Sea queens were gay men who worked aboard mainly merchant vessels were described before the 1960s. They were predominantly effeminate gay men who worked either in entertainment or as waiters on cruise ships, often becoming off-shore 'wives' for heterosexual sailors for the duration of voyages. They could also be found within the Navy as the nonfiction historical monograph Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea describes through the stories and experiences of sea queens from the Navy. In addition to this, the use of the Polari language can be drawn back to sea queens along with the attempted expulsion of gay, male sailors in Newport, Rhode Island after WWI.
Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea
During the 1950s and 1960s a large percentage of gay men began joining the Navy. In the Navy, gay men could be truthful about their sexuality. They used it as an outlet of freedom where they could express themselves, whether that was through different clothing or other traits and were able to do this without the fear of being discriminated against. Joining the Navy was an escape for individuals who identified as gay and didn't want to hide their sexuality. They could go and express themselves how they truly wanted and be surrounded by others who felt the same as them. This contradicted the life that gay men would have back on land. Back on the physical grounds of Britain, gay men were forced to be closeted and keep their sexuality to themselves. Gay men that didn't want to hide joined the navy to be open about themselves. As the numbers rose, it created a community of gay men. Since gay men on land were forced to stay in hiding, many wouldn't know about other men who were gay, making it highly unlikely for communities to form like the ones in the Navy.
Gay men may have used Polari to communicate during these times. Polari was a coded language used by gay men that used metaphors and coded or made up words to talk about the topic of homosexuality without others around them knowing. The secret language could be used to talk about their sexuality without others picking up on their conversation and outing them for being gay. It was even used by certain radio shows to tell gay jokes without anyone realizing what they were airing. Gay men that used Polari often called themselves "queen" which can be drawn in relevance to the use of sea queens. Either term may have been a variation from the other.
Discrimination in Newport
The community of sea queens and the flourishing number of gays in the Navy was not the only event that was happening during this time. Many other events can be linked to a surge in the gay population, but it didn't always end with a positive story to tell. One important event can be recalled from an instance in Newport, Rhode Island where gay, male sailors were being targeted by the military, discriminated against, and were even being arrested if they were found gay. The government began attacking gay men and were purposely searching for them. In many cases there was very little evidence against these men creating a higher chance of them being found gay, even if it was through the smallest inclination that they could be gay. This meant that many were also falsely accused of being gay.
- Baker, Paul (2003). Hello Sailor! The Hidden Life of Gay Men at Sea. Pearson Education Limited. pp. ix.
- Baker, Paul (2002). Polari- The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge. p. 1.
- Murphy, Lawrence R. (1988). Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy. The Haworth Press. p. 2.