Polari-ing all the way to the Malvinas/Falklands Conflict
“Mmm, vada the bona lallies!” (Look at those lovely legs). “Ooh, I hope they’ll have mascara at Port Stanley, I’ve nearly run out.”
Wendy (left) and another Norland steward welcome back Frankie and the other gay stewards when they return from the Fakllands after doing extended duties there in winter 1982/3. (Hull Daily Mail)
Is this what the public imagine men were saying, as we hear all the patriotic razzmatazz about British ships full of military men bristling with weaponry steaming around the South Atlantic to attack Argentineans? Polare and slap?
Far from it. The presence of queer, indeed high camp, seafarers on the troop carriers has been written out. It doesn’t fit the story of rufty-tufty Brits, including Marines and Paras sailing forth in the hyper-masculine style of imperial conquest.
So let’s get the record straight.
- From at least 1945 to 1985 merchant ships were still ‘gay heavens.’ Passenger – and to a lesser extent, cargo and Royal Fleet Auxiliary – ships were the main workplace where men could be out and camp, as all the material in the book Hello Sailor! indicates. [Paul Baker and Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Homosexuality at Sea.] Far more than in media and interior design jobs. As many as 95 per cent of men in the stewards’ departments, as they said, minced their tits off across their world’s oceans, created a supportive sub-culture, and were adored by passengers and captains alike. (However, it was hard for officers to be out, and they certainly couldn’t camp.) Dragged-up gay and bi men, TVs and those on the way to being TSs routinely put on fabulous on-board musical shows.
- Marines may act ultra-butch but actually they love cross-dressing. There’s a joke. Why do Marines heft such huge backpacks? To train their muscles? No, to contain their frocks, wigs and cosmetic bags. No self-respecting marine goes anywhere without at least one sticky-out dress. (And someone should certainly do a thesis about this).
- Of course an unknown number of troops and crew were quietly LGBT, whether their ship was in the Task Force or not . But they had to be cautious as homosexual acts were still illegal at sea and in the armed forces. Career prospects would certainly have been wrecked.
Wendy at his pink piano. (Picture courtesy of Hull Daily Mail ).
Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson was one of possibly hundreds of camp men among the 7,000 merchant seafarers who took the troops to war and supported them while they were there fighting. He became the most famous out gay man of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. This is largely because he appeared in so many paratroopers’ memoirs, most notably Ken Lukowiak’s A Soldier’s Song. Keeping up morale by playing sing-along tunes like Mrs Mills and Liberace on his pink piano, he went not from Hull to Rotterdam as usual on the ferry Norland, but 13,000 km to the far South Atlantic.
In May 1982 the Royal Naval fleet had been decimated by defence cuts. As John Johnson-Allan shows in his aptly-titled history, They couldn’t have done without us, 52 merchant vessels had to help out instead. So did their usual crews, who volunteered. These STUFT (Ships Taken Up For Trade) vessels were camp men’s homes and workplaces. They stayed with their ships out of loyalty to the ship, the shipping line, and the gay community on board. They also sailed for the adventure or even for Maggie Thatcher (a camp icon) and the principle of Falklands Islands sovereignty.
Before troops embarked their officers ‘warned’ there would be homosexuals on board. It was an unavoidable ‘problem.’ Poufs were part of the furniture and culture, along with posh sea-view cabins, fancy food and onboard arcades of one-armed bandits. In fact, never had Britain gone to war in such high style. Most ships retained their identity as floating tourist palaces, for all that Canberra’s swimming pools was ripped out to make space for a helicopter pad, and on the ‘Queen of the Ocean’, the QE2, the Rudolf Steiner hairdressing saloon became the Intelligence ops room.
HOMOPHOBIA – AND LEARNING
With this clash of cultures – butch barracks versus sissy hotels – you’d expect homophobia. Indeed some existed. At least one incident of gay bashing occurred. But the victim hushed it up, against his captain’s wishes, for fear of worse reprisals. Mainly hostility took the form of comments muttered a little too audibly, such as ‘Dirty queer.’ Troops hyped up for war were naturally anxious to prove their masculinity.
