New Canadian exhibition looks at gay maritime life of the post-war years

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A new exhibition has opened at The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Canada, looking into the gay and lesbian subcultures that flourished at sea on passenger cruise ships, naval vessels and freighters from the 1950s onwards.

The exhibition is being guest curated by Jo Stanley, who helped adapt Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave from the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. She is also co-author of the book Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea, and said she believes acceptance of different sexualities on board ships developed because of the necessary pragmatism of life at sea.

She said: “There was a saying, ‘Nothing’s queer once you’ve left the pier’ . . . ships are unique places when you’ve all got to work together.” Dan Conlin, the museum’s curator of marine history, added: “Homophobia from shipmates was relatively rare.”

Many of the British passenger ships sailing from Liverpool and Southampton would dock at Halifax. On board, unofficial gay marriages were performed, crews hosted drag shows and a designated lovers’ cabins were often known as Balmoral, named for one of the Queen’s residences.

The show also includes the recollections of Canadian mariners, some of whose stories are not so happy. They include a gay naval officer who resigned in 1970 after being confronted with a three-inch-thick file on his personal life compiled by investigators, and a lesbian woman who stayed largely closeted while working aboard a freighter.

The exhibition runs until November.