Hugh Ryan's When Brooklyn Was Queer

Reviewed by Benjamin Serby

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History  By Hugh Ryan St. Martin's Press 2019 320 pages

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History
By Hugh Ryan
St. Martin's Press
320 pages

“Pick a random book about ‘New York City’ history, and chances are, it will mention Brooklyn… sporadically if at all. The chance that it talks about the queer history of Brooklyn? Nearly zero.” Thus writes Hugh Ryan, a curator and author whose new book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, marks a first attempt at correcting the ingrained Manhattan-centrism of queer studies and recovering the stories of queer Brooklynites in particular.

The “queer history” of the American city is now something of a cottage industry (see: Gay L.A., City of Brotherly and Sisterly Loves, Gay Seattle, and so forth), but “queer boroughs” have understandably attracted less scholarly attention. Brooklyn, though, was an independent city until 1898, and it is now home to more than 2.5 million people — a population roughly equivalent to Chicago’s. It also just might be the city’s gayest borough: the 2011 American Cultural Survey found the greatest concentration of same-sex households in New York City along the stretch of waterfront between Red Hook and Brooklyn Heights.

These findings are appropriate, given that queer Brooklyn’s origins lie with its maritime economy. “To understand queer Brooklyn, or Brooklyn at all,” writes Ryan, “you have to start with the water” — and he does, opening his narrative with the development of the industrial waterfront in the 1850s, and concluding it with the closure of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1966. After a trip around the mid-nineteenth century docks in the company of Walt Whitman (whose 1856 poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Ryan describes as “perhaps the first description of cruising in American literature”), readers encounter the bawdy working-class world of Brooklyn in the Gilded Age, when masses of spectators flocked to a range of theaters, private clubs, and divey saloons for gender-bending burlesque entertainment. Ryan’s biographical sketches of several celebrity drag kings impart a flavor of this freewheeling fin-de-siècle subculture.

The early twentieth century brought new possibilities and unforeseen dangers to LGBT Brooklynites. The subway’s expansion into the outer boroughs allowed for the discovery of more public gathering spaces — and more cruising. (“The city probably couldn’t have designed a better way to promote gay sex if it had tried,” Ryan writes.) But with greater visibility came the unwelcome attention of sexologists and moral reformers, who linked sexual deviance to criminality and mental illness, and eventually succeeded in changing both laws and social attitudes. In a particularly memorable passage, Ryan recounts the previously unknown story of a 1916 raid on a Sands Street bar referred to in an official report as the “resort of male perverts, catering to sailors.” The incident, which may be “the first recorded legal action against a gay bar in Brooklyn,” was a harbinger of more repression to come.

Following George Chauncey’s periodization, Ryan dates the increasingly rigid separation of homosexual and heterosexual worlds in New York to the end of Prohibition in 1933. But the title of his chapter on the Thirties, “The Beginning of the End,” is puzzling, given that in subsequent pages he describes how mobilization for the Second World War drew thousands of “young, adventurous, sexually open American sailors [onto] the streets of Brooklyn,” where they had been “set free from any restrictions they might have previously known in small communities.” In fact, he writes that queer Brooklynites experienced the war as “five years of comparative sexual freedom.”

Ryan rejects a linear narrative of progress toward inclusion and equality, and instead shows how in the postwar decades a confluence of factors — the Lavender Scare, the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, and above all suburbanization and urban renewal — contributed to the disappearance of the worlds that he has endeavored to reconstruct, from Coney Island to Sands Street to Brooklyn Heights. “By the time the Stonewall Riots rolled around,” he laments, “queer people remained in Brooklyn, but no part of Brooklyn… was considered ‘queer’ in the public imagination.”

One of the most interesting aspects of When Brooklyn Was Queer is that it challenges present-day Brooklynites to reimagine familiar locations as they once were. (Sands Street, an important nightlife destination for many of the book’s subjects, is now mostly a highway interchange.) Ryan’s research in historical newspapers and archival collections has also yielded some fascinating, and even poignant, stories; he is, for example, probably the first scholar to read the full official report on the arrest of Gustave Beekman, a German-American gay brothel owner and suspected Nazi spy who was the subject of the so-called “Swastika Swishery” scandal of the 1940s. At the same time, much of what he relates will be very familiar to readers with even a passing interest in LGBT history, and Ryan relies heavily on secondary literature to contextualize his findings, often jumping from one extended block quotation to another without any clear intervention of his own. Unfortunately, several of the book’s juiciest quotations, keenest insights, and most amusing anecdotes come from other published sources.

