There’s a lot more to Brooklyn’s LGBTQ history than Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In When Brooklyn Was Queer, which earned a Kirkus star, Hugh Ryan explores that history, “full of poets, sailors, undercover cops dressed as sailors, brothels, sideshows, communes, rough trade, Nazi spies, trans men, dancers, machinists, path breakers, myth makers, and more.” Here we talk with Ryan about how Brooklyn has long been, as he says in his book, much more than just the “sub” to Manhattan’s “urb.”
What is distinctive about Brooklyn’s queer identity?
Lots of things! But in particular, queer Brooklyn is distinctive (and makes for a great subject) for two reasons. First, its proximity to Manhattan means that Brooklyn’s queer community has always been directly connected with one of the epicenters of American queer culture, making it vital and exciting—and often overlooked. Second, Brooklyn becomes a powerful urban center at exactly the same time that our modern ideas of sexuality and gender identity begin to develop, meaning that you can track the two against each other for an intertwined portrait of a growing queer community and the growing city that made their lives possible. I like to say that When Brooklyn Was Queer is as much a history of Brooklyn, and a history of sexuality, as it is a history of sexuality in Brooklyn.
Walt Whitman tends to be the poster gay for historic queer Brooklyn. Who are some other famous LGBTQ Brooklynites we should know about?
Among my favorites are Ella Wesner, one of the most famous male impersonators of the 19th century, who performed all around Brooklyn and is today buried in the Evergreens Cemetery (in “men’s attire,” as she requested in her will). Another is Josiah Marvel, a Quaker conscientious objector during WWII who worked as an assistant director of the Brooklyn Museum for many years and eventually helped create a groundbreaking program that helped gay men who were arrested in the 1940s and ’50s. And for a huge number of famous LGBTQ people, Brooklyn was a temporary port of call on their larger journey: Alice Dunbar Nelson, W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Hart Crane, and many, many others are all speckled throughout When Brooklyn Was Queer.
What would life have been like for a queer person living in, say, 1800s Brooklyn?
The truth is folks we might today think of as queer lived just as diverse a set of lives in the 1800s as they did in the 1900s. Their lives were as much inflected by their gender, race, class, education status, etc., as they were by their sexuality. But there is a crucial change at the end of the 19th century that sets the stage for queer identity as we know it today: the end of the homosocial worlds of Victorian morality. Imagine a world where women mostly spent time with other women, and men with other men—even sleeping in the same beds. Intense same-sex emotional and physical (if not necessarily erotic) relationships were de rigueur before the 19th century, and that must have created a fundamentally different experience of sex and sexuality for all people.
What’s up next for you? Did When Brooklyn Was Queer spawn any side projects?
Yes! While doing this research, I kept finding myself back at a place called the Women’s House of Detention, an 11-story prison that dominated Greenwich Village from the 1930s through the 1970s. For my next book, I’m looking at the lives of the women and gender-nonconforming people imprisoned there and how the presence of the prison itself helped to make the neighborhood queer and the queer movement in the neighborhood radical.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.