Sunday 31 January 2021

From ship’s steward to LGBT+ media activist: Mick Belsten


Mick Belsten (pictured far right) was a rare seafarer. Leaving the camp-ified liners, for two decades he helped shape the emerging out and proud LGBT+ culture on land.

If you watched episode 2 of It’s A Sin, Russell T Davies’ new TV series about gay culture and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, then you’ll have noticed the way gay magazines were crucial sources of alternative information. (See pic).Mick shaped that world. Indeed he could have been part of the production team that brought out the very magazines you saw on screen in this week’s programme.

In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and early 80s many seafarers, particularly stewards, enjoyed the exceptional ‘camp heavens’ on ships. Their history is recorded in Paul Baker and Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! I know a closeted officer who lost his maritime job after a friend sent him Gay Times, which effectively outed him.

Mick probably gained his first experiences of unofficial queer solidarity, 24:7 fun, and relative freedom by being part of that maritime counter-culture. 

Such were merchant seamen's privileges that, when discussing the Gay Liberation Front and its informal successors, one seaman crowed to me ‘At sea we didn’t need liberation movements. We already were liberated.’

But Bristol-born activist Mick Belsten (1934-1990) wanted liberation to reach far wider, and permanently, everywhere.  

After being a steward on a gay-friendly P&O liner he came back from Honolulu, a 'graduate' of these queer universities afloat. And he metamorphosed into an LGBT+ activist, for example demonstrating against the notoriously hypocritical 1971 Festival of Light. (See pic at Trafalgar Square: Mick, right, seated, with arm upraised.)

From the 1970s Mick helped produce the Gay Liberation Front's influential journal Come Together. He managed Hammersmith’s path-breaking Incognito gay bookstore, at a time when police raids and censorious clampdowns were fruitlessly attempting to impede the free flow of LGBT+ cultural products.

Among the LGBT+ culture ‘architects’ Mick worked with were Alan Purnell and Alex McKenna. His multi-tasking helped create the emerging gay magazines such as Zipper, HIM Exclusive, Gay Times, Him Monthly, Mister, Vulcan, and Out.  

Expert on the gay pornography of the period, Paul R Deslandes (pictured) has summarised the significance of these innovative types of publication. With their pictures and experimental layouts they emphasised 

‘erotic pleasure, the articulation of a specifically gay identity and a public kind of “coming out”, entirely in keeping with the prevailing political ethos of the day... that [included] the provision of no-nonsense sexual education with a new kind of sex-positive and informed gay identity.’

Gay Times, 1983. Mick is far left, back row

Mick’s many ad hoc roles in these magazines - with their varying degrees of pornographic content - included compiling news from overseas and handling the small ads. 

Lonely-hearts-style classified ads may have been individuals' tiny expressions of privately-held desire. But, when published, these ads were also crucial building blocks that helped create a world where people could be honest about needs that had previously been stifled. 

For many isolated gays in remote places such adverts were evidences of the new openness, and of all that available to questors. The lines were, virtually, as liberating as shipboard life had been.

Mick typed up copy that countered the old homophobic  articles in mainstream papers.

Working – often precariously– in such media Mick was a key gatekeeper in what Dr Harry Cocks sees described as the radical focusing role of such as small ads. See 

As a small-ad supremo - handling postal orders and trays of filing cards in meticulous sequence - Mick was in the position of ethnographer, as well as enabler in those analogue times. 

He didn’t leave records of his own subjective experiences shaping this brave new world. But from the bits I’ve pieced together I can see that Mick Belsten is an unsung hero of queer mobilities and of maritime history's impactful diversity. 

He’s the bridge between the hundreds of seafarers enjoying personal pleasure in exceptional places, as pioneers, and the millions on land who went on to shape an affirming new counter-culture for all.  

I found out about Mick too late to put him in our book and exhibition, Hello Sailor. But now, thanks to the collaboration of his friends and colleagues, I’m writing about him and giving talks about him. 

See Outing the Past’s list of available talks, Feb to Sept, 2021. ( From March 2021 films of all talks will be available on YouTube. So keep looking at


Much gratitude to Mick's old friends and colleagues. This quest would not have been possible without them. 

Paul R Deslandes, ‘The cultural politics of gay pornography in the 1970s Britain, in Brian Lewis, ed, British queer history: New approaches and perspectives, Manchester University Press, 2013.

