Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hello Sailor!

About three weeks ago, my daughter and I visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  As a sailing family, we wanted to see the collection of historic sail boats.  The Titanic exhibit was very moving as well;  did you know that 87% of the men in Third Class (Steerage) died while virtually all of the women in First Class survived?

However, what I really wanted to see was  Hello Sailor!  Gay Life on the Ocean Waves., the first exhibit of its kind in North America.

This exhibit examines the "unique subculture created by gay men working as stewards on British ocean liners from the 1950s to the 80s."    At that time, homosexuality was illegal, and there were few places for gay men to be safe.  On board the mainly British ships, homosexuality was celebrated.   In fact, many of the men had "straight lives" with wives and children ashore.  While they were on board ship, they lived as openly gay men, some in long term relationships with other men who worked on the ship.

For me, there was big "ick - factor" about the exhibit.  It featured much pink memorabilia and many life size photos of the homeliest men imaginable in drag.  It was all men in silk stockings, high heeled shoes and pink frilly gowns.

It was just the polar opposite of the gay man that I imagine myself to be... I like to think that I'm a fairly masculine guy.  I know for a fact that I'd be the ugliest drag queen in the world!   The pictures made me uncomfortable as they were so stereotypically 1950s gay.

Compounding my unease was the fact that my daughter surprised me by spending a very long time scrutinizing every detail of the exhibit with interest.  I ended up just walking through going, "Ewww!"  Although all my kids seem perfectly comfortable with me since coming out to them seven months ago, my daughter and I haven't actually discussed my being gay.  

As an aside, there were several cute gay couples who were checking out the exhibit as I was checking then out them;  two couples in their 20s (stylish, very slim and in love, or at least in lust ... just adorable!) and a couple in their 40s (much pudgier, but also very attractive with very nice facial hair.) 


  1. We all have to dress and act and identify in the way that makes us feel comfortable. Just remember, these images may have been repulsive to you, but it was one of these men in "silk stockings, high heeled shoes and pink frilly gowns" that stood up when no one else would and defied the police and refused to be harassed and bullied and beaten any more and kicked off the modern gay moment which allows you and I to live our lives the way we choose. These images, this way of dressing and behaving, had it's place in time and it's purpose. It is part of our history and culture and deserves to be acknowledged for it's accuracy and honesty. Drag is not my thing, and not what I'm attracted to, and I do get frustrated sometimes when people assume all gay men do and love drag, (I don't do it or enjoy it) but we all have to be free to live and dress and express ourselves the way we choose, not just those we find acceptable and attractive. If we all had the guts to wear heels and lipstick in public with our heads held high, maybe this world would be a whole different place.

    I may not want to behave like these men, but I do admire their courage in being who they are and doing what they did in a time when it was not only dangerous, but deadly.

  2. Sean, thank you for pointing this out. I really know so little about gay history and the courage of these gay pioneers.

  3. Sean makes a good point, but I have to wonder if the curator (or whoever designed the exhibit) chose to focus on drag simply because it had the most sizzle, not because it was an essential part of shipboard life.

    Gays are every bit as diverse as straights and any exhibit that's generally about gays should reflect that diversity. If this exhibit is more salacious than informative, then it's making a mockery of what it claims to celebrate.

  4. I'm glad there is an exhibit like this one. I suspect most of the readers of this post are too young to know what gay life was like back then and it is important that we are made aware of it. After all, it is hard to measure how far we've come as a community if we don't know how it used to be.

    P.S. Your links above resulted in error messages for me.

  5. Two Lives: interesting point! There must have been gay sailors who weren't interested in dressing up in drag.

    I'm a little chagrined at how embarrassed I was going around the exhibit with my daughter. I think I was worried that she would think that this is what being gay was all about.... wearing pink dresses.

    Cubby: The museum's main page seems to be down, so I put of substitute links.

    Yes, I'm sure the treatment of gays in history is shameful and should be publicized. I'll try to do future posts on this.

    As to the age of my blog readers, I have no idea. I assumed that my readers are mainly my age. Maybe a reader poll is needed?

  6. I can relate to your reaction. I recall when I first came out my perception of what constituted masculine / masculinity was of paramount importance. I didn't want people who knew me to think of me in terms of gay stereotypes despite identifying as gay. My attitudes have since changed. I think I would have been very uncomfortable seeing the exhibit if I was with my daughter.

    BTW - loved the post below with the socks.



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