email Wikipedia Facebook LinkdInTwitter
Jo Stanley

Consultant in maritime history and creative lifestory

The sea and Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans, Queer and Intersex people

Are people's sexual identities and practices anyone else's business? And how are they relevant to the sea?

Well, the personal is political. And in a world that's oppressively heteronormative, injustices and the struggle to right them merits discussion. Merchant ships were the main place where British (and Swedish) men could be out and camp throughout the second half of the 20C. That's important, because it shows that people could suspend homophobia at will, even when 'homosexuality' was criminalised.

PrideAnd the Royal Navy has since 2000 done one of the biggest about-turns of any employer. Instead of hanging 'miscreants', in 2019 the LGBT charity Stonewall placed naval services at number 15 in its top 100 list of LGBT-friendly employers:

From morality crusades to Polari-speaking sailors in Round the Horne, and from Querelle of Brest to Jean Paul Gaultier, Tom of Finland to the European Court of Human Rights, I've summarised it and consulted with maritime museums on how to improve their representation of queer seafarers.

Illuminating and insightful history books have changed our understanding for ever, for example those by Allan Bérubé, George Chauncey, Matt Houlbrook, Emma Vickers and Arne Nilsson's 2005 book (only in Swedish) about the history of camp sub-culture on Swedish ships: Såna" på Amerikabåtarna: De svenska amerikabåtarna som manliga homomiljöer. It translates as ‘Men like that’ on the Swedish-American ships.

Maritime museums

The recent news (in 2021) is that maritime museums are getting better at representing at LGBT+ history:

Michael Rudder (centre, in dark boob tube) in a crew show at sea, 1970s

Michael Rudder (centre, in dark boob tube) in a crew show at sea, 1970s

Liverpool. See and hear National Museums Liverpool's 2021 podcast of a 1970s gay seafarers, a couple who've stayed together for 45 years. In A Lisbon Liaison Michael Rudder and Dominic Brown 'compare being cooped up together at sea to being in lockdown.'

Dominic and Michael also feature in the Life on Board gallery in the Maritime Museum.

 Desire Flows Like The Sea

The main image for Desire Flows Like The Sea

Barcelona. Museu Marítim de Barcelona mounted the exhibition Desire Flows like the Sea. An LGBTIQ Look at Maritime Heritage, From 28 June - 14 November 2021. There is very much about the idea of sailor as butch object of desire, not seafaring person as nuanced subject-for-themselves.



Gone but far from forgotten

The deaths of two iconic GBT+ men who served at sea brought new attention to their lives:

Roy Wendy Gibson, Falkland veteran and P&O Ferries steward.

April Ashley, sometimes acclaimed as the second UK person to transition. (She wasn't. She's wasn't even the first seafarer to transition. But she was the most high-profile one.) You can read copious amount about April, who died on 27 Dec 2021.

Her biography reveals she did not enjoy any rollicking camp counter-culture at sea in 1952, but was bullied. On the S.S. Pacific Fortune, a refrigerated cargo ship of 9,400 tons grt, to southern America, April found:

'There was a sharp distinction between the sea crew, who actually moved the vessel, and the stewards, who provided service for the elect. The sailors dismissed them as a "bunch of fairies"... 'With all the toil I should have been developing male muscles but I remained puppyish ... Always secretive about bathing, I was now so ashamed of my body that I crept out to shower in the middle of the night so that no one would see me unclothed ....

'The ragging of that first night was repeated ... Objectively nothing catastrophic happened - a few bruises in the scuffles - and the older men prevented matters getting out of hand. But it made me wretched. Sometimes they blew kisses and said "Hullo, ducks" or "girlie". They would wink, slap my bottom, slip an arm round my waist. What was one supposed to do back?

'... I was excited by it as well as afraid. Had I been among the stewards, possibly it would have been easier. But I was at the Men's End of the ship, in the throes of a profound identity crisis ... [Later] One of the stewards I met in the galley presented himself as a suitor but I didn't respond, having adopted the condescension of the sailors with regard to these lesser mortals. Besides, the rejection of all advances had become automatic.

' .... I was convinced a monstrous mistake had been made and only my being a woman would correct it ... The sailors must have thought me a very odd kettle of fish. I was over-polite with them through fear of involvement. Physically I had deteriorated, eating little, working feverishly in an attempt to block my thoughts -so much so that the Bo's'n took me aside and told me to take it easy. But I was under excessive emotional strain.

'The upshot was that, walking down the street in San Pedro, I saw a sign saying "Doctor" and went in. After an initial reticence I burst, ending up with "I want to be a woman!'" "That's insane!... I mean, you'll grow out of it." Which is what they were all to say.'

