Backstage in staff quarters

Sailors dressed as showgirls on board the Queen Mary. Courtesy of Oral History Unit, Southampton City Council.

Behind the scenes

The major division in shipboard life was not work versus play but the contrast between ‘public’ areas and staff quarters.

Most of the gay staff were in catering. They worked long hours and used time off intensively - for courting, partying and preparing for camp crew shows.

Crew shows were vehicles for high camp and openness - a reflection of older traditions of on-board entertainment as well as wartime ENSA cross-dressing in troop shows. Taking full advantage of the freedom on board ship, gays would dress up and wear make up.

Cabins were used as backstage dressing rooms, party sites, communal chambers where sexual relations were audible to roommates and the ‘marital home’. Covert gay seafarers took care to leave no evidence around as cabins were inspected.

The ship’s bar (known as the Pig and Whistle) could be a place for flauntings, fights, unwinding, pick-ups, domestic rows, sexual rivalry, showing-off and gay wedding and divorce ceremonies.

Putting on a show

Listen to a former gay seafarer talking about the crew shows he was involved with.

Read a transcript of this audio clip.

Relations with straight colleagues

Getting along with straight colleagues was a matter of respect for privacy, adhering to unspoken rules and tolerance within a very particular kind of institution or family.

Senior officers, personnel staff and unions handled gay men in a complex variety of ways, including actively welcoming gay stewards for their splendid service, disciplining anyone who went too far in front of the passengers and fearing older gay men would ‘turn’ young boys.

Shipboard society was so interdependent that you couldn’t afford to throw someone out of the group because of their sexuality. Many straight crew members had the attitude ‘he may be queer but he’s our queer’. Homophobes asked to be transferred to other ships if they couldn’t cope.

Some men were looking for a meaningful relationship, not casual flings, others discovering their sexuality for the first time. Straight men sometimes had gay relationships while at sea. These were ‘not counted on location’ like in the movie industry.