Friday 29 January 2021

Sex, gender, and the US Navy


The good news is that on Monday 25 Jan the new US president Joe Biden reversed a Pentagon policy that largely barred transgender individuals from joining the US military.

This reverses the ban ordered by Donald Trump, in a tweet, during his first year in office. An estimated 15,000 out of 1.5 million active-duty troops are affected.  Working on that basis, I calculate the decision will matter to around 1% cent of the 336,978-strong US Navy.

Protesting in 2017: Stop Transgender Military Ban rally at the White House.
 Image by Ted Eytan 


It’s been a long fight, with many challenges along the way. Kristin Beck (pictured), who’d served 20 years and  became the first US Navy SEAL to come out as transgender in 2013,told Trump “Let’s meet face to face and you tell me I’m not worthy.” 

Kristin declared a person’s gender identity made no difference to their ability to do the job. (Independent. 26 July 2017)


  • From 1960-2016 all trans people were banned from serving in the US military
  • From 2016-2018 they were allowed to serve to serve in their identified or assigned gender, upon completing transition.
  • From 2018-2019 they could enlist in the United States military only on condition that they had been stable for 18 months in their identified or assigned gender
  • From 2019 they were not allowed to serve/ enlist, except if serving 'in their original sex' 

Here’s an interesting US article from 2017, with troubling responses:  Should Transgender Persons Serve?


The other good news is that Lloyd Austin, the new Defense Secretary, plans to end the ‘scourge’ of sexual violence in the US armed forces.

“You do agree that we can’t keep doing the same thing that we’ve been doing for the past decade?” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (pictured), a New York Democrat, said during Austin’s confirmation hearing. 

“Do I have your commitment to be relentless on this issue until we can end the scourge of sexual violence in the military?” Yes, he assured her.

What’s the scale of the problem? The latest figures (fiscal year 2019) show there were 7,825 reported assaults involving military members of the US armed forces as victims or subjects. That's a 3 per cent increase on the previous year.

Women were roughly 4 times as likely as men to be targets (aka 'victims'). Of people on active duty an estimated 24% of women and 6% of men reported being sexually harassed.

I could not find information broken down to show the 52,391 women currently in the US Navy. This figure would have been very interesting, especially if it had showed sexual harassment levels on ships. For example, is it that the longer or harder the voyage, the greater the number and severity of the sexual difficulties?



Naval Officer Maribeth Coye wrote a very useful MSC management thesis, Sexual Harassment and Rape in the Navy. She produced it in 1983 and it was released in 2013.

Maribeth Coye Decker today

After surveying 322 women Maribeth found 'sexual harassment and rape are significant problems in the US Navy.’

Under-reporting was, and still is, a major issue. But officers are more likely to report their experiences than ratings. 84% said they had been harassed.

Was it worse on ships? No. She found that ‘especially outside the continental United States, some men may act in ways they would never dream of doing ...but believe is "expected of a REAL sailor” in overseas ports.‘

Macho attitudes didn’t help. Their officers, ‘especially if they have no women on board, may ignore or tolerate these behaviors' as just 'letting off steam'. Evidence refuted the illusion that sexual harassment was merely courtship behaviur that went too far.

Did it even happen on ships? 

Sexual harassment happened mainly in the workplace (30% of cases). The majority of attempted rapes happened off-base (44%).

Women at that time were seldom assaulted on vessels because women were not allowed to serve on naval ships until 1978, and only on combatant ships from 1994.

At this date Navy Counselor First Class (NC1) Cheryl Ann Cassarella (pictured) was one of the first  59, on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The sexual harassment cases she surely faced are not revealed to the public.  


Maribeth found that in the 1980s women were only 7% of personnel, (by comparison to 16% today) and were mainly clustered in low-status ‘women’s work.’ This meant they were in a weak position in relation to men.

Their more senior male colleagues had been in the Navy at a time when women were denied a place at sea 'Therefore they had no role models for dealing with women as co-workers' but only as wives or girlfriends. 

As one male officer said '"I had to develop a whole new concept of what women are. It is very difficult when overseas and the primary woman contact was a hooker.'"

Buy hey, there's been time to learn in the four decades since 1983, when the first guidelines and grievance procedures were only just being put in place.

Change matters because women who’ve been assaulted can be left with STDs and lifelong trauma. They resign instead of developing their potential after years of training.

