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Interview with Jo Stanley on Hello Sailor and LGBT History month in the UK!

Join us again in our post-UK LGBT History month celebration with Jo Stanley as she reflects on her life experiences, researching for her book and LGBT History month!

1. How did you first become interested in researching queer men at sea?

In Liverpool in the 1970s I heard eye-opening stories from the very masculine straight seaman I was living with. He uncharacteristically admired these guys looked like Hollywood divas by night in ball gowns with deep décolletage, yet by day were toughies who could fight and beat the hardest men in this macho sea world. And they were admired and respected. Passengers actively wanted these seafarers to be their steward.

In the 1980s I was interviewing interwar women seafarers who repeatedly mentioned the numbers of stewards who were ‘puzzlingly girlish.’ I thought again ‘Somebody's got to write a book about this extraordinary phenomenon. It is so remarkable that even in the 50s and 60s when diversity was so covert and criminalised people can suspend homophobia and be so tolerant of matters that are beyond the binary’ (although that language wasn’t in use then.)

I didn't write it because I thought a gay man should do it. None did. Then I then met Paul Baker, an expert on Polari (the queer language), who’s interviewees happened to include seafarers. Our collaboration began. I’m very glad it did. Paul’s knowledge of lavender linguistics was crucial and the writing process was companionable and fun too.

2. How have you seen this field evolve over the years?

Much more open-ness is possible, including cost-free gender reassignment treatments. The Royal Navy has impressively, and at long last, officially embraced of LGBT rights. And Illuminating and insightful history books have changed our understanding for ever, for example those by Allan Bérubé, George Chauncey, Matt Houlbrook and Emma Vickers.

Very interestingly in 2005 Arne Nilsson wrote (only in Swedish) a history of the same phenomenon in Sweden: Såna" på Amerikabåtarna: De svenska amerikabåtarna som manliga homomiljöer. It translates as ‘Men like that’ on the Swedish-American ships.

Maritime museums made exhibitions from both Arne's book and Hello Sailor. As someone intrigued by the possibilities of visual, fictional and theatrical representations of histories this has been fascinating.

The book title and cover were decided upon by the then-publishers Pearson Education. You see that book in a shop when you’re browsing and you immediately get what it’s about. But if I could have created something more in keeping with our informants’ stories it would have been called Queer Heavens Afloat. And the cover would have showed the fun, performativity and camaraderie of that extraordinary subculture.*

Similarly the 2008 Stockholm National Maritime Museum exhibition of Arne’s book, Safe Havens, (Frizon) used a fake image that every queer seafarer I know loves: a ship with bright pink steam billowing jauntily from every funnel. It’s such a succinct summary in keeping with the out friskiness of the sub-culture.

3. What do you hope readers will learn from Hello Sailor?

I hope they'll marvel at human beings’ ability to truly respect diversity on occasion, despite fears and rules. And I'd love it if this book inspired other historians to research early queer culture in other occupations, such as hotel and catering work, the BBC, hairdressing and interior design.

4. What does LGBT History Month mean to you?

Like Pride marches, it is a time when queered people can really be visible and celebrate their brave pasts as well as highlight the injustices that have wrecked lives. But it’s also a time of increasingly widening opportunity, especially for people who currently have a more mainstream identity, to reflect upon all the sexual and gender diversity that is possible and that should be seen as an unquestionable, unremarkable right.

*© Sjöhistoriska museet and Cecilia Gustafsson

  • Hello Sailor!

    The hidden history of gay life at sea

    By Jo Stanley, Paul Baker

    When gays had to be closeted, ships were the only places where homosexual men could not only be out but also camp. And on some liners to the sun and the New World, queens and butches had a ball. They sashayed and minced their way across the world's oceans. Never before has the story been told of…

    Paperback – 2003-03-07
    Routledge