Celebrating Brooklyn’s Queer History

Hugh Ryan isn’t a historian, so his new book “When Brooklyn Was Queer” is a labor of love

For many years I wrote with a black and white photo taped above my desk. The picture was a photocopy from Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, and the caption of which shared that it was a “private lesbian party” somewhere in San Francisco circa 1944. The reason I loved the picture and had it on my wall for so long, was the spark of excitement I felt to see photos of queer people existing, thriving, before I was born. I ached to know more about these queer women, their stories, their heartache, their triumphs. When we talk about queer representation, we often focus on representation in current examples of art & culture. I didn’t know how much I craved to see myself represented in history until I came upon this photo, these women, and the idea that queer lives were lead for decades and centuries before my own.

Hugh Ryan’s carefully researched and beautifully rendered study of Brooklyn’s queer history, When Brooklyn Was Queer, is an absolute gift. For those of us who love Brooklyn, Ryan unveils a cast of unforgettable queer lives from Brooklyn Heights to Coney Island, through the lens of intersectionality and the nuance Brooklyn’s complex story requires. There’s E. Trundell, a transgender man whose arrest in Brooklyn made national headlines. There’s Florence Hines, a successful Black drag king who performed widely. There’s Loop-the-Loop, a young white trans woman who named herself after a roller coaster on Coney Island. And there’s Mabel Hampton, a Black lesbian who worked as a dancer on Coney Island in the 1920s. When Hampton’s photo appears in the pages of Ryan’s book, it’s a breathtaking moment, to see her as she lived, her chin tilted upward, her hat on an angle, an expression of smoldering confidence on her face. Ryan creates a layered story that shows, against a backdrop of rapid change, how queer Brooklyn became a “canary in the coal mine,” as white flight, the loss of the waterfront economy, and other factors would influence these queer enclaves.

Ryan began writing this book as a labor of love, with no training as a historian, and has thus written something that is imbued with heart, curiosity, responsibility and wit. I want to shout from the rooftops about this queer Brooklyn history we are all entitled to love and know. It makes the great and complicated borough all the greater.

Courtney Gillette: When Brooklyn Was Queer is such an incredible book. There was so much in here that I didn’t know. My partner also wants to read it, but was joking that she’s basically read it because I kept being like, “Listen to this!” Can you talk about the moment you knew you wanted to delve into Brooklyn’s queer history?

HR: It’s actually kind of funny. I was living in Brooklyn and I started this organization called the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History. We did these locally sourced, community art exhibitions about queer history in different places. The first one we did was in Brooklyn, in my apartment, actually right over by the Myrtle stop. And it was wonderful and fantastic and 300 people showed up and we got shut down by the cops at midnight.

So all of that happened, and we were doing other ones, and one day I was like, we should do another one in Brooklyn but feature it around Brooklyn. A lot of people don’t know about Brooklyn’s history, so the first thing [we decided] was I’ll go get a book. And there was no book.

It had never occurred to me that there wouldn’t be something [recorded]. I thought there would at least be like one book, an academic book, something Alyson [Books] put out in 1996. I thought it would exist. There was Gay New York, there was The Gay Metropolis — great books. There was Joan Nestle. But none of them were a specific look at Brooklyn and Brooklyn’s queer history. Let me look for websites, let me look for a documentary, and I realized like there was literally nothing.

There was Gay New York, there was The Gay Metropolis — great books. But none of them were a specific look at Brooklyn and Brooklyn’s queer history.

I was like working as a freelance writer, and I was like, well, anytime I interview someone — I was writing a lot of gay shit — I’ll just ask. So I was doing that for a couple years. And somewhere around 2015/2014, I realized there really was quite a bit of information, and there was an arc to it, and it had to do with the waterfront. I got a grant from the New York Public Library, and the first thing they said to me was “When this grant period is over, you should have your book proposal done.” And I was like, “Oh! I am writing a book, then.”

CG: So thinking about structure and going back to this narrative arc. I think a lot of people, when they think of queer history, they think of Stonewall. And what’s beautiful is that this is everything that happened before Stonewall. Can you talk about the choice to end this book before Stonewall even occurred?

