When Brooklyn Was Queer

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 05 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

When Brooklyn Was Queer is a fantastic historical in depth book of the Queer history of Brooklyn. Well written and thoroughly researched.
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I received this book in exchange for a honest review from NetGalley.

I adored this book. It is a thoughtful, interesting and as thorough as can be history in the best way possible. There are so many histories that do not face the kinds of challenges that this one faced (poor documentation and a lack of personal stories/ first hand accounts) that do not have the kind of depth, passion and readability that this history has. I am an avid reader of nonfiction and history/microhistory books and if all of them were created with the obvious love and passion that this one was then I would never have unfinished books.
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Ryan doesn't fall into the trap of just saying 'but they weren't gay back then'. We are given a better outline of why our modern terminology isn't sufficient to explain the complexities of queer life (in Brooklyn) during the years that are written about. When Brooklyn Was Queer also looks at queer identities - particularly gay identities, but also instances of trans identities and how these were blurred by concepts of inversion and the like - through military and naval life and their interactions with class and geography, the queer writer/poet/artists and entertainers of the periods, and the various medical approaches, both empathetic and bigoted, that furthered good and bad concepts of queerness.   All of these are incorporated into a timeline, broken up into chapters bordered by major events in the world, and introducing a new view of Brooklyn's queer lives.
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This is an outstanding book about queer Brooklyn, organized by time and including insightful but never pedantic commentary on the area's development; its famous inhabitants, particularly those who helped make parts of the borough a safe space for queers; the role of the military and industry in Brooklyn's queer lives, and the contributions queer Brooklynites have made to American and world arts and civil rights. Author Hugh Ryan writes in a clear, accessible, and personal style that is a pleasure to read. I learned a great deal from this book not just on the topic of queer Brooklyn, but also about the fantastic resources Ryan used, the ways in which a book dealing with histories of overlapping place, people, and society can be crafted, I highly recommend this book for school, college, and university libraries in addition to individual readers.
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The book I didn't realize I needed until I read it. This penetrating yet conversational examination of around 100 years of pivotal queer history of Brooklyn felt like sitting your knowledgable queer historian friend down for a drink and asking what their dissertation was about. The author's narrative style lended itself well to exploring the alleys and byways that studying queer history can lead one into while not getting bogged down in minutiae. I learned so much and laughed at several points, discovering poets, artists, and activists to learn more about in my adopted-home borough. This is the book I will be recommending all my queer friends read this year, both for information but also as a concrete and friendly explanation of how we've always been here.
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This is an interesting history of Queer people in NYC, specifically focusing on Brooklyn.  Though the book is well researched and cites many outside sources, it is well written enough for someone without much background on the subject.  It is approachable to nonacademic audience, but could also serve as an academic text in history and sociology of these groups.
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Queer history is difficult to navigate. Often hidden and without personal identifying terms, LGBTQIA+ individuals from the 1960s and prior have maneuvered as afterthoughts in broader narratives. Yet, as author Hugh Ryan proves, meticulous research can bring these pre-Stonewall stories back into view.

When Brooklyn Was Queer manages to fill a gap in historical research while maintaining an engrossing narrative. Ryan identifies the Brooklyn waterfront as the true beginning of the gay identity with Walt Whitman and the publication of Leaves of Grass. At the same time, Brooklyn was evolving as a port, becoming a center for not only sailors and factory workers, but sex workers, performance artists, and a host of other groups. With such a confined space comes the ability for queer individuals to begin exploring their identities.

And this is really where Ryan’s work excels. He has no problem discussing some of the major queer players, from Truman Capote to Carson McCullers. But when he shines a light on everyday individuals, this book launches into another tier. From lovers secretly meeting on the beach to queer individuals learning they’re not alone, each of their experiences is compiled with deep respect and care. There’s a long discussion about sex work that grows with the expansion of Brooklyn, and the focus on Loop-the-Loop, a trans sex worker, is a particular highlight.

Ryan is careful of exploring the spectrum of queer identities while noting limitations he discovered. The vast majority of experiences he relays come from cis white men, denoting the privileges that existed for gay men (that still continue). However, by uncovering the records that were available, Ryan has crafted the most wonderfully diverse LGBTQIA+ history that is currently available.

