"The ocean is everything

I want to be,

Beautiful, mysterious,

Wild and free."


Queer Twist on Mermaids

Sacha Coward is the Community Participation Producer at Royal Museums Greenwich. His passion is working with the LGBTQ community and finding stories that connect gender and sexuality within museum collections. Sacha enjoys discussing mythical creatures in art and the queer community. Here are some of his thoughts on the subject.

Over the past year, I have developed a strange new obsession with mermaids. This has taken me from talking at the British Museum for LGBTQ history month, to running a drag-filled screening of The Little Mermaid at the National Maritime Museum! I am not a curator or an art historian. If anything I would like to call myself a "Mermaid Hunter". I would like to tell you a little about what this means and why mermaids are such a powerful symbol for the queer community.


I work at Royal Museums Greenwich as the Community Participation Producer, meaning I am constantly coming into contact with depictions of the sea and mythical creatures. Mermaids, in particular, are a veritable plague among our collections: Naiads and Oceanids swarm over maps, sea nymphs hide in the background of portraits and muscular tritons herald naval victories. These figures symbolize all kinds of things depending on the context, from the sexual frustrations of sailors at sea to the dangers of the ocean and the ‘otherness’ of unexplored territories. Recently I have been looking at them from a particularly personal perspective: what do they mean for the LGBTQ community?


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While there is a childhood fascination with mythical creatures among many of us, I have spotted a trend in the LGBTQ community towards mythical and hybrid creatures. Young queer youth proudly wear mermaid hair and unicorn t-shirts. Instagram and Tumblr are full of gay men and women posing in rainbow-scaled regalia and life-size fish-tails. Yet while my interest was piqued by this projection in contemporary queer popular culture, it wasn’t until working with the transgender youth network Mermaids UK, on a project for a new gallery, that I truly became fascinated.


Having spoken to parents and their kids who are part of Mermaids UK, they said that the mythological figures are a powerful symbol for them and the trans community because of their ability to transform, and because their physical genitalia are not visible and so irrelevant to their gender. Since then, I’ve fallen into a mermaid-queer-history vortex!

The reference that most of us have grown up with regarding mermaids is Hans Christian Anderson’s story "The Little Mermaid" (1837). This, and the later Disney film, has hugely influenced our image of mermaids. It’s worth remembering that the original story is not a happy tale. The little mermaid has her tongue cut out of her mouth, her legs are cursed so every step she takes is like treading on glass and, at the end, she doesn’t get the prince but is transformed into sea foam.


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It is also a deeply queer story. When Hans Christian Anderson wrote "The Little Mermaid" he himself had been unlucky in love, having been rejected by Edvard Collin. Anderson had written detailed love letters to Collin, with passages such as ‘I long for you as though you were a beautiful Callibrian girl’. After being rejected by another man, Anderson’s response was to write "The Little Mermaid" while secluded on an island. So, this classic tale was inspired by an unrequited same-sex love story.

This story has since been identified with by a number of known queer artists and writers. Oscar Wilde wrote "The Fisherman’s Soul" in response to "The Little Mermaid." Artist Evelyn De Morgan used the story as inspiration to paint "The Sea Maidens" (which can be seen at The Queen’s House in Greenwich). This depicts multiple versions of her love interest Jane Hales languishing as identical sensuous mermaids. So it seems the modern-day queer icon of the mermaid has a very queer pedigree.


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Mermaid Melissa: Swimming With Dolphins

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Intergalactic Lesbian Mermaids

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This story was made even more commercial and world-renowned in 1989 with the release of the Walt Disney adaptation of "The Little Mermaid." While the film gives Ariel both a name and a happy ending, it is worth noting that even here we see a strong queer influence. Howard Ashman wrote the songs for The Little Mermaid, including the hauntingly lonely Part of Your World. He later was diagnosed of HIV and tragically passed away while working on Disney’s follow-up "Beauty and The Beast," which includes an epitaph crediting him as the man ‘who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul’.

Nowadays mermaids, unicorns and fairies appear at Pride parades around the world and even as episode themes in "RuPaul’s Drag Race." Like rainbows and unicorns, mermaids are synonymous with the LGBTQ community. But if you look deeper you can see that this connection is more than one of mere association. Mermaids have a queer history, and that is no fairy tale!

[Source: Sacha Coward, Royal Museums Greenwich, Aug 2018]


Lesbian Mermaids at Play


Amar Vale A Pena

O Amor De Aninha E Cacau

Amar, Beijar E Curtir

Um Novo Amor

Dia De Sol Na Cachoeira

Uma Linda Historia De Amor

Um Amor De Verao



Under the Sea


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Multilesbian: Touch

Cosmopolitan Lesbian Erotica: Confessions of a Kinky Divorcee
Talk Dirty to Me: Collection of Lesbian Short Stories
Multifemlash: Good Girls

Cara Sutra: Girl Date

Canção De Amor Sem Nome

Cosmopolitan Lesbian Erotica: Meeting Annie
No Guilt Hotel: Lesbian Erotica

Multifemlash: Into You

Cara Sutra: Sapphic Fantasies
Nifty: Erotic Lesbian Stories
Late Life Lesbians: Our Stories

Multilesbian: You're Everything

Steamy Erotic Stories Written by Women






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Imagining the Modern Mermaid

Joni Mitchell and the Mermaid Cafe



"She would be half the world away,

floating in a turquoise sea,

dancing by the moonlight."
-Janet Fitch


Mermaids in Art

and the Queer Community

Certainly images of unicorns and mermaids are very prevalent in pop culture. But at various points these creatures have held different meanings. The unicorn can be a symbol of chastity and innocence, or can be used as a euphemism for something difficult to find.


