When Brooklyn Was Bizarre: Telling the Story of the Borough’s LGBT Previous | Books
F.or five years, Hugh Ryan chased strange ghosts through the streets of Brooklyn, amid the racks of New York public libraries, among court files and yellow newspaper clippings, to create a picture of their lost world.
The result is When Brooklyn Was Queer, a fun, tender, and disturbing story of LGBT life that begins in an era when these letters meant nothing and ended before the Stonewall Riots ushered in the modern era of gay politics .
The book grew out of Ryan’s other project, the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, a type of travel museum that creates installations that celebrate the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Ryan and friends had done shows about local queer history in other cities, but never in Brooklyn, where many of them lived. When they decided to hold an event in Brooklyn, they called for information and received little response. “People just didn’t know Brooklyn’s weird story,” says Ryan. “I thought I would just go to the library and get the book on the history of Queer Brooklyn. It’s probably from the 1970s and all 10 people read it. There was no. “
Ryan began gathering information and then received a Martin Duberman Fellowship for LGBT Studies at the New York Public Library. “You said to me that when you were through with this fellowship, you should get your book proposal written.”
A recurring topic in his research that intrigued Ryan was how Brooklyn’s rise from rural backwater to New York’s Second City reflected increased interest in sex and gender studies and – unfortunately – the rise in homophobia, bigotry, and abuse.
Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869, the same year that human rights activist and journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny first used the terms homosexual and heterosexual.
Shortly before, the Erie Canal finally connected the city to the Great Lakes, bringing jobs and the urbanization that allowed strange life to thrive – especially along the Brooklyn waterfront.
“Brooklyn’s growth is on the same timeline as our modern conceptions of sexuality evolve,” says Ryan. “You could compete against the two of them. I used Brooklyn as an example of how things were going in the world and in America in general. “
The poet Hart Crane. Photo: Fales Rychtarik
The book is peppered with the stories of Brooklyn homosexuals who were on yesterday’s A-list: Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Truman Capote. Then there is The February House – a Brooklyn townhouse that once housed WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee, and which also houses Salvador Dalí, his fearsome wife and muse Gala, and writers Paul and Jane Bowles (a Cast that would make the most cerebral Celebrity Big Brother house ever).
The book is also characterized by the fact that it reveals how life was for “normal” queer people like Loop-the-Loop, a trans woman and sex worker from Brooklyn, at a time when “trans” was not part of the vocabulary was (Loop preferred) Fee ”) and Coney Islands gay working class bathhouses.
Much of the information Ryan gathered came from sources the LGBT community hated – and increasingly as it was researched and categorized.
One of these groups was the 14-member committee, a group of morally just New Yorkers who campaigned for a ban, then against (pure) prostitution and, when they discovered the queer community, followed them up too.
“You were crazy,” said Ryan. “On the one hand, I’m glad they existed, otherwise the records they kept would not have existed, but at the same time it’s shocking. They were a very strange group of people. “
One of the fascinating aspects of the book is how accepted the queer community was at certain times (and by certain people) in Brooklyn. During the ban, gay and straight bars merged, while during the war the strange life flourished when sailors flocked to the city, the categories were looser than they are today and – again with reservations – there was acceptance.
Hugh Ryan. Photo: M. Sharkey
“Before World War II, especially in the 1920s, there were a lot more rooms where queer and non-queer people mingled,” says Ryan. “There was even that time of ‘the pansy madness’ when it was fashionable to have men with sagging wrists in movies that were gay or trans, or in movies entirely outside of them.”
But as the weird profiles rose, so did the backlash. The lifting of the ban drifted gays and apart and the queers went underground, where the police – and the mafia – were after them.
America’s love affair with eugenics, the “science” of improving the population through controlled breeding, caught up with the queer community, as it did with people of color. Queers were dangerous to the nation’s health, easy to blackmail, untrustworthy. They have been driven out of public life, science, and films; Society turned against them.
Thousands of men were arrested for “degeneracy” every year in the 1940s. In 1942, Senator David Ignatius Walsh’s career was shattered in a sensational sex scandal that included rumors that he had visited a gay brothel in Brooklyn used by Nazi spies. The New York Post, which had fought for the US to join the war against Germany when Walsh opposed it, broke the story known as the “Swastika Swishery”.
Ryan believes Walsh was likely gay, but claims he visited the brothel were doubtful.
The owner of the brothel, Gustave Beekman, and several others were arrested. Beekman worked with authorities but was still given a 20-year sentence in Sing Sing for sodomy and was not released until 1963.
“The legacy of all of this is when we get that twist on homophobia – 45 versus Stonewall or the early 80s – there is this really negative notion that gay life is sad, small, limited, dirty, painful and haunted. And I think we internalized that. Always before Stonewall, this was gay life, when it really was, how gay life was, when gay life became talkable and its story was written in most parts of America, ”says Ryan.
“We have this ahistorical idea that in 1957, life was life for gay people.
A picture from Brooklyn Pride 2015. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo
“Well, that’s not the case now. Today Brooklyn is arguably the epicenter for queer New York culture, lively, diverse, out and proud. It’s great, ”says Ryan. “It’s exciting, more diverse than ever. Stronger. I think people pay attention to it. What happens in Brooklyn sets the tone – and not just in queer culture. “
But is it sustainable? Can we keep the profits we have while we strive for more?
“It’s very difficult to say. There are a ton of cuts that occur whenever progressive wins are made. We are always on a pendulum. I worry about this, but I think some things have changed forever. “
There’s probably no better time for us to relearn Brooklyn’s strange story.