A Borough’s History Comes Out of the Closet in “When Brooklyn Was Queer”

In his new book, Hugh Ryan charts the genesis of contemporary queer culture as we now know it.

Cover photo: American bearded lady Jane Barnell.

Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Hell’s Kitchen: Manhattan’s history as a queer mecca is no secret. But what about the once-sleepy, now-hip borough across the East River? In his new book When Brooklyn Was Queer, museum curator and queer historian Hugh Ryan leads a kaleidoscopic journey through the titular borough’s intriguing history, and spotlights the groundbreaking characters who diversified it from the mid-1800s to the 1960s.

The homoerotic undertones of Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn poems planted the seeds for a rapidly changing New York and, more insularly, a borough brimming with creativity and queer culture. As Brooklyn’s population grew in the late 1800s, its immigrant families and gay sailors at the Navy Yard found a vacation hotspot in Coney Island where Mabel Hampton and a host of other queer people performed in sideshows.

Hugh Ryan, reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press
Walt Whitman steel engraving, July 1854.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, more visited Brooklyn thanks to the subway system which united the city and provided queer men with public restrooms to cruise in. But emerging gay bars would quickly become policed in the 1900s, even as industrious women found employment, and each other, on the home-front during World War II. Through compelling events and fascinating figures, Ryan not only unearths Brooklyn’s oft-overlooked past but charts the genesis of contemporary queer culture as we now know it.

What inspired you to dig into Brooklyn’s LGBTQ history?

In 2010, I formed this organization called the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and in 2013, we planned to do an exhibit about Brooklyn. Our shows were all created by local community members, and we realized that very few people knew enough about Brooklyn to make an exhibit. We decided to write a little “primer” to offer historical highlights to draw from, so I went to the library to do the research to write it up only to discover there was nothing written, specifically, about the queer history of Brooklyn. The more I looked, the less I found—there was no book, movie, website, YouTube series. Nothing! So that’s how the book got started.

The book’s title, in a way, insinuates that Brooklyn used to be queer, but perhaps no longer is. Can you discuss how you came to name your book?

I think Brooklyn is queerer now than it ever has been, but there was also a very long period between World War II and 2000 where you wouldn’t have thought, Oh, I’m going to go to Brooklyn to have a queer experience, whereas before World War II that definitely was the case. There were the navy yards [where gay sailors gathered], 7 Middagh Street [a queer commune in Brooklyn Heights], and Coney Island, which was a huge magnet for queer people from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.

ilbusca/Getty
Coney Island in the late 1800s.

In each chapter of the book, you profile a few central figures from that era. Do you have a favorite person who you learned about?

One is Florence Hines. She was a male impersonator in the late 1800s-early 1900s and was the highest paid female performer of color from that period. I was doing research on Ella Wesner, the more famous white drag king of the day, and I would see a reference or two to Florence. But despite the level of fame she had, I couldn’t find an image of Florence. So the need to find an image, and finally doing so, led me to discover all these other things about her; rarely do we consider Victorian drag kings or Black Victorians from the upper class, so Florence captured the unexpected.

These drag kings were a phenomenon in the late 1800s-early 1900s, but they don’t seem to have the same cultural popularity that they once had. Why were they popular in Victorian times?

In the late 1800s, we get this real breakdown of gender, as the Victorian idea of “separate spheres”—men in public, women at home—fell apart. Flashy young men, who drank and gambled and dated and wore rakish clothing, were suddenly a major immoral and public concern. They were emblematic of the changes happening all throughout Victorian society, and they made great fodder for the stage.

Gillian Rodger & Hugh Ryan, reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press
Celebrated male impersonator Ella Wesner.

The Brooklyn Bridge and subway were enormous engineering feats and cultural linchpins in connecting queer folk to the rest of the city. What role did these architectural triumphs play in advancing queer culture?

They made it possible to more easily live in Brooklyn. You could live in one place and work in another, making Brooklyn more attractive for everyone, but particularly for those who might have wanted to separate parts of their lives. The subway made it easy to lead two distinct lives, and through it, the city built a network of linked restrooms where men were naked or semi-clothed in each other’s presence. The city created sex clubs, and that’s what you see if you look at the arrest records. It’s interesting because city government kept saying these men learned bad habits and brought them in, but instead, they just provided a place for queerness to happen.

So cruising was a staple of queer culture—popular in navy yards, parks, and subway stations—but that culture is now less common. Is this, in part, because of queer people’s more mainstream acceptance, or because more people now meet on apps?

Cruising definitely isn’t what it once was. With more apps, you’ll see less cruising. But it also has to do with the kinds of public space that are available; it’s a question of gentrification as much as anything else. People used to gather around the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village to meet other women. It’s not a space you want in a residential area necessarily, and a little further away you had the West Side Highway and the Piers—again, it’s this liminal space, wild and not controlled or policed. And those areas facilitate cruising, so the more you get rid of them and turn your gayborhoods into high-end retail experiences and not mixed-use queer spaces the way that they used to be, you push the cruising by force away.

Richard W. Rychtarik, reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press
Emil Opffer, a ship’s writer, in front of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Throughout queer history, various names—legal terms, perceived medical jargon, and slurs—have been used to belittle LGBTQ people. Fairy, invert, and degenerate are just a few that you mention. Could you give a quick overview of how those words evolved?

A lot of the words evolved in different ways, but there are many threads that connect them. Words once used for women who were lower-class and sexually brazen became ways to talk about gay men, trans women, and effeminate males. When I discuss a male beauty contest on Coney Island [in 1929], the judges refer to the men as “floozies,” which is not a word we’d use to describe men today. But back then it was applicable, and “faggot” was also used to describe women. Words used to describe women who were assumed to be prostitutes eventually migrated to be used to describe gay men. “Trade,” once used for men coming to these brazen women for sex, was then used to describe “rough trade,” of men to men.

Words indeed continue to evolve, especially a key one in your title: What do you think the word “queer” connotes today?

It’s open; I think queer—in order for it to have any meaning—is a political term, one of marginalization around sexual or gender identity. But that gets sticky: You think of ancient Romans [and their queer sex]. Would we call them queer if what they were doing was the most celebrated form of sexual expression of their day? … What I’ve learned is that our theories of sexual orientations are pretty shaky. What I want my book to show is how these phases of queer history lead into one another. Even where I end the book, in the decimated moment where the queer scene as it was fell apart [in the 1950s], something new grows in its place.

Todd Swindell & Hugh Ryan, reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press
Gay writer Harold Norse at Brooklyn College.

Brooklyn now is a borough rich in its drag scene, gay bars, and queer artist collectives. How do you see these institutions nourishing New York’s greater cultural diet today?

In so many ways! The reason I called my book When Brooklyn Was Queer is that there was a period in time, [approximately the 1920s through the early 1940s], when people really connected certain parts of Brooklyn with certain queer experiences, and came here looking for those things. But for long a time after, Brooklyn was considered a cultural backwater, particularly for queer people—both unsafe and uninteresting. Now? There’s been a huge shift. Some of the most exciting queer performance, drag, scholarship, literature, organizing, etc. in the city is happening in Brooklyn, once again.

Hugh Ryan, reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

When Brooklyn Was Queer will be available on March 5 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.

Billy McEntee has contributed to Vanity Fair, The Brooklyn Rail, and American Theatre, amongst others. He lives in Brooklyn.
@wjmcentee