Camping across the Oceans: The Ship at Sea as Queer Space

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 12:10 PM
Edward C (Hyatt)
Jo Stanley , Lancaster University
From the 1930s to the 1990s, British passenger ships, particularly P&O, were the main occupation where gay men could be out, camp, and welcome – even more than in theatre. At a time when homosexual was illegal and stigmatised, men in this off-shore space/place created their own supportive and “in-yer-face” culture. They spoke their own language, Polare; subtly cross-dressed at work and dragged up as divas in the riotously camp crew shows that were the highlight of a voyage; and were the trans-national transmitters of still-new knowledge about how other cultures handled homosexuality.

Based on oral history research with gay seafarers, this paper examines how the exceptionality of a ship at sea allowed an extraordinary tolerance and freedom. Using the idea of a voyaging pleasure vessel as liminal zone (Van Gennep), ludic and transgressive borderland like Brighton or Blackpool (Hetherington, Shields, Walton) carnivalesque space (Bakhtin) and refuge (Bachelard) the focus is on:

  1. how could so much ‘criminal’ activity and its associated culture be permitted and indeed actively welcomed by shipping companies, passengers, and straight crew in a traditionally macho and misogynist place? ‘He may be queer but he’s our queer’ and ‘We couldn’t have done without them.’
  2.  how was bisexuality and fluidity of sexual orientation over life course so readily possible, especially for ‘straight’ married seamen? ‘He had a wife ashore and a “wife” on ship.’
  3. the queer officers would be sacked if they were out: what conventions of class permitted.
  4. why the ship did not similarly function  as a permissive space for lesbian women
See more of: Sailors, Sex, and the Sea
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