Championing inclusivity on high seas  

While the shipping industry has taken steps toward recognizing the dignity and equality of all individuals onboard, discrimination remains a reality. For years, LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual) seafarers have struggled to find acceptance and inclusivity. While some earn it effortlessly, others still face significant discrimination. 

Despite support from international organizations and corporations for LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, acceptance varies by region and workplace. In some parts of the world, being gay is still illegal, leading to persecution based on sexual orientation. Amid these challenges, Filipino seafarer Noel Tiania, a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community, remains true to himself. 

At sea, he proudly displays his true colors and finds relief and happiness in the positive reactions from his crewmates. The ship has become his platform for self-expression while performing his tasks as chief mate as efficiently as he can. Unlike many gay seafarers, Noel has encountered minimal discrimination from the diverse nationalities he works with on the ship. 

“I’ve been in several companies, and most of them impose a ‘no gender discrimination’ rule, which I appreciate and benefit from,” the 42-year-old Noel told Maritime Fairtrade. 

“I’m fortunate that I have never encountered discrimination,” he added. 

Chief mate Noel Tiania.

Driven by love and necessity 

Born in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, Noel graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in marine transportation from John B. Lacson Maritime University-Arevalo. 

As a young man, Noel never dreamed of working on a ship, but the years have shown that he hit dead center on a goal he was not aiming for. Like many Filipinos, his motivation to become a seafarer stemmed from the economic challenges his family faced. Noel’s father passed away when he was still very young. At a young age, he witnessed his mother’s sacrifices to maintain financial stability. 

“Seeing her make tough decisions for our sake drove me to pursue a career at sea, to secure a better future for myself and support my loved ones, especially my mom,” Noel recalled. 

“While I had other dreams for myself, our situation required me to consider the practical path. Over time, I have come to appreciate the maritime industry for its global opportunities, stable income, and the chance to build a successful career despite the risks and hardships,” Noel shared. 

Noel, who has navigated the high seas for almost two decades, began his seafaring journey at age 20 and became a junior third mate two years later. 

“I have served at least 11 shipping companies and worked with over 20 different nationalities,” he noted. Noel is currently onboard, fulfilling his vessel assignment with a Taiwan-based shipping company, represented locally by Crystal Shipping. 

Like many other Filipino seafarers, Noel chose to work at sea despite the challenges of spending long months in a dangerous and isolated environment, where homesickness is a constant struggle, because of the attractive salary it offers. This career, while initially a pragmatic choice, has become a passion, offering global opportunities, a stable income, and a platform for personal growth. 

Embracing identity at sea 

Noel defies stereotypes of gay seafarers by not cross-dressing, especially at work. Proudly part of the queer community, he is also a loving father to a six-year-old girl. His openness about his sexuality has been a hallmark of his career. 

“During my early years, I considered myself ‘refined’. I didn’t cross-dress, and my gestures were normal. I never exaggerated my gayness. I have never hidden the real me since the first day I stepped on the gangway. What you see is what you get,” he shared. 

Despite the potential for prejudice, Noel has maintained a clear boundary between humor and insult, ensuring respect from his peers. 

“The crew hesitated to make fun of me because I drew the line between what’s funny and what’s insulting. Even now, people will make fun of or insult you only as much as you let them,” he emphasized. 

Noel said his experiences at sea have been as ordinary as those of his straight counterparts, though proving himself daily remains a challenge, “especially when everyone is waiting for you to mess up,” he stressed. 

According to Noel, one positive side of being openly gay is that it brings laughter on board. “We lighten up the room with our jolly side, bringing laughter and color,” he said, though he admits it has been a struggle, particularly with managing hormones. 

As chief mate, Noel plays a crucial role in the safe and efficient operation of the vessel, maintaining high standards of seamanship, navigation, and safety while ensuring compliance with regulations and company policies. 

Noel at work with colleagues.

A life of authenticity 

The Philippines’ generally welcoming attitude toward LGBTQIA+ individuals has shielded Noel from significant discrimination. He realized that while initial impressions may be negative, his authenticity and professionalism often change minds. 

“There have been negative first impressions, but I manage to change minds once people get to know me. 

“As harsh as it may sound, stripes matter — each stripe gives you a title and respect. Everyone is accepted. I like to think that. However, not everyone has the power or privilege to be heard.”

Coming out gay 

Noel’s coming out to his family was a natural process. Unlike many other seafarers, his revelation that he is gay was free of drama and smoothly accepted by his loved ones. 

“On my part, there was no drama in coming out; it just happened naturally as I got older. My family accepted me as I am, making things easier,” Noel admitted. 

This acceptance has given him the confidence to live openly and authentically, without feeling the need to justify himself to others. 

Connecting and inspiring through vlogging  

Noel has also ventured into vlogging, sharing the unvarnished realities of life onboard. The content of his Facebook page, “Madam Chief”, with 56,000 followers as of this writing, includes the good, the bad, and the humorous aspects of seafaring, resonating with a wider audience. 

“I tell the real story of what happens onboard,” he said, emphasizing that none of his content is scripted or rehearsed. His vlogs have gained popularity, particularly among the families of seafarers, who gain a deeper understanding of their loved ones’ lives at sea. 

“My crewmates love it, especially the seafarers’ wives, who now appreciate their husbands more,” Noel happily shared. 

Building a community of ‘seafaries’ 

Noel’s journey is not one of solitude. He has two openly gay best friends, one an active chief officer and the other a maritime professor. Together, they support each other and seek to connect with other gay seafarers. There are a few of them on social media and they make an effort to virtually support each other. 

Through his other Facebook page, QATAW, Noel has begun to create a community of “seafairies”, fostering friendships and support networks.

“Fortunately, I got some responses, and we managed to meet over coffee and become good friends. We stay in touch, exchange ideas and experiences. I’m hopeful and looking forward to a much bigger crowd soon,” the seafairy said. 

While acknowledging that being openly gay in the maritime industry is still a challenge, Noel appreciates the inclusive policies of some shipping companies he works for. 

“Being accepted and respected proves that you’ve established your name as the person you want to be known for,” he said. 

Noel Tiania (in the middle).

Noel Tiania (second from left, front row).

Respecting the profession 

Noel believes in respecting the semi-military nature of his profession. While he is not against cross-dressing, he stressed that it should be done at the appropriate time and place. 

“What we do and wear off duty is our own business. You don’t see military or policewomen with fully decorated faces or wearing revealing outfits on the job. That’s how much they respect their profession,” said Noel. 

“We are in a unique profession, always striving for acceptance. We should always do our best to be noticed not for who we are but for what we can do and achieve,” he emphasized. 

Pride at sea 

Noel, with his passion and diligence, proves he can be both gentle and tough, consistently providing the best care for the crew onboard and navigating the ship to safety.

In celebration of Pride Month in June, Noel shared a message to inspire LGBTQIA+ individuals at sea. 

“Embrace your identity and recognize your extraordinary worth. Your presence in the maritime industry brings invaluable diversity and unique perspectives. Despite challenges, strive for excellence and advocate for inclusivity.” 

He added, “By being true to yourself and showcasing your talents, you contribute to creating a more welcoming and supportive environment for all. Your visibility and courage pave the way for a future where diversity is celebrated, and everyone can thrive. You are not just LGBTQ; you are extraordinary, and your contributions matter.” 

Noel even echoed his favorite quote by Ross Mathews, embodying the spirit of self-acceptance and pride: “Love yourself, whatever makes you different, and use it to make you stand out.”

All photos credit: Noel Tiania

Top photo: Noel Tiania, second from left.

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