Fear of discrimination and loss of jobs have forced gay seafarers to keep their homosexuality a secret when working onboard vessels. While it is still rare to find openly gay seafarers working on ships that ply the Seven Seas, a number of them have been coming out of the closet and they have proved themselves to be abled-bodied “sea fairies”.
One of them is 26-year-old Filipino seafarer Reymon “Rae” Laolao, who considers himself a proud member of the LGBT+ community and, since college, never felt the need to hide his true sexuality despite the discrimination he suffered because of it.
“When I was in college, I was fully aware that it’s more of a straight men-dominated school, but it never occurred to me to hide my true identity,” Laolao told the Maritime Fairtrade.
Rae is the youngest of eight children and worked while on scholarship for a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation at the University of Cebu – Maritime Education and Training Center.
He worked hard and even studied harder to fulfill his dream of seeing the world while providing for his family. “Now, I have been sailing worldwide,” Laolao said, declaring himself a certified “sea fairy.”
“I started sailing in 2015 onboard a container vessel to complete my shipboard training requirements. I can’t really say that it’s my dream. It just happened unexpectedly,” said Rae, who now tries to outdo straight men in competence and professionalism.
On a ship, Rae, an ordinary seaman, usually assists officers during cargo and mooring operations, performs watch-keeping duties, and executes orders from the chief officer on routine deck maintenance, among other tasks.
For seafarers, the only thing worse than the repetitive drudgery of their work is the boredom that comes when they are off-duty. To lighten his mood as well as those of his fellow crew members, Laolao said he takes it as his duty to entertain his crewmates.
“LGBT seafarers are really game-changers onboard a ship,” he said. “Aside from being flexible in work, we give color and lighten up the moods of our colleagues, especially when they feel homesick or exhausted after work.”
“We provide them entertainment so they can release all the stress and put a smile on their faces,” he added.
A taste of discrimination
But being a sea fairy is not always fun and games. It is a very macho job, and Laolo admitted that it was a big challenge for him during his first year to keep up with straight colleagues who performed tough tasks, and expected you to be able to do the same, but did not give you the training that you needed.
“The main challenge is working on certain jobs that you haven’t done before. It is highly recommended to seek advice from superiors and senior colleagues about the job. Following company procedures and manuals can be beneficial too,” Laolao said.
Like many LGBT seafarers, he also experienced gender inequality in task distribution that, he felt, deprived him of training and experience in performing tasks what would be considered elsewhere as ordinary.
“Before, they always gave me light jobs only, like cleaning and organizing things, because they thought I couldn’t handle other jobs,” Laolao said.
But Rae did not allow the discrimination to discourage him or lead him to think about quitting his career at sea. Instead, he used that experience for inspiration to work harder and prove his worth.
He is his family’s breadwinner and his intense desire to provide for them, along with the work ethic deep-coded in most Filipinos, motivated him to continue struggling until his colleagues recognized his abilities and gave him his fair due.
Sea fairies will overcome difficulties
Homophobia still dominates the maritime industry, but there is now a growing number of shipowners and officers who do not mind having (or maybe even want) a sea fairy as part of the crew.
Rae is happy that his crewmates and superior officers now look beyond his sexuality and recognize his competence and professionalism.
“I have sailed four ships already and am now on my fifth, onboard a bulk cargo ship on our way to India,” Laolao said during the interview. “So far, my colleagues are great. They accept me for who I am, and most importantly they show respect.”
Rae, maybe a little too exuberant but he is a hopeless optimist, keeps his focus on achieving his goals. “I know challenges and difficulties are all part of my journey, but I always see to it that I keep going,” he said.
When things get tough, “I motivate myself. I have goals in my life, such as career growth and becoming financially free. I just started climbing up the ladder and I know I’ll get there soon,” the young seafarer added.
Seafaring contracts may have become difficult for many sailors regardless of gender, but Laolao said patience, determination and perseverance will help you stay afloat in the industry.
“We’re not born perfect, there is always room for improvement,” he said, exhorting aspiring seafarers to “strive for progress and not perfection.”
On his Facebook page, Rae has posted photos of himself along with crewmates smiling at his antics. On Mother’s Day, he also posted a video of himself sashaying through a ship gangway in women’s high heels and waving a rainbow flag to the tune of Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent.”
“To my fellow LGBT members who are aspiring to become ‘sea fairies,’ know that being a seafarer is not just for straight men. Do not be afraid to show your talents, skills, and abilities. It’s about time to show what we’ve got.”
Photo credit: iStock/Mongkolchon Akesin