Pride, not prejudice: The process of accepting LGBTQ individuals onboard

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) agendas and strategies are a rising trend within the maritime industry in its effort to be more sustainable. But does the maritime industry truly embrace diversity? What happens regarding sexuality and gender?

LGBTQ: Not just a sequence of letters

LGBTQ is an acronym used to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. Other terms may also be used, such as LGBTQIA+, which also includes intersex and asexual people. In this article, the term LGBTQ refers to the entire community.

LGBTQ individuals have been trying to earn their rightful place in society for years. Until recently, being gay or identifying as any other gender than the biological was considered taboo by most societies, frowned upon, and even illegal.

Alas, things are changing for the better, and queer people are earning their rights.

International organisations and corporations are generally supportive. However, acceptance greatly varies in different regions and workplaces. While some have made significant progress in LGBTQ rights, others still maintain discriminatory attitudes towards the community.

Sadly, there is also the “rainbow capitalism” phenomenon, largely condemned by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) where corporations pretend to be LGBTQ friendly while fostering oppressive and discriminatory practices within their organization or having financial relations with other organizations that do so.

Diversity onboard

The maritime industry, due to its very global nature, has always been diverse. People from all corners of the world with various beliefs have been working side by side to move goods through the seas for centuries. Alas, achieving the meaning of diversity is not as simple as that.

There is no such thing as selective diversity. True diversity also means inclusion and equity, as the three are woven together. For instance, a diverse crew could not only consist of different races but also different genders.

Diversity in the industry goes beyond just having individuals from different backgrounds. It requires creating an environment where everyone feels valued and has equal opportunities for growth and advancement.

LGBT+ maritime professionals face specific concerns in the shipping industry, and raising the issues is about protecting the rights of all seafarers. It is about enabling LGBT+ maritime professionals to work without fear of discrimination or ill treatment and ensuring they can be their genuine selves at work.

… said Nautilus official Danny McGowan, who is also secretary of the Union’s Equality and Diversity Forum and chair of the Maritime UK Pride in Maritime Network.

This includes promoting gender equality and ensuring that all voices are heard and respected, regardless of their race, gender, or any other characteristic. Ultimately, true diversity is about embracing and celebrating the unique perspectives and contributions of every individual in the industry.

Why protecting LGBTQ individuals is crucial

The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) has released data indicating a significant rise in the number of seafarers reporting instances of abuse, bullying, harassment, or discrimination.

According to the data, during the first quarter of 2023, there was an alarming surge of nearly 50% in such reports compared to the previous quarter.

This concerning trend sheds light on the challenges faced by seafarers and highlights the urgent need for improved welfare and support within the maritime industry.

We have had several calls from people talking about their struggles with identity and love. We’ve been able to help seafarers with discrimination, sexism, harassment and humiliation

… had stated Charles Watkins, a clinical psychologist and managing director of Mental Health Support Solutions (MHSS)

Prolonged exposure to bullying and harassment can be extremely detrimental to an individual’s mental health. What may seem like harmless jokes to some, may be deeply hurtful to others.

Bullying and harassment, combined with the feeling of isolation seafarers often experience, can lead individuals to feel excluded, desperate, and even hurt themselves.

DEI policies and agendas

Management that is LGBT-friendly is critical to building an inclusive and tolerant work environment. It not only encourages diversity and equality, but it also helps recruit and retain LGBTQ individuals.

If you have support from management, it doesn’t matter what people say, even if you have a few idiotic colleagues. It makes you a lot stronger and you can relax

… said Thomas Lindegaard Madsen, captain at Maersk and member of the LGBTQ community, during an interview.

Furthermore, enacting rules that protect LGBT workers from discrimination and offering tools such as employee resource groups may help improve their well-being and professional development.

Management both onshore and onboard should have clear principles where any instance of discrimination against LGBTQ individuals will not go unpunished. In addition, management should find ways to ensure that all people onboard, not just officers, are able to report misconduct.

Another strong incentive for companies to adopt such policies is recruiting and retaining seafarers. Younger generations are generally more open about their sexuality, and finding a workplace where they will be accepted instead of discriminated against is a bonus.

Fostering a culture of acceptance for all could help low staffing levels and reshape the image of shipping.

#2 Initiatives that support LGBTQ seafarers

First of all, launched in 2022, Pride in Maritime Day is an interesting initiative driven by the Pride in Maritime Network, a network established within Maritime UK’s Diversity in Maritime programme.

The Pride in Maritime Network was launched in May 2020. The aims of the network include:

  • To help identify barriers to change across the LGBT+ maritime community and where working groups should be focusing efforts
  • To ensure that the network consider the whole of the “maritime” sector – comprising shipping, ports, professional services, engineering & science and leisure marine
  • To educate and enable individuals and companies to embrace, empower, and support the LGBTQ community
  • To share resources, good practise policies, and toolkits that support the LGBTQ community across the sector.

To mark the first Pride in Maritime Day in 2022, ISWAN’s team in the Philippines asked three Filipino seafarers to speak about their experiences of working at sea as members of the LGBTQ community. ISWAN then published the following video:

Furthermore, the Human Rights at Sea charity has pledged to fight for LGBTQ rights to ensure equal treatment and protection and to create a safe, inclusive work environment where LGBTQ individuals can work without fear of discrimination or harassment.

The Seafarers’ Charity remains committed to equity, equality, diversity, and inclusion and has recently published a ‘Coming Out’ toolkit to support LGBTQ staff to disclose their gender and sexual identities.

Where we stand

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are matters to be taken seriously. The need for these three terms is rooted in the experiences of people whose psychological and physical well-being has been jeopardised over an extended period of time.

LGBTQ individuals are not exempt from this phenomenon. Unquestionably, in order for the maritime business to really demonstrate inclusivity, it should provide acceptance to all.

Breaking stereotypes and helping individuals overcome their bias not only helps said industry move forward on a macro level but also makes everyday lives better on a micro level.

As with many seafarers’ issues, solving them is not only a question of retention numbers and manning levels, but also, simply, the humane thing to do.


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