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Halifax exhibition looks at gay subculture at sea in 50s and 60s

Jo Stanley, co-author of the book, "Hello Sailor: The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea," displays part of a travelling exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax on May 18, 2011.

Andrew Vaughan/CP

For those who can't interpret nautical signal flags spelling out the message "Hello Sailor," the museum has helpfully hung a rainbow flag as well.

The flag commonly associated with gay pride is fluttering on the wharf outside Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to mark a new show that delves into age-old stereotypes of sexuality at sea.

It seems there is a lot of truth in the clichés.

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The exhibition looks primarily at a gay subculture that flourished aboard British passenger liners of the 1950s and 1960s, many of which docked in Halifax. At a time when homosexuality was illegal, there was a remarkable openness on board.

"Homophobia from shipmates was relatively rare," said Dan Conlin, the museum's curator of marine history.

Unofficial gay marriages were performed at sea, crews would host drag shows and a cabin where lovers cohabited might be known as Balmoral, named for one of the Queen's residences. Although ritualized cross-dressing isn't necessarily a gay behaviour - there's a long history of it at sea - there did seem to be a live-and-let-live attitude.

Guest curator Jo Stanley, who helped adapt the exhibition Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave from one mounted at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool and is also co-author of the book Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea, suspects that acceptance developed because of the necessary pragmatism of life at sea.

"There was a saying, 'Nothing's queer once you've left the pier,' " said Stanley, who came from England for the show's opening on May 19. "Ships are a unique place where you're all having to work together."

The exhibition, which runs until late November, is appearing for the first time in North America. There are disappointingly few artifacts, but a lot of explanatory material and reproduced photographs. Visitors will learn about shore-leave adventures, the realities of life on board and the slang called Polari that helped keep straights in the dark.

The show also incorporates the recollections of Canadian mariners. Among them are the stories of a gay navy officer who resigned in 1970 after being confronted with a three-inch thick file on his personal life compiled by investigators, a lesbian who stayed largely closeted aboard a freighter, and a gay man who served in modern times aboard Bluenose II.

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But the focus is largely on the British ships of a bygone era. And it recreates a world in which exaggerated campiness was acceptable. One of the exhibits is a naval uniform adapted for a drag show. The jacket is fringed with gold and would be worn over a short sequined dress.

To depict life on board, the show includes a mocked-up cabin with an awfully narrow bed. The display comes complete with beefcake pinups on the wall, makeup and jewellery strewn over a cabinet, and both male and female clothing hanging nearby.

"Look at that wardrobe," Stanley said. "Navy blue uniform and pristine white shirt, and then look at that frothy dress and heels. That really points to the duality."

Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave continues at Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic until Nov. 27.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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