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Queer Pleasures and Handsome Sailors

by our Editors in History & Politics , 18 augustus 2015

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

In 1931, Thomas Mann’s children Erika and Klaus published the travel report “Das Buch von der Riviera” as the fourteenth volume in the series “Was nicht im ‘Baedeker’ steht.” It was the intention of this series to give a subjective description of holiday destinations that would help tourists with less money and little luggage, unlike the other, more established middle-class travel guides. They did a wonderful job. For example in Marseille, they visit a “small, dirty” cinema near the red light district, that showed a silent movie with Ramón Novarro.

Even though the authors had no way of knowing that several decades later, Novarro was murdered by two hustlers, the sexually ambiguous image of the movie star may have been the reason that, upon leaving the cinema, they notice several members of a professional group that was well-known for welcoming casual (homosexual) contacts, sometimes for a fee, to know “some English sailors in attractive uniforms with small, egg-shaped, arrogantly attractive faces.”

For the young German tourists, these sailor boys are one of  Toulon’s main attractions, where “near the water, the Quai Cronstadt is teeming with sailors, sauntering, chatting, singing hot guys enjoying their leave of absence. They are the heart and soul of this small town, which, without them, would be a timid provincial town.”

Although the Manns recommend a restaurant that serves a delicious bouillabaisse, they also presume that Toulon’s visitors will prefer “one of the bars with the lures of the red sailor hat tassels” for one for the road.

They come to the conclusion that much has changed in comparison with some years earlier: “Something must have happened in high places, something of a warning nature. After all, the Naval School is in Toulon and has to consider its reputation. [...] At 10 PM already, the blue ones are embarking. [...] Hundreds of them are on the Quai Cronstadt to get to their bunk. Just watch how the night absorbs them; it will put you in a cheerful but pensive mood, - so many young men, the solidarity of their lives, the purpose that floats towards them - war. - A few of them are left behind, bundle under their arm. They prefer to sleep on solid ground [...]. Arm in arm, they are walking around, sing a little, drink a little, but the police is strict. After ten, singing is forbidden, and they point this out to the sailors with severity. ‘Ugh,’ the guys say, - ‘nous sommes des frères de la marine française!,’ but yet they fall silent and show a crestfallen face.”

I don’t know which of the Mann children wrote this lyrical account of these marine boys, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be Klaus. In the years he was living in Amsterdam - from 1933 to 1937 and again from 1947 to 1949 - he was especially interested in the Red Light District and the harbor area. “Here,” Bodo Plachta writes in “Das Amsterdam des Klaus Mann,” “the homophile [sic!] would look for and find casual sex, and purchase drugs and uppers or downers.” However, in 1935, Mann came to the conclusion in an essay that Amsterdam’s harbor district, in comparison with those in Hamburg or Marseille, is characterized by a “nuance of the best room, by correctness, decency and respectability.”

No Lucky Stars

With an homoerotically inspired fascination for sailors, Klaus Mann would fit into a long literary, visual and historical tradition. The nineteenth century saw the onset of the scientific and legal discussion about what we now call homosexuality. The focus was diverted from the act - sodomy, something that was legally forbidden throughout the world - to an identity that was determined biologically.

One of the first who fought the penalization of same-sex contact was the German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Between 1864 and 1879 he published in twelve parts his “Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännliche Liebe,” which were translated into English as “The Riddle of ‘Man-Manly’ Love.”

He fought the idea that the “uninhibited, oral, open discussion about man-on-man love [...] has been put under lock and key here. Only words of hatred were free to be expressed,” as he phrased it in 1868. In the year of his first pamphlets, he also published the poem “Lieber is mir ein Bursch,” which starts with the lines:

Lieber ist mir ein “Bursch,” vom Dorf, mit schwellende Gliedern,
Als das feine Gesicht eines blassen städtischen “Jünglings.”
Lieber ist mir ein Reiter zu Rosse oder ein Jäger,
Und der Matrose an Bord. Doch unter allen die liebsten:
Das sind mir die Soldaten, die jungen stattlicher Krieger;

After which he serenades blue-eyed guardsmen and blond cavalry men. Only after having left his gay unfriendly home country and settling in the somewhat more relaxed Italy, did Ulrichs focus on marine boys in “Matrosengeschichten” (Sailors Tales, 1885). These narrations take place in a mythological fantasy world, but even in this world, the desire for a sailor does not end with “and they lived happily ever after...” In the first story, “Sulitelma,” the thirteen-year-old Erich becomes fascinated with the “storm ship” Sulitelma, that only sails the sky during certain weather condition, but mostly with the sailor Harald, who pulls him aboard after carrying out some daredevil feats, and makes him his cabin boy.

When Erich falls back on earth after an accident, he tells his older sister Thyra about his adventures on board the ice ship with Harald: “‘I want to make you warm,’ [Harald] said. He embraced me and pressed me to his chest. I had no idea what was happening to me. I felt as if a God was embracing me, a new life, fire, courage and power were streaming through me. All my suffering and pains were taken away from me.” Thyra envies her brother and follows him on board when opportunity knocks, and kills her brother to take his place at Harald’s side. Thyra does not survive this adventure either.

