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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

When Brooklyn Was Queer

A History

Hugh Ryan

St. Martin's Press



In 1969—the year of the Stonewall Riots in New York City—Martin Boyce was just twenty-one years old, part of a pack of young, loud, unapologetic queens who hung out at the Stonewall Inn. The surrounding streets of the West Village were their stomping ground, the one area of the city they could lay claim to. Today, nearly a half century later, Boyce is telling me about those days as we sip cappuccinos and watch those same streets teem with affluent locals out for a walk on the first nice day of spring.

“The late sixties was the last hurrah of the turf situation in New York City,” he says, his fluting voice now gravelly with age. “And it turned out that Christopher Street was our turf. We didn’t even know until the riot occurred and we had to defend it.”

Boyce is voluble and sweet, making his tales of assaults, arrests, and constant, casual harassment all the harder to hear. For every block he recalls another beating, for every neighborhood another gang. He tells me how queers learned to survive, and how that hard-won knowledge, which was literally beaten into his bones, made the Stonewall Riots possible.

“Anywhere you’d go, you’d have to be ready,” he recalls with a sigh. “I was attacked in the Bronx, attacked in Brooklyn. Go to the movies? You’d be attacked. But whatever happened, we’d manage to meet up again, right in the vicinity and safe. That made us excellent urban guerrillas, because we knew how to break and reform. That kept the Stonewall Riots going for hours.”

Days, actually. From June 28 to July 1, 1969, some of the most marginalized people in the country—the homeless, poor, sex workers, drug addicts, people of color, homos, dykes, queers, and queens—became an irrepressible force, fighting back against the routine police harassment they experienced. In that moment, they realized the Village was theirs.

“Nobody was against us, that’s for certain, even if they weren’t joining us.” Boyce talks with his hands, driving the point home. “You could see it in their eyes: ‘I can’t do this, but do it for me.’ And all the straight people that were trapped in it were guided out. Because it wasn’t against straight people. It was against the police.”

For nights on end, Boyce and his friends led the cops on a merry chase, smashing windows, throwing bricks, and rewriting the history of the world. Boyce tells me they knew it, all of them, almost instantly. Afterward, it was in the air. Something had changed.

“I remember going down the street, maybe four or five days after,” he tells me. “I was loud, so they could tell what I was. And there was a sanitation man throwing bags into the back of the truck. He saw me, and he raised his fist in the power salute.”

Boyce pauses for a moment, nodding emphatically to himself, looking at his hand unconsciously curled into a tight fist—memory made flesh. Around us, the clatter of cups and spoons, laptops and ringtones, fades away. I can feel him drifting backward in time, and when he speaks again, his voice is strained and quiet.

“Because a lot of people—the ones that were fair in their hearts and minds!—knew that we were really oppressed. To see that man … like that…”

For a while I think Boyce is done talking, overwhelmed by the memory. The seconds tick down on my digital recorder. Then suddenly he smirks, showing his teeth. “It was amazing.”

These days, Boyce would remind you of nothing so much as a sweet gay Santa, but back then, he was a “scare queen,” which meant he wore just enough makeup to “freak out the straights.” From California to New York (and everywhere in between) it was people such as Boyce—those who couldn’t or wouldn’t hide; the ones black feminist scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls “the never straight”—who acted as the foot soldiers of the gay revolution. Forever after, those three days in the summer of ’69 have been cited as the birth of the modern gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights movement.

But I’m interested in what came before. If Stonewall represents the start of the modern gay movement, who (and where) were we before? Before Stonewall, before gay rights, before the word gay even meant anything other than “happy”? And my eyes are set a few miles to the east. The island of Manhattan has always been one showy queen, her skyscrapers of sexual visibility casting long dark shadows over the benighted “outer boroughs.” The intertwined stories of three neighborhoods—Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Harlem—have come to stand in for the queer history of the city as a whole. But for the last six years, I’ve been talking to folks such as Boyce, asking them one big question:

What about Brooklyn?

“Brooklyn?” Boyce’s head dips back, considering. He’d seen every part of the city, because his father was a taxi driver. I figured he could give me a good lay of the land. “Brooklyn had cachet. It was the only rival to Manhattan in hipness. Queens was nondescript. The Bronx was nonexistent to us. And Staten Island, of course, was meh. But Brooklyn! Brooklyn boys had the edge. They’d come from Kings Highway in a testosteronic show, with their DAs, and their cars polished to death, every amazing color.”

Cliché as it is, my heart starts to beat faster. Here we go, I think.