Gay crew ignored the slights, not least because because they knew they couldn’t win, and on luxury liners the customer is always right. Anyway, historically stewards are skilled in the arts of subtle revenge upon recalcitrant passengers; lacing tea with Goddard’s silver polish (which has a dramatically laxative effect had long been a favourite punishment). And unlike troops GBT crew had their own language, Polare. They used it to secretly communicate in front of the passengers, to maintain solidarity – and to comment upon tasty possible lovers as well as upon ignorant enemies.
Bernie and some troops socialise in his cabin on the Canberra. NB Presence in this picture is not in any way a statement about the sexual orientation of people in it. (Picture courtesy of Bernie L).
But one of the unexpected benefits of the Malvinas/Falklands conflict was that it was an education. Being on such ships was an immersion course in gay culture. Troops saw that camp men were totally accepted, and indeed that campery was unremarkable.
When paratroopers such as Ken Lukowiak and his colleagues now reminisce,
“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.”
The 2 Para Battalion made Wendy, who’d worn his worn his fingers to the bone to keep up their spirits, their first gay ‘mascot’. They awarded him with their official red beret, which he put on his glitter-filled hair. The Sun newspaper, hardly an LGBT-friendly tabloid, even mounted a search for him on their behalf so that he could attend the 25th anniversary celebrations at Aldershot in 1997. And he did.
The Sun searches for Wendy. Wendy in the Falklands on the Norland. (Pictures courtesy of Wendy).
SEX AND LOVE
What else might you expect with all those ostensibly macho troops cooped up with so many camp men? Sex? Yes, but not that much, partly because some GBT men:
- weren’t necessarily interested in relationships with young servicemen
- had their own affairs going on anyway with other crew members
- didn’t do casual sex
- were wary of forming a bond with someone who might die, and wanted to protect the heart from later pain.
Certainly no squaddies could afford to be seen as having gay sex, even as a one-off act of domination or a way of getting contingent ‘relief’. In that nosy community their mates would have jeered. But officers managed it more easily. And an unanticipated phenomenon occurred: some military men felt they didn’t want to die without having tried intercourse with a man. Stewards – being helpful characters – obliged in some cases. Also, as Bernie, the Captain’s Steward on the Canberra explained, many formed affectionate bonds with their passengers, including Argentinean prisoners.
BRAVERY V. CAMPERY?
One of the things the Falklands /Malvinas experience meant for gay men (and their detractors) was that the presence and bravery of camp civilians under fire undermined the stereotype of gay men as cowards. GBT men
- volunteered to go
- stayed with their ships despite being giving the chance to fly home at Ascension Island
- remained in a war zone, not moaning despite the danger from Argentinean planes and the horrors of burning ships sinking all around them
- gave blood – frequently – to augment supplies for the wounded.
Some camp men were open about their distress – and to beneficial effect. When the Norland was being bombed Captain’s Steward Frankie “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 many, like the women on board, acted as agony aunts to traumatised troops afterwards.
Other camp men were proud of being visibly hyper-masculine, in at least some ways. They agreed to learn how to use the ship’s guns when volunteers were asked for. A number enjoyed being seen as tough. 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.” And for Kevin, a young steward on the Canberra who was not quite ready to come out, going through that war gave him the strength to accept who he was. “They said we were heroes. And I thought, well, I am, and I can be anything I want to be now.” He took to high campery with a vengeance on his next ship.
DIVERSITY ON RECORD
The tragedy is that the record is silent on their contribution. Merchant seafarers aren’t much acclaimed, full stop. Women crew, and Chinese and Asian male crew, are hardly recognised. No-one has yet written about the Marines and the cross-dressing they did when off-duty in that war. And GBT men’s contribution isn’t acknowledged at all in all the millions of words written about that conflict. But they, like the other veterans, are proud of their medals. And in some cases they’re beset by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Skewing the history of the conflict to occlude all but white heterosexual males is not good record-making and not fair. This article, and the interviews I conducted to help retrieve these lost stories, are part of a still-small revisionist move to tell the fuller story of these much-mythologized events that happened so far away one summer 30 years ago. Justice needs to be done. GBT seafarers’ role deserves respect.
- Exhibition: Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave Liverpool and Canada
- Info on gay seafarers’ history: The Sailing Proud Archive
- Jo Stanley’s blog on gender, sex and the sea