Mermaids, too, can hold complex meanings in art and literature. They can be portrayed as beautiful creatures of the sea or as sirens leading sailors to their death – lovely and dangerous all at once. There’s a dichotomy there that’s reflected most obviously in their half-fish, half-human appearance.

It’s worth mentioning that there’s a charity in the UK named "Mermaid," that works to support transgender and gender non-conforming young people, which really speaks to the power of the mermaid symbol in the LGBTQ community.

There even exists a "Lesbian Mermaid" flag, a symbol of pride for lesbians who celebrate feminine power, an adventurous attitude, a rebellious spirit, and ferocious independence. Despite decades of oppression, she still persists. She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink.



Outside of mermaids, I was curious to find out about other mythical creatures that have found a home in the community. In particular, the unicorn has become increasingly popular and often, where you find a unicorn, you’ll find a rainbow – another strong queer symbol.


Sacha Coward has said, "A lot of my queer friends will describe themselves as unicorns. There’s even a whole cultural subset of people that wear rainbow unicorn horns. Then you’ve got fairies and the fact that fairy is a British slur against gay people, and we’ve taken that back. Then you have the whole thing with Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. The high camp, high color, and the fact that we will often refer to other gay people as a Friend of Dorothy.


It’s not only about the colorful and whimsical nature of some of these creatures, it’s also that they blur the lines of what’s considered normal. The great thing about things like mermaids and fairies is they take features of one creature and mix them with another, and they break the rules of what an animal should look like, and in the same sense, the rules of how men and anyone should behave.

[Source: Ferren Gipson, Art Matters, Aug 2018]


Lesbians in Love


Aida & Alba

Manuela & Nina

Pink & Mari

Gia & Linda

Zarah & Jenny

Flor & Jaz

Alice & Nat

Mariah & Tessa

Sara & Lexus

Tina & Bette

Zoe & Mal

Lou & Kenna

Frankie & Nicolette

Raquel & Malu

Magda & Nina

Samantha & Taylor

Iris & Mardou

Lorena & Flor

Valentina & Juliana

Dana &Alice

Izzy & Emma

Natalia and Majka

Mel & Liz

Catia & Suzana



The Gloaming

The Gloaming, by acclaimed Scottish novelist Kirsty Logan, begins with jellyfish washing up near a cliff by the sea, on an island where the residents die slow deaths by turning to stone. It’s a sad, strange and beautiful scene, just one of many sprinkled throughout this novel.

Our protagonist is Mara, who falls in love with Pearl, who is a selkie or a mermaid or perhaps neither? Myth and metaphor wind around one another, the author weaving multiple fairytales together to create one of her own. Nothing is quite as it seems in this book. All of this is set against the backdrop of an island with “dark, tarry magic” and the tragic loss of the protagonist’s little brother who was swept out to sea. The novel follows Mara and her family as they try to move through their grief, living their lives amidst the push and pull of the island.

It’s up to the reader to decide, in many places, how much of the island’s magic is real and how much is not. In that sense, The Gloaming is an excellent example of magical realism.


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Korean Mermaids

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Stella the Siren: Real Life Mermaid

Watch Real Mermaids Swimming

Mermaid Melissa: Swimming With Dolphins

Stella the Siren: Do You Believe in Mermaids?

Intergalactic Lesbian Mermaids

Natural History and Cladistics of the Lesbian

Mermaid Aesthetic: Arts, Images, Tattoos


It’s also a beautifully written book. The island is painted so vividly it’s not hard to see how Mara and her family are drawn to it. Sentences flow like poetry (or dare I say, like water) with such careful, well-chosen language it’s easy to get swept up in it.

The novel asks big questions about grief and love and family, and answers them by waving its arms in wide, sweeping arcs. True to its title, The Gloaming is shadowy and mysterious and leaves much unsaid. Instead it asks its readers to read between the lines – there are leaps in time, flashes backwards and forwards, conversations we aren’t fully privy to. The plot meanders through at a leisurely pace, with all of the focus being on simply exploring the characters the story presents to us.


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Mermaids and Lesbians

That lack of clarity might be frustrating for some, but it fits with the central themes of the novel rather well. The overwhelming confusion of loss; the sharp pain of hope; half-forgotten stories of childhood; a yearning to be somewhere else but not being quite sure where that somewhere else is. Mara’s queerness melds naturally into these themes, but we skirt around the edges of the harder truths of coming out in a small community. The reluctance to be affectionate with Pearl in front of her family is just barely addressed, for example, and we rarely see the world or anyone in it outside of the main characters.

That said, Mara and Pearl’s relationship is only a fraction of the novel. It’s not a romance, so much as a fantasy that threads romance throughout it. Each member of Mara’s family is fleshed-out and we get to peek inside all of their heads, with every familial relationship explored. Signe and Peter, the parents, are delightful to read about. We spend a lot of time with Mara, who, like the “changeling” motif she is associated with, is seen so differently by so many. She’s brave, sensitive, sad, loving, angry and self-conscious all at once. Ultimately, she’s a fascinating protagonist.

Motifs are everywhere: water, stone, time, death, wind, air. It’s very much a modern-day fairytale that pays homage to the centuries of fairytales that preceded it.

If you’re looking for a story that’s purely about romance, The Gloaming might not be for you. However, if you want to read a haunting fantasy that happens to have a queer romance, this is a great book to dive into.


[Source: The Lesbrary Review, Aug 2019]

MERMAID TAVERN  Creative Project of the Queer Cafe | Q 2020