Feature: Camping through the Falklands, hidden history of the war’s gay seafarers

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

30 years ago this month, steward Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson was playing his usual pink piano on his usual ship, the ferry Norland. Like Liberace mixed with Barbra Streisand, his sing-along tunes like Keep the Home Fires Burning and We are Sailing delighted the passengers. But this time the passengers were troops and the destination wasn’t Rotterdam but the far-off South Atlantic.

Paratroopers went on to make him their first gay ‘mascot’ and he became the most famous out gay man of the Falklands/Malvinas War. The 2 Para Battalion honoured him with their official red beret to put on his glitter-filled hair. The Sun even mounted a search for him so that he could attend the 25th anniversary celebrations at Aldershot.

Wendy was one of as many as a thousand out gay men among the 7,000 seafarers on 52 merchant ships in that war, not to mention all the closeted others on the GBT spectrum.

Wendy in the Falklands on the Norland
Image: Wendy in the Falklands on the Norland ferry.

This is because passenger ships then had a strong gay, indeed camp culture. On some peacetime vessels up to 95 per cent of the stewarding crew were out homosexuals and trans people – which was a shock to macho troops.

Gay and bisexual men have been omitted from Falklands/Malvinas War history because it’s inconvenient news that gay men can be brave. As Wendy said: ‘I may be a Mary but I’m as hard as the next, we gays had to be…. We’re still men, we’ve got the strength of a man and the grace of a woman.’

From April until at least June 1982, the crew’s role was to keep the ships running and the service good. Stewards’ usual day jobs included looking after passengers and ships’ officers, waiting at tables and helping troops change their bedlinen.

But in this war some were under fire, and working in lifejackets. And in their off-duty hours they gave blood, trained to operate the ship’s guns if they wished, volunteered in the ship’s hospitals as Kevin did on the Canberra, acted as agony aunts to traumatised troops, and in Wendy’s case, wore out his fingers keeping up morale on the keyboard.

Did they have a high old time in their rolling bunks with all those virile young soldiers? That’s only the stereotype. But Bernie, on a large liner, found several of his military passengers didn’t want to die without know what sex with a man was like. And stewards are helpful people – so he educated them. Friendships were many and some still endure.

These merchant seamen don’t think of themselves as Falklands/Malvinas War heroes. ‘No, I was just ironing the captain’s shirts’ joked Norland steward Frankie. But they value their campaign medals and feel proud that they didn’t turn back when offered the opportunity at Ascension Island.

Bernie and some troops socialise in his cabin. NB Presence in this picture is not in any way a statement about the sexual orientation of people in it.
Image: Bernie and some troops socialise in his cabin. (Presence in this picture is not an indication of the sexual orientation)

Their unsung contributions not only include treating Argentinean prisoners like human beings and keeping mum about being gay-bashed and insulted by sissyphobic troops.

In Frankie’s case when their ship was being bombed ‘I went into my Peggy Mitchell mode, screamed, camped my tits off, I did accentuate it, it was my way of coping… it gave men the chance to express their fears too. Maybe us gays were better off than some of the straight people, because when we was frightened we could say “I’m frightened”… we could let it out.’

And living daily through war alongside accepted and open gay men changed soldiers’ ideas about homosexuals. As Para Ken Lukowiak wrote in his memoirs ‘it is true to say that he [Wendy] now gets more of a mention than the likes of Colonel Jones, VC… And no longer is Wendy referred to as …an arse-bandit … “Gay boy” is about the worst you will hear and it’s always … said with affection. You see, we do live – and we can learn.’

Image: Frankie and Wendy party, as usual, on the Norland.

As for the veteran seafarers, in ports throughout Britain they’ll be celebrating the June 14 end of the war, some in gay-friendly dockside bars. They’re just glad they’re back in one piece, even if their nerves are still frayed.

So what, they say, if the record is silent on their contribution: ‘We know what we did.’

Jo Stanley is co-author, with Paul Baker, of Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Homosexuality at Sea, research for which is currently on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.