Gay Old Brooklyn: Hugh Ryan Takes a Look at the Borough’s Queer Past

Issue 247

Jessica Max Stein Jun 5, 2019

Hugh Ryan got the idea to write When Brooklyn Was Queer when he held pop-up queer history exhibit parties in his Brooklyn apartment; when one such event drew 300 people, and another was shut down by the police, he knew he was on to something. Contemporary queer Brooklyn was hungry for its history.

Ryan has cooked up a delicious first taste of Brooklyn’s pre-Stonewall LGBTQ+ community history, a fun read of narrative nonfiction. Ryan shows clear respect and affection for his colorful cast of characters, honoring their identities (such as their presumably preferred pronouns) as well as their idiosyncrasies. He generously uses “queer” as a catchall term to discuss both sexuality and gender identity, which enables him to observe how the two have historically interacted, as well as to expand who he can include in his motley crew. The geographic narrative is also a thoughtful, flexible framing, allowing Ryan to discuss how physical and social changes in the city landscape affected where queer people lived, worked and played.

Ryan’s spry, chatty narration makes you feel like he is walking you through one of his exhibits. As he tells it, the urbanization of Brooklyn in the late 1800s enables queers to discover each other, as people increasingly participate in the public sphere — particularly around the waterfront, where many queers work as sailors, artists, sex workers, entertainers or factory workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But having found each other, queers are in turn discovered — by straight people. The narrative arc rises as increasing visibility triggers a backlash from doctors, the judicial system and zealous “moral” reformers. Ryan populates the pages with colorful characters, from the poet Walt Whitman to the black lesbian dancer Mabel Hampton, with a keen eye for how each person exemplifies their times. Hart Crane, who wrote the earnest ode “To Brooklyn Bridge,” exemplified the 1920s: the passionate poet burns bright and then burns out. For things are never quite the same once the Great Depression hits, particularly for queers already on the economic margins. Yet havens remain, such as February House, a queer house in Brooklyn Heights inhabited by a “literary menagerie” from Carson McCullers to W.H. Auden to Gypsy Rose Lee (who later inspired the play Gypsy). Queer sailors and female factory workers, in particular, find respite during World War II — but see it snatched away again when the war ends. 

Ryan puts it best: “After 1945, the physical and mental suburbanization of America would rip right through the heart of queer Brooklyn (sometimes literally).” The Lavender Scare (it wasn’t just a Red Scare) forces queers out of government and entertainment. The American Psychiatric Association includes homosexuality in their first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), thus classifying it as a mental illness. The police crackdown on cruising, using entrapment to arrest men for “disorderly conduct —degeneracy.” Dispersed by these social forces, queer milieus can’t survive the borough’s physical changes. Ryan lays much of the blame at Robert Moses’ feet. The arrogant city planner sees Brooklyn as a mere obstacle for Long Islanders commuting to Manhattan, ringing the waterfront with roads. The on-ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway wipes out great swaths of queer Brooklyn history “in one vicious swoop,” knocking down February House as well as Hart Crane’s former home. By the time of Manhattan’s Stonewall uprising, the queer people and places of Brooklyn aren’t just gone, they are forgotten.

Ryan has his work cut out for him excavating such a well-buried history. Biographer Stacy Schiff describes this daunting task as “writing around the holes.” At times I wanted the book to be less anecdotal and more comprehensive — which might frankly be impossible given the lack of material available. Once you accept the holes, however, Ryan is exemplary at deftly guiding you over and around them. He cherry-picks illustrative details to spin into vivid scenes, such as his cinematic description of a bustling Fulton Ferry Landing, back when the ferry was how you got to Brooklyn. He also engagingly guides you around the possible holes in your own historical context, offering efficient off-the-cuff explanations and modern-day parallels: one mid-19th century Manhattan queer bar is likened to “a candlelit version of CBGB — the hottest hangout for the city’s most outré artists”. Occasionally Ryan stretches his definitions in order to include material. While this flexibility is refreshing when he discusses 19th century Boston marriages between women, which many historians don’t read as queer because they were ostensibly sexless, it doesn’t quite work for Marianne Moore, who neither lived nor identified as queer, at least according to her biography. 

But Ryan is not trying to be the be-all end-all, just the beginning. He understands the book’s place in an ongoing dialogue, a shared stewardship of community history. The book is an open thank you to those who preceded him in this work, such as George Chauncey and Allan Berubé, as well as those who might want to take up the torch. “I look forward to the book that comes after this, and the one that comes after that, and the one that maybe you’re going to write,” Ryan affectionately dares the reader. Let the conversation begin.

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History
By Hugh Ryan
St. Martin’s Press, 2019

Illustration: Esteban Jimenez.

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