On Board with Queer Labor and Racial Solidarity
The Marine Cooks and Stewards Association of the Pacific (MCS) was organized to improve conditions for low-status workers on ocean liners, writes Aaron S. Lecklider in Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture. But MCS quickly became an all-White union that sought to exclude Asian workers from the maritime workplace. Those restrictions extended to Black workers, making it “one of the most doggedly Jim Crow unions of the early 20th century.”
When the Colored Marine Employees Beneficial Association of the Pacific (CMBA), was formed to improve conditions for Black workers, it competed with MCS for maritime jobs until 1934, when the two unions joined forces and merged. By the 1940s, the new MCS was under Black leadership and proudly flouting the repressive mainstream values of its era. Influenced by the vibrant subculture and militant deviant politics of San Francisco’s waterfront, MCS was notable for promoting racial solidarity, and dignity and equality for gay workers.
Following its reorganization in 1934, the MCS began a slow, painful transformation into one of the most progressive labor unions in the United States. Leftists gained control of the union’s leadership after 1935, mirroring a hard-left turn in American political culture and the labor movement more generally following the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the same year. Though they did not change the culture of the union immediately, radicals in the MCS pushed against the racism that stained its history. “Gradually, as Communists became the leading force in the union,” Bruce Nelson notes, “the MCS began admitting nonwhites,” and by “1950 the membership was approximately one-third white and 45 to 50% black, with the remaining 15 to 20% drawn from other minorities.”
Revels Cayton, a radical Black labor activist, was elected as the MCS’s representative to the Maritime Federation of the Pacific Coast—an organization founded in the wake of the 1934 strikes to bring together various maritime unions—alongside a leftist slate of candidates in 1937, ushering in a period of progressive politics for the MCS that brought it into closer alignment with the Communist Party. By the 1940s, the rank and file had elected many Communist leaders, and the union was positioned on the front lines of radical race, class, and sexual politics. It amended its constitution to ban racist hiring practices, aligned closely with other radicals seeking social transformation, and positioned itself at the vanguard of union-building efforts that advanced greater gender equality in the maritime industries.
Black leaders such as Cayton, a straight Communist who was also a vocal champion of gay MCS members, became notable spokespeople for antiracism, mobilizing members to see racism as a singular obstacle to working-class revolution and opening up the union to articulate a broader platform of resistance to various forms of hatred and bigotry. The MCS developed a reputation for attracting members whose transgressions crossed racial, political, and sexual boundaries. “On the San Francisco waterfront in 1941,” one member recalled, “the word was that the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union was a third red, a third black, and a third queer.” Those categories sometimes overlapped: gay Black Communists joined the union, and members marginalized from normative strains in American society were often among the most militant. This is not to suggest that the union dispatched its entire racist history. In fact, many of the most desirable union jobs continued to go to white workers even during the union’s most radical period. Yet the perception that the union was deviating from stifling normativity in American society shaped the perspective of its members regardless of whether they themselves belonged to marginalized groups.
Stephen Blair, a gay radical MCS member in the 1940s, recalled the taunting by longshoremen that sometimes greeted cooks and stewards upon arriving back in port. “You should’ve heard them,” Blair recalled of one hostile reception after returning to the shore following a stint at sea; “they were like animals, the sons of bitches.” The cries Blair heard harked back to deep strains of American violence that touched on each of the associations drawn with the MCS: “Lynch the sons of bitches! Kill those commie cocksuckers! Look at that fruit!” Racial, sexual, and political violence represented interwoven strands of rage that the MCS marshaled by developing radical policies, advocating militant politics, and acknowledging the multiple prongs of oppression confronting its membership. The union also invited these epithets by resisting racism, refusing to condemn its homosexual members, and aligning itself with Communists. The tendency of members to associate with the dispossessed rather than aspiring to respectability suggests how tightly deviant politics were stitched into the fabric of the union’s culture.
The racial politics of labor further infected the culture of the MCS in ways that amplified the union’s queer dimensions.
The labor movement had long maintained silence on matters concerning homosexuality, instead focusing energy on workplace matters that especially foregrounded salary, benefits, inequality, and safety issues. The MCS was unexceptional in this regard. Even though the union attracted a sizable gay membership and quietly sanctioned same-sex intimacy on the boats where these workers spent long periods at sea, homosexuality was not typically addressed in public. Instead, sexual dissidents affected the MCS in two key ways. First, members of the MCS who were attracted to the progressive politics within the union repurposed its radical rhetoric to address homosexuality, especially claiming the language of dignity and equality to advance positions advantaging gay members. These efforts in turn precipitated representations of homosexuality within the MCS that pitted less-radical unionists against their militant comrades, in the process bringing to the forefront sexual dimensions of labor that might otherwise have been foreclosed. Second, the open secret of MCS sexual dissidence opened the union to incorporating queer representations into the vernacular graphics of the union. MCS radicals produced representations of same-sex intimacy that o set depictions of proletarian perversion.