Perhaps most remarkably, Ryan’s work, while honing in on a very specific location in the United States, feels universal. These stories comprise the sometimes flamboyant, sometimes tragic, yet always unique history of queers in America.
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Fascinating. Eye-opening. Brilliantly put together. History that very much deserves to be told.

I think the author did a wonderful job explaining complicated, nuanced issues like society’s evolving views on gender identity, sexual orientation, and even race. It was so enlightening to read how the contemporary mores and the changing scientific and psychological views of the times impacted queer people, as well as women and people of color of that period. I never realized before that queer people’s rights were actually threatened and constricted more with the passage of time, rather than less. Naively thinking that the further along the twentieth century, the better things got. Sadly, things got worse before they got better.

The book is built up through glimpses into the lives of several (presumed) queer people of that period which makes it even more gripping and poignant, because we have actual people, faces and names to put on these facts. I very much enjoyed all the photos throughout the book, they help so much in visualizing everything. I was quite happily surprised by how many the author was able to find. 

I really enjoyed the writing style, which was incredibly informative and insightful, but never got too heavy or dry. Quite the opposite, in fact! I loved learning about Brooklyn’s queer history this way and I’ve highlighted numerous things along the way that I want to delve into deeper.

Truly a wonderful read.
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When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan is a free NetGalley ebook that I read into early March.

The author, Ryan, digs deeper for queer history in Brooklyn during a span of time between 1855 to 1969, often taking the perspective of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and non-gender conforming actors, singers, artists, athletes, vaudevillians, business owners, and writers. In this way, history is effervescently alive and the streets are teeming with life, ambition, and new ideas with gatherings at house parties, going to clubs in Greenwich Village and Harlem, working and meeting at Coney Island, as well as the Promenade, the Navy Yard, and in Brooklyn Heights. Then again, there is also the sometimes hidden, sometimes overt instances of discrimination, like anti-gay crusaders and moral purists just before the start of WWI, racially segregation and limitations placed on women and people of color as to not being able to note their own history, vaudeville's open yet garish social and cultural stereotypes (i.e. male and female impersonation), anal sex between two men charged as a criminal act of sodomy and solicitation of sex as an act of degeneracy, the Hays Code, busts of molly houses and peg houses to expose their clientele, courtroom judges and policemen linking homosexuality to criminal activity after the end of WWII, and the gradual redevelopment of Coney Island by the Parks Department in 1952, and the expanse of suburbs taking over the Brooklyn waterfront.
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As a history teacher, New Yorker (parents and paternal grandparents born and raised in Brooklyn) and a supporter of the LBGTQ community I knew that I had to read this book as soon as I saw it on Netgalley. Luckily, I was approved and started reading it right away. 

From the first pages, you can tell the author had done a lot of research on Brooklyn’s history. I learned a lot about Queer lifestyle and Brooklyn itself. The stories about Queer people in Brooklyn was rich in information. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about New York City history! Highly recommend if you are looking to expand your knowledge on the topic.
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Hugh Ryan's When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History is a delicate but grand truth presented with great care.

Although it's too early in the year to say, I'm certain that this book is a highlight of my 2019. It's a new favorite!

If you're a loyal fiction reader who's interested in trying nonfiction, I suggest that you start with this book. The way the author presented the facts he gathered wasn't overwhelming. The experience of reading it was as smooth and familiar as revisiting your favorite novel.

Unraveling a hundred and fifty years of Brooklyn's queer history, the stories were heartfelt, dangerous, and seductive. I was hooked from page one and sobbing by the last. I wish I could visit the places mentioned just so I could hear the echoes left behind by these beautiful people, but most of these locations are long gone.

As a history enthusiast, an aspiring writer, and an artist, I am very glad that it has opened doors that led me to timeless stories and works that could further inspire me. I have started looking up the featured people and their masterpieces halfway through reading and can't wait to learn more from them.

It is important to read When Brooklyn Was Queer because it unearthed the voices that had been buried and opressed for years. I know some people who are still homophobic, but I believe that this will open hearts and lead to fuller acceptance of the LGBTQIA community. The release of this book will cause great change for the better.

I highly recommend it. I will definitely check out the author's future works.
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Hugh Ryan is an interesting fellow, so when I saw this book was coming out I was intrigued! Hugh is a curator of queer history, a writer and speaker and New York is his home. If someone was going to write the queer history of Brooklyn then this was the man.

