Antwerp Harbors in the lives of queer Individuals

In the 1950s, where could a young Antwerp gay man turn to when he's on the streets? Sailing as a steward on a cruise ship, was one of the options. Cruise ships were known to be safe havens with much more freedom than mainland. They weren't just vessels of transportation, but floating havens of liberation and acceptance. In this golden age of travel, the decks of these majestic ships became sanctuaries where individuals could cast off societal norms and embrace their true selves. Imagine the allure of setting sail into the unknown, not just for the thrill of adventure, but for the promise of finding a community that understood and accepted you for who you are.

For many young gays of the time, working aboard on a cruise ship wasn't merely a job - it was a ticket to freedom, a chance to break free from the confines of a society that often shunned and marginalized them. As these intrepid souls stepped aboard these floating hotels, they were welcomed into a world unlike any other - a quasi-exclusive male society1 where they could find camaraderie and connection amidst the rolling waves of the open sea.

Among them was Uncle Fons, a beacon of wisdom and compassion, who found solace and companionship in the company of like-minded individuals. He always used the phrase “sailor by day, drag queen by night” whenever he introduced himself.

But it wasn't just the allure of escape that drew people in—it was the promise of encountering a newfound openness and acceptance that was often absent on land. As the ships traversed distant, sometimes exotic destinations, passengers and crew alike were exposed to cultures and attitudes that celebrated diversity and embraced difference.

Queer language in the Navy

Onboard a navy vessel, a vibrant subculture thrived, complete with its own secret language - Polari - a linguistic tapestry woven with words like schnozzle (nose), sea-lallies (sea legs), trade omee (heterosexual man, open to have intercourse with other men), omi-palone (homosexual man), or palone-omi (lesbian woman). Polari helped members of the queer community to communicate discreetly and forge bonds of solidarity, away from prying eyes.

Queer performances

And then there were the drag shows - spectacular displays of talent and creativity, where men boldly dressed up in women's clothes and took on female roles in performances that challenged traditional gender norms to captivated audiences. In these moments, cross-dressing wasn't just accepted - it was celebrated as a symbol of freedom and self-expression. But amidst the glittering performances and shimmering seas, there were also moments of intimacy and connection, as the quasi-exclusive male society aboard the ships provided opportunities for fleeting romances and passionate encounters that were as exhilarating as they were liberating. As the ships returned to port and the voyage came to an end, the memories of those magical moments lived on, forever etched in the hearts and minds of those who had experienced them. For aboard these floating palaces, amidst the laughter and the love, a new chapter in the history of queer liberation was written - one that continues to inspire and uplift us to this day.

[1] A social setting where masculine traits are prominent but not absolute.