Review: When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Title: When Brooklyn was Queer

Author: Hugh Ryan

Genre: Non-Fiction, LGBTQIA+ History


The groundbreaking, never-before-told story of Brooklyn’s vibrant and forgotten queer history, from the mid-1850s up to the present day.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is a groundbreaking exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond. No other book, movie, or exhibition has ever told this sweeping story. Not only has Brooklyn always lived in the shadow of queer Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but there has also been a systematic erasure of its queer history—a great forgetting.

Ryan is here to unearth that history for the first time, and show how the formation of Brooklyn is inextricably linked to the stories of the incredible people who created the Brooklyn we know today. Folks like Ella Wesner and Florence Hines, the most famous drag kings of the late-1800s; E. Trondle, a transgender man whose arrest in Brooklyn captured headlines for weeks in 1913; Hamilton Easter Field, whose art commune in Brooklyn Heights nurtured Hart Crane and John Dos Passos; Mabel Hampton, a black lesbian who worked as a dancer at Coney Island in the 1920s; Gustave Beekman, the Brooklyn brothel owner at the center of a WWII gay Nazi spy scandal; and Josiah Marvel, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum who helped create a first-of-its-kind treatment program for gay men arrested for public sex in the 1950s. Through their stories, WBWQ brings Brooklyn’s queer past to life.

My Thoughts:

I wish I could tell you I decided to read this book all on my own (instead of the fact that I wish Cap was queer). I’ve never been to Brooklyn. I would love to walk the streets of Brooklyn right now and try to find the footsteps of the people who walked those streets, who I learned about in this book.

A lot of history books, even those about queer history border on being dry, or unreadable. This is not one of those and for that, I am eternally grateful.

The thing that made me saddest about this book was that parts of it were still so familiar today. There is talk of racism, classism, homophobia and the struggle of being considered anything “other.”

Hugh Ryan is good at capturing the spirit of the communities within this book. The people within these pages could have been lost in time, lost to the annuls of history and people who would try to bury them forever. I never would have known anything about Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass before reading this, but found myself reaching for a copy and feeling like I understood it with a clarity I may not have before reading this.

This book is a tragedy and a triumph. It brings to light struggles that still occur today, in a way that is so beautiful it will likely stay within me forever.

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