The gateway to freedom

Seafarers dressed up, several wearing evening dresses

Crew on the Queen Mary dressed up. Courtesy of Oral History Unit, Southampton City Council

A hidden culture

Gay culture has been a feature of seafaring life for centuries. It is still a hidden one, even today when the Royal Navy actively recruits gay sailors.

Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967. However, a voyage creates an exceptional environment away from home, in which people do things they wouldn’t normally permit themselves to do.

Before 1967 merchant ships (especially passenger ships) provided a liberal environment where homosexuality was more accepted than on land, by both straight and gay people. The crews lived by two rules - be clean, don’t steal - everything else was tolerated.

A haven and university

The sea was the gateway to freedom abroad. Seafaring culture has contributed to the development of gay culture worldwide, as seafarers were conduits for information about different practices and attitudes around the world.

Life on board could be a gay haven and a gay university, providing both a support network and club. Not everyone could afford to be out. In catering gay men were welcomed but engineers, pursers and officers had to be more cautious - you could still lose your job and face hostility.

Gay women were less evident on board ship and were more discreet. There was great diversity among the men. Some were out, camp and casual, some covert, some ‘manly’. Some men were gay at sea and happily married ashore.

Going to sea

Listen to an excerpt from an interview with a former gay seafarer, who tells why he chose a life at sea. 

Read a transcript of this audio clip.