There is also film of the gay wedding of two former seafarers who have been together since 1974.
Gay seafarers have drawn maps for the exhibition from memory showing where they could find gay bars in ports around the world. There are examples of Polari – a secret language used by gay men in public places.
Dr Jo Stanley says: “Hello Sailor! brings the personal stories of gay men who served in the Merchant Navy to a new audience.
“There was a fascinating gay culture on ships which was very different from life on shore. For a camp man a place such as the dining saloon was his stage, cruising place, playground, club and theatre for informal entertainment throughout the meal. Gay dining room stewards minced, flirted with passengers and made a camp show of waiting at table.