Tuesday 23 February 2016

Celebrating LGBT history and the sea at the National Maritime Museum

On Saturday (20 Feb) the UK’s National Maritime Museum at Greenwich marked LGBT history month. It’s the first time for this museum, which already had a strong staff LGBT network.

A bright rainbow flag flew from the historic Cutty Sark sailing ship. London’s Gay men’s Choir sang joyous songs like You Bring Me Sunshine.

It was a happy day with a warm sense on inclusion – at last for queer people who have had a marginalised history.

Fashion historian and expert on Nautical Chic Amanda Butchart talked about sailors as butch icons.
And a team from the National History Museum explained how very very queer the undersea world is: hermaphrodite fish and penguins being accused of criminal necrophilia (when really the poor things' amoral receptors were just responding to a partner’s proffering position).

Greenwich’s Lord Mayor Norman Adams opened the proceedings with a very gay-positive and moving speech. Children delightedly coloured in rainbows at the workshop.
And female pirate Katherine Hart was doing a roaming show in the foyer (pictured below, with me trying to outmatch her splendid swashbuckling. Does my cutlass envy look too big in that skirt?)

My talk

I myself gave everyone a new PowerPoint talk I’ve just put together: A quick cruise round 400 years of queer history at sea, which featured some of the NMM's newly revealed artefacts like these pictures of a cross-dressed stage seawoman and RN sailors saucily playing at families, in their time off.
It covered people in the Merchant and Royal Navies.
Ranging from the captains who were hanged for buggary of minors in the 1800s, to the Royal Navy’s impressive status now as no 10 in Stonewall’s top 100 of gay friendly employers, the story was of exclusion, scandal, agents provocateurs, homosociality … and of the 1990s successful challenges to homophobia and heteronormativity.

RN history really contrasts with the frisky campery of the post-war ‘gay heavens’ of passenger ship stewards. These MN men thought they were ‘liberated already’ and enjoyed the extraordinary solidarity of that life at sea decades before the gay rights movement began. (You can read about this in the book Paul Baker and I created, Hello Sailor! The Hidden history of Gay Life at Sea) www.routledge.com/9780582772144
Oh, time constraints! There was the usual problem that in 40 mins I couldn’t include as much as I’d like to. So we had to do without a discussion of the significant absences from the record of women who were lesbian and bisexual. Omitted, too, were men who transitioned - some of whom found going to sea absolutely transformative, not least after seeing lady boys in Bangkok.

Is this summary of history really the pattern of queer life at sea?

For me, creating this talk at home on the computer was a mind-blowing experience.(You should see the cutting room floor. Knee-deep in all the info I couldn’t fit in!)

Partly it was just staggeringly hard work to put together four centuries and two very disparate organisations (MN and RN) with their very different attitudes towards discipline and national interest. (The RN worried about spies and cold-war blackmail. By contrast, state security didn’t have concern operators of tankers or of ships full of low-risk corned beef or Ten Pound Poms or Prohibition-evading booze-cruisers).
But also, in creating a coherent summary a writer produces a narrative that reveals old patterns and also creates a new over-arching pattern.
Was I right in saying x sits next to y and makes z? I think so. But I hope people will challenge and tweak my idea too .

I come away from mentally organising this summary thinking that one of the hidden stories of the queer past at sea is that maybe, for many people at sea, same-sex sex and love was a non-story.
Maybe, as George Melly (pictured) said of his 1945 time in the RN's Dido, men having sex with men was just unremarkable and ordinary, like mutual masturbation in all-male situations such as public schools.

My other realisation is that the role of testosterone really can’t be over-related. Men had sex with men (whether or not they thought of themselves as ‘homosexual’) because hormones impelled them to release that energy.
Testosterone production is greater if you’re young, not a parent, in a competitive situation (e.g. making war), and in other men’s company. A battleship provided ideal conditions for biochemical-impelled behaviour.

Queer seas: a complex history

But it’s also a very complex story. In it are many factors including:

# religious anxiety about ‘unmanly unclean-ness’
# the major problem of shipboard bullying
# naval compromises made because of a need for personnel
# agonising human loneliness
# the deep comradeship (see pic below) that goes when people are dependent on each other for their very lives.

How the audience responded

At least two former seafarers who were there said they will give help me go on to create a fuller picture of queer life at sea, beyond the pirouettes and feather boas of MN amateur shows by crew.

I really hope RN men will be in touch too. Their story urgently needs to be told in a properly-funded oral history project.

And people seemed to be really engrossed as they listened. It was a lovely responsive audience. I look forward to being as well-received on future occasions.
It feels like a talk that could be given to many audiences. In fact, it feels like the stuff of a two-day course. There’s so much to be said.

So many people, it seems, want to know this hidden history – as those who couldn’t attend are already telling me.