Brooklyn’s Hidden LGBTQ+ Past: Q&A with When Brooklyn Was Queer Author Hugh Ryan

Brian Sloan

Author and curator Hugh Ryan’s new book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, chronicles the borough’s hidden LGBTQ+ history from the mid-1800s to just before the Stonewall Uprising. Today’s Brooklyn is known as diverse and queer-friendly—but it wasn’t always that way. “When I grew up,” says Ryan, “you would think of fleeing from Brooklyn, if you thought of it. But in the 1920s and ’30s, there were these spaces where you could go in Brooklyn to have these particularly queer experiences.”

With WorldPride around the corner, we caught up with Ryan to talk about those experiences and some of the borough’s famous gay figures.

Walt Whitman in the engraved frontispiece from Leaves of Grass, by Samuel Hollyer, 1854

You start your book in the mid-1800s with Walt Whitman, who some refer to as the “Bard of Brooklyn.” Hugh Ryan: Whitman’s family moved to Brooklyn by the time he was 4, and stayed there for many years. He moved a bunch but mainly lived in Dumbo and the Brooklyn Heights area. He published Leaves of Grass at the Rome Brothers Print Shop, at the intersection of Cranberry and Fulton Streets, which is Cadman Plaza now. The one remaining building he lived in is 99 Ryerson Street, over by the Navy Yard. Whitman had a very modern sense of himself as a person who was different because of the way he loved others. In reading Leaves, you can see he was trying to work out what that means; to try to come up with words for those feelings. He loved manly, working-class men that he met along the waterfront—and the waterfront itself is a great place of cultural mixing.

Women contemplating the Sands Street entrance to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, c. 1942. Courtesy, Brooklyn Eagle Photographs – Brooklyn Public Library – Brooklyn Collection

Where on the waterfront was he hanging out? HR: I would say more the Downtown Brooklyn area—but by the Brooklyn Navy Yard too. The Navy Yard is important to Whitman, and the blocks around the Sands Street entrance in particular are where queer people met and cruised for decades.

Would you call those places you write about on Sands Street gay bars? HR: In the early 1900s, there are records of bars on Sands Street where the patrons, when they’re being arrested, say “all the men here are like us.” That’s the earliest evidence of a place we might call a gay bar. By the 1930s, people were coming to bars on Sands Street and the surrounding area to find trade and sailors. Most of these were not strictly gay bars, as women and straight people were also customers. But queer people were going to them for queer experiences. You look at the diaries of [New York City Ballet co-founder] Lincoln Kirstein, and he says he’s bringing Sergei Eisenstein to Brooklyn to find this bar they’ve heard about there.

St. George Hotel, 1943. Courtesy, the Irving I. Underhill photograph collection – Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library – Brooklyn Collection

Another important site in the book is the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights. HR: The St. George was one of the biggest hotels in the world in the late 1800s. A lot of the admirals or higher-ups who came to the Navy Yard would stay there. It started to get a reputation as a place where men could meet for clandestine affairs. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was known as a spot where the lifeguards at the pool were available or might know men who were available.

Hart Crane, c. 1920. Courtesy, the Richard W. Rychtarik/Hart Crane Papers; MSS 103; box 1; folder 3; Fales Library and Special Collections

The poet Hart Crane was a resident of Brooklyn Heights for many years too, right? HR: He was at 110 Columbia Heights, in the same building as the couple who worked on the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily and Washington Roebling. They’d lived in the same room.

There’s a fascinating story about Roebling in your book. HR: When he was courting his wife, Emily, they sent each other a lot of letters. She asked him once if there was anyone he would want to contact via a séance, and he said the only person was this friend from college, who had killed himself because Washington didn’t sufficiently return his affections. Washington had saved the letters this guy had written, which are all full of his protestations of love. This would have been around the 1850s, and it’s clear that Roebling loved and cared for him—even if not in perhaps the way he wanted.

February House. Courtesy, Brooklyn Historical Society

With people like Hart Crane and Marianne Moore living in Brooklyn Heights, it almost sounds like a mini Greenwich Village. HR: Starting in the 1900s and up to the 1960s, it’s the bohemian area of Brooklyn, and the architecture is similar too. You get less of a grid, you have these beautiful older buildings and then in the 1950s you have [avant-garde filmmakers] Willard Maas and Marie Mencken living there—the two people that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is based on. Then you have the queer filmmaker Kenneth Anger living in their building for a while, when he makes Scorpio Rising. And you get the February House folks too.

After the waterfront and the Heights, the third part of this Brooklyn gay triangle is Coney Island. How did it become important to queer life in the late 1800s? HR: It’s a place where everyone can go; you have a huge portion of the population of New York going to the beach at the same time. So that, combined with this already open sexual culture—you’re wearing less and going to bathhouses—contributes a lot to it. The Washington Baths and Stauch’s had a queer reputation. You also have a lot of acts performing there around gender, whether it’s a bearded woman or a female impersonator or a male impersonator, like Ella Wesner. She had intense sexual and romantic relationships with women, and when she died she asked to be buried in men’s clothing.

What’s your favorite queer spot in Brooklyn today? HR: I still think Coney Island is an amazing queer space. One of the folks I became close to when I first moved to the City was Jennifer Miller, who was then performing as the lady with a beard. There’s still this endless beach you can have fun on, and the Mermaid Parade is a celebration of costume and fun. The other one is the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Park Slope—you can just go and do research. The stuff they have inside is amazing.

On June 22, Hugh Ryan will lead a tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard about its place in local LGBTQ+ history. Presented with Turnstile Tours for WorldPride, it will end at the Kings County Distillery's Sands Street Gatehouses.