Unearthing Brooklyn’s Queer History

By Kristin Berberich

In the course of my work on a dissertation in the field of linguistics about the workings of neighborhood discourses all over Brooklyn, I have read a lot about New York’s most populous borough and its history. However, I never really thought about the queer history of Brooklyn. To be sure, I knew of and have visited some of New York City’s iconic spots, such as the Gay Liberation Monument by George Segal located in Christopher Park in Manhattan’s West Village. I also stumbled into Ginger’s, one of the few reminders of Dyke Slope – the unofficial name Park Slope was given due to its large lesbian community in the 1980s – on one of my after-work strolls through Brooklyn. But that was about it. It was not until I met Hugh Ryan, a writer and queer historian, in Brooklyn and we struck up a conversation about his work that I learned to face my own ignorance regarding the queer history of Brooklyn.

           When Brooklyn Was Queer. Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.

The book under review in this post was published in March of 2019. Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer evolved from an earlier project of his, the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, which toured the US and parts of Europe between 2011 and 2015. When trying to put together this installation, he had realized that there wasn’t just a single comprehensive book about Brooklyn’s queer history that you could get from the library, or any book that covered the queerness of Brooklyn’s history at all. To be sure, there are books about New York’s – read: Manhattan’s – gay male history, like Chauncey’s (1994) classic Gay New York. But in this regard, Brooklyn once again, Ryan noticed, serves as the city’s step-sibling:

Rarely, I’ve learned over the years, do people consider queer, Brooklyn, and history in the same sentence without a bit of prodding. Brooklyn has always been the “sub” to Manhattan’s “urb,” and most accounts of “New York’s gay history” give it short shrift. Moreover, the stereotypical image of “Brooklynites” has always been one of tough broads and street-smart greasers, working-class men and women whose heterosexuality was as pronounced as their broad New York accents. Scratch that straight surface, however, and Brooklyn’s queer history comes pouring out, full of poets, sailors, undercover cops dressed as sailors, brothels, sideshows, communes, rough trade, Nazi spies, trans men, dancers, machinists, pathbreakers, mythmakers, and more. (5)[1]

Many a reader would perhaps expect the origins of Brooklyn’s queer history in the 60s, just before the 1969 Stonewall riots, a series of violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Far from it. To speak of the late 20th century as a start of Brooklyn’s queer history would be “mistaking a midpoint for a beginning” (270). Ryan provides us with a history of Brooklyn as a borough, of its arts and culture, the rise of an industrial powerhouse and its decline, the first attempts at changing the city’s landscape and the planned erasure of undesirable citizens – including many enclaves of the queer community – by Robert Moses. These histories, however, are well-documented. It is the queerness that has – purposely or not – been overlooked by scholars for decades but which nevertheless oozes from the documents and artifacts that Ryan so skillfully tracked down. This book undoubtedly provides a perspective of the borough’s past that very few cared to unearth and preserve, until Ryan started sifting through layers upon layers of various kinds of historical documents. When Brooklyn Was Queer does not overlook but zoom in on the queerness, for instance in Walt Whitman’s “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry” – which Ryan indicates “contains perhaps the first description of cruising in American literature” (16) – as well as in documents that indicated the existence of ordinary queer Brooklynites whose stories Ryan pieces together from court reports or medical documents.

Edward Casey, “Stevedores Bathing Under Brooklyn Bridge”, 1939. Image courtesy of  the Green-Wood Historic Fund.

Writing a book about the queer lives of well-known Brooklynites, be it artists who lived at an artist commune called February House in Brooklyn Heights, such as W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, or reading between the lines in works of well-known poets Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Truman Capote, and Marianne Moore, is certainly not to be underestimated. Indeed, Ryan writes, “Whitman provides a good access point to the beginnings of queer life in Brooklyn” (21), leaving behind in his daybook lists of the dock workers he met on the Brooklyn waterfront – lists that would at times be as long as 15 pages devoted to men’s looks, their personalities and his relationships with them.

But bringing to life the stories of not-so-famous Brooklynites in such a sensible and skilled manner is a much more tremendous accomplishment, and a long-overdue addition to what is known about Brooklyn’s history. Before Ryan’s book was published, little was known of those who worked in the ship yards, who were members of the drag scene in Coney Island or the theaters in Central Brooklyn, who were patrons or owners of bars and semi-legal haunts in Sands Street close to the Navy Yard. Ryan portrays for readers what queer life was like for the non-famous who had to earn a living despite carrying various stigmata and being prosecuted on grounds of their gender, ethnicity and sexuality. He shows supreme tact for matters of intersectionality as well as a deep sense of respect for the characters he writes about and their at times difficult and tragic histories. His writing brings to life Mabel Hampton, a black lesbian dancer performing in Coney Island whose oral history was preserved at Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archives, as well as that of Loop-the-Loop, who was the first ever transgender person in Brooklyn’s history to successfully earn her living as a streetwalker “as early as 1906” (78).

