“When Brooklyn Was Queer” by Hugh Ryan— A Forgotten History

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

A Forgotten History

Amos Lassen

Hugh Ryan shares the never-before-told story of Brooklyn’s vibrant and forgotten queer history, from the mid-1850s up to today. It seems strange with Brooklyn being part of New York that her vivid and romantic gay culture has not been dealt with before now. Ryan’s book is a “groundbreaking exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the queer women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond.” Until now, no other book, movie, or exhibition has ever told this story. Not only has Brooklyn always lived in the shadow of queer Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but there has also been something of a systematic erasure of its queer history.

Ryan gives us that history for the first time and it is delightful.  His prose is filled with grace, intimate and moving. We feel his love for his subject as he answers questions of what history is, who tells it, and it is through the retelling that we are able to make sense of ourselves. We  see how the formation of the Brooklyn we know today is linked to the stories of the incredible people who created its diverse neighborhoods and cultures. After all, what is a neighborhood without people— just empty buildings with no character. Ryan brings Brooklyn’s queer past to life and claims its place as a modern classic.

Ryan begins his history in 1855 with the publication of “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. Many forget Whitman’s place regarding LGBT literature but he is one of the forerunners and an important writer who made his home in Brooklyn and we find many aspects of what gay life was like in 19th century in his writing. W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, and Christopher Isherwood were in Brooklyn as well and they are part of the history but who is really important are not the names we know but the working class men and women who lived on the margins and  the constant influx of sailors that came through the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Ryan has found other documented stories of queer life in police records for sexual perversion and in the records of doctors who carried out  pseudo-scientific research on queer (especially trans) bodies.

The working class was more open to all kinds of non-marital sex, not just same-sex or gender nonconforming desires. Many of these communities were basically immigrant communities and the ratios of men to women were so different that marriage became less of an option. Men and women inhabited separate social spheres with  little access to private spaces where they could meet together. In places like the municipal baths or aboard ships, men (and to a lesser degree, women) had chances to gather together in semi-privately. It was a time when new ideas about sexuality-as-an-identity were more common among upper-class people, and those ideas gave more risk to same-sex desires because it was an activity that might be frowned upon and that defined a person.

Ryan has done incredible and meticulous research and uses skilled storytelling to make this such fun to read. It bring about a need for intimacy and community. We certainly feel Ryan’s love for queer Brooklyn on every page. This is a story of the “endurance, resourcefulness, and indefatigable joy queer people brought to bear upon the challenge of their own survival”. We go back to a time before we had an idea of legal acceptance and we get fascinating and surprising stories.

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