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Hello, Sailor!

Hello Sailor!
One of the light-hearted crew drag shows, early 1960s. Courtesy of Southampton City Council and National Museums Liverpool

Experiences of LGBTQ mariners brought to light at Maritime Museum

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic’s current special exhibition, Hello Sailor! Gay life on the ocean wave, is an important and varied look at the history of homosexuality on the ocean, on board both military and civilian vessels.

The exhibit explores British and Canadian stories and combines the original exhibit from the Merseyside Museum in Liverpool with a Canadian component developed originally for the Maritime Museum. It is co-curated by Jo Stanley, who curated the exhibit in its initial incarnation, and Dan Conlin, who is in charge of the Canadian portion.

The exhibit is by equal measure entertaining, touching and sobering, as it details both the tolerance many gay sailors found on board, and the much less accepting treatment they experienced ashore. Personal stories and video interviews give further glimpses of this: one sailor describes how he might never have come out at all had he not gone to sea, and another recalls how he met his partner and eventual common-law husband.

While the physical artifacts from the British exhibit have not been brought across the Atlantic, the digital art was reproduced for its Halifax incarnation, and the text translated into French in order to present the information in both official languages.

On the British side, the flamboyant camp culture that developed in the 1950s, with the stewards who worked on luxury cruise liners, is explored and celebrated. While it was not a time noted for its openness, that decade saw the start of what became a major part of cruise ship culture: gay stewards would both serve and entertain passengers, and were much more readily accepted on board ship than they would have been ashore. Popular musicals, and gay parodies thereof, were performed, the gay language of Polari was developed and the ships became known as a sort of “gay heaven” long before there was much acceptance ashore.

The Canadian section describes “the good, the bad and the boring”– all sides of the LGBTQ mariner experience. Attitudes such as “sailor first” have in recent times grown more prevalent, emphasizing that the sexual orientation of any crew member is irrelevant compared to their ability as a mariner. However, systemic discrimination for many years forced sailors to hide their identities or risk dismissal, and one personal account from a Canadian naval officer includes his dismissal after a file was compiled on his personal life which led to suspicion on his sexuality.

The five personal accounts in the Canadian component are drawn from a range of sailors, including one woman, a male-to-female transsexual, an African-Nova Scotian man, a Mi’kmaq man and a man discharged from the navy for his sexuality, offering many different perspectives through their stories. The accounts were collected for the exhibit during its development through face-to-face interviews.

Lunn states that the comments Hello Sailor! has drawn have been “mostly extremely complimentary” and that “members of the LGBT community have been most supportive,” adding that the interviewees who shared their stories were extremely generous in offering their assistance. The exhibit’s subject is a history that is rarely observed, except perhaps peripherally; the truth of the various facets of queer life at sea that this exhibit presents are not often truly explored in depth. This is the first exhibit of its kind to appear in a maritime museum in North America, and it has sparked much discussion, something that Lunn believes is important in a museum exhibit.

The exploration of this hidden history has led to the creation of a unique, fascinating exhibit, which tells stories that are not often heard.

Hello Sailor! will be on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic until Nov. 27.

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