A century and a half of Brooklyn’s queer history.
A longtime Brooklyn resident and founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, Ryan pinpoints the establishment of a homosexual presence there in the mid-1800s with the publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the development of the area as a major port. Around the turn of the century the proliferation of print media and theatrical performances ushered in a new wave of alternative entertainment and modernized ideas of sexuality. The author pays homage to this era by spotlighting such entertainers as black singer and drag king Florence Hines and “gender-deviant” male impersonator Ella Wesner, who “was praised for offering top-to-toe looks that didn’t simply use tailored, masculine-esque clothing to show off her female form.” Yet as this visibility increased, so did factions of detractors who called homosexuality immoral and criminal. However, as Brooklyn’s population bloomed, so did its ever evolving queer presence, especially in the 1920s, even while police continued to arrest people for cross-dressing. Employing a dynamic combination of meticulous research and impassioned prose, Ryan familiarizes readers with the precarious post–Prohibition-era atmosphere before moving on to World War II, when control and arrests of queer Americans precipitated a great vanishing of the culture in Brooklyn and beyond. The author insists on its overdue appreciation, and he offers a richly evocative chronicle filled with notable queer game-changers. “If this history shows one thing,” he writes, “it is the resourcefulness of queer desire, which found ways to express itself long before America even had words for it. With the dawn of the new millennium, queer Brooklyn has rebounded with a fierceness and a cultural relevance that threatens at times to outshine Manhattan.” With a sharp eye for detail and a knack for vivid re-creations, Ryan eloquently contributes to an “old queer history” he believes has become needlessly “piecemeal and canonless.”
A romantic, exquisite history of gay culture.