But the boys, it turns out, were there for Boyce’s sister, whose name “was dirt in Yorkville” because she dated them—good girls didn’t go to Brooklyn back then. So much for my hopes for a gay(er) version of Grease.

Rarely, I’ve learned over the years, do people consider queer, Brooklyn, and history in the same sentence without a bit of prodding. Brooklyn has always been the “sub” to Manhattan’s “urb,” and most accounts of “New York’s gay history” give it short shrift. Moreover, the stereotypical image of “Brooklynites” has always been one of tough broads and street-smart greasers, working-class men and women whose heterosexuality was as pronounced as their broad New York accents. Scratch that straight surface, however, and Brooklyn’s queer history comes pouring out, full of poets, sailors, undercover cops dressed as sailors, brothels, sideshows, communes, rough trade, Nazi spies, trans men, dancers, machinists, pathbreakers, mythmakers, and more. And with every archive I riffle through, that “and more” becomes more, and more, and more.

But it’s unusual that I get the chance to talk to someone who lived through some of the history I’m researching, since I’m mostly interested in the 111 years between 1855 and 1966—between when Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass and when the US government shuttered the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Those years span the waterfront’s explosive rise, its decades of prosperity, and its precipitous decline—and they coincide neatly with the emergence of our modern ideas of sexuality and gender identity, making it possible to chart one against the other. Boyce, born in 1948, with a direct connection to the most well-known moment in queer New York history, is a rare find. I nod encouragingly and he speeds up, memories coming quicker now.

“Brooklyn had a lore: the Dodgers. The language from the movies of the thirties. Murray the K’s rock-and-roll show. Coney Island!”

Ah, infamous Coney Island: the most libidinous 442 acres in all of New York City, where Mabel Hampton, a black lesbian dancer, found her first real job in 1920. Home to the bathing pavilions where modernist poet Harold Norse had his sexual awakening. The spot where Jane Barnell performed as Madame Olga, the Bearded Lady. The place that most likely inspired Jimmie Monaco’s wacky 1925 song “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” If anywhere in New York City could be labeled definitively queer—not gay, not lesbian, not trans, but queer; odd and subversive and sexually different—it’s Coney Island.

“Tell me about Coney,” I prompt Boyce.

“Well…” He hesitates, grimacing. “That was a sexually permissive area. It had a name, you know? A reputation. Anything could happen at Coney Island. But!”

He stops short, his eyes wide with remembered anxiety.

“There was not one area of Coney Island that we could go to.” He shakes his head. “It just wasn’t ours. Even when all the queens got together—we’d go to the zoo, to the beach, to the museum—we never went to Coney Island. It was inviting trouble.”

Another dead end, I think to myself.

Researching Brooklyn’s queer history is a bit like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole: just when I think I know where it’s going to pop up, it fakes me out. A queer moment in time fluoresces briefly, glows brightly, fades, and is forgotten. The further back you go, it seems, the briefer the shine. Without much in the way of community institutions or even social organizations to pass information around, queer life in Brooklyn, pre-Stonewall, was a many-splintered thing. And in the years before the words homosexuality and heterosexuality existed, that life was a very different experience. Some days, it feels as if I’m trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture will look like. Plus, I don’t know how many pieces there are, I’m pretty sure I’m missing a lot of them, and with every new piece I find, the others look a little different. For now, all I can do is keep collecting them and hope for some coherency later.

“So … what were the gay places in Brooklyn when you came out?” I ask.

Boyce gives a snorty little laugh. “There was a scene going on in Brooklyn, on the Promenade. A local scene,” he clarifies dismissively. “It wasn’t really hip enough to attract the Stonewall group. You went there once, just to know what it was.”

I bite my tongue, wanting to let him talk, to hear what he has to say without prejudicing it with what I already know: that once upon a time, Brooklyn Heights—home of the Promenade—was one of the city’s known queer neighborhoods, a fact few people remember (or were perhaps ever aware of). Hints linger, however. According to the US Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey, the three New York City neighborhoods with the highest percentage of same-sex couples are Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Brooklyn Heights. While the number of conventionally married gays is an imprecise stand-in for the actual size of the LGBT community in an area, it does suggest a long-term, settled community. But by Boyce’s time, that community was almost entirely sub rosa, driven underground by conservative forces in the fifties and sixties, and overshadowed by Manhattan’s wider, wilder scenes.

“How’d you hear about the Promenade?” I ask Boyce. This is the other part of my quest: to find out not just what people knew about Brooklyn, but how they knew it. Before schools taught it, televisions aired it, or books published it, how did people learn about gay life and gay history?

