WHEN I FIRST STEPPED FOOT in Brooklyn, I remember being utterly shocked at how empty it was. Closed shops. Few to no pedestrians. Warehouses with broken windows. Each stood as a vestige of a bygone era. But nothing in its renovation and extreme gentrification over the past 10 years pointed to which groups of people had once trampled the streets, which businesses occupied these empty lots, and what type of lovers frolicked on benches. In When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), Hugh Ryan opens up this Pandora’s box, allowing new and old queers to discover the borough that birthed so many of our contemporary notions of gender and sexuality, and which gladly became the founding mother of our terminology.
Ryan’s book begins in the 1850s and ends with the Stonewall riots in 1969 — a chunk of time not often considered in the general public’s understanding of LGBTQ history. For many, queer history in America began post-1969, when the LGBTQ community took a stand against police brutality and demanded equal rights. But Ryan staunchly disagrees. Taking root in the father of gay poetics, Ryan begins his book by discussing Walt Whitman’s overzealous declarations of his love of men. Though some poetry scholars, afraid of academic backlash, have defended Whitman’s lovers in the general sense, Ryan instead points to the specifics of his canonical Leaves of Grass, where Whitman admits to engaging in sexual acts with a large cast of men, men he would often find along the Brooklyn waterfront. “Brooklyn’s waterfront offered the density, privacy, diversity, and economic possibility that would allow queer people to find each other in ever-increasing numbers,” writes Ryan. In 1855, when Leaves of Grass was first published, the Brooklyn Bridge had yet to be erected, and Brooklyn, therefore, stood as a standalone space that looked to Manhattan as a long-lost sister. It is perhaps this sense of longing that propelled Whitman into his linguistic and sexual fantasies, but it was never a longing that he could not act on. He just had to look to the sailors, artists, sex workers, and performers gathered around the water for inspiration and release.
For Ryan, Whitman was one of the first Brooklyn poets to embody “queerness,” and to quote Ryan: “I use the catchall queer, similarly to the way [Martin] Boyce uses queen, to refer to people whose sexuality or gender identity isn’t conventional for their time.” For the purpose of this article, I will continue here to use queer the same way Ryan does, since the word today means so much and so little that it’s often hard to assign it true signification.
Historical records of Whitman’s life have never included castigation for his sexual proclivities, nor have they pointed to a general social aversion to queerness. Sexual acceptance as understood through Whitman’s poetry is a notion that Robert K. Martin and George Chauncey discussed at length in their writing — very much to the horror of traditional Whitman scholars, who believed in studying his poetry exclusively as a poetic feat and not as a sociological representation. Ryan follows Martin and Chauncey’s gendered and queer perspectives, but goes a step further to argue that John A. Roebling’s construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1869 enabled Whitman’s sexual inclinations to spill over to the sister island. For Ryan, this was a turning point in opening Brooklyn’s doors and its sexual community to eccentric Manhattanites.
Ryan proposes that the absorption of Brooklyn into Manhattan’s umbrella ushered in a period of extreme experimentation, namely in the arts, performance, social interaction, and in race relations — though he also makes it clear that Brooklyn was by no means a friendly place for people of color. In fact, Ryan explains that there is very little documentation of people of color in Brooklyn’s queer history, and that the only documentation that exists was written by anti-POC advocates, hateful cowards, and police officials following an arrest.
[A]s the world of separate spheres for the sexes began to collapse, artists that played with gender became more and more in demand. As loose, public women and flashy, oversexed dudes became cause for popular concern, they also served as fodder for comic relief.
In comes the variety show, where men performed in feminine drag and women took on the roles of drag kings. Ryan cites Ella Wesner, one of the most celebrated male impersonators of the era. Men would flock to the theater to watch her perform, oscillating between fascination for her talented performance and confusion around her disavowal of femininity. This intersection is perhaps what made this moment in time so rich in surprises. Ryan quotes academic Gillian Rodger when she says that “variety audiences accepted male impersonators as exceptional … there was a place within working-class culture for strong assertive women.” Yet he also stresses the role race had in this equation:
Whereas white male impersonators used the dandy to mock modern masculinity, black drag acts also used the dandy as a way to resist the degraded depictions of black men, and overly sexualized images of black women, that were popular onstage with white audiences and performers.
