Bookworm Sez - "When Brooklyn Was Queer"

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan. c. 2019, St. Martin's Press, $29.99, 308 pages

Your city sure has changed.

Landmarks were destroyed, the skyline is different, and streets are shifted in a way that feels same-not-same. It’s like having dinner with a relative you met once, when you were 9. In When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan, everything and nothing is familiar.

Once upon a time, Brooklyn was little more than farms and fields.

That’s the vista that Walt Whitman saw when he stepped beyond the boundaries of the city where he’d been writing 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 upcoming 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. 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 sometimes, fame.

By the time Brooklyn merged with the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island in January 1898, a new word had emerged – homosexuals. They had been targeted by obscenity charges for quite some time then, but though laws were created against them, they had a solid presence in mainstream society. Even so, Ryan writes, 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” so wildly popular, and a subway ride to Coney Island costing just a nickel. New Yorkers flocked to the boardwalk, perhaps titillated by the idea that the performers were “gay.”

But “things started to go off the rails” for the LGBT community at the end of World War II. Being gay was perceptually equal to a crime. Starting then, Ryan writes, “…the vibrant queer histories of places outside Manhattan would soon be forgotten.”

Reading When Brooklyn Was Gay 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 the author, and modern references to create connections, then gently folded into the next subject.

What may delight readers the most, though, is in the details.

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

Unlike many books, this one doesn’t ignore anyone in the LGBT initialism; all are mentioned here and given due diligence. For readers searching for a fun, fascinating, all-encompassing history, When Brooklyn Was Queer is a nice change.

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