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BOOK REVIEW: ‘When Brooklyn Was Queer’

The infamous New York neighborhood was a lot gayer than you knew.

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Your city sure has changed. Landmarks were destroyed, the skyline is different, and streets are shifted in a way that feels odd. It’s like having dinner with a relative you met only once when you were nine. Everything and nothing is familiar—as in When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan.

Once upon a time, Brooklyn was little more than farms and fields. That’s the vista Walt Whitman saw when he stepped beyond the boundaries of New York City as he was creating his Leaves of Grass. He loved the area—a love he shared with laborers, prostitutes, and the rest of the crime-ridden, mostly-white population of Brooklyn in the mid-1800s.

As a gay man, Whitman would have noted many changes.

 

In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened, making it easy for residents to reach New York City. There, male and female impersonators found work at live-entertainment venues, where race mattered little and the sexes and social classes mixed freely at saloons, concert halls, dance halls, and theaters. For African-American actors, that relative permissiveness led to more acceptance and occasional fame.

By the time Brooklyn merged with The Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island in January 1898, a new world had emerged. Although antigay laws were on the books, gay men had a solid presence in mainstream society. Even so, says Ryan, most people didn’t learn much about homosexuals until World War I.

And yet, people couldn’t get enough of “queer” folk, especially with cabaret shows, vaudeville, and “freak shows” being so wildly popular. With a subway ride to Coney Island costing just a nickel, New Yorkers flocked to the boardwalk, perhaps titillated by the idea of seeing performers who were “gay.”

But Ryan notes that “things started to go off the rails” for the LGBT community at the end of World War II. With “homosexuals” being increasingly targeted by obscenity laws, Ryan observes that “the vibrant queer histories of places outside Manhattan would soon be forgotten.”

Reading When Brooklyn Was Queer is something like frosting a cake. From the starting point of a poet and a wharf full of sailors, readers glide smoothly to wood-floor dance halls, sweeping near audacious lesbian actors, scandal rags, legal fights, burly-Q stages, and then to the Jazz Age and beyond. Each spot is covered, sprinkled with asides, personal anecdotes from author Hugh Ryan, and modern references to create connections, before being gently folded into the next subject.

What may delight readers the most, though, are the book’s details.

While this is a history of Brooklyn specifically, and New York City in general, we’re taken to other cities and cultures to see how worldwide changes impacted Brooklyn’s residents. Like the inner workings of a clock, tiny facts drive larger events that become part of the big picture that readers see.

Unlike many books, this one doesn’t ignore anyone in the LGBTQ spectrum. So for readers searching for a fun, fascinating, all-encompassing history, When Brooklyn Was Queer should fill the bill.

This article appears in the April 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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