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Popular Topics in Social Sciences
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Topics In the News
Titanic Centenary: Gay Stories of the Doomed Passenger Liner
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/15/12
Last updated on: 04/16/12
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The RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912 after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. In one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history, 1,514 of its 2,223 passengers perished. Although the ship was designed to be the epitome of luxury and safety, she lacked enough lifeboats to accommodate all of those aboard, perhaps because she was regarded as "unsinkable."

In the years since its sinking, the Titanic has been the stuff of legend and the source of numerous fictional and nonfictional accounts, as well as of many documentary and feature films. As Daniel Mendelsohn observes in the New Yorker, "there have been histories, academic studies, polemics by enthusiasts, and novels, numbering in the hundreds. There's even a 'Titanic for Dummies.' This centennial month alone will see the publication of nearly three dozen titles." And, he adds, the books are just the tip of the iceberg.

In its centenary year, interest in the ship and its disastrous voyage has surged. James Cameron's acclaimed 1997 film has been released in 3-D; a mini-series has been broadcast in the UK; and a dramatic production entitled Titanic Tales: Stories of Courage and Cowardice, based on the testimonies of survivors, was presented in New York.

At least two works published in commemoration of the centenary call attention to the gay stories of the Titanic.

San Francisco author of erotica Jack Fritscher has republished his fictionalized account of steamy gay love aboard the ship in Titanic: The Untold Tale of Gay Passengers and Crew. The story was originally published in Drummer in 1986 and serialized in Honcho in 1988.

Canadian historian, publisher, and former contributor to Toronto's legendary radical gay liberation newspaper The Body Politic, Hugh Brewster has published an altogether more nuanced nonfiction account of the gay history encapsulated in the Titanic story. In RMS Titanic: Gilded Lives on a Fatal Voyage, he concentrates on the Atlantic crossing as a "rare gathering" of the famous and affluent among the passengers. In doing so, he also reclaims gay history.

As Brewster told Alistair Newton in Xtra!, Canada's gay and lesbian newspaper, most people do not really know the story of the Titanic. "They know the James Cameron movie, and that's about it," he contends.

In his new book, Brewster recounts the stories of some of the gay men among the ship's passenger list, including those of painter Francis ("Frank") Millet and Major Archibald Willingham Butt, who served as military aide to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Taft.

As Newton reports, "Brewster conducted extensive research at the Smithsonian, where he discovered Millet's passionate love letters to San Francisco poet Charles Warren Stoddard as well as the original copy of Millet's final letter from the Titanic."

Brewster points out that another of the Titanic's passengers, William Thomas Stead, an English journalist whose crusade against sexual impropriety and the exploitation of children led to the passing of the U.K.'s Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (better known as the Labouchère Amendment) which also criminalized homosexuality. It was under this legislation that Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years at hard labor.

In the video below, Brewster discusses his book with Newton.

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