Thank you to Seth LeJacq for this fantastic guest post. Dr. Seth Stein LeJacq is a Lecturing Fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. He has published widely on the regulation of gender and sexuality at sea, including in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, the International Journal of Maritime History, and on the blogs Nursing Clio and Notches. He is completing work on a book on the history of the British navy’s efforts to suppress same-sex relationships in the age of sail as well as an edited primary source collection on gender and sexuality at sea (under contract with Routledge). Learn more at sethlejacq.com or on Twitter @SethSLeJacq.
Our Flag Means Death is the new queer pirate show from HBO. Premiering earlier this year and recently renewed for a second season, it follows the adventures of Stede Bonnet, “the Gentleman Pirate,” and his motley crew as they ply the eighteenth-century Caribbean. The show dreams up a golden age of piracy filled with comic hijinks, romance, and more than a little sex. And while its diverse communities of freebooters are often cruel and bloodthirsty, they are also remarkably tolerant and accepting of difference, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality.
The first season centers on a middle-aged romance, the love that blooms between Stede, a fussy dandy, and a rival pirate captain, the fearsome Blackbeard, a salt-and-pepper leather daddy. Stede’s crew affirms and even encourages the affair. Indeed, the company of the Revenge and the pirates they encounter on their travels are accepting of and enthusiastic about difference. They revere and fear the pirate queen with an impressive stable of husbands, and they support their odd first mate, who can converse with seabirds and appears to prefer their friendship to that of humans.
A major subplot concerns a member of the crew who has signed on under an assumed identity–passing as a man, with a fake mustache and a big fake nose (think Cyrano de Bergerac proportions). When a shipmate discovers the ruse, the show turns the centuries old crossdressing-woman-at-sea story on its head; having lost their disguise, the character, Jim, reveals that they are in fact nonbinary. Jim’s shipmates accept their identity and immediately begin using their preferred pronouns. Played by non-binary actor Vico Ortiz, Jim is the most fearsome fighter on the Revenge, and gets their own romantic subplot, complete with a delightful sex scene.
Our Flag Means Death uses this historical setting and some real historical figures–Bonnet and Blackbeard were actual corsairs–to dream up a queer utopia at sea. Its Caribbean is hardly a safe place, but the dangers Stede’s company faces aren’t the result of their genders and sexualities. In an era of vicious transphobia, of moral panics about queer “grooming”, and of horrific violence against queer communities such as the Pulse nightclub massacre, it is an appealing fantasy. It’s no wonder the show has connected so powerfully with many viewers, as you can see by dipping into the passionate fan communities that have sprung up around it.
People have long dreamed of and imagined queer utopias at sea, putting Our Flag into a lineage that stretches back at least as early as the golden age of piracy itself. As the scholar Hans Turley showed in his queer studies classic Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash (1991), people in the eighteenth century used pirate stories to explore types of masculinity and masculine communities that violated all sorts of social norms. Pirates were the ultimate outsiders and rebels, and they broke all the rules of proper male behavior. They turned their backs on traditional marriage, conventional families, and the capitalist order. In pirate tales from this time, some corsairs are hypermasculine to the point of parody; some are dangerous sexual outlaws; and others pioneer radical alternative ways of living.
People have continued to explore masculinity through pirate stories, and some have gone in search of evidence of historical pirates who resemble those we meet in Our Flag. In his controversial Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, first published under a slightly different title in 1983, the historian B.R. Burg argued that the Caribbean buccaneers lived in an entirely homosexual community. These pirates were active in the Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Burg’s book claims that same-sex relationships were the norm among them. It is an intriguing argument, though there is scant evidence to support it, as Burg himself admits in the text.
For Burg, the buccaneers were a community of outcasts, the socially marginal, those left behind, the ostracized. They turned outlaw, creating a queer, all-male society free from the restrictive norms of their time. Published in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the book offers a fantasy of escape from government neglect, prejudice, and disease. A queer maritime utopia for Reagan-era America, Burg’s vision proved influential despite receiving some harsh criticism from other scholars. For example, Burg claims that his research inspired a well-known SNL sketch that explores the unorthodox desires of the men of the good ship The Raging Queen. (The sketch begins at 12:53 in the linked video).
The sea, sailors, and especially pirates have long been the objects of all sorts of dreams and fantasies. Many have imagined escaping the land to find gender and sexual utopias afloat. For example, the big-budget pornos Pirates XXX (2005) and Pirates 2: Stagnetti’s Revenge (2008) present the golden age of piracy as a garden of (very straight) carnal delights.
The sailor has had a powerful and enduring presence in queer cultures, and many artists have imagined welcoming queer communities at sea. Take the classic camp of the disco group the Village People, which at various points has featured both a sailor and an admiral in its rotating cast of stock macho and gay fantasy characters. Their 1979 hit “In the Navy” opens with the promise that the US Navy is a place to “find pleasure” and to “skin dive.” “Come and join your fellow man,” the song instructs; in the chorus, the group chants, “they want you / they want you.” I cannot recommend the music video highly enough (link to video). 1
Like Our Flag, the story the song tells is a sort of joyous fantasy. There are also real historical examples of life at sea providing safety and community for queer people. In their fascinating book Hello Sailor! (2003), Jo Stanley and Paul Baker explore the gay subculture that thrived on British passenger liners in the mid 20th century. By taking work on these ships, men were able–if only too briefly in many cases–to escape restrictive laws, government policies, and social attitudes on shore.
Our Flag Means Death has given us queer pirates for a new generation. It fits into a long line of sea stories that explore gender and sexual difference, and its utopian vision of tolerance has many precedents–from stories about the “lesbian” pirate queens Mary Read and Anne Bonny to Burg’s gay buccaneers. But it is a queer maritime utopia for 2022, for the era of a new lavender scare, of senators and supreme court justices fantasizing about recriminalizing queer sex, of an epidemic response that eerily echoes the early years of AIDS. People have often fantasized of taking to the waves and turning corsair to escape their troubled times. In Our Flag, we have a powerful new dream of a queer utopia at sea.