[Marxism] ‘When Brooklyn Was Queer’ Evokes the Borough’s Hidden History

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 19 12:29:53 MDT 2019

NY Times Sunday Book Review, May 19, 2019
‘When Brooklyn Was Queer’ Evokes the Borough’s Hidden History
By Caleb Crain

When Brooklyn Was Queer
By Hugh Ryan
Illustrated. 320 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $29.99.

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research in newspaper archives, unpublished letters and collections of 

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.

Caleb Crain is the author of the novel “Overthrow,” which will be 
published in August.

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