By Dr Jo Stanley, Honorary Research Fellow, Blaydes Maritime Centre, University of Hull
On Tuesday 28 February, you can celebrate Pride in Maritime Day. This is only the second year that LGBT+ seafarers are being acknowledged in this international event, so be among the first.
As a maritime historian focusing on equality, diversity and inclusion, in this year’s celebrations I’ll be talking about fun and well-being at sea. And I’ll be sharing the histories of seafarers worldwide who explored life beyond heteronormativity - creatively.
Wednesday 22 February, 6pm. Entertaining 4 Sanity@sea: Hull's glitzy ship’s steward Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson and the history of shipboard entertainment. When the voyaging gets tough, a bit of humour and music can keep you sane. Dr Jo Stanley (Blaydes Maritime Centre, University of Hull) uses historic images to explore on-board entertainment and its relationship with LGBT+ culture on board Merchant and Royal Navy ships, 1900-2000. She sees fun as crucial to mental wellbeing at sea, which in turn helps ships be safer places. How are ships with Karaoke machines different today? More info here.
Wednesday 31 May, 6pm. Revealing queer maritime history: international museums’ LGBT+ sea exhibitions. Today Equality, Diversity and inclusion are recognised as crucial to people and workplaces, whether at sea or on land. Recently three overseas maritime museums have staged LGBT+ exhibitions that reveal both camaraderie and homophobia. Dr Jo Stanley (Blaydes Maritime Centre, University of Hull) compares the UK, Norway, Netherlands, Canada and Sweden - and how they show the stories of differing 'Hello sailor!' cultures. More info here.
You can join the talks by going to links above. Free. The filmed talks will also be available on YouTube afterwards here.
In my research into people’s lives at sea I keep finding evidence of how well our forebears recognised that hearts and minds – as well as bodies – needed looking after in hard times. Singing, playing around, putting on crew shows, and dressing up as divas. All these things helped boost morale when people were far from home, facing danger and enduring wet conditions.
In the process, the LGBT+ seafarers who took a lead in entertaining enjoyed being accepted for who they were, despite the homophobic times and criminalisation ashore. Before 2000 the Royal Navy were more strict than the Merchant Navy about ‘homosexuality.’ But on a long voyage everyone loves a laugh, and so most would readily accept light-hearted female impersonation, from at least the 1920s.
The floating ‘gay heavens’ of the late twentieth century passenger ships were places where crew, officers and passengers – whatever their sexual identity and orientation – had a hilarious time in satin frocks and Folies Bergère-style feathered headdresses.
Seafarers posed, mimed, danced – or even sang – for camp take-offs. GBT men were especially active in putting on musicals, including Hello Dolly that they’d just seen on New York’s Broadway and imitating St Trinian’s schoolgirls from the movies. You can see Merchant Navy stories in the book I co-wrote with Paul Baker: Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea. More info.
In the Royal Navy some –not necessarily identifying as ‘homosexual’ – impersonated women in pantomime-style in fou-fou bands or clowned in playful snaps, especially at Crossing the Line ceremonies.
Hull’s famous Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson (pictured while filming in 2021) was perhaps the star of them all in the 1982 Falkland’s Conflict. Shipping’s answer to Liberace, this flamboyant steward went with a borrowed Flying Angel piano, many gay stewards, plus soldiers of 2 Para on the ferry Norland. Wendy encouraged them to sing along with morale-lifting tunes. And in the process, when homophobia was stile rife, these hard men embraced a human being they initially saw as ‘just a poofter’.
Author Warren Fitzgerald tells me 'It's maybe going too far to say Wendy helped win the Falklands war. But certainly this kind gay Hull man's on-board boosts to morale on the Norland – there and back – meant hundreds of seafarers and combatants gained the strength to go on despite the hardships. The acting commanding officer of 2 Para said so at Wendy's funeral in 2021.’
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Keeble DSO attested ‘The first principle of war is the Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. The second is the Maintenance of Morale ... the critical war-fighting component for [our] morale was [this] generous, big-hearted hero, a talent who brought out the best, especially through good humour and fellowship.’
Few ships have records of the 24:7 onboard merry-making and warmth. But uniquely the Norland’s camp community life in war is shared in Warren’s book, All in the same boat. Check out his website www.warrenfitzgerald.co.uk for news of the film adaptation, which is now underway.
Dr Rachel Glynn-Williams (pictured) a consultant clinical psychologist specialising in seafarers’ mental health, www.seawayspsychology.com affirmed to me: ‘Worse things do sometimes happen at sea.
So connectivity between seafarers is such an important buffer to some of the challenges of life aboard. Singing and making theatre sociably together - where you can be yourself - or even someone else – can be such an antidote and relief. We all need to let our ‘soft side’ out. Playing is serious business! And everyone wins a prize.’
Please join me on Tuesday Feb 22 at 6pm for Entertaining 4 Sanity@sea: Hull's glitzy ship’s steward Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson and the history of shipboard entertainment. It’s part of Blaydes Maritime Centre’s seminar series.
And feel free to contribute your own sea stories of how theatricality, humour and singalongs saved shipboard sanity.
In LGBT+ History Month (February) https://lgbtplushistorymonth.c... it’s important to recognise the huge part LGBT+ people and their shipboard allies played in making voyages bearable, even uplifting. This year’s theme, Behind the Lens, will reveal new stories of film and photography.