“The older queens.” Boyce laughs. The word obviously hangs in the air, unspoken but strongly implied. “They’d relate a campy story at the bar, and then you’d get into what’s behind the story.” The funnier the queen, Boyce remembers, the more likely you were to listen.

The way Boyce uses queen, it cuts across a lot of modern labels, encompassing feminine gay men, drag queens, and transgender women. Another tricky thing about researching queer history is that our ideas about gender and sexuality have continually changed over the last 150 years, leading to a nearly endless string of forgotten terms such as tribade, urning, gynander, and invert. Other words have stayed in usage, but their meanings have radically changed, such as bisexual, which once meant roughly what we mean by transgender today. When you add in all the euphemisms, slang words, and legal categories, it becomes easy to miss (or misunderstand) queer history, even when it seems obvious. Because of this, in my research I use the catchall queer, similarly to the way Boyce uses queen, 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.

After we chat for a little longer, it seems as if Boyce has run out of things to say. It’s amazing how little of Brooklyn’s rich, full, and complicated queer history has been passed down, even among queer people who were in the know. But I start asking about specific places, hoping to jog Boyce’s memory.

The St. George Hotel, where the poet Hart Crane once cruised? “It wasn’t a place you’d go, you know, but it was … known.” Known as what, Boyce can’t quite say, just that it was a place that existed on the queer map of the city he inherited one story at a time, a landmark with no history.

Sands Street? Boyce shrugs; the most infamous red-light district in Brooklyn, where Carson McCullers and W. H. Auden hung out with sailors and queens, means nothing to him.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard? “In decline, but famous in the past.” He smiles and bites his lower lip. “Sailors.” He nods conspiratorially.

The yard was decommissioned in 1966, the last in a series of crippling blows to Brooklyn’s waterfront economy, so it makes sense that Boyce wouldn’t know much about it. Yet perhaps no other single site in Brooklyn has contributed so much to its queer history. There, lesbians found work and economic freedom in the factories of World War II; gay men from all around the country were thrown together in close quarters during their naval service; and queer sex workers of all genders found ready customers and unpoliced streets upon which to ply their wares. This points to perhaps the one constant I’ve found in my research: early queer life flourished where there were jobs queer people could have. Those jobs were often low earning, low skilled, sometimes illegal, and frequently dangerous; but they paid. And often, they were along the waterfront—a pattern that holds true in Brooklyn and Manhattan (as well as in San Francisco, Boston, London, and most port cities where anyone’s bothered to do the research).

Later, when Boyce is telling me about his time in the West Village (itself a waterfront neighborhood), he puts that connection into words.

“Whether Brooklyn or Manhattan, the waterfront is always the same,” he tells me. “Cruisy. Dangerous. Lonely. Attractive in that noir way that a lot of gays like—as I do myself.” He grins.

Long after our conversation ends, his words stay with me. Boyce is right: visit any major port city and you’ll find sex along the waterfront, or at least a history of it, usually an unseemly one that no one wants to examine too closely. But “queer sex” and “queer community” are like smoke and fire—see one, and you can infer the other. After all, you can’t have sex until you have two (or more) people who want the same thing.

Over and over as I’ve looked into Brooklyn’s queer history, I’ve found that the trails leads back to the waterfront. It’s true, as the gay liberation slogan says, that “we are everywhere”—but we’re some places a whole hell of a lot more than we are others. Queer life in Brooklyn began by the water, and spread outward.

It’s impossible to pinpoint an exact moment when that happened. Every true story starts in the middle, at the somewhat arbitrary point that the storyteller has chosen. But it is possible, in the sweep of history, to pick out moments that are emblematic, turning points after which something is definitively there, where it may or may not have been before.

And for my queer history of Brooklyn, that moment is the 1855 publication of Walt Whitman’s masterwork, Leaves of Grass. In chapter 1, “From Leaves of Grass to the Brooklyn Bridge: The Rise of the Queer Waterfront, 1855–83,” I introduce Brooklyn, which had become a major port city thanks to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Whitman—and Leaves of Grass—stands in for an entire community of white men who had sex with other men, who found one another along the waterfront as business boomed in the mid-1800s. However, the economic freedom that the waterfront offered was more limited for women and black people in the nineteenth century, and I trace these exclusions as a way of showing how and why white men are often the earliest queer ancestors we can find. Queer women don’t appear in this historical record until author and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote moved to Brooklyn Heights in the 1860s, and the earliest records of queer people of color date to the 1890s. However, by the time the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, Brooklyn was already being described as “the second city of the Empire,” after Manhattan (with which it would unite in 1898). Soon, queer people of all kinds would flock to its shores.

