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January Photo of the Month: Crossing the Line

January Photo of the Month: Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line is an ancient, sometimes brutal nautical ceremony commemorating crew members’ first passage over the equator. There are vivid descriptions of this rite dating back to the early 1800s. 

Sailors who’ve previously crossed the equator (Trusty Shellbacks) lead first-timers (Slimy Polywogs or Mossbacks) through an abusive initiation featuring cross-dressing, nude physical exams, shaving, water torture, and “Kissing the Royal Belly.” Rarely discussed are the obvious homoerotic and homophobic undertones to all this hilarity. 

On the eve of the crossing, Wogs are allowed to capture and interrogate any Shellbacks they can find, tying them up and cracking eggs over their heads. After crossing the equator, they receive subpoenas to appear before King Neptune and his court (including Davy Jones, the sailors’ devil and her Highness Amphitrite). They officiate at the ceremony, which is often preceded by a drag beauty contest. 

During the ritual, Pollywogs undergo increasingly embarrassing ordeals for the entertainment of the Shellbacks: wearing clothing inside out and backwards; crawling on hands and knees; being spanked or smacked with lengths of hose; being locked in stocks and pelted with mushy fruit; being locked in a water coffin; and crawling through tubs of rotting garbage. Fun!

The ritual calls for Polywogs to kneel before a Shellback who wears a mock diaper. This “Baby” usually has a big belly covered with grease, mustard, shaving cream or eggs, Each Wog must lick the Baby’s navel, while the Baby grabs and shakes his head smearing the goo on his face. 

If they make it through this ordeal, Wogs are transformed into Shellbacks and can inflict similar abuse on the next crew of newbies.

One of the few writers who address issues of homophobia and homoeroticism is Carie Little Hersh in: Crossing the Line: Sex, Power, Justice, and the U.S. Navy at the Equator.

See more photos from USS Black Hawk's Neptune Party, October 1930.

  • barry harrison

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