TALKING POINT: Seeing through history: LGBT+ seafarers

February 28, 2024
Credit Eve Tar Archive
© Eve Tar Archive

Each month, we will be sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

This month, author and historian Dr. Jo Stanley explores how knowledge of seafarers’ pasts can help bring increased wellbeing in maritime life. Their emotions, identity, and sexuality matter. Making hidden truths visible, and understanding them in the light of modern knowledge, can enable the building of saner futures, she argues.

Dr. Jo Stanley FRHistS is a person who wants there to be kindness, fun, glitz, and justice in life. For over forty years she has explored the gender-specific lives of hundreds of members of the Merchant and Royal Navies of the 20th century. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Blaydes Maritime Centre, University of Hull and at Liverpool John Moores University, as well as chairing the Rainbow Seas in Museum online global network. Her books include Hello Sailor: the Hidden history of Gay Life at sea (co-written with Paul Baker). A jokey and explorative Liverpool seafaring dynasty, plus late-20th century libertarian thinking, shaped her. She welcomes the recent turn to DEI in the maritime industry. During COVID-19, she re-trained as a counsellor and is now weaving together her understanding of maritime psychology with organisations’ latest new moves to enable mental wellbeing.

OK, so February is LGBT+ History Month. How does that connect with maritime welfare? With all our new insights, including mental health aboard and queer psychology, we can learn from past mistakes, and from past good practice. This will help us try to create a more just and supportive world for minoritised seafarers now and in the future.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that at least 3% of people are somewhere on the queer spectrum. By that measure we are maybe talking about 56,700 of the world’s 1.89 million seafarers, or 675 of the UK’s 22,510 seafarers.

The Seafarers Happiness Index shows declining happiness generally. Stonewall, the UK’s campaigning LGBT+ charity, says half of surveyed LGBT+ people have experienced depression. LGBT+ seafaring people suffer disproportionately. Some are targets of hate crime, queer-bashing, and bullying. Some are lonely and confused, especially if they want to be loyal to spouses and children back home.

Those seafarers from homophobic countries especially may well need help in shaping a bearable and safe time at sea. If we accept the 3% estimation, then there are potentially 5,943 ‘gay’ Russian seafarers (out of 198,123), for example. Half of them may experience depression.

But by no means do all LGBT+ seafarers need support. Some passenger ships are sanctuaries and parties; it’s living by a bar in a pink quartier.

Knowing helps

Knowledge is power. With power, together we can make the world a kinder and more equitable place. Or we can at least try to do so.

I attempt to do so, as a historian who’s interested in how seafaring enables people to actualise their dreams, especially if they’ve been held back by sexism, heteronormativity and homophobia. By attending to the words of hundreds of seafarers over four decades, I’ve understood that shipping out can mean seeing afresh, and living a bigger life, or at least hoping to. And sometimes that hurts, whatever our gender or sexual identity.

Sitting on sofas hearing veteran seafarers’ narratives, and then representing such under-known knowledge in a major book, has been one of the major joys of my life. Even better, working with museum professionals to help shape four of the world’s exhibitions on ‘gay seafaring’ has been a privilege, as well as a delight.

It’s important today to know that inspiring precedents in queer seafaring life exist. In the heyday of gay floating heavens – some British passenger ships in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – the maritime industry used sayings that emphasised the exceptional permissiveness that was possible on some vessels far from home.

‘Everything’s gay when you’re underway’ was one saying: spatial mobility brings psychic mobility and motility. The Proud claim ‘Nothing’s “queer” once you’ve left that pier’ emphasised that LGBT+ was the new normal. This meant that negative ‘queering’ of others by people who were vested in being straight wasn’t sustainable. This was Canal Street culture, 30 years ahead of its time.

Life at sea in the previous gay heavens enabled queer seafarers to become pioneer educators and autodidacts. They were early ‘students’ in that evolving ramshackle subject: all that lies beyond heteronormativity. Self-acceptance was a major benefit; it was healing.

