With LGBT+ rights gaining increasing global visibility in recent years, it seems a promising time for the maritime industry to consider how best to support queer members within its own communities.
Although David Hammond of the UK-based charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) cited a lack of industry interest and support in 2015 when the issue first began to be raised, it appears that the industry’s stance has since shifted. For example, Maritime UK has recently announced an LGBT+ network initiative to allow those in the maritime community to seek and receive a space for community. The network currently plans to conduct its meetings online.
However, the issue is far more complex than it appears for an industry that traverses so many borders. Homosexuality is still criminalised in various parts of the world, and trans, intersex, and genderqueer identities remain penalised even in countries where LGBT+ rights exist. “It’s just not right that someone can be free to be who they are in one port, and arrested and criminalised in another,” said International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) maritime co-ordinator Jacqueline Smith, emphasising the need for universal human rights across borders.
It is worth noting that discrimination, as well as sexuality and identity policing, have major effects on mental health – an existing concern in the maritime industry that struggles with isolation, anxiety, and depression. Without queer-friendly or queer-affirmative counselling services, those seafarers who find their mental health affected by fears of bullying and ostracism may lack access to the support initiatives offered to their heterosexual counterparts.
LGBT+ worker concerns may be specific to whether they work shoreside or on board. Aside from criminalisation, these can include fears of discrimination in pay, hiring, or promotions; about access to healthcare that is specific to their needs, harassment, or bullying both within and outside of the workplace; sexual harassment, and more. Workers may find the lack of privacy a major concern as they are outed without their consent or living in ongoing fear of the consequences of being outed. Compounding factors such as race, disability, language ability, and more can make seeking assistance fraught.
These issues are a perennial concern not only for the workers, but for the industry as many skilled and hardworking individuals may choose to leave the field due to these factors. Many more may find that their work suffers because they have to balance the paramount needs of their own safety against the work they are expected to perform. As a result, both the industry and these individuals are the worse for it. It is time for a change.