I haven't read a queer history book before, books about specific events or people sure, but this one is fascinating. This begins around the time of Walt Whitman. Ryan writes about the way that the waterfront "created conditions that allowed queer lives to flourish in Brooklyn." It was a diverse community that was a place of privacy and numbers...and allowed queer folks to live in relative safety. But has that history been deliberately forgotten? 

The book, of course, tells the stories of some of the more famous queer people living in the area...but also gives the reader a better understanding of what life in the 1850s and forward was like an LGBTQ person.

Consider giving this a read if you're interested in history! This might surprise you!
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"When Brooklyn was queer" is not your usual feel-good book. It's a research project spanning back centuries on queer history and what it was to be queer in America. I did not expect this book to be so heavy, not when it comes to making the reader feel sad or impotent but because it is so well researched. It is the kind of book that makes you feel hopeful because, in the face of hardship, they persevered, they formed their own community, their own families when the ones they had been given were not enough. I particularly liked the fact that there are photographs of some of the people that are talked about. It felt nice to look at people who History was not able to erase or pretend didn't exist just because the world was not ready for them. This is a book that will probably be a lot more interesting for American audiences though. Thank you to St. Martins Press and Net Galley for this ARC.
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I really tried to love this book I just could not. The concept was great and Hugh Ryan went into a lot of detail which was great but I could only read a chapter at a time and had to stop. The balance between queer identities was great and it was great to see those who weren't gay men taking as much print such as discussions about gay men. It's an interesting read but not the most capitivating.
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When Brooklyn Was Queer is a fascinating read in which the author delves deep into the history of same-sex relationships and gender identity.  Whilst this is in itself is not a unique undertaking, author Hugh Ryan goes a step further, tying threads of the past to a central location—Brooklyn, New York.  From its identity as a waterfront harbor, filled with sailors and businessmen, through its transformation into a city full of queer spaces, Ryan shares stories of the individuals who contributed to the emergence of “queer Brooklyn”.  He also explores how that rise was experienced by white males, females and people of color—distinctions between which are followed throughout.  He finally presents in glaring detail the sobering events that worked like falling dominos to destroy the fragile space.

Prior to this read, I considered myself fairly well versed on the gay movement.  I knew about the Stonewall Riots and have friends who were there in the thick of things, making chaos as they also made a profound statement of solidarity and strength.  I had never considered what being gay meant before those riots, however, aside from assuming that life was closeted and shrouded in secrecy.  It was so much more complex than I had ever imagined.

The book opens with what I felt were the most moving and poignant pages—a brief glimpse into the shared lives of Gypsy Rose Lee and Carson McCullers.  It’s a beautiful prologue that sets the stage for the rich and varied history that follows—and Ryan dives right in, explaining his use of the term “queer”:  

“...in my research I use the catchall queer...to refer to people whose sexuality or gender identity isn’t conventional for their time, which helps me avoid projecting specific modern identities (such as gay or transgender) on folks for whom those ideas wouldn’t necessarily have made a lot of sense.”  

From there, the book proceeds to lay down the first blocks in the foundation of queer life in Brooklyn—the publication in that city of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  The author simultaneously explicates Whitman’s verse and uses it as a lens through which to delve into Whitman’s sexuality.  Whitman’s time as a resident of Brooklyn is the first marker of queer life in that city.           

The Victorian-era discussion that begins with Whitman is explored through fact-based conjecture that addresses the societal constructs of relationships during that period.  Ryan shares letters, diaries and publications to support the assertion that many of the intimate friendships may have been same-sex attractions, either considered or embraced, that would today be referred to as “gay”—and his research is as deep as it is broad. More hard evidence in the form of newspaper articles and editorials, personal accounts and publications underpin the rest of the book, as queer Brooklyn is birthed, then “erased”, from 1884-1969.  Throughout, there is frank discussion of both gender identity and sexuality, public acceptance and prejudice 

There’s so much to be learned, and Ryan teaches by sharing with readers facts and short narratives that bring to life the drag kings and queens, the activists and those simply living their truths as queer men and women.  From Brooklyn Heights to Coney Island, the streets are filled with stories that are sometimes funny, at other times full of heartbreak.  Unrequited love, bawdy behavior, beautifully intimate relationships and the cruelty of human nature is all on display here, eliciting from the reader both laughter and tears.  

