Monday 15 December 2008

Lesbians in Navy: new story

Ex-Wren Jacqui De La Maziere – and over 80 other gay service personnel - fought against unfair dismissal for 16 years. Now they have just lost their case. Jacqui tells her story in an interview she gave me for the Sailing Proud Archive on Nov 19 2008. You can hear it yourself by visiting the Archive at Merseyside Maritime Museum. And read online her letter to the Guardian, Nov 13 2008, ‘Sacked for being gay, we deserve better.’

Really, the early 1990s were the worst time to be a dyke in the Navy. It was bad enough that women were being newly allowed to enter this very male insitution. It was even worse that they were setting foot on men’s hallowed ships. And it was more affronting again if they were not going to be (heterosexually) available.

This ex-Sea Cadet also gives an interesting insight into the puzzle of why some Wrens didn’t grab the chance to sail when it first came in 1991. After 70 years of frustratedly living with the motto ‘Never at Sea’ maybe some did not appreciate that they would get less leave than male shipmates. She wanted to sail with equal rights.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Analysing gay seafarers' representation in museums

Pam Meecham has written an interesting analyis of the Hello Sailor! exhibition. In particular she brings out the difficulties I certainly felt in representing - in a popular site - what might be seen as parodic lifestyles and men adopting anti-feminist 'feminity.' She puts her finger on the problems I never satisfactorily sorted out in helping create that exhibition.
See 'Reconfiguring the shipping news: maritime's hidden histories and the politics of gender display' appeared in Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 1472-0825, Volume 8, Issue 3, 2008, Pages 371 – 380.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Making history accessible

LGBT people's history at sea is fascinating. A ship is such an exceptional space that enables human beings to behave very differently to the way they behave ashore. Queer things do indeed happen at sea. They are not only worth recording - in depth, and ideally multi-dimensionally eg through sounds and images, not just text. Such records also need to widely available.

In the last three weeks I've been reminded of the importance of this at two conferences: the UK Maritime Heritage Forum on Dec 3, and Curioser and Curioser, the LGBT History and Archives conference on Dec 6. After Sir Neil Cosson's inspiring speech at the former, it seemed to me that those of us working in maritime heritage can give a key gift to posterity. We can proudly explain that some ships were spaces where diversity of sexual orientation was accepted, even welcomed, by passengers and crew. And this important social phenomenon occured far more readily than in any other 20th century space, even the theatre.

It was not an unproblematic acceptance. But it was a telling and inspiring proof that human beings can be extraordinarily tolerant of different ways of loving and living life. It's a proof that we humans can transcend our deepest prejudices and embrace the Othered - oddly easily. My view is that the sea and its ships are thus wondrous spaces. And we historians have the privelege of being able to assist people in the important process of wondering at them.

The Curioser conference implicitly demonstrated how remarkable the phenomenon of queer seafarers is. It also impressively showed how many lively projects are being created in the UK to ensure that the on-land history is being recorded and made accessible before it's too late. There's energy and funding - and that's heartening.