Summertime: ‘The Lure of the Sea’

Published in: July-August 2022 issue.


THE PHRASE “land’s end” has been applied to any number of seaside locales, perhaps most famously to three places in the U.S.: Provincetown, Key West, and San Francisco. The fact that all three are well known as LGBT meccas is surely not a coincidence. There’s something about these hard-to-reach coastal spots that has made them havens of tolerance and diversity, accepting of artists and gay people and other social outliers.

            In literature and the arts, the lure of the sea has found its expression in a number of important LGBT works. One thinks of Jean Genet’s shockingly uncloseted tale of sailors in Querelle, or of Gore Vidal’s merchant marines in The City and the Pillar, arguably the first openly gay novel published in English. Going back in time, we have a novelist like Thomas Mann, for whom Death in Venice was a way to explore his non-terrestrial desires; or Herman Melville, whose early years at sea furnished the material for his tales of manly adventure.

            Melville’s personal sexuality is still debated, but one could argue that he created some of the gayest novels ever written. It’s possible to read Moby-Dick as an allegory of good and evil, but that doesn’t explain why, when we read it in high school, some of us were inexplicably fascinated by this exotic world of men. And then there’s Billy Budd, which presents a case of simmering lust directed toward a beautiful young sailor. Adding Typee to the mix, Rolando Jorif argues that the sea is where Melville, married with children, allowed his authentic self to roam.

            Melville qualifies as a case study for a thesis that William Benemann has advanced in his book Unruly Desires, namely that working as merchant marines was often the best option for gay men in the Age of Sail, far from the watchful eyes of constables and priests. Here he focuses on an incident aboard a U.S. ship whose captain was put on trial in 1842 for devising a curiously pornographic punishment for an insubordinate sailor. The trial touched upon a truth about life at sea that was rarely acknowledged in polite society.

            When sailors come ashore, they are of course notoriously rowdy and randy and on the prowl. Their shenanigans were captured famously, and scandalously, by Paul Cadmus in his 1934 painting The Fleet’s In!, which depicts gay and straight cruising and schmoozing. As Ignacio Darnaude points out, this painting is one of several in which Cadmus depicted the harbor as a place of sexual temptation and discovery.

            A very different set of ambitions lured Joe Carstairs to the sea, where she raced speedboats at the highest level of competition, winning the coveted Duke of York trophy in 1926. Often sporting male attire and making little secret of her love of women, as Martin Duberman elaborates here, Carstairs was an American patrician whose friends included Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead, both known for their flamboyant sexuality.