The National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards was sometimes referred to as “Marine Cocksuckers and Fruits” by its own members—a campy play on the union’s name that highlighted the sexual behaviors (“cocksuckers”) and subcultural communities (“fruits”) that were trademarks of the maritime workers. The fact that the MCS was based in San Francisco added to its queer flavor: the free availability of sex brought throngs of homosexual workers to the Bay Area, many of whom found work on the city’s thriving waterfront. As a port city with a sizable working-class population, San Francisco housed a vibrant leftist community that was particularly centered in the maritime trades. Though it was not the radical center that New York became in the 1930s, San Francisco hosted a series of important Communist-led general strikes in 1935 that offered a model for the nation’s radicalizing labor movement, and its working-class communities were known nationally for their leftist bent.
Though the MCS primarily organized men, the vigorous masculinity that was a hallmark of longshoremen was less instrumental to the work of cooks and stewards on boats departing from the Bay Area. The familiar history of gay men working in “feminine” jobs such as waiting tables, cooking, and cleaning was repeated on ocean liners, where cooks and stewards worked alongside ship mechanics and crews. When MCS efforts to secure women’s employment on ocean liners achieved greater success in the 1940s, women and men were revealed to possess similar abilities in occupations that became associated with an uncharacteristically visible gender neutrality.
The cramped sleeping quarters and pockets of privacy at sea also facilitated erotic intimacies. Whereas workers in most industries had to negotiate daily between their work and domestic lives, ocean liners required laborers to spend extended periods at sea, where they lived among their fellow workers. As Nayan Shah has described in a different context, homosocial labor that collapsed workplace and living quarters produced a form of intimacy that incubated sexual dissidence. The unavailability of a range of normative sexual outlets on ocean liners facilitated sexual contact between male workers and introduced a specter of homosexuality that permeated the culture on ships.
Historians Jo Stanley and Paul Baker write that “for gay seafarers in the mid-20th century such vessels were one of the only places where they could be open about their homosexuality.” Even on land, the argot of homosexual “cruising” tacitly acknowledged the quasi-utopian space for developing same-sex intimacy in seafaring culture. “Hello, sailor” became a recognizable camp entrée both on- and off- shore, turning on the open secret that men resorted to, or took advantage of the relaxed prohibitions on, same-sex intimacy during lengthy bouts at sea. Though sexual liaisons between men were often dismissed as situational, they also pushed against sexual identities that demanded a homo/hetero binary. The pressure to find sexual partners on boats created a curious form of visibility for those who sought to make their sexual availability known, effectively shifting the coded performances governing everyday life once a ship departed from shore. Ocean liners represented spaces where rules for sexual contact were rewritten even when homosexuality was officially prohibited, and homosexual contact was widely available to those who sought sex between men.
The racial politics of labor further infected the culture of the MCS in ways that amplified the union’s queer dimensions. Black workers in San Francisco were increasingly organized between 1920 and 1940. Los Angeles eclipsed San Francisco as home to California’s largest Black population, still relatively small by national standards, but a rich history of cultivating Black institutions and progressive race politics shaped the Bay Area’s political and cultural landscape. San Francisco became especially amenable to the wave of Black radicalism sweeping across the United States in the early decades of the 20th century. The formation of the CMBA had represented an important moment when Black workers organized to compete with white unions. By the 1920s, both the NAACP and the Universal Negro Improvement Association had San Francisco branches, and the Communist Party had a growing presence in Black neighborhoods. As in most American cities, Black San Franciscans were disproportionately poor and working-class. Consequently, they were particularly drawn to movements calling for racial and economic justice. Left-wing political parties and radical labor unions appealed to Black residents who were shut out of mainstream unions and liberal political organizations that discouraged Black workers from joining their ranks. The Communist Party’s outspoken antiracism spoke directly to Black workers.
The overlapping realities of Black, gay, and radical San Francisco converged in the post-1934 MCS. Drawing on his deep knowledge of the Black organizing and radical labor movement, Revels Cayton articulated an explicit form of deviant politics. “If you let them red-bait,” Cayton recalled, “they’ll race bait, and if you let them race-bait, they’ll queen-bait. These are all connected, and that’s why we have to stick together.” Paul Brownlee, an MCS worker, further articulated the stakes of deviant politics: “If you were in the Marine Cooks and Stewards, you were automatically gay. So fuck you!—we didn’t pay any attention to that.”
The deviant practices of interracial organizing, Communist association, and homosexual intimacy marginalized MCS workers to such a degree that respectability was hardly operative, impelling a movement toward militancy that capitalized on the organizing potential of dispossession. “Merchant seamen were considered trash! We were considered outcasts,” Stephen Blair recalled. The MCS “was a place where you lifted your head out of that sewer and said, God, I can make it this day.”
This excerpt from Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture by Aaron S. Lecklider (University of California Press, 2021) appears with permission of the publisher.
Aaron S. Lecklider is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture.