Hello Sailor! Gay Life On The Ocean Wave In Liverpool

By Caroline Lewis | 31 August 2006
black and white photo of a man in Pacific ethnic costume with a man in a white bridal gown

Legendary race course tipster Prince Monolulu, a passenger, is pictured with a crewman dressed as a bride during shipboard crew entertainment. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Visitors can flounce into the world of gay life on the ocean wave at Merseyside Maritime Museum with the exhibition Hello Sailor!, running until March 2007.

The exhibition looks at crew life on board passenger and merchant ships between the 1950s and 1980s, when being at sea was one of the few opportunities for gay men to be themselves. Homosexuals took to the life with aplomb, often as catering staff, giving camp performances in crew shows and seeking out gay bars in ports across the world.

Although men could no longer be prosecuted for gay acts after 1967, when homosexuality was legalised, persecution in everyday life did not end. During this era of great social change, many gay men chose a career in the Merchant Navy because it was more tolerant of camp and effeminate men than other professions.

photo of four men in drag including one with his face painted half black half white

New Romantics in drag take part in a shipboard show. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Although gay culture has been a feature of seafaring for centuries, it is still largely hidden from the outside world. Hello Sailor! reveals its hidden history for the first time in a major museum.

“Hello Sailor! brings the personal stories of gay men who served in the Merchant Navy to a new audience,” says Dr Jo Stanley, co-curator of the exhibition. “There was a fascinating gay culture on ships which was very different to 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,” she continues. “Gay dining room stewards minced, flirted with passengers and made a camp show of waiting at table.”

black and white photo of four men in fancy underwear dancing on stage

Crewmen in drag take part in a burlesque show. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Film clips of camp crew shows from the 1950s and 60s include interviews with sailors who took part in them, while a recreation of a steward’s cabin features a flamboyant dress of the type worn in the shows. Also on show are photographs and other ephemera such as handmade posters advertising shows.

Not all gay men were blasé about their orientation while on board – in fact there was much diversity in the community. They were welcomed in the catering division, but engineers, pursers and officers had to be more cautious. They might have faced hostility, or even lost their jobs, for being gay, so understandably remained in the closet and wary. Lesbians were not so evident at sea, and were more discreet.

photo of a man in a white dress and spotted neck scarf

A crew member shows off his party gear. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool

“Passengers, especially regulars, often welcomed camp seafarers because they gave good customer service,” explains Dr Stanley. “When camp seafarers came ashore, particularly in the 1950s and early 60s, they were like colourful butterflies in a drab world.”

In port, gay seafarers would find somewhere where they could have fun ashore – maps drawn from memory show where gay bars could be found in ports around the world.

There is also a film of the gay wedding of two seafarers who have been together since 1974, and taped interviews where gay crew members talk about their lives. The exhibition also sheds light on Polari – the secret language used by gay men in public places (more prevalent before 1967).

Hello Sailor complements Homotopia, Liverpool’s gay-led festival of arts, film and performance, running from November 1-14 2006.

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