What’s the use of making knowledge widely available? Isn’t a Queer Sea display in a maritime museum just an entertaining opportunity to wonder at ‘back then’, like watching Downton Abbey? Of what benefit is positive old story to a young Filipino AB at this very moment feeling suicidal about his future as the lover of a shipmate?

The answer is that ‘Visibility matters. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,’ argues Emma Riley, one of the first seafaring Wrens. She was an early lesbian campaigner against unfair dismissal of ‘homosexuals’ from the British Royal Navy in the 1990s.

Not only does knowledge that we are not ‘the only gay in the village’ help LGBT+ people feel less isolated, but the growth of a deeper understanding that heterosexuality is only one way of doing life helps floating workplace to become acceptant and therefore enabling.

What can be achieved?

Rev. Tim Tunley of the Scottish Mission to Seafarers encounters a number of openly gay seafarers. He’s found that having a liberating time being ‘Out’ on gay-friendly ships can actually ‘cause’ a new problem, which brings the cost of not going home and seeing their loved ones in person.

‘On a cruise ship I met a gay seafarer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Working in the entertainment department, he enjoyed his life on board. But he explained that he was very worried about going home as he considered his life would be in danger.’ The DRC is violently homophobic, Le Monde reported last year.

‘All I could do was offer an open ear. We talked about different strategies for going home. In the end he concluded that the only viable strategy was not to go home. He had some family in Germany and as I recall he applied for a temporary visa. I met him on the following cruise season and he was talking about "never going home".’

Tim has found generally that: ‘Often, the further away one is from a large urban population, life being Out gets more difficult.’ We may wonder what even lesser forms of disconnecting does to a human being, the emotional disassociation and splitting they suffer from.

Everyone agrees that cultural change is needed to make the maritime world more inclusive. But hoping to eradicate homophobia in all the 70 countries where it’s still illegal is the stuff of dreams.

Past and present

Is it better or worse for queer seafarers today?

Both – and different. Attitudes are more enlightened, but that’s patchy. The major change from the past is that digital linking somewhat mitigates for the current lack of the former in-person social warmth. Seafarer with solo cabins and minimal social life such as hilarious home-made crew shows don’t get the social interaction that really helps mental wellbeing.

Today, if shipboard conditions such as affordable connectivity allow, modern queer seafarers with mobile phones and devices can enjoy being less cut off from the changing world. Digital communication is an invaluable new enabler.

Interestingly, they are likely to interact with the queer culture virtually. That is, their ship is not usually the main campus of The University of Queer Possibility, when the crew bar on the gay heavens was a source of eye-opening vignettes.

Another change is in the privilege of being able to be Out. These days, those who have it easiest are officers, thinks Tim Tunley. This is a big shift. In the mid-twentieth century, ratings, particularly camp stewards, could be themselves; officers kept schtum to keep their jobs.


Unfortunately, the great problem is that not everyone can yet respond usefully to the idea that: ‘Some people are gay. Get over it.’ For those LGBT+ seafarers from homophobic countries, a ship may be their safest place to be, so it’s crucial that their ships embrace DEI, and that support in convenient forms, like multilingual phonelines, is made available.

After all these years I find I keep coming back to realising that three key needs remain: matey respectful interaction; informed, kind and not pushy support; and major cultural changes in inclusivity.

Jo would be glad to hear, in confidence, from those who can help advance her understanding of what it’s like to be an LGBT+ seafarer today for a book she is writing. She would especially welcome your briefing her, in confidence, about mental wellbeing needs, including coping with neurodiversity on top of being LGBT+. Please contact Jo’s website, complete with queer reading list, can be seen at, and she blogs at

If you would like to talk to someone about any of the points raised in this article, you can contact one of ISWAN’s free, confidential helplines – SeafarerHelp ( or Yacht Crew Help ( – at any time.

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