Talk to any gay man about Halifax and the conversation is
bound to steer toward sailor watching and strolling in the harbour to check
what ships have docked.
From today there will be no stopping the boys: for the next
five months they will be able to view the shenanigans of gay sailors in a new
exhibition opening in Halifax.
Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave makes its North
American debut at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in the Halifax harbour.
The exhibition – like its subjects – has been shipped across
the sea from the Merseyside Museum in Liverpool, England. It was inspired by a book, Hello Sailor!:
Gay Life for Seamen, which was co-authored by
Jo Stanley in 2003. After Halifax, the exhibition will return to its permanent
home in Liverpool.
In a Canadian Press article, Stanley, who is in Halifax for the opening of the
exhibition, extols the “sense of freedom” felt by the sailors who crossed the
seas in the 1950s.
Homosexuality was illegal in England, but once on the decks
the English sailors transformed into drag queens draped in feather boas, high
heels and jewellery. Drag shows, musicals and gay debauchery became part of the
ocean voyage’s mystique.
Although being out and proudly gay was embraced by the
stewards, it was not the same for all sailors. Captains, deck officers and other
high-ranking mates remained in the closet for fear of losing their jobs.
It does seem odd that such a flamboyant gay subculture was
allowed to flourish onboard ships when homosexuality was taboo everywhere else.
In the United States, gays in the navy and the military have been
banned up until President Obama’s lifting of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law
earlier this year.
But for some sailors things are about to change. On May 9, it was reported by The Advocate that US sailors will be allowed to be married. Navy
chaplains were given the go-ahead to marry gay couples on the navy base – as
long they are in a state that allows same- sex marriages.
Does that mean that if a couple is relocated to another base in a
state where same-sex marriages are illegal, their marriage will be null and