The never-before-told story of Brooklyn’s vibrant and forgotten queer history, from the mid-1850s up to the present day.
***An ALA GLBT Round Table Over the Rainbow 2019 Top Ten Selection***
***NAMED ONE OF THE BEST LGBTQ BOOKS OF 2019 by Harper's Bazaar***
"A romantic, exquisite history of gay culture." —Kirkus Reviews, starred
“[A] boisterous, motley new history...entertaining and insightful.” —The New York Times Book Review
Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer 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. No other book, movie, or exhibition has ever told this sweeping story. Not only has Brooklyn always lived in the shadow of queer Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but there has also been a systematic erasure of its queer history—a great forgetting.
Ryan is here to unearth that history for the first time. In intimate, evocative, moving prose he discusses in new light the fundamental questions of what history is, who tells it, and how we can only make sense of ourselves through its retelling; and shows how the formation of the Brooklyn we know today is inextricably linked to the stories of the incredible people who created its diverse neighborhoods and cultures. Through them, When Brooklyn Was Queer brings Brooklyn’s queer past to life, and claims its place as a modern classic.
Ryan, founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, debuts with a lively, character-filled portrait and well-researched analysis of Brooklyn's queer social landscape between Walt Whitman's 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass and the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. Ryan asserts that queer communities develop where there is available work for queer people and identifies the Brooklyn waterfront as offering appealing opportunities for the "sailor, artist, sex worker, entertainer, and female factory worker." In the late 19th century, Ryan recounts, when culture was highly segregated by gender, sex between sailors and "Boston marriages" among women went largely unnoticed. Queerness became more visible in the decades prior to WWI, when psychologists labeled gay people as "inverts" (i.e., having inner traits of the "opposite" sex), gender-nonconforming behavior was criminalized, and female drag performers challenged gender roles. In the 1930s and '40s, Brooklyn saw the flourishing of a vibrant artistic community whose queer players included magazine editor George Davis, novelist Carson McCullers, and poet Marianne Moore. Postwar, Brooklynites such as Curtis Dewees and Edward Sagarin founded early "homophile" activist organizations. Ryan acknowledges that much well-known history focuses on cis white gay men and is careful to curate available materials about the experience of lesbians and black people, drawing from letters and reading between the lines of reports of crime or deviance. This evocative and nostalgic love song to the borough and its flamboyant past offers a valuable broadening of historical perspective. Photos.
Leaves you wanting more
Ryan’s history is an engaging, eclectic look at queer lives in Brookyn - and also NYC - that leaves you wanting more. While somewhat heavy on the well known queer residents of the borough, the author lays out how scanty historical records are on the lives of the everyday LGBTQ+ in his telling. Yet, he still makes the most of what is out there.