When Nova Scotia’s Samuel Cunard founded his iconic ocean liner company in 1840, he had no idea that his massive ships would, in the period following the Second World War, become home to elaborate drag shows and some of the first gay weddings. The little-known history of homosexual stewards on commercial ocean liners—many passed through ports in Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal from the 1950s to 1980s—is revealed in Hello Sailor!: Gay Life on the Ocean Wave, which makes its North American debut at Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic this month.
The exhibit, on display until Nov. 27, includes photographs from cruise ships in the postwar period (when Cunard was the dominant transatlantic cruise company) of vintage drag shows, and recorded oral histories of gay sailors from across Canada and the U.K. who sought refuge at sea. There’s also a replica cabin of a 1950s steward, complete with an official uniform turned drag costume.
One of the more surprising revelations is evidence of early gay marriage. According to Dan Conlin, curator of the Halifax museum, same-sex marriage was performed at sea long before it was performed on land. “Oftentimes, two stewards would form long-lasting relationships,” he says. “And crew members would recognize the union officially in a ceremony on-board the ship. They would exchange vows and rings and even move into the same cabin.” That this evolution of gay culture took place on the high seas is no accident. “Economic factors drove these companies to hire large numbers of gay men,” says Conlin. “Passengers enjoyed their witty banter and music shows. [The companies] would gladly turn a blind eye to sexual preference, for profit’s sake.”