Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sex Discrimination At Sea

Note: Today's post contains frank sexual language.

"Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash" -- attributed, probably inaccurately, to Winston Churchill

The end of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" (DADT) policy last month marks another milestone in the uneasy relationship between mariners and sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual. More than 3,100 servicemen and -women in the Navy, more than 150 in the Coast Guard, and nearly 900 in the Marines were forced out of due to their sexual orientation under DADT,  but "sodomy" has been grounds for discharge since the Revolutionary War. The Urban Institute estimates that about 2.5-percent of active-duty servicemen and -women are gay, or nearly 40,000 currently serving.

DADT is only the most recent form of sex-based discrimination on board ships. Women in general were long considered bad luck aboard a ship; male mariners were afraid the sea gods would be angered by the presence of a woman. There were cases of female passengers being tossed overboard to appease the spirits plaguing a vessel. There were exceptions to this, though. A naked woman was considered good luck, since her uncovered state "shamed" the sea, keeping the weather calm. As it was impractical to have a naked woman running around most ships, the tradition of having a bare-breasted masthead mounted at the front of the ship came about as a substitute.

"In The Navy..." With few or no women around, male sailors were left to each other to express themselves sexually. Unfortunately for them, this was often harshly discouraged. King Henry VIII declared "buggery" on British navy ships a hanging offense in 1553 and it would remain so for more than 300 years. It was still punishable by a life sentence as late as 1967. But it went on just the same. As one British navy officer told University of Denver researcher Arthur Gilbert in the mid 1970s

[H]omosexuality was rife, and one could see with his own eyes how it was going on between officers. I have been told that in some services (the Austrian and French, for instance), nobody ever remarks about it, taking such a thing as a natural proceeding: that may be so or not; but in any case, nobody was ‘shocked’ on board...There were half a dozen ties that we knew about … To my knowledge, sodomy is a regular thing on ships that go on long cruises.
Similar reports come from the US Navy. The Americans were often not as harsh as the British in punishing homosexual behavior, but were prompt putting gays ashore and out of the the navy. This was often accompanied by a less-than-honorable discharge, such as the "blue" discharges used in the demobilization following World War II. A sailor so discharged would find it haunting him in civilian life, either as a stain on employment applications or through denial of G.I. Bill benefits.

As harsh attitudes towards gays have softened in the decades since World War II, so have attitudes about women. Women were first allowed to serve on US Navy surface ships in the 1970s and then this year on submarines. The Royal Navy first permitted women on surface ships in 1990, and on submarines in 2010.

Clara Gordon Mains (on left)
The Civilian World. Civilian merchant marines, especially in the English-speaking world, have been ahead of their military brethren in their acceptance of women and gays. Clara Gordon Mains, a steward on the SS President Harrison, was one of the first Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese in World War II. Half a dozen other merchant mariner women saw combat or were taken prisoner during the early days of the war, before all women were removed from US vessels for the duration. Today somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of American merchant mariners are women.

It's harder to say how many gay civilian merchant mariners there are. Personally, I have worked with gay captains of both genders and at least two gay male engineers. There's only one work boat and one small private yacht that I've  worked on that didn't have at least one openly gay crew member. In the passenger industry, it's very common; on one 200-ft pocket cruise ship, I was the only straight deckhand on one four-week hitch.

The US Navy's DADT repeal site can be found here. Find the Coast Guard site here.

The Urban Institute's page on "Gay and Lesbian Demographics," including numbers in military service, can be found here.

More on women as bad luck on ships at the Timeless Myths blog here.

A.N. Gilbert's "Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861," published in the Journal of Social History, can be purchased for $12 here.


  1. In late december 2011 I saw a beautiful photo of two women from the US Navy - kissing... A milestone.

  2. There was a contest to see which couple would get to re-enact the iconic moment. Here's a video of the kiss, an an interview with the couple.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Thank you very much for the information.