While on the facade these performances were designed for entertainment, they were also fundamental acts of political and social activism. These are the performances that shaped our early notions of sexuality and gender, and, in doing so, have contributed to the creation of the social stereotypes that so quickly turned against the queer community during World War I.
[Homosexual sex in the Victorian era] wasn’t something to be celebrated, but it didn’t define someone as being a different kind of person. Who you wanted to have sex with was one component in your larger ability to conform to proper gendered behavior — not the defining line between homosexuality and heterosexuality that we treat it as today.
At the turn of the century, Ryan shifts our attention to the growing world of surveillance and intolerance heralded by heterosexual white men in power. “[I]f the nineteenth century was about noticing queer people, the twentieth century would be about controlling them,” he poignantly says. Today, we know this notion of control far too well — a notion that defines almost every single one of our interactions. Ryan sheds light on legal cases that created contemporary terminological intolerance around homosexual behaviors. He takes the case of James Vickers as an example, who was found raped and murdered in an apartment he shared with two men in east New York. This case gained the attention of the general public and slowly bent terminology to equate sodomy with homosexuality and then with pedophilia. Cases like these were instrumental in giving anti-LGBTQ advocates the ammunition to draw up unofficial legislature and public discourse that would vilify the queer community. So they did.
In the 1920s, people in power expanded on homosexuality’s definition to include appearance. They put into practice a type of sexual stop-and-frisk policy that allowed them to arrest anyone who might appear queer. “Eugenicists viewed being a pickpocket as a biological, inheritable, and permanent condition […] nearly identically to the way they viewed homosexuality,” writes Ryan. To that effect, the Committee of Fourteen criminalized same-sex activity for the first time. While other regulations were put into place to keep transvestism off the streets, such as the requirement to wear at minimum three articles of clothing that socially matched your biological gender, this criminalization of same-sex activity was another excuse for law enforcement to bring in anyone they considered different enough to cause public confusion. So continued the arbitrary fabrications of gender performance, which Judith Butler would dismantle much later in 1990’s Gender Trouble.
While Ryan weaves his research by way of the famous queer poets and writers that have now become staples of our curricula — Hart Crane, W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, editor George Davis, and Marianne Moore all make appearances — he also knows when to bring us back to the limitations of quotidian reality, emphasizing that although the beauty of queerness was roaming the streets, filling up theaters, and crowding the narrow halls of hotels and bars, it was by no means roaming freely. It was constantly chased, shut down, murdered, beaten up, and dismissed by those who simply didn’t understand. The Great Depression changed everything, and the world no longer had affection for the queer excesses of the earlier 20th century.
The world no longer seemed to have a place for a poet interested in romantic epics filled with love, myth, and transcendence. The magazines where [Hart] Crane had once published his work […] were now either gone or only interested in political writing.
With both prohibition and the Great Depression, political writing became a way for society to think through the harsh economic realities of culture, and editors began to look away from romanticized or essentialized cultural criticism to shift their focus to practical concerns. Writers then began to lose both their outlets of expression and their physical spaces of refuge. Queer venues started to disappear, the queer community started to crawl deep within the dark halls of unsupervised institutions, and the freedom that Whitman or Crane might have once experienced to love freely disappeared in favor of a new normal.
Ryan approaches his research topic with an easy command of language, highlighting pivotal characters in yet another forgotten history, injecting comedy at times of sorrow, and capturing the joy and pride of queer progenitors from an era long before the commodified, corporate annual marches and parades of today. As curator of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, Ryan is now the forerunning historian of Brooklyn’s queer history, taking part in the long-standing tradition of queers imparting the community’s history from one generation to the next. Even if there might not have been the same understanding of sexuality that we have today, or if inadequate medical and mental health professionals formulated a flawed terminology to speak of such sexuality, Ryan tells us that behind every object or building is the romantic history of a community buried by the devastation of urban renewal. That in between the lines of each queer document is the poetic hum of a Whitman speaking out to the open waters, or a ravished Crane professing his love for the male body. That hidden in the audience of any drag king or queen performance is the laughter of an Ella Wesner, enjoying every moment of her legacy on stage.
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.