HR: It actually wasn’t originally a choice. When I started off, I didn’t know what I was getting into. What I very quickly realized was there’s this moment in the 1950s when everything just sort of truncates. Everything disappears. And by the time you get to Stonewall, what’s left is this scattered remnant of something.

As I figured out that the something was very large and had kind of a cohesive structure — once I could see the arc of it — it started to make sense: Stonewall and everything that happened in the Village is in part happening because all of these other spaces, in Brooklyn where things were more diffuse, had to contract inward.

One of the things I really talk a lot about is the racial dynamics of Brooklyn and the changing history and so the way that it worked out — I was really shocked. I had no idea Brooklyn was so white in its history. When I discovered that, I was just gobsmacked. When I realized that the arc of this story really ends with white flight and the suburbs and the disillusion, it took me a long moment to process that and think: Is this a moment I feel comfortable ending a story?

CG: You can’t really write or talk about Brooklyn without talking about gentrification. So I’m wondering if you can explain how the displacement of communities of color influenced queer history?

HR: It starts as far back as you can go. The first neighborhood of color that I could historically find in Brooklyn was Weeksville. The fact that there is so much that we know that we’ve lost about Weeksville — the newspapers, the history, [some of] the houses were moved. But finding that history, and being able to connect that to Alice Dunbar Nelson, who I knew had a queer history, working in institutions like this, it opened up a lot of space for suggestion.

But then when I found out quickly Weeksville, after the LIRR opened up in the neighborhood — I think within ten years, the neighborhood becomes 50% White, mostly Scandinavian, and it gentrifies. It becomes this suburban neighborhood of Crown Heights and the history is erased. It’s just knocked out. And it’s not until the 1960s that people really rediscovered Weeksville.

I saw that cycle of gentrification over and over again. When I understood that the waterfront was what made queer lives really possible in Brooklyn in a certain way, or at least the growth and explosion of them, then when I started tracking what happened at the waterfront, it became so clear. As soon as the waterfront falls apart, the bottom goes out on everything. Robert Moses rips Brooklyn in two.

CG: That was the most heartbreaking chapter, because I knew about his destruction, but I’d never stopped to think of it and how it would affect queer communities.

HR: It wasn’t until I was doing the end chapters on Coney Island, that I was like, what happened? Coney Island changes so quickly. It was Robert Moses again and again. When I looked at the highways and saw that they cut off the entire coastline in Brooklyn, that’s it. And it was all to gentrify the suburbs.

CG: I think the most delightful and refreshing part of the book was how intersectional it is. There’s been a lot of times when I read something that’s marked as LGBTQ or queer and it focuses on white, gay, cis men. This book has the stories of so many lesbians, trans people, people of color, and bisexuals. Was it harder to find those narratives?

HR: Some of them. Absolutely. I spent a long time looking into the allusion of transmasculine identities and, it wasn’t just that they were hard to find, but the concepts of gender around people who were assigned female at birth — they’re just so radically different over time. Fitting those in a sort of way that showed how people had a very different concept of gender. And people who did have a concept of gender that’s much closer to our current ideas of transmasculine gender identity.

Trundell was a real breakthrough. Finding that story [of Trundell’s arrest], was exactly what I was looking for. It showed me this moment where everything was changing. Often that’s what I spent my time looking for. I wanted to find the examples that sort of showed something in transition.

CG: So what was rewarding in this process?

HR: When I followed the story of Josiah Marvel [co-founder of the Civil Rehabilitation Committee of the Quaker Emergency Service, for servicemen discharged for homosexuality] — I thought, this dude’s gay. I just knew it. Maybe not gay, but he couldn’t have been doing all this work for no reason. And that’s one of thing that drove me crazy, when it’s closeted celebrities who do great things for gay causes, but then never come out?

The concepts of gender around people who were assigned female at birth — they’re just so radically different over time.

CG: Yes!

