Exploring the LGBT History of Brooklyn

Posted on March 11, 2019

by Hugh Ryan

Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer is a groundbreaking exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the queer women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond. No other book, movie, or exhibition has ever told this sweeping story. Not only has Brooklyn always lived in the shadow of queer Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but there has also been a systematic erasure of its queer history—a great forgetting.

Ryan is here to unearth that history for the first time. In intimate, evocative, moving prose he discusses in new light the fundamental questions of what history is, who tells it, and how we can only make sense of ourselves through its retelling; and shows how the formation of the Brooklyn we know today is inextricably linked to the stories of the incredible people who created its diverse neighborhoods and cultures. Through them, When Brooklyn Was Queer brings Brooklyn’s queer past to life, and claims its place as a modern classic. Keep scrolling to explore a selection of photographs from the book.

“Whether Brooklyn or Manhattan, the waterfront is always the same,” he tells me. “Cruisy. Dangerous. Lonely. Attractive in that noir way that a lot of gays like—as I do myself.” He grins.

“Just nineteen years old, away from her parents for the first time in her life, (Mary Hallock) Foote threw herself headlong into her relationship with (Helena de Kay) Gilder. Smith-Rosenberg describes their correspondence as being filled with ‘nights wrapped in each other’s arms, the light of a full moon illuminating their pillow; of passionate kisses; of bathing and anointing each other’s bodies.'”

Anne Moses was one of those first women to walk into the boy’s club of the Todd Shipyard in 1942. Moses was a thirty-four-year-old butch with deep-set dark eyes, a wide nose, and the permanent hint of a smile on her face.

“This new group was centered around an area designated as Bay 13, which coincidentally enough was where Stauch’s bathhouse – the most popular among gay white men – was located. Soon, the area where the steps from Stauch’s hit the sand would become a popular hangout for the Puerto Rican community, and in particular, its queer members.”

“A flurry of queer poets would soon move to the area. Some, like the austere Marianne Moore, would decamp from Greenwich Village, as journalists had predicted earlier in the decade.”

Marianne Moore and Her Mother

On the evening of January 14th, 1916, Antonio Bellavicini went to work at a nameless saloon located at 32 Sands Street, about halfway between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Navy Yard. It was located on the corner of Adams Street, two steps down from the sidewalk, in the shadow of one of the elevated trains that prefigured the subway. Sands Street had a reputation as one of the worst streets in Brooklyn, where tattoo parlors and cheap chop suey joints catered to sailors and sex workers all night long. Despite the fact that it was a bitterly cold January night, with temperatures expected to dip into the teens, the saloon was busy with sailors and civilians out for fun on a Friday.

Truman Capote in the backyard of Oliver Smith’s Brooklyn Heights home.

Coney Island burlesque star Madam Tirza.

“The swarthy, diminutive Beatnik poet Harold Norse was born in Brooklyn in 1916, and raised in one of the large Jewish ghettos that had sprung up down by Coney Island. One of his earliest sexual memories was staring down from his narrow tenement window at the naked Italian boys horsing around in the showers of the nearby municipal bathhouse, “bodies glistening in the sun… flicking wet towels on bare butts.”

“I have to lead my life as best I can,” Opffer told his stepfather. “I don’t want to give up Hart’s friendship. After my dreary life at sea, I need some fun.”

“Loop-the-Loop was a young white trans woman from ‘the slums of Brooklyn,’ who was born on April 23rd, 1883 (just a few months before the death of The Great Ricardo). She was tall for her day – five foot, eight inches – and slender, with dark wavy brown hair that she often tucked under a blond wig.”

“Sometime in the 1860s, Wesner switched to male impersonations, which made her a star. By her heyday in the 1880s, she was earning over $200/week (an eye-popping $4200 a week in today’s money), and was one of the rare women to have her own variety troupe, known as Wesner’s Coterie.”

“In his daybook, Whitman kept lists of these men, mostly single line entries commenting on their looks, personalities, and family relationships. A typical snippet from one such catalog, written around the time of Leaves of Grass, reads: White (25) at Ferry with skeleton boat with Walt Baulsir – (5 ft 9 round – well built), Timothy Meighan (30) Irish, oranges, Fulton & Concord, James Dalton (Engine-Williamsburgh), Charley Fisher (26) 5th av. (hurt, diseased, deprived).”

Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is the Founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and sits on the Boards of QED: A Journal in LGBTQ Worldmaking, and the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art. His writing has appeared in The New York TimesTin House, Buzzfeed, the LA Review of BooksOut, and many other venues. He is the author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, and is the recipient of the 2016-2017 Martin Duberman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, and a 2018 residency at The Watermill Center.

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