But if women did have sex at sea – wanted or unwanted – only 18% of ratings and 3% of officers became pregnant while on ships, according to the 1998 Pregnancy and Single Parenthood in the Navy study. Contraceptive pills were invaluable. 


Is it a similar situation for the 9.4% women in the 30,000-strong Royal Navy Royal Marines’ regular forces today?

In 2015 a report was issued: Royal Navy and Royal Marines Sexual Harassment Survey. It found only 2% of respondents reported being sexually assaulted and this number had been stable for years.

For more on the various kinds of sexual harassment see  Firm guidelines are in place. But cultural changes are slow.

The very day I write this blog the Daily Mail is reporting that a naval technician has just been court-martialled at Bulford. The 22-year-old AB was found guilty of sexually assaulting a junior colleague. It was on an unnamed naval ship at Tokyo in October 2019, which Prince Charles had just visited.

The woman said that her assailant ‘”was in my bed and he wrapped his arms around me. He started kissing my neck and his hands were going towards my shorts.”’ 

She began kicking him off and ‘he told her to “shut up you stupid c***” and began knocking items off the drawers in her cabin before slumping down naked in a chair.’

‘She helped him put his boxer shorts back on before going to find the duty officer who helped remove the drunken sailor from her cabin.’

In mitigation he claimed his margaritas must have been spiked. No chemical evidence was found. › news › article-9197237 › Royal.

Wednesday 20 January 2021

LGBTQI+ maritime events Feb 2021

Despite lockdown, online events are happening in February, LGBTQI+ History Month. And long term plans are also underway too. See here for listing, and do tell me if you think something else should be here.


 9 (Tues):Live events, cost free, hosted by Maritime UK website, 12.00 -14.00. Free. 

12.00. Come to my 20 minute illustrated online talk: LGBT+ maritime history: a whirlwind tour of a jigsaw, 1800-today

12.30. Zoom talk by Charlotte Paddock of the National Maritime Museum on its LGBTQI+ history events and more

To book click on

10 (Wed). 6.30-20.00. National Maritime Museum /OUTing the Past . Focusing on non western LGBT+ experiences. 

20 (Sat): 14.00 to 17.30.   Transgender Awareness & Understanding training course  Fact- based video presentation is delivered by two trans people and is a fully accredited CPD course. Normally, places are £45.00 plus VAT, but for LGBT+ history month there's £5.00 off. Quote MARITIME-UK. This event is not only for people in maritime. Michelle Clarke (co-presenter) is  a former captain so has special maritime knowledge. They will also be offering the course on many future occasions. Book at 

From 24 (Wed) and then online:The Mother Mirror, directed by Anju Kasturiraj, National Maritime Museum. A video and moving image experiment exploring the ideas of 'fish out of water', chosen families, and migration.


Various regional hosts with Outing the Past offer all sorts of speakers to various regional hosts for online events. For list of available talks, Feb to Sept, see

For a timetable of events see

From March films of all talks will be available on YouTube. Later see 

The only maritime talk so far is my presentation on Mick Belsten, a seafarer, Gay Liberation Front activist, and gay media worker. (Pictured below, far right). Venue TBA. 


Plans are afoot to put up a blue plaque to Michael Dillon, one of the first FTM trans people. He became a Merchant Navy doctor in the 1950s. (See blog at Contact me if you wish to be part of the team working on the plaque.  

RESEARCH GROUP. The National Maritime Museum is organising  a community history project inviting LGBTQI+ maritime people to research its archives. Contact Charlotte Paddock

MEMORIES WANTED. In 1994 there was an LGBT+ group for the Merchant Navy, called Shore Leave, and with an address at Stonewall. Would anyone who remembers Shore Leave get in touch with Nautilus official Danny McGowan, chair of the Maritime UK Pride in Maritime Network: See

MEDWAY HISTORY EVENTS. Not only Chatham sailors and marines and dockyard workers but people of Medway communities In Kent. If you are interested in sharing your story, or
researching others', contact the LGBTQIA+ History of the Medway Towns Project via the organiser, Rob Flood, at 07776 170751 or

VIRTUAL TOURS PROJECT. I'm planning a memory project linking veteran seafarers and current workers in maritime, called Mapping Our Rainbows Seas. The aim is to create a  guided virtual tour of places of significance to seafarers LGBT+ history, including  popular pubs in ports, places where courts-martialed sailors were hanged, and 'virtual pink plaque sites' where significant maritime workers lived or worked.