This is a must read for anyone living the queer life or simply interested in the issues of the LGBTQ community. As queer Brooklyn is rising like a phoenix from the ashes, a clear understanding of its history allows for an appreciation of the joys, as well as the sacrifices, experienced there—small, sometimes seemingly insignificant events that shaped and forever changed what it means to be queer.

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my review.  This book is slated for publication in March, 2019.
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I didn't just enjoy this book, but I'll confess I was enraptured? No, that's too strong a word. Truth be told I never in my life paid attention to "Queer folk." If I knew someone who was gay before I hit the age of 30, then I didn't know. I never paid attention to that. It's not that I ignored it, I just never realized. Don't get me wrong, because I knew people were gay, I had just never consciously come across it. 
 But, I moved to Montana in my early to mid 30's, and I noticed "finally" that I not only worked with, but had become best friends with men and women who were gay. I've always prided myself in being open to everyone. Yet, how could I have gone all those thirty some odd years? I still don't get it! Since then, I've heard some heartbreaking tales from people I've known and loved. Not only have they had the same hormonal shit that every single person in the world has to deal with, but they also have to deal with judgemental society. Parents, classmates, so called friends, and worse...strangers. I've known 3 people who've been beaten up, and 1  who had her house burnt down. All from strangers.  One of my best friends was from a military family. Man...his father. Ach! I'm just one of those people who still doesn't get other people who judge on what they think is right or wrong. Who gives a 🐀rats ass?  Murder, rape, and pedos piss me off. I'm not religious, but I've always believed the old adage of love them all, and let god sort them out.  And if I were religious, any entity that I were to worship wouldn't judge on stupid shit! Being a fairly decent person works for me. When I dislike someone it's because they're a jackass. All in all, I'll confess that if I was gay, I would have to live in a bigger town than Helena, Montana. Not because I'm afraid of small town folk. Although they can be 😱 frightful at times. It's just that when I was younger I loved bigger cities. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll! 😈😇  Also, I can only imagine that in bigger places, I would have more fun and find more like minded people. As a boring old straight, I can find my kind everywhere. I loved this book because it must have been a great time. Scary? Yes. But, revolutionary? Yes. My thanks to High Ryan, who put in a lot of research for this. Mad respect! Also, Netgalley for the free e-book to read and review. "Whether I liked it or not!" Yes, I would recommend this book.
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Love, love, loved this. Thoughtful, well-researched, and engagingly written. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in queer history or the history of New York City.
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This was so much more than I was expecting it to be. The information provided was thoughtful, interesting and engaging, while still informing a great deal of new knowledge. What I appreciated was that the book did not simply stick to queer history of the time and area specifically, but explained every influence that impacted the flow of queer society from the work available to the artists of the times and the changes in the religious and political climates. These seemingly unrelated changes would not have appeared to have great influence on their own; it makes a great deal of difference to see the confluence of events that shaped everything from shaping laws to rewriting definitions and to see where society grew from.
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When Brooklyn Was Queer was a deeply researched and fascinating book.The history was absolutely intriguing. The author took the reader on a historical journey from 1855 to 1969. Along the way, the history of Brooklyn’s people and places came alive through a myriad of informative and captivating stories. For example, the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s role during the war was well known, but it was also a friendly place where LGBT met and even worked together. It was also interesting to read about Walt Whitman’s role in the prosperity of Brooklyn’s inclusiveness during his time living there. His poems added to the allure of Brooklyn and its people…especially for those who were able to decipher its meaning. Another interesting story involved the arrest of a cross dresser, which was not uncommon in 1913.  Elizabeth Trondle wrote a letter to President Wilson asking for his permission to wear men’s clothing. But it was not just about the clothing. Trondle wanted to be respected and have opportunities for better paying jobs. She felt she could only have this life as a male.Of course, newspapers across the country published the letter. Trondle’s story not only drew attention to her cause, but society started to dissect and discuss sexology and queerness. There were those defending her actions, while others condemned her behavior. Unfortunately, so many years later, in today’s society, total acceptance is still hard to come by. 
Since I was born and educated in Brooklyn, I figured this would be an interesting book to read. I had no idea about this part of Brooklyn’s history. Well, I received an exceptional education by reading this book, and so can anyone else who enjoys not just history, but an absorbing read with the added benefit of educating yourself along the way.
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