HR: So this guy, Josiah Marvel, I thought, No, no, he’s gay. He’s not just doing this. But there was nothing I could prove. And then I was in the Library of Congress, looking at Frederick Wortham’s papers. There was a little scrap that was Joe Marvel’s arrest. Frederick getting the phone call and writing down that Joe Marvel was arrested for soliciting in a toilet in Manhattan, and then the letter he wrote to the judge: This is a good man. Everything gets retracted, but within three or four weeks, the whole Quaker Emergency Service closes.

I knew it closed suddenly and I couldn’t figure out why, but finding that tiny scrap of paper… I almost didn’t go to Frederick Wortham’s archives because he’s not gay and not the most important person, but I was going to DC anyway, and then it was like, Yes!

CG: Going back to that one image of Florence Hines,I know some of my queer history has come from Instagram accounts like H_e_r_s_t_o_r_y or LGBT History. Can you talk about how it felt to come across photos in your research? When you actually found images of these stories you were discovering?

HR: That was super exciting. There were a couple moments where that happened really unexpectedly. I was working on the project and I went to have lunch with this older gay man who was very nice, and was very helpful. And he said, have you looked at this book called GI Hustlers of World War II?

It was a small press, not even a small press. It was one of those places where you send a PDF and they print it. And it was this guy in New York. He had images in there that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and they’re a little confusing. And he said, I was just kind of grabbing them off the internet, but one collection is actually a guy I knew. And they’re photos of all these gay men at beaches in New York City in the ’50s, but I don’t know if any of them are at Coney island.

So the Center had them, but they didn’t know who had made them. I was able to tell them, and identify them: “These ones are Coney Island, these are Riis Beach, these are Central Park.” I found photos from one of the gay bath houses, with guys on the roof! It’s in the book. I never thought I’d be able to find photos of those bath houses.

CG: There’s so much affirmation in this book. I’ve heard of things, but sometimes it felt like that’s all I’m entitled to, with queer history? I’ll go on hearsay, I’ll never actually see documentation. So that was really affirming to read that all these people were real.

HR: And particularly for me — I sent a lot of emails that don’t get answered, for years. Before I started researching Florence Hines, I was researching this woman Alberta Williams. And one of the researchers I had contacted reached out to me a year later and sent me this angry email, like, how dare I say these women lead such complicated lives and that I would put my modern categories upon them.

I wrote her back that I was just doing the research to find out. I did not include her in my book, because, as you say, she was not queer in any way that I can find. But then, finding that newspaper article about Florence Hines and Marie Roberts was one of those moments where I was like, yes!

CG: What is your greatest hope for readers of this book?

HR: I tried to make really clear that I started from a place of ignorance and to show as much as my process as I could because I don’t have a history degree. This was a labor of love. But it was also just a matter of asking questions over and over again, sometimes for years on end.

I really want people to look around and say, “Hey, I don’t need to wait for someone else. I can do some of this work on my own.”

I think it’s important because this is this weird moment for queer history where we’re entering the school system, we’re becoming a canon in a way that we haven’t before. So what is available now will determine what becomes this thread to everyone is expected to know.

Entering the national consciousness isn’t necessarily a paring down. I think that is excruciating, especially for those of us who lived through the pre-period, but I at least want the most options. I don’t want a situation where queer history is Walt Whitman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Stonewall, and then…Buffy. That’s problematic within itself but it kind of has to happen.

This was a labor of love. But it was also just a matter of asking questions over and over again, sometimes for years on end.

CG: Another thing I really loved was reading about the accounts of early queer lives where they were living without shame, because straight institutions hadn’t yet discovered or named queerness. What was it like to realize there were queer lives being lived before shame could be introduced?

HR: One of the things I think about all the time is homosociality. It wasn’t until I was writing the book that you can’t understand the emergence of homosexuality without understanding the death of homosociality that existed in the Victorian era.

For a long time it was expected that men spent a lot of time with men and women spent a lot of time with women — maybe they even sleep in the same bed, maybe they spend their whole lives together. And that that is a kind of love and a kind of queerness that we can’t recognize, that we don’t have the lens to view it, or to talk about it, because there is no shame, because we don’t know if they were having sex. It’s like, I don’t care if they were having sex . They lived their entire lives together — it’s pretty queer.

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