Saturday 28 May 2011

Hello sailor in Nova Scotia

I've just come back -delighted - from the opening of the Canadian version of Hello Sailor, the exhibition I co-curated for Merseyside Maritime Museum. It's the exciting product of my 40-year old dream to tell the story of this extraordinary subculture.

The expanded exhibition, curated by Dan Conlin at Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic:
• added five panels
• made all the 15 British panels bilingual
• collected stories and objects from five gay seafarers there, including the adapted naval uniform of Elle Noire, who sewed gold lace and sequins on it and cut a low neck.
But we still had the cabin set (see pic of me playing with a feather boa)

It had a great launch on Wed 18 May. The staff trained pink lights on their show cases, arranged the flags outside to include the rainbow coalition flag and to spell out ‘Hello Sailor”, got dressed up in sailor hats, wore pink frocks and fascinators.

We had a drag act with Farrah Moan and Eureka Love singing Abba’s SOS. Then Elle Noire (far right in pic) sang Tina Turner’s Turn Back the Tide. And I had a great time whooping it up there with the drag queens.(That's me, second from right).

If you can't get to the exhibition then you can almost take a virtual tour. Find links to the video and audio footage about the exhibition at

The Museum is hoping that now the exhibition is all set for a new life in Canada, it will go on to other museums. The Museum will also be having its first ever float in the Gay Pride parade this summer.

The Minister of Culture, David Wilson, made a statement (very enthusiastic) about us in Parliament (Nova Scotia Provincial Legislature on May 18:

'Nova Scotia can take pride in their unique and diverse history and culture. In communities across the province, museums are working hard to preserve that history and tell our stories. This is a very exciting day for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

'Today the museum is making history as it holds the North American premiere of the exhibit, Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave. It has been a long journey for this exhibit to come to Halifax. The journey began with the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersex people over half a century ago.

'Their stories lay hidden for much of the past 60 years until Dr. Jo Stanley and her colleague, Paul Baker, brought them to life in 2003 in the book, Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea. Their book chronicles the experiences of gay crew members on cruise ships and naval vessels that sailed out of England, often stopping in Halifax.

'The book led to the creation of the Hello Sailor! exhibit by the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England in 2006. It ensures the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersex mariners were brought together for the public to appreciate. Now, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has brought Hello Sailor! to Nova Scotia and added local content to make it even more relevant to Nova Scotians.

'I had the pleasure this morning of attending a preview of the exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and it truly is an impressive experience. The Hello Sailor! exhibit is enhanced by the contribution of Dr. Stanley who is guest curator for the North American debut. Nova Scotia is fortunate to have her experience and knowledge increase our understanding of our maritime heritage.

'This is what our museums do best. They bring forward unique parts of our history that have never been talked about or shown before. They help us to understand how our diverse culture and history make Nova Scotia such an incredible place to live, work, and raise a family....

'The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is one of the top attractions for visitors to our province. Thanks to the imagination, skill and knowledge of the staff at the museum, there is now another reason for people to come to the Halifax waterfront - to see the Hello Sailor! exhibit.

'I urge all members of the House and all Nova Scotians to take advantage of this unique opportunity that Hello Sailor! provides to learn more about our maritime heritage.'

Lascar seafarers' website

Lascar (Asian) seafarers were a huge percentage of the UK's merchant navy but their history is very hidden. A friend's just tipped me off to an excellent website about them:

In particular there is a P&O internal document from 1900, as well as some little-known articles from 1913, 1931,1955 and 1957 written from a range of (seemingly white British) viewpoints.

Trouble is, the site has not been changed since 2003 - which suggests to me that it hasn't had the responses it deserves. The author invites people to contribute their stories, links etc. So it would be great if we did so, and made this site the main lively source for information about men who have too long been denigrated as cowardly, dirty etc.

Gay marine reveals fight for rights

Being in North America last week I heard lots of stories about LGBT seafarers that are not necessarily so well known here in the UK. One of the most talked about is the new (ish) book by gay US Marine Justin Crockett Elzie, the first Marine to be discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (which was repealed in Dec 2010).

“PLAYING BY THE RULES” A Marine’s True Story was published by Queer Mojo (A Rebel Satori Imprint),2010. It's acclaimed as a crucial expose of homophobia and the fight for LGBT rights.

Elzie didn't want to be an activist. But he wanted to stay in the Marines and so he challenged his discharge. He won, was re-instated and served four more years, openly gay, before retiring in 1997.