Support for any and every seafarer

The Mission is here for those at sea, whatever their sexuality or gender identity

By The Reverend Timothy Tunley

Over the years I have helped to support several lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBT+) seafarers; their issues and joys are not much different from those of other seafarers in terms of their job at sea.

As a volunteer organisation, our guiding principles put structure around the support we offer every seafarer, including those in the LGBT+ community. When I visit a ship, the most important question I want the answer to is: “What is it like being you today?” For me, the most important person on board a ship is the person I am speaking with. At the Mission, we treat the Captain with the utmost respect and treat every crew member as if they were the Captain.

For the ship visitors we have who are overtly Christian we have one further principle: the most important part of any visit is not the fact that you have been, but that you have left. This is because our vision is to leave Christ on every vessel we visit.

We are always worried about lone nationals of any sexuality or gender identity on board vessels. To be culturally isolated is a very difficult thing. If, for example, you are the only person from Cape Verde or the only German person on board, your cultural references will not be the same as those of the crew around you. This might not be so bad for an afternoon but if you have a twelve-month contract, life can be bleak. A big part of what we do is to try and support those who feel isolated and alone for whatever reason.

With many issues – including those around sexuality or gender identity – many seafarers live in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture, which may or may not offer them self-protection. However, it can and often does produce a deeper sense of loneliness.

Difficult situation

Bullying can be an issue for any seafarer. The worst case of homophobic bullying I came across was several years ago when a large and aggressive Captain would get very drunk and beat up and abuse the Filipino cook. This caused a rift in the crew. If they defended the cook, they could be next; but on the other hand, how could they let this happen to a fellow countryman and a friend?

Working alongside the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the ship owner we managed to get the cook replaced and moved to another ship without a note on his permanent record. Note was taken of the Captain’s actions and his drinking and the company then issued a warning. This was not justice.

We must never assume that the world is an easy, comfortable place for everyone. To be perceived as different in any way in a small ‘village’ environment of a ship is very different from living in a city.

There is a liberal myth that if we could only educate people to think as we do then everything in the world would be lovely. But for many non-European seafarers who are part of the LGBT+ community, life is simply not like that.

Many LGBT+ seafarers seek safety and peace at sea. One sees this most in the mess on a cruise ship. It is not unusual to find groups of seafarers of the same sexuality or gender identity coming together for mutual support and safety on board.

At the Mission we understand that offering chaplaincy to these groups needs to be done with sensitivity. The churches we are seen to represent have often been the instrument of their persecution back home. Our chaplaincy teams offer support and a friendly ‘ear’ to all, and we have always been met with a warm welcome on the ships we visit. For so many seafarers, home is not what they have left behind, but the life they find on board.

The Reverend Timothy Tunley is The Mission to Seafarers’ chaplain in Scotland.