Hello Sailor! Gay Life On The Ocean Wave
Documenting the lives of Britain's hidden homosexual seafarers
An attractive, light-hearted exhibition revealing a hidden side of the Merchant Navy from the 1950s to the 1980s, when young sailors reported for duty as competent crew members during the day and dressed up as Broadway stars by night. Hello Sailor! Gay life on the Ocean Wave is a touring exhibition from National Museums Liverpool and documents the lives of gay seafarers through interviews and personal memorabilia.
Originating from the research for their book Hello Sailor! Gay Life for Seamen, Jo Stanley and Paul Baker curated this display to tell the story of how seafaring contributed to the development of gay culture. Gay seafarers disembarked at foreign ports, learned how different cultures handled homosexuality and brought back gay literature, glamorous frocks, LPs and posters from shows, making life at sea something of a ‘gay university’.
The exhibition consists of historical information, interviews, personal accounts, and a mocked-up steward’s cabin. A particularly delicate touch is the two pairs of shoes displayed in this ‘fruit locker’: polished black shoes for straight life by day, and sparkly white ones for camping it up in the crew show or the sailor’s bar by night. Personalised maps show how sailors navigated around ports worldwide from the harbour to bars, clubs, parks and popular cruising and cottaging spots.
Churchill dismissed Britain’s naval tradition as ‘nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash’. Illegal in Britain until 1967, homosexuality endured a slow decriminalisation. Some men were gay at sea and married ashore - making the sea a symbol of freedom and a haven for a different way of life. In 2005, the British Navy made the historic decision to rid itself of homophobia by actively recruiting gay sailors: ‘Your country needs you, especially if you are gay’.
As it would be put in Polari (a form of gay slang that has now almost died out): Go troll your lallies round this show and vada some dolly dishes.
The Tall Ship at Glasgow Harbour, Glasgow, until Sun 29 Nov