When Brooklyn Was Queer
By Hugh Ryan
In 1929, a gay novelist in a Brooklyn cafeteria was flirted with by his waiter, to the novelist’s surprise. “Brooklyn is wide open,” he reported to a friend, “and N.Y. should be notified of its existence.”
The borough is wide open today, too, but between today’s openness and that of a century ago, a shadow of oblivion fell in the late 20th century. Hugh Ryan was inspired to write “When Brooklyn Was Queer,” his boisterous, motley new history, when, a few years ago, he set up an amateur museum of local queer history in his Bushwick loft — he prefers the term “queer” for its chronological sweep and denotation of gender and sexual nonconformity — and noticed that queers in Brooklyn today know little about their antecedents.
As if to dramatize the disjuncture, Ryan’s introduction features a gay elder who remembers almost nothing of the borough’s queer history — a somewhat frustrating way to begin. When Ryan then turns to Brooklyn’s queer bard Walt Whitman in Chapter 1, he has a little trouble getting his bearings, wrongly locating the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the west of the neighborhood Vinegar Hill, mistakenly interpolating a “the” into the title of Whitman’s famous poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and improbably suggesting that Whitman studied ancient Greek (the poet’s formal schooling ended at age 11). Ryan also scolds Whitman for addressing himself primarily to fellow “white, male, cisgender artists,” a rebuke that seems to me not quite fair. Whitman did express ugly prejudice in some conversations recorded late in life, but his offenses should perhaps be balanced, in judging his work, against his consistent support for equal rights for all and his poetic efforts to share imaginatively in the experiences and sensibilities of women, blacks and laborers.
Ryan hits his stride once he reaches the late 19th century, however, and by Chapter 2 the book has become an entertaining and insightful chronicle, building on earlier histories by George Chauncey, Sherill Tippins and Charles Kaiser, among others, and enhanced by original research in newspaper archives, unpublished letters and collections of ephemera.
Ryan’s central thesis is that the old queer Brooklyn had a distinct economic basis: the waterfront. “Early queer life flourished where there were jobs queer people could have,” he explains. From the 1840s, when Brooklyn’s docks began to take on the excess shipping business that Manhattan’s could no longer handle, until 1966, when the Brooklyn Navy Yard was shut down, the jobs of “sailor, artist, sex worker, entertainer and female factory worker,” Ryan argues, were abundant enough to support a queer community.
Almost all the Brooklynites he writes about had such jobs, located along or near the shore in bourgeois-bohemian Brooklyn Heights, in working-class Coney Island and Red Hook, or on lumpenproletariat Sands Street near the Navy Yard. At the Gaiety Theater on Old Fulton Street, for example, the drag king Ella Wesner sang nightly in the 1880s of being “a chap that’s dead stuck on women and wine”; her relationship with a fellow actress was described by one newspaper as “an unnatural attachment” and by another as “singular.” Elizabeth Trondle, arrested in a Brooklyn saloon in 1913 for cross-dressing, had been a sailor — she had the tattoos to prove it — and a letter she wrote to President Woodrow Wilson asking special permission to wear men’s clothes was reprinted nationwide. Loop-the-Loop, documented in a 1917 case study, was a trans sex worker in Coney Island; she had named herself after one of its roller coasters.
Hart Crane was already a well-known poet when he moved to Brooklyn Heights with his lover, a Danish sailor and journalist, in 1924. Crane exulted in their apartment’s grand view of the Brooklyn Bridge, about which he was trying to write a book-length sequence of poems, knowing that one of his apartment’s previous inhabitants, Washington Roebling, had helped erect it. (Ryan compounds this conjunction of the queer and the literary-cultural, though it was probably unknown to Crane: When Roebling was a teenager, a friend of his committed suicide because, Roebling later confessed to his wife, “he loved me and I didn’t sufficiently reciprocate his affections.”)
As distinctively colorful as these lives were, they were powerfully shaped by institutions, Ryan’s history shows. The Committee of Fourteen, a private group formed in 1905 to fight prostitution, sent undercover investigators to the Sands Street bars during World War I, inadvertently recording queer evidence for posterity (“It seems to me that the sailors were sex mad,” an informer reported), and contributing to a spike in arrests for “degeneracy.” Between 1935 and 1943, Brooklyn queers helped recruit subjects for the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants, a not-altogether-scientific organization run by, among others, a psychiatrist and a closeted, defrocked Episcopal priest, which published a two-volume documentary history of queer life in 1941 and helped draft boards in the city determine who was and who wasn’t a homosexual during World War II. After the war, the psychiatrist and the ex-priest went on to counsel veterans arrested for soliciting sex in movie theaters and subway toilets, with the aim of shoring up the men’s self-respect.
In the end, it was neither vice squads nor psychologizing that shut down old queer Brooklyn. That sociocultural formation was liquidated instead by the automobile, Ryan reports, and by the automobile’s champion in New York City, Robert Moses. As transportation changed, Brooklyn’s shipping business collapsed, taking queer livelihoods with it, and Moses built new highways that cut Brooklyn’s waterfronts off from the rest of the borough. The Sands Street bars that had once harbored sex-mad sailors were leveled, as were queer haunts in Coney Island, Red Hook and Brooklyn Heights; public housing projects were built in their place. Moses had the former home of Hart Crane and Washington Roebling demolished to make way for an on-ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.