On the (Queer) Waterfront

Reviewed by Elvis Bakaitis

On the (Queer) Waterfront  Brooklyn Historical Society March 6 - August 4, 2019

On the (Queer) Waterfront
Brooklyn Historical Society
March 6 - August 4, 2019

On the (Queer) Waterfront is currently on view at the Brooklyn Historical Society (March 6-August 4), and offers glimpses of individual LGBTQ lives from the mid-1800s through the post-WWII period. Co-curated by Avram Finkelstein and Hugh Ryan, the exhibit is based on Ryan's recently published book, When Brooklyn was Queer, which focuses on the borough as a whole, though with a strong anchor (pun intended) to the waterfront.

Where on the Waterfront is Queer History?

Walking into the exhibit, which is housed in a single room, one is instantly struck by the painting on the right-hand wall. A 1936 swimming scene, by Edward P. Casey, luxuriates in the muscular bodies of mostly nude men, and establishes the Brooklyn docks as a space for appreciation and glory of the male physique. It also presents a recognizable form of queerness: unclothed, male, and intentionally in public view.

Against this visual backdrop (another of Casey's paintings flanks the back wall), are various areas of employment (Sex Workers, Entertainers, Artists, Female Factory Workers, and Sailors), and their potential connections to queer life in the borough. Within each section, individuals are highlighted--most of whom are relatively obscure, such as Coney Island performer Madame Tirza, or the popular male impersonator (buried by request in men's clothing), Ella Wesner.

The photographs and stories clearly indicate that queer Brooklyn residents were involved in the development of its public, waterfront culture, and later in the factory work that anticipated World War II. The photo scrapbook of Anne Moses, “first woman employed to work as a welder by the Todd Shipyards,” is full of everyday scenes that evince a general enjoyment of female companionship, pride in being butch, and the joy of wearing pants.

On Waterfronts, Whiteness and Whitman

On the (Queer) Waterfront does manage to achieve relative gender parity and representation within its limited exhibition space. However, there's no getting around the fact that choosing the Brooklyn waterfront as a focus for queer history (or theoretically, any topic), automatically marginalizes women.

The maritime world was historically coded and defined as male, and (not surprisingly) so was its dominant queer presence. Many individual exceptions to the rule are on view, but another exhibit might explore the topic of queer Brooklyn through the domestic sphere, particularly the romantic attachments of women at all-female enclaves, such as high schools and colleges (arriving in Brooklyn with the founding of the Brooklyn Female Academy, now Packer Collegiate Institute, in 1845).

Unfortunately, other key elements (some of which are acknowledged with more depth in co-curator Ryan’s book), are only obliquely mentioned. For example, the city’s population by race is noted in the wall text for African-American activist Alice Dunbar Nelson: “The Brooklyn she lived in was a very white world; from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, Brooklyn was more than 97% white.” Given that the heydey of the waterfront also corresponds to this period, one might more transparently title the exhibit “On the (Queer, White) Waterfront.”

The exhibit vaguely concludes with a reference to Crown Heights as “important to the city's queer Black community in the 1970s,” but with no evidence to back it up: only four panels in the room discuss individual people of color. Clearly, the time period helps to provide scope for a small exhibit, but it also limits inclusion, thereby heavily weighting the content towards the experiences and lives of white Americans.

Hugh Ryan’s book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, shares this fatal flaw. Phrasings throughout hide the specificity of race and ethnicity: “The earliest records of queer people of color [in Brooklyn] date to the 1890s,” Ryan states, without further reference to what group he refers to. The troubling phrase “women and people of color” is repeatedly used, erasing both whiteness and the experiences of women of color. He struggles to contextualize women in general, coming to the interesting conclusion that “[heterosexual] wife could almost be added to the list of waterfront jobs that were particularly attractive to queer women.”

Promising a look into Brooklyn’s “vast queer world,” and “wide queer world” (enthusiastically referenced in the same paragraph), the book comes to an abrupt halt after the waterfront declines in the late 1960’s. The post-WWII wave of Puerto Rican immigration is noted, but only explored through the cruising reminiscences of a gay white man, Thomas Painter. The phenomenon of white flight is not referred to as such, and the book concludes without mentioning gentrification. The Starlite Lounge in Crown Heights, and the vibrant 1980’s lesbian community of Park Slope are contained in a single paragraph, no exploration needed. Alongside his insistence that a “vast queer world” existed in Brooklyn pre-1965, Ryan’s refusal to explore these more recent developments seems like a convenient choice, and one that bolsters a particular, romanticized vision of the past.

When Brooklyn Was Queer makes reference to Walt Whitman’s “personal prejudices” against African-Americans and women, and notes that those prejudices “limited his appeal primarily to white men.” And yet the book still opens with his words, and introduces the first chapter with a vignette emphasizing his centrality to Brooklyn and “the rise of the queer waterfront.” It would be hard to ignore Walt Whitman, being one of the most famous literary Brooklyn residents, but his own positionality is treated as an aside — as well as the freedom that allowed him to ogle and mix among men of all classes, and encode his words as the quintessence of (white) American freedom. As a part of the exhibit, Whitman’s portrait raises questions for me about the definition of queerness, and even the use of the word itself. To whom does the phrase have relevance and meaning, and is it unbounded, with Whitmanesque freedom, from race and class?

Ultimately, On the Queer Waterfront presents valuable evidence of LGBTQ activity in Brooklyn during this period, which is posited as a shared, if distant, past. It’s easy to imagine a walking tour based on this exhibit, tracing the evidence of queer presence that we do have, and magnifying the relevance of our shared past into the borough’s future. But implications of a shared queer past deserve further exploration, and a bit more historical rigor.

Elvis Bakaitis is a Coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Adjunct Reference Librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center, and serves on the Board of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies. As a member of the LHA Graphics Committee, she co-curated By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives, an exhibit currently on view at the New-York Historical Society.