In the most famous story in the collection, “Manor,” which was reprinted several times over the years in gay publications, the attraction of a sailor is not under lucky stars either. In this vampire-like story, the fifteen-year-old Har is under the spell of the sailor Manor, four years his senior, who saves him from drowning. Har wants to work on a ship as a cabin boy with Manor, but his mother prevents him from doing so. Just before its safe return to the harbor, the ship perishes. The corpses of the crew, including Manor, wash ashore on the beach near Har’s home and are buried.

At night Manor appears in front of Har’s window, who lets him in. The apparition “climbed into bed with him; he shivered, but he did not turn away. It stroked his cheeks, with a cold hand, o! so cold, so cold! He shivered feverishly. It kissed the warm swelling mouth of the boy. [...] It seemed to him as if it wanted to say: ‘Desire has driven me to you. I cannot find rest in the grave.’” This happens several nights, in which Manor seems to drink Har’s blood. At a certain moment, Har’s mother and the villagers put a stop to this and impale Manor’s heart. This eventually also kills Har, who dies of a broken heart and requests in his last minutes to be laid to rest in Manor’s grave. They honor his request.

Wooden-Walled Gomorrahs

Fantasies do not have to be grounded in reality, but in the world of sailors that common ground is there, unlike in the world of vampires. Winston Churchill once roared: “Don’t talk to me about tradition. Tradition in the British Navy is nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.”

The boozing and discipline methods were common knowledge, but research on same-sex diversion at sea has only been done in the last decades, and not just in the British navy. B.R. Burg, for instance, published the ground breaking 1983 study “Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean,” in which he sheds a light on the social and sexual world of pirates.

According to Burg, the sexuality of pirates was distinctively different from those in other male communities, for example prisons, as it did not take place within a regimented structure of rule, regulations, and oppressive supervision, but in a community in which widespread tolerance of man-on-man sex was the norm, while the conditions at sea were encouraging putting it in practice.

For many, the findings of Burg and several other scholars will not have come as a surprise, as these kind of relationships had been described in novels. The American author Herman Melville (1819-1891), who had been a sailor, did not shy away from incorporating all forms of sexuality, including the homoerotic, in his works.

A famous example of this is the relationship between Ishmael and the native Queequeg in his masterpiece “Moby-Dick: or, The Whale” from 1851, while in his posthumously published “Billy Budd, Sailor” the main character is described by the captain of his ship as “the young fellow who seems so popular with the men - Billy, the Handsome Sailor.” Billy’s popularity with the men doesn’t have to mean anything, but while it is linked to his attractiveness in the very same sentence, a homoerotic interpretation becomes more obvious, especially for those who realize that Melville, in “White-Jacket” (1850), wrote: “The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs op the deep.”

Opportunistic Lust

In world literature, Melville’s works certainly are not the only ones to shed a light on same-sex relationships at sea, but this in not the place to elaborate further. However, with the increase of visibility and militancy in gay men in the twentieth century, the sexual shenanigans became less shrouded by a cloud of mystery. In 1918, the “Autobiography of an Androgyne” by Earl Lind appeared - he was also active under the names Ralph Werther and Jennie June - in which he describes his extremely promiscuous sex life in New York during the last decade of the nineteenth century.

“Lind especially likes a man in uniform, and half his eight hundred plus encounters, he says, were with sailors or soldiers,” Mark W. Turner concluded in “Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London” (London 2003), to which he added that Lind “frequently longs to be a ‘fairy,’ the sailor’s word for the man on ship who would act the part of the woman when out at sea.”

It remains to be seen to what extent Lind’s desire was realistic, as most sources indicate that sailors would usually indulge in mutual masturbation. Firstly, this was not seen by the men nor the courts as a (punishable) act of sodomy, and precisely because of its reciprocity, gender roles were not under attack, as none of the men could be described as the “woman” in this act. Of course there was anal sex, but it seems to have happened far less frequently. Or, as some would suspect, was done much more secretively. Whatever the case is, in 1938 the American Journal of Psychiatry stated: “Sailors and army men are known to indulge in homosexual activities when heterosexual opportunities are long absent, only to renounce homosexuality when normal conditions are restored.”

One should wonder what “normal conditions” are, because their experiences at sea made these sailors inclined to homosexual acts on shore, especially if they would benefit them somehow. Gore Vidal once wrote that in the 1940s “just about everyone, either actively or passively, was available under the right circumstances,” while Tom of Finland stated in a 1981 interview with Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad: “In and during the war seamen enjoyed a very special reputation. They would do anything. You could buy their services.”

In twentieth century literature, there is an abundance of autobiographical expressions by gay authors in which they report about their experiences with those marine boys. With pleasure. The availability, the experience, but also their exciting outsider status made sailors popular subjects for artists who did not hide their homosexuality in their private life, and to a lesser or higher degree in their work, for instance the American painters Paul Cadmus (1904-1999), Charles Demuth (1883-1935) and the Russian born Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), but also the Briton Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and the Frenchman Alfred Courmes (1898-1993), who in the 1930s and 1940s made paintings that personified a sailor as another ancient gay icon, namely Saint Sebastian.

