My name is Sacha and I am a mermaid fanatic.
So much so, I’ve literally made part of my career about hunting mermaids.
Just to be clear I do not live as a mermaid, unlike some Instagram folk I’ve come across who swim around with a fishtail.
Nor do I spend my life bedecked in seashell bras lounging on rocks! Though that’s a shame.
I am instead obsessed with mermaids in popular culture. The perfect example? I literally screamed at the screen when a mermaid costume task featured on the last season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
And the real reason I am infatuated with these sirens of the sea is down to my job. I’m the Community Participation Producer at the National Maritime Museum in London.
And my obsession with mermaids extends beyond the creature. I believe they deserve a space on the queer mantelpiece alongside the rainbow flag, and maybe even Unicorns too…
How I became a mermaid hunter
I am lucky to work in a museum, devoted to the sea, surrounded by incredible collections, artifacts, and paintings with mermaids everywhere. But the real privilege of my job is finding ways to connect diverse groups of people today with their heritage in the past.
The symbol has always appealed to me. I grew up with stories of selkies at bedtime and watching Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ until the VHS wore out.
Then as a nerdy gay teenager, these mythical creatures continued their powerful appeal. But one, that I couldn’t put my finger on.
It is an interest has grown into a full-fledged obsession. Especially since I began exploring hidden queer stories behind merfolk from an LGBTI perspective.
All of this began when I found myself thinking about how mermaids seem incredibly popular within my own circle of friends.
Just spend a few minutes on Tumblr and you’ll find that mermaid themed hair, t-shirts, theme parties, Starbucks coffees, drag, and sing-alongs are all hugely popular with adult gay men.
Turns out this obsession is not just popular among gay men. There is lesbian mermaid poetry, queer merman erotica, gender-flipped ‘Little Mermaid’ YouTube parodies and queer feminist mermaid folklore analyses.
It is actually an obsession ubiquitous to the whole LGBTI community.
The cogs in my brain went into overload. I began wondering why mermaids are so popular with LGBTI people today?
A brief queer history of mermaids
One of the most famous stories about mermaids in the western world is ‘The Little Mermaid.’ But it wasn’t originally by Disney, it was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.
Hans’s love letters have led many historians to believe he was biromantic.
One of he mentioned a stong affection for often was Edvard Collin.
The two exchanged letters, with Hans telling Collin: ‘I long for you as though you were a beautiful Calabrian girl’.
But in a tragic twist, Hans only wrote the original version of his classic fairytale, after finding out that Edvard was marrying a woman.
Hans’s original is a much darker tale than the later Disney adaptation. The half-formed protagonist with a doomed voiceless love and enough pain and heartbreak to shake a trident at – it’s easy to see parallels to what happened in his life.
And Disney’s seemingly happy ending that is given to Ariel masks another painful queer story.
The writer of much of the music for the film was Howard Ashman, a gay man who whilst working on the film was diagnosed with HIV. He sadly died before finishing his work on ‘Beauty and The Beast’.
Songs such as ‘Part of Your World’ an ode to misfits the world over, and the character Ursula the sea witch, who was based on drag queen Divine, owe their existence to this incredible man.
The Little Mermaid is queer on so many levels
Many queer artists have resonated with the story that expresses forbidden same-sex love.
Evelyn DeMorgan’s painting The Sea Maidens, currently on display in the Queen’s House, where the artist depicts her beloved model Jane Hales over and over again as sensuous mermaids languishing over each other is a perfect example.
As is Oscar Wilde’s own equally tragic response to this story ‘The Fisherman And His Soul’.
To celebrate this hidden history just before Pride this year we ran a drag-filled screening of ‘The Little Mermaid’ as part of a queer takeover of the Museum called ‘Fish Out Of Water’ during Pride in London.
The event sold out and was so successful that we are looking to do future screenings of popular films that connect with our collections in the future, to draw out further stories of people from across the full spectrum of sexual and gender identities.
Trans identities and their link to mermaids
And now, in the 21st century, the mermaid has become the namesake for ‘Mermaids UK’ a major transgender youth network in the UK.
For the past 3 years, I have been working with a group of young people from this network to produce a new piece of art for the gallery at the National Maritime Museum.
One of the parents says mermaids are the perfect symbol for the charity because many young gender-fluid children latch onto stories of mermaids. Partly because they can transform and their gender is not related to external biological sex.
Another mum says her trans daughter who uses the charity, says its because ‘mermaids don’t have obvious genders.’
The finished artwork is a reinterpretation of a merperson with elements from the mythology of sea-dwelling beings with a powerful gender-fluid twist.
Check back soon as it will be on display in the National Maritime Museum’s new permanent gallery ‘Sea Things’ opening 20 September 2018.
Embrace your inner merperson
So there you have it, mermaids, mermen, and merfolk have a legacy that stretches around the world and throughout history. And it’s all super queer.
Mermaids are creatures that can change form, they are part of another world, they are beautiful, powerful and sometimes even dangerous.
They also bring stories to light from across the full spectrum of queer identities.
So next time you stick on some fake scales for a party or think of wearing a revealing Aquaman outfit for Halloween, take a moment to consider the powerful queer legacy that you are part of.
And then, like I do every day, embrace your inner merperson!
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