April 15, 2012 marks the centennial of the most famous maritime disaster in history. On that "night to remember" the "unsinkable" passenger liner, the RMS Titanic, collided with an iceberg, killing 1517 people.
Since the 1997 release of James Cameron's top-grossing, Oscar-winning movie of the same name, the Titanic and its ill-fated crew have captured the interest and the imagination of people all over the world. Museums vie with one another to display artifacts from the ocean liner that sank; Titanic "experts" make a living "explaining" the disaster to appreciative audiences; and enterprising entrepreneurs strive to recreate the food, the clothes, and the music enjoyed by the first class passengers who sailed the pride of the White Star Line.
The Titanic carried some of the wealthiest people in the world, such as millionaires John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim and Isidor Strauss, who enjoyed the ship's first class facilities, as well as over a thousand emigrants from Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere who had to make do with steerage. Surviving accounts of this ill-fated sea cruise tells us much about the ship's passengers and crew, except for their sexual orientations and gender identities. Were there LGBT people on the Titanic?
Of course there were, even if you accept the social constructionist notion that queer people were different in 1912 than we are today. Moreover, in 1912 neither the victims nor the survivors of the disaster were likely to be "out" in the modern sense of the word. But homosexually-inclined men and women already existed in 1912, on the Titanic and elsewhere.
Jack Fritscher, author of the gayrotic novella Titanic: The Untold Tale of Gay Passengers and Crew (Palm Drive Publishing), reckoned that "if, according to Kinsey, one out of six ordinary men is gay, 225 gay men died. If two out of six in the travel industry are gay, 450 gay men died, making Titanic an overlooked but essential chapter in gay history." Since men were more likely to go down with the ship, the gay male casualties were undoubtedly higher than most.
There were single men and women, and male and female "couples", along with family units and heterosexual marrieds on the Titanic. Whether or not any of those "couples" were romantic or erotic pairs is of course beyond our knowledge. But we can speculate.
From actual cases on the mainland, we can argue that some of the ill-fated millionaires and their valets enjoyed a relationship that went beyond that of master and servant. Using the same reasoning, some of the "spinsters" abroad enjoyed erotic "Boston Marriages" with their female companions.
Hugh Brewster, author of Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passenger and Their World, (Thorndike Press), told the Advocate that two of the victims, Major Archibald Butt and artist/writer Francis Millet, might have been more than friends. According to Brewster, Major Butt, "a dandified bachelor with an intense devotion to his mother, seems a more likely gay male than Frank Millet, the decorated war correspondent and married father of three." Even so, Millet's surviving love letters to gay writer Charles Warren Stoddard provides clues as to Millet's possible homosexuality.
As in other places, male homosexual activity was more common, and more furtive, than lesbian activity on the Titanic. If the crew members resembled sailors everywhere, they might have indulged in some male-to-male sexual activity.
Unlike the shipboard romance between first class passenger Rose and third-class (steerage) passenger Jack - which could not have happened in real life - class boundaries were regularly crossed by males who sought sexual pleasure from other males. Like other men in Europe and America, many "queer" men from first class were drawn to the "more masculine" men of the working class, whether they be crew or steerage, gay or trade. While many third class men indignantly rejected such advances, others went along, whether for money, sexual release, or to satisfy their own homosexual proclivities.
There were many places on the Titanic where two or more men could have sex: private cabins, storerooms, assorted nooks and crannies, and even public bathrooms. (Fritscher writes about gay goings-on in the ship's hold, a "maze of catwalks ... lined at both rails with sailors, coalmen, cooks, mechanics, and blackamor masseurs from the Turkish steam room.")
Among the amenities of the Titanic was a men's sauna. If this sauna resembled other saunas in New York and London, which by 1912 were already notorious for homosexual activity, then it must have provided the ship's crew and passengers with more than therapeutic baths.
In Titanic, Jack Fritscher's gayrotic account of the fateful voyage, Fritscher details gay sexual encounters among the passenger and crew of the Titanic. Written in 1986 and first published in Honcho magazine (1988), Fritscher calls his Titanic "gay literary erotica that delves into the psychology of the cruise and dramatizes the sexual antics based on what an ancient pal of mine who was for years a purser on the Queen Mary told me about sex on board a big ship."
In Fritscher's Titanic, Michael Whitney (a rare male survivor) and his ill-fated partner Edward Weding, sexually cavort with each other, other male passengers, and crew members. According to Fritscher, "in movie-newsreel footage shot three days [after the Titanic sank] on the deck of the rescue ship Carpathia immediately after it docked at Chelsea Piers in New York, a dozen of the surviving Titanic crew, mostly sailor lads in tight white pants hiding little, showing lots, can be seen in very intimate horseplay, camping around, and posing in life jackets, pretending to faint." All this should not surprise us. After all, gay men are the world's great sexual adventurers.
Unfortunately for the historian, there is no proof that these or any other homosexual activity took place on the Titanic. Whatever gay activity there was on the ship, it must remain within the realm of the imagination.
Though Fritscher's fictional Titanic is only 54 pages long, it provides the gay reader with a wonderfully erotic account of the "unsinkable" ocean liner and its ill-fated passengers, written from a gay perspective. Titanic: The Untold Tale of Gay Passengers and Crew is available in both ebook and trade paperback.