Source: Duncan Fallowell & April Ashley April Ashley's Odyssey, Jonathan Cape, London, 1982.


For very different stories of seafarers transitioning, read about:
  • Dru Marland, a Male to Female (MTF) trans person who worked for P&O Ferries as a technician. You can see blow-by blow extracts from her diary from 2003, including a bitter and significant court case at
  • Michelle Clark, a MTF former deck officer, who worked for Sir William Reardon Smith's Company. See my interview with Michelle at And read her book at From Ship to Shore & a Whole Lot More. (UK Book Publishing, June 2021, ISBN 1914195272, £14.50). It's now available at Until now no Trans maritime memoir has covered twelve years at sea, or been written by such a senior officer.

Where can you find out more?

Creating public memorials.

I'm hoping there'll be enough support for a Rainbow Seas intergenerational project. Young people could interview maritime veterans and help create virtual blue plaques to commemorate significant places in their lives.

Do contact me at [] if you'd like to be part of this.

My latest article

Entry on 'Military/ Navy in the United Kingdom', in Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender ,and Queer History, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York & London, 2019, pp1066-1069,

Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender ,and Queer History

Hello Sailor!

Available from Amazon

'A remarkable achievement of this history is the consummate ease with the complexities of human sexuality diversity are translated into a highly readable, compelling and perhaps most uncommon, a most entertaining history ... What a joy to read, which is not common in the world of academic history.'
Jeff Evans, organiser of LGBT History What it is and How to Do it conferences.

Paul Baker and Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! A Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea, Pearson Education, 2003. Routledge, 2015

Discover my interview about writing it on the Routledge History posts.


Resources you can use

  • See the touring exhibition I co-curated for Merseyside exhibition,
    Hello Sailor!
  • Use the Sailing Proud Archive Merseyside Maritime Archives
  • RN CompassIf you're an LGBT person in the Royal Navy use RN Compass, the support organisation
  • Join in the new moves to create an online queer archive
  • Invite me [] to give a talk or lead a workshop for your organisation
  • Rictor Norton's blog, Gay History and Literature


I always welcome stories from LGBTQI seafarers. Get in touch [] if you'd like to share your story

  • for the next article or presentation I write
  • If you want help in shaping your story yourself, for publication or not


My recent work

Michael Dillon

I've recently been looking at the early history of maritime people transitioning, including Dr Michael Dillon and an unexplored Royal Navy doctor from WW2.

Reading on


  • Stanley J. 2020. 'Frocks versus guns: UK seafaring women and queered people sailing the South Atlantic in the 1982 Malvinas/ Falklands conflict', eds Birgit Braasch and Claudia Andrea Müller, Off Shore: Perspectives on Transatlantic Pleasure Travel since the 19th Century, Lit-Verlag, Hamburg, pp61-98.
  • Stanley J. 2018. Entries on UK armed forces and UK merchant marine in The Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History, Macmillan Reference USA, New York. Entries on UK armed forces and UK merchant marine pp1066-9; entries on language pp909-913
  • Stanley J. 2013. 'They thought they were normal - and queens too: gay seafarers on British liners 1945-1985' in Duncan Redford, ed, Maritime History and Identity: The sea and culture in the modern world, IB Tauris, London, 230-250.
  • Stanley J. 2012. 'Queered seafarers in heterotopic spaces', in Richard Gorski and Britta Söderqvist, eds, The Parallel Worlds of the seafarer: Ashore, Afloat and Abroad, Papers from the 10th North Sea History Conference, Maritime Museum and Aquarium, Gothenburg, 179-200,
  • Stanley J. 2012. 'On buffer-kissers, bus-station skanks and mile-high clubs: sexualities and transport', in Peter Norton et al, eds, Mobility in History, The Yearbook of International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility, Berghahn, New York, 29-49,
  • Stanley J. 2007. Entry on homosexuality, Oxford Encyclopaedia of Maritime History, Oxford University Press, New York.


Journal Articles (selected)


My gendered sea blog entries on LGBT+ in maritime life


Book, conferences and exhibitions reviewed (selected)

  • Stanley J. 2017. 'All in the Same Boat: The Untold Story of the British Ferry Crew who Helped Win the Falklands War' by Warren Fitzgerald, British Journal of Military History, 3 (3), 164-166,
  • Stanley J. 2012. Filipino Crosscurrents: Oceanographies of Seafaring, Masculinities, and Globalization', Kale Bantigue Fajardo, International Journal of Maritime History, June, 24(1), 474-476