‘Our Flag Means Death’ and the Importance of Clear Queerness

The pirate’s life is a hard one indeed. They don’t talk about that enough, do they? The swashbuckling escapades of Jack Sparrow and our other favorite fictional pirates might seem like a boatload of fun, but real pirating is dangerous.

Not the fun kind of danger — the kind that comes with buried treasure and undead skeleton pirates — but the kind that usually ended in an early but historical demise. Many pirates left their cushy life on land to explore the treacherous open sea, some of them leaving behind their homes, friends and loved ones forever.

Given how long pirates were on the open sea, it was common for those lonely sea dogs to search for companionship anywhere they could. Some were gross and found it in places we don’t need to talk about, but others found it among each other. That’s right, pirates were gay. Not all pirates were gay, mind you, but a good chunk of the privateer population were adding pegs to more than just their legs, if you catch my drift.

They weren’t exactly looking for love on the ocean, but that doesn’t mean all of them left their hearts on land. Some pirates engaged in Matelotage — bound together not by law (pirates didn’t believe in that gospel) but by code.

Matelotage took several forms, from platonic, to purely sexual, to a civil union that formed a “co-piracy” relationship. Co-pirates shared everything; in the case of co-captains, this included control of the ship, the crew, and of course, that bountiful pirate booty. Perhaps the most infamous example of co-captaining is that of the unlikely partnership between Stede Bonnet and Edward Teach. Bonnet and Teach made their own marks on pirate history, leaving behind two different yet indicative nicknames to immortalize their legends — Stede would be known as the “Gentleman Pirate” for his past as a nobleman, while Teach roamed the seven seas as the terrifying “Blackbeard,” the closest thing pirates had to a boogeyman.

Bonnet and Blackbeard’s odd interactions are the focal point for the HBO Max original, Our Flag Means Death. The pirate series from David Jenkins and Executive Producer Taika Waititi tells a heavily dramatized account of the history between the two captains — one that eventually leads to the two of them sharing a whole lot more than treasure.

OFMD’s swashbuckling season finale left Blackbeard and Bonnet estranged, but not before they had initially professed their love for each other with a head-turning kiss. Why was it so shocking to see two male pirates swabbing decks like so? Well, it may be because there isn’t any actual evidence to support that Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet were ever romantically involved, so the on-screen romance came as a quite a shock to viewers. Also, as hard as it is to believe, history hasn’t been very kind to the idea of Pirate Matelotage. For many, OFMD May be the first time they’re ever hearing about LGBTQ+ P’s.

The exact nature of the pair’s relationship is lost to history, like many details surrounding pirate lore, but it’s not unlikely that the two may have engaged in some Matelotage practices. Whatever the case, TV Bonnet and Blackbeard (portrayed by Rhys Darby and Waititi respectively) are in love, and aren’t even the only queer pirates aboard the cast. In fact, many of the relationships displayed in the series as that of an LGBTQ+ nature, and that’s more important than a four-syllable word to impress with at parties.

Here’s why:

Our Flag Means We Exist

Pirates were gay, there’s no denying that. Though that fact isn’t as commonly known as it should be today. That might be because of the tunnel we seem to find ourselves in regarding the awareness of queerness. A tunnel that constantly loops and restarts itself every couple of generations or so, giving off the illusion that the existence of non-heterosexuality is a “new concept.” It’s easier to stifle that way, right?

Our Flag Means Death – HBO

It’s the same ploy that nearly erases the concept of female or minority pirates, that ignores the high number of former slaves who turned to piracy. The concept of Matelotage insinuates that pirates — badass, treacherous dogs of the sea — might not have always flown theirs sails straight.

While pirates aren’t exactly the chisel-chinned, ubermensch beacons of hetero heroism, they are a part of that culture of icons that help make up the average childhood fantasy room. Sitting there among the Spider-Man and dinosaur action figures and plastic ninja swords lie lovable scoundrels, anti-heroes who don’t always side with Johnny Law, but still end up getting the gold and the girl in the end. At least, the main ones anyway. It’s fine to have a couple of evil tentacle pirates here and there, so long as the main ones are bright eyed and handsome with big smiles and, most importantly, a love interest. Preferably one of the opposite sex to keep that prince and princess dream alive even among the black of heart.

It makes for an exciting franchise of varying quality, but anyone who grew up watching those will likely notice something about them that they may not have given much attention to before. To put it simply, they’re a bit queer, aren’t they?

Well my friends, that’s called queer-coding, and it’s in a lot more of our childhood favorites than we think. Especially so in pirates. Pirates weren’t all LGBTQ+, but they also weren’t all completely heterosexual. Honestly, it’s likely that these words didn’t mean a thing to pirates, who would often treat Matelotage as just a means of getting what they all wanted; companionship and some help managing an entire ship or ships (it’s not as easy as it looks).

A lot of pirates at the time didn’t really care about sexuality, and that’s not a cry to erase the labels that confine our society into check marked boxes. It’s just an explanation for why many of the attitudes we akin to pirates may fall under the queer-coding category. The mannerisms of Captain Jack Sparrow — perhaps the most famous pirate of the screen — have been analyzed as queer-coded and a contrast to the heteronormative display of pirates in film. His relationship with Hector Barbossa is theorized by some to go deeper than just in a frenemy basis, a botched romantic past has even been insinuated.

Much of this is theorized by fans of the franchise, many hoping to find a connection that will supply them with any representation in a mega media enterprise. These ideas don’t stem from nowhere, but their validity is often left in question due to open-ended answers about the character’s sexuality. This introduces us to the darker side of queer-coding; Queerbaiting.

Queerbaiting defines a moment in any form of media where a character’s queerness is hinted at, but never actually revealed. Think Baker Street or Hawkins, Indiana. Queerbaiting isn’t always intentional, but it is a common practice used to draw in a more diverse audience without alienating the section of that audience that doesn’t get along well with the others. As crazy as that sounds, it’s been happening for much longer than the Black Pearl’s been sailing.

For the majority of the time we see Bonnet and Blackbeard (remember those guys?) in Our Flag Means Death, it’s assumed that David Jenkins is serving us up another hefty serving of queerbaiting. In fact, it’s almost a little bit of clever gaslighting on the show’s part, providing moments that seem romantic and then moving forward with no immediately noticeable payoff — as if to say “No, dummy, they’re just friends.” Which, for the record, they very well could have been.

The scenes in question, like the two B’s laughing and sharing marmalade sandwiches, bonding over piracy and giving each other lil nicknames, are all moments that could have been entirely platonic. Had things gone differently, Jenkins would be insisting that fans are just projecting a relationship onto two very open male best friends. But in playing into the uncertainty of queerbaiting, he actually makes their eventual kiss much more shocking — and much more important.

We don’t “need” Stede and Ed to be gay. We do however need clearer LGBTQ+ representation in media. The type that isn’t simply alluded to or referenced in mannerism, clothing or eye-raising friendships. How you represent is just as important as representation. Making the two main characters of your pirate show fully, openly, and non-parodically gay is a huge step in the right direction.

As I said, these two aren’t even the only examples of representation in the show. Many of the character are gay, non-binary or something that isn’t the usual heteronormative white. It doesn’t matter if the real Blackbeard and Bonnet were lovers or not, Our Flag Means Death displays a very real aspect of pirate history, of human history, all without satirizing it to the point of caricature.