Early in When Brooklyn Was Queer, Ryan echoes a common trope of social history, distinguishing his approach from “traditional history,” which views the world “through the lens of ‘great men’ and their accomplishments.” But his choice of subjects includes a large number of famous writers and artists who happened to be queer and, at one time or another, reside in Brooklyn. Walt Whitman is the protagonist of the first chapter, and his inspiration to other queer Brooklyn writers, from Hart Crane to Carson McCullers to Harold Norse, is one of the book’s most enduring themes. Likewise, an extended discussion of February House—a Brooklyn Heights salon and dwelling where, in the 1940s, an astounding array of mostly queer literati, artists, and entertainers (including W.H. Auden, Paul Bowles, McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Benjamin Britten) crossed paths — retraces the well-trod paths of “great men” (and women).

Many of the stories in When Brooklyn Was Queer, though fascinating, fail to tell us much that is specifically about Brooklyn. Throughout much of the book, in fact, Brooklyn ends up playing second fiddle to Manhattan. At other times, Brooklyn is hardly mentioned at all, as in the case, for example, of a committee of reformers who, after the Second World War, assist returning gay veterans who have received dishonorable discharges (and are therefore denied benefits). Many of Ryan’s biographical sketches take him far afield. Jennie June, an early twentieth-century transgender diarist, certainly lived in New York, but “whether she ventured out to Brooklyn is impossible to say.” Similarly, we learn that black lesbian activist and dancer Mabel Hampton “never lived in Brooklyn” and spent “most of her time in Harlem.”

When Brooklyn Was Queer also includes too many long, detail-strewn passages that lack a clear purpose within the overall structure of the book. These cause the reader to lose the chronology — and, it must be said, to lose interest. More summaries and coherent assertions would help to communicate the author’s intentions and to weave together a taut narrative with fewer digressions. Some of Ryan’s observations are facile (obscenity charges “were a big deal at the time”), or they open onto grand, vague pronouncements such as: “if the nineteenth century was about noticing queer people, the twentieth century would be about controlling them.”

More importantly, the book at times suffers from an ahistorical conception of sexual identity. While Ryan acknowledges that a “defining line between homosexuality and heterosexuality” did not form until the twentieth century, he insists on using terms like “the straight Victorian mind” and “the straight world” when discussing the distant past. Similarly, while Whitman may be “a good access point” to antebellum Brooklyn, given the extent of his writings about the city (and his own same-sex desires), it is something of a stretch to say that he was “creating a queer community” there.

This book is animated by an impulse to collect and resurrect fragile bits of recorded experience that have been buried, lost, and forgotten. Ryan, who has combed through Hart Crane’s archive, bemoans the fact that much of the correspondence between the poet and his lovers has been destroyed: “Everything from their names, to how they made sense of their desires, to the bars they frequented, is gone.” (The elegiac note is a recurring theme, since When Brooklyn Was Queer is suffused with a surprising nostalgia for a pre-liberation world that we can no longer visit.) Ryan’s antiquarian embrace of things from the past, because they are past, allows him to recover much that is interesting, even moving, but it also leads him to collapse the distances that separate them. He writes that the “gay poet” Crane’s “cosmology” linked together Whitman, Brooklyn, and “queer love,” but it is by no means clear that Crane, who lived in Brooklyn Heights, shared a cosmology, much less a community, with the bearded ladies of Coney Island, the drag kings of Old Fulton Street, and the sailors of the Navy Yard.

Those sailors, so prized by the likes of Crane, were immortalized in the 1940s musical On the Town, which was produced by a largely queer creative team that included composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and set designer Oliver Smith. According to Ryan, not only does the work have a gay backstory, but it has a Brooklyn subtext as well: although set in Manhattan, it was “inspired by the bars on Sands Street.” This is perhaps a fitting symbol of the dynamic between shabby Brooklyn and its more glamorous sibling across the East River, since much of what occurs in the outer borough (and in all of the outer boroughs, for that matter) so often gets repackaged for public consumption as a Manhattan story. By bringing attention to its peculiarly “Brooklyn” aspects, Ryan has encouraged us to think of New York City’s monumental queer history in more fine-grained and complex ways.

Benjamin Serby is a doctoral candidate in U.S. History at Columbia University.