Sailors were not only appearing in the works of mainstream artists, but also in those of painters and graphic artists who were focusing on the gay market. It is easy to find examples of horny excesses among marine boys in the works of George Quaintance (1902-1957), Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen, 1920-1991) or Etienne (Dom Orejudos, 1933-1991). In this erotic environment it cannot come as a surprise that the photographers working for the physique magazines also embraced this tradition. This did not mean, however, that the models posing in sailor uniforms for Bob Mizer (1922-1992), Mel Roberts (*1923) and many others were actually employed at sea.

The Swagger...

This iconography was the reason that sailors were also present in gay pulp novels, for instance in “Navy Blues,” which was published in 1966 by J.J. Proferes with Guild Press, in which sailor Barney Reardon is stationed far away from his home and his fiancée Margie. Even though he is homesick for Margie, this desire doesn’t stop him from seeking casual erotic release, with other men. In the mid-1960s, the sex had to be described in covert terms. Proferes wrote about Barney’s encounter with an anonymous young man giving him a ride: “He was lying on the front seat of the car with his trousers pulled down over his legs - the man was tugging at them so that they were soon down around his ankles. Barney felt a thrill and he raised his hips as he felt the warmth of the man.

The damp warmness excited him. Slowly gyrating his hips, Barney knew impassioned emotions now as he cut loose. ‘AAAAHHHHHH, that’s wonderful!’ he murmured. [...] ‘Kiss me... kiss me...’ Barney pleaded. The man obliged him, then, running his tongue over the boy’s stomach, he moved his lips down. Barney could no longer contain himself - the excitement was really more than he could stand. The youth arched his back so his hips were no longer touching the seat of the car. The man held the youth’s hips, then, sliding his hands around, he felt the smooth firm young buttocks of the sailor.”

Even though it is quite obvious what’s happening here, the oral-genital contact is not described or named explicitly (and the buttocks of the sailor remain untouched, this time). After both men have enjoyed a post-coital diner, the driver watches Barney walking back to the car: “He watched the swagger, the tight pants... the nicely formed hips and the way the trousers clung to the firm buttocks, the outline of his jockey shorts showing through the fabric... the light-blond hair and the cap shoved back on his head so that a small lock of hair fell down across his forehead. The man watched him fondly.”

Due to legal developments, the Guild Press only dared to publish the comprehensive series Black Knight Classics from 1969. According to the publisher, it consisted of texts that had been circulating in manuscript or typescript for decades. In the blurb of one of them, “Off Duty Studs,” he postulates: “Such Black Night Classics as ‘San Diego Sailor,’ ‘Marine Studs,’ ‘Sailor ’69,’ ‘Porthole Buddies’ and ‘Bail Out!’ were so well received by the collectors of this series of underground homosexual erotica because they depicted (truthfully and without any reservations) the gay life of the military and the fact that whether Uncle Sam likes it or not, some of the servicemen charged with the protection of this society are gay and just dig the hell out of their foxhole buddies.” In “Off Duty Studs” - and other volumes of the series - orders such as “Suck that prick!” are numerous, and seem to have been taken directly from the porn flicks that started conquering the market some years later.

Shore Leave in Uniform

The rise and visibility of the gay liberation movement had consequences for the choice of the dream partner. Many gays were of the opinion - at least in theory - that they should have equal sex partners, meaning gays, not men who identified themselves as straight but were willing to shoot in the mouth or the ass of a faggot. And precisely this was the category that incorporated sailors.

In 1981, Tom of Finland sighed in the interview with NRC Handelsblad: “Sailors, for example, are out. [...] at one point they stopped having shore leave in their uniform. They could not be recognized as sailors anymore.” Tom’s remark seems to have been somewhat premature, as sailors have continued to be the subject of trendy photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber and Pierre & Gilles, make appearances in erotic books and porn movies, and are still recorded in paintings, for example by the German, Berlin born artist Alexander von Agoston who - a coincidence? - served his obligatory military service in the navy!

Whether sailors can be persuaded to engage in queer debauchery or not, from 19-23 August during Sail Amsterdam 2015, the gay world mostly will not be enthusiastic about the three and four masters in the harbor, but will concentrate on the young sailors manning these ships. Much younger and just as attractive. A few of the admirers might actually silently whisper Jacob Israël de Haan’s quatrain “Een matroos” (A Sailor):

Een lichtmatroos: zijn donkre haren,
Zijn oogen bloeien, zijne wangen blozen.
Denk niet aan de duizenden lichtmatrozen,
Die jong en schoon als deze waren.

[An ordinary sailor: his dark hairs, / His eyes flower, his cheeks flush. / Don’t think of the thousands of ordinary sailors, / Who were young and beautiful as this one.]



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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