Gay port cities

hand drawn street map

Detail of a memory map of Auckland, showing the ferry berths, ferry building, Queen St, Main PO, 'White Lady' mobile cafe and toilet at the end of Lavender Lane

Exploring different cultures

"When camp seafarers came ashore, particularly in the 1950s and early 60s, they were like colourful butterflies in a drab world."
Dr Jo Stanley, author with Paul Baker of 'Hello Sailor: The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea'

For seafarers, coming into contact with other cultures was the best way of learning that UK homophobia was not the only possible attitude towards gay people. Gay pubs were popular in ports and some pub users joined the merchant navy in order to be gay, after hearing seafarers’ tales in pubs.

On initial trips to foreign ports gay men were often like any other tourists. On subsequent trips they would make liaisons instead.

Gay bars and clubs were often on the fringes of red light areas, marginal spaces to the side of the sex industry.

Foreign ports, especially Hong Kong and New York, were opportunities to see shows with major stars and for some, an opportunity to buy glamorous frocks.

Men could also bring back LPs, posters and other material such as gay porn that was not as readily available in UK in 1950s and 1960s.

Back in your home port, you could continue your gay behaviour (and risk being punished for it) or retreat back into the closet.

A Lisbon liaison

Listen to two former seafarers describing how they met in Lisbon more than 30 years ago and are still together today. 

Read a transcript of this audio clip.

Memory maps of gay ports

The exhibition featured 'memory maps' of foreign ports that seafarers have drawn from memory, to show the pubs and other venues that had the greatest impact on their experiences. A detail of a memory map of Auckland is shown above. Annotated notes on the map, which are not shown, describe Lavender Lane as "A dead end lane but very popular!"