3 min

Experienced seamen needed!

From 1950 to 1980, the British Merchant Navy was a gay man’s heaven

From 1950 to 1980, the British Merchant Navy was a gay man’s heaven. Credit: Jori Bolton

When the phantom gobbler stuck his head beneath your sheets one night and wrapped his lips around your cock, you knew you were home. In 1955, at 19 years old, you had joined the British Merchant Navy to escape the humiliating rumours and not expecting to find what, for a deviant like you, was a kind of heaven.

You didn’t know they were called “phantom gobblers” then, these guys who’d make a move only in the dark; they didn’t have phantom gobblers back home in that small town near Manchester. What they did have was Alan, an easygoing, faithful friend but not the type of guy who, when you grabbed his crotch, could shrug it off or, better yet, go with the flow. 

When Oscar Wilde boarded a ship 70 years previous, headed to North America for an 11-month lecture tour, he expressed disappointment: “I’m not exactly pleased with the Atlantic,” he said. “It is not so majestic as I expected. The sea seems tame to me. The roaring ocean does not roar.” 

Clearly, Wilde went to sea in the wrong era (and had the wrong vocation). From about 1950 to 1980, many gay sailors in the British Merchant Navy had a deafeningly fun time while shipping goods and people from port to port all over the world. Some gays joined these almost all-male voyages because aboard ship was one of the few places they could be themselves, and they could visit exotic locales and buy clothing in New York City and porn in Paris. More importantly, they could fuck as much as they wanted, with sparsely attired, well-tanned men whose beauty was wonderfully enhanced by the vacation atmosphere aboard ship. 

Most gay men were employed as stewards, waiters and pursers, so most gay sex happened between openly gay people with those jobs. There were gays in other jobs — certainly there were gay officers — but fraternization between people at different levels of the hierarchy was discouraged. 

Some others were masculine-acting men who lived straight lives ashore, often with wives, but were willing to have gay encounters or relationships aboard ship. In Polari, the secret gay language that helped shipboard gay communities to flourish, this type of man was called a “trade omee.” In some cases, these were probably men who’d married women before figuring out they preferred men and would understandably flee to sea for long periods. Others were likely straight men who, because of boredom, sexual frustration, being surrounded almost only by men and being far from home for long periods (often many months), were willing to have their neglected hard-ons taken care of by willing queens. 

There were many different types of relationships. Some people, like the phantom gobblers, engaged only in secret encounters; others dated, and still others had unofficial “marriages.” Modelled on stereotypical heterosexual marriage, these marriages often involved a clandestine ceremony and the exchange of rings. There was usually a masculine-acting husband (who may have been openly gay or some form of trade omee) and a male housewife, who, between shifts, would spend his time knitting, making tea or tending to the domestic needs of the other, by doing such tasks as ironing uniforms. 

If a wife at home knew about her husband’s shipboard male wife, she often didn’t mind very much. Oddly, gay sex didn’t seem to count; another man couldn’t threaten the marriage, and there was no chance of him getting pregnant and creating difficulties that way. Further, even unprotected sex with another man (before the AIDS crisis) was often (probably wrongly) considered safer than with a woman met in some foreign port. 

You went to sea to forget Alan, and to avoid your neighbours’ judgmental stares, but you have found a thriving gay community and all the sex you could want. Being a sweet young tart, you’ve even broken convention and started dating the captain. He’s a coarse old bear with hairy knuckles (and hairier shoulders), but his cock is a ravenous sea monster, and when you hit the next port he’s taking you for dinner, then to a hotel where you’ll model your new maid’s outfit. 

For more on this subject, read Paul Baker and Jo Stanley’s Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea.