“I went to sea knowing I was gay… I thought that it (being gay) would go away at sea and I would get an education in becoming a ‘real’ man. It didn’t work out because I fell in love with my Chief Officer.” Captain Thomas, Maersk
In honor of gay pride month, in June, Thomas was interviewed by one of Denmark’s most-followed drag queens, cultural historian Anders Larsen, aka drag artist Chantal al Arab.
“In the beginning of my career I was very worried about my education and job situation,” says Thomas. “I could lose it all. Maybe my family would not take to me anymore. Maybe my company would sack me (for being gay).”
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
“Things have changed for LGBTI+ people (at Maersk) from my perspective,” said Captain Thomas. “But I am not sure how much things have changed in the big world of shipping.”
Here in the United States, the changes have been fast-paced as well. When I joined the US Merchant Marine a few decades ago there was no shortage of gay crew members aboard ships, but very few openly gay officers. One reason for the imbalance is that officer training is expensive and LGBTI+ students were prohibited from obtaining US Navy scholarships or attending the United States Merchant Marine Academy.
Prior to United States Defense Directive 1304.26, better known as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it was illegal for LGBT merchant marine cadets to apply for military scholarships. Even after President Clinton signed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 1994, gay men were investigated and discharged for even minor disclosures like kissing at a party or joining a gay chat group online.
“I dated the Chief Officer for 13 years. Now we have been married for ten,” says Thomas. “In the beginning, we thought we could hide our relationship but you can not hide something like that on a ship.”
LGBTI+ Role Models
“In recent years,” says Thomas. “I have been trying to show young people that it’s ok to be gay in the shipping industry.”
Today, a decade after Don’t Ask Don’t tell was fully repealed, the United States has many proud gay and lesbian captains in positions of high prestige and influence including Captain Peter Vecchio, Chairman of Marine Transportation at New York Maritime College, Captain James Zatwarnicki, Assistant Dean at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Alaska pilot Captain Jill Russell, and her cruise ship captain wife Marcella Branniff… to name just a few master mariners who publicly inspire LGBTI+ youth to join the merchant marine and work to become captains and chief engineers.
Today all maritime academies in the United States actively recruit LGB officer candidates, have resources and clubs for gay students, and actively celebrate pride events (but the future for transgender officer candidatesremains uncertain).
The depth and breadth of gay talent in today’s US Merchant Marine should not surprise anyone. What does surprise many, and fills me with hope and joy, is how much has changed for LGBTI+ officers in just the last ten years.
“In 2016 I walked in the gay pride parade,” says Thomas. “With my husband in my hand, the Maersk flag flying high overhead, and 400 Maersk employees behind us all dressed in gay pride t-shirts. It was fantastic.”
Captain Thomas is not American, he is a proud native of Denmark, but he is a role model for today’s future mariners across the globe. Homemade posters of him are pinned up in many international maritime academy dorm rooms and even, I have been told, at the historically conservative US Naval Academy in Annapolis. His Instagram account has 57,000 followers making him the second most followed ship captain in the world, just behind his good friend Captain Kate McCue.
What makes Captain Thomas unique, however, is not his relative fame, or sexual orientation, or his nationality, or the fact he’s a board member at one of the most respected shipping companies on the planet, Maersk. It is his bravery.
It takes bravery to open your personal life up to tens of thousands of followers and he does not hide from anything. In hundreds of posts and interviews, Thomas has provided countless insights into his personal and professional life. He talks with passion about opportunities – including new technology development, arctic navigation, his love of the sea, the shipping industry, and more – but most refreshing is his candor and openness in regard to being a happily married gay master mariner.
Why Social Media Pride Is Important To Thomas
“Yes, I talk to a lot of young people who are worried about coming out,” says Thomas. “They write me on social media saying they are young and sailing or would like to enter the maritime industry but are afraid. I try to advise them that, yes, it is possible to sail or do any job in the shipping industry if you are gay”
In addition to Lena Göthberg’s excellent interview with Captain Thomas (and her followup with Captains Kate and Thomas), today Denmark’s most famous mariner shared the most intimate account of his life to date. Hosted by cultural historian Anders Larsen – aka drag artist Chantal al Arab – it is the most intimate discussion of LGBTI+ life ever recorded with a ship Captain. This pride month interview is chock full of hope, inspiration, and inclusion at sea. Take a seat and listen:
For over half a decade Lena Gothberg’s Shipping Podcast has been the most downloaded and influential podcast in the maritime industry. Produced in Gothenburg, Sweden, the Shipping Podcast has interviewed...
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