In chapter 2, “Becoming Visible, 1883–1910,” I trace how the broader straight world slowly gained an awareness of these early queer pioneers, primarily via theaters and newspapers (both of which boomed in Brooklyn during the late nineteenth century). Performers such as Foley McKeever, Ada Dwyer, Ella Wesner, and Florence Hines were the most visible queer people of their day. Newspapers carried extensive reporting on their shows, their outfits, and their relationships. However, journalists also introduced America to queer people in a much less wholesome fashion: through true-crime stories that both titillated and terrified “normal” Americans. Only people who visibly transgressed gender were considered truly “queer” in this period. A conventionally masculine man such as world-famous boxer Young Griffo could frequent gay bathhouses and be found guilty of sexually assaulting a twelve-year-old Coney Island boy and still be considered a “normal” man. However, as more and more queer people came to the attention of the general public, America would begin to define them as different, usually in regard to their gender, but also over this new idea of “homosexuality.”

By 1910, a backlash began against the growing presence of queer people in America. In chapter 3, “Criminal Perverts, 1910–20,” I chart the rise of three groups, all of who worked (sometimes together, sometimes in opposition) to exercise moral control over the future of Brooklyn: courts, doctors, and civilian reformers. These groups would teach America that there was such a thing as “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality,” and that one was vastly superior to the other. Over the 1910s, they would try to define, contain, and control queerness and queer people—from sex workers such as Loop-the-Loop (perhaps the first explicitly “trans” woman in Brooklyn history), to queer-friendly bar owners such as Antonio Bellavicini and Robert Bonner. Although problematic, the records of these groups point to large numbers of queer people living in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, few of them had the ability, power, or necessary community to preserve their own histories, leaving us with only these inherently biased records to draw from.

However, by the 1920s, queer people had begun to find one another in dense enough numbers in Brooklyn that younger queers had elders to mentor them, and descendants to preserve their stories. In chapter 4, “A Growing World, 1920–30,” I document this greatly expanded queer world—and a greatly expanded Brooklyn, as well. By the end of the decade, Brooklyn’s population would outstrip Manhattan’s for the first time. The subway would create a vastly more interconnected city, making Coney Island a pleasure ground for all of New York. For queer people such as dancer Mabel Hampton and poet Hart Crane, the 1920s were filled with excitement and potential, constantly ratcheting upward until the inevitable crash.

The Depression began the Brooklyn waterfront’s long, slow skid into economic instability, as I chart in chapter 5, “The Beginning of the End, 1930–40.” The end of Prohibition, the onset of film censorship via the Hays movie code, and early anticommunist government witch hunts would all imperil Brooklyn’s queer communities, even as they continued to grow and expand. In the hyperbolic 1930s, bars on Sands Street would become famous the world over for their sexually permissive atmosphere, while arrests of gay men would tick steadily upward. From this point on begins a hard-and-fast separation between gay and straight worlds. However, the buildup to World War II would act as a stopgap for America’s growing homophobia, while simultaneously helping to temporarily resuscitate Brooklyn’s economy.

In chapter 6, “Brooklyn at War, 1940–45,” I explore how the mobilization around the war created almost limitless possibilities for queer people. In the armed forces, millions of Americans were introduced to queerness (their own or others) for the first time. On the home front, Brooklyn would become a destination for a global antifascist queer intelligentsia, thanks in large part to an artist commune known as February House. In the factories of the war effort, women such as machinist Rusty Brown and welder Anne Moses had the chance to earn equal pay, wear pants, and be celebrated for traditionally unfeminine behaviors. However, the very vastness of this queer world would leave its denizens completely unprepared for the extreme clampdown on sexuality that began with the war’s end.

After 1945, the story of Brooklyn’s queer community is primarily one of diminution, separation, and persecution, as I show in chapter 7, “The Great Erasure, 1945–69.” Not only was Brooklyn’s wide queer world destroyed, but even the memory of it was erased. In part, this had to do with the larger shutdown of Brooklyn’s waterfront, and the growth of the New York City suburbs, both of which starved city infrastructure and drove huge population shifts in Brooklyn. Although new queer institutions and communities would form after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, these were only dimly connected to the vast queer world that existed in Brooklyn before.

Today, Brooklyn is undoubtedly queer again; the borough is redolent with a queerness that is more diverse, more open, and more powerful than it has ever been. What better time to restore our queer past to its rightful place in the history of Brooklyn, the history of New York City, and the history of queer people everywhere. What follows in these pages is over one hundred and fifty years of Brooklyn’s queer history—an incomplete record of a story that is still being written. When Brooklyn Was Queer charts that river and is part of its current.

Copyright © 2019 by Hugh Ryan