Mabel Hampton, ca. 1920. Courtesy Lesbian Herstory Archives, Mabel Hampton collection.

In his book, Hugh Ryan brilliantly counters the straightwashing tendencies in historical writing. Given the fact that marriage equality and life-altering legal decisions are just one Supreme Court vote away for many queer individuals in the United States, and queer rights are still a brittle rock to build one’s life upon, I agree with Dominic Rushe, reviewer for The Guardian’s Books section, who writes, “[t]here’s probably no better time for us to relearn Brooklyn’s queer history” (Rushe 2019). Finally, When Brooklyn Was Queer presents an invaluable contribution to the canon of American Studies, and the history of Brooklyn in particular. Importantly, Ryan’s work also serves as a prompt to scholars in the field who have been pondering on the inclusivity of American Studies, and on the relevance of canons in general. To understand history, we must learn about non-normative histories, too.

You can find out more about Hugh Ryan’s exciting work at the Brooklyn Historical Society where he co-curated the exhibition On the (Queer) Waterfront: The Factories, Freaks, Sailors, & Sex Workers of Brooklyn which is featured until August 4, 2019. But before you book your tickets to Brooklyn, we cordially invite you to a reading and discussion of When Brooklyn Was Queer as part of the HCA’s Baden-Württemberg Seminar in cooperation with the 2019 Heidelberg Queer Festival queer history series on May 16, 6:15 pm at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, Hauptstraße 120, 69117 Heidelberg.

Primary Sources:

Ryan, Hugh. 2019. When Brooklyn Was Queer. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Secondary Sources:

Brooklyn Historical Society. 2019. “On the (Queer) Waterfront: The Factories, Freaks, Sailors, & Sex Workers of Brooklyn.” BrooklynHistory.org. Retrieved from:  https://www.brooklynhistory.org/exhibitions/on-the-queer-waterfront/ (last accessed: April 10, 2019)

Chauncey, George. 1994. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books.

Heidelberg Center for American Studies. 2019. Baden-Württemberg Seminar Program. Retrieved from: https://www.hca.uni-heidelberg.de/veranstaltungen/bawueseminar_en.html (last accessed: April 10, 2019)

Mabel Hampton (Interviewee) and Joan Nestle (Interviewer). n.d. “Mabel H. Story / Mabel Hampton (Tape 1).” Herstories: Audio/Visual Collections of the LHA. Retrieved from: http://herstories.prattinfoschool.nyc/omeka/document/SPW48 (accessed April 10, 2019)

Queer Festival Heidelberg. 2019. “Queer History Series.” Retrieved from: http://queer-festival.de/category/queer-history/ (last accessed: April 10, 2019)

Ryan, Hugh. 2018. “News Flash: History Is Not Just for Straight People.” HughRyan.org. Febuary 27, 2018. Retrieved from: http://www.hughryan.org/recent-work/2018/2/27/news-flash-history-is-not-just-for-straight-people (last accessed: April 10, 2019)

Rushe, Dominic. 2019. “When Brooklyn was queer: telling the story of the borough’s LGBT past.” TheGuardian.com. February 27, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/27/when-brooklyn-was-queer-telling-the-story-of-the-boroughs-lgbtq-past (last accessed: April 10, 2019)

Shepherd, Jessica and Sue Learner. 2010. “Lessons on gay history cut homophobic bullying in north London school.” TheGuardian.com. October 26, 2010. Retrieved from:  https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/oct/26/gay-history-lessons-bullying-schools (last accessed: April 10, 2019)

About the Author

Kristin Berberich is a doctoral researcher at the HCA’s graduate training center “Authority and Trust” (GKAT). Her project focuses on the linguistic construction of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York.

Kristin received her BA and MA in English Philology/Linguistics from Heidelberg University and is interested in sociolinguistics, (critical) discourse analysis and all things urban.

Kristin has previously contributed to this blog. Find out what graduates can learn from Michelle Obama’s Becoming here. Get in touch on Twitter: @k_berb

[1] All page numbers refer to Ryan (2019) and are indicated in brackets.


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