INTERVIEW: Hugh Ryan's 'Queer Brooklyn' by Amelia Abraham
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Amelia Abraham (b. 1991) is an author and journalist from London. Having worked as a commissioning editor at Dazed Beauty, VICE and Refinery29, she has just released her first book for Picador, ‘Queer Intentions’. Her main interest is LGBTQ+ culture and identity politics, and she has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Sunday Times, The New Statesman, ES Magazine, VICE, i-D, Dazed and British Vogue.
I first encountered Hugh Ryan’s work online around 2014. I noticed his byline recurring in stories I loved on Vice; he would write about underappreciated artists like Kia LaBeija or David Wojnarowicz (actually in the years that followed David has gotten a lot more appreciation) and forgotten queer histories – one brilliant and memorable piece was about how lesbian drag kings used to work for the mafia. Anyway, since then, we connected over Twitter, met up in person in New York where he lives, and from across an ocean he’s helped to hook me up with interviewees and been a generously supportive peer in the world of LGBTQ+ journalism.
It makes sense to me that Hugh has authored a diligent and compelling queer history book because for years he’s been paying close attention to the things that many of us overlook. He chose Brooklyn as his subject precisely because he couldn’t find another book that captured the area’s rich queer history, and felt this did New York’s most populous borough a disservice. He had a few leads suggesting it was a longstanding hotspot for LGBTQ+ communities, cruising and secret relationships between women, but to unearth the extent of all this, he would have to spend six years trawling through archives, taking interviews and conducting research online. Six years is a long time… I wouldn’t have the patience, which is all the more reason to admire Hugh. He did it out of curiosity and passion.
The result is When Brooklyn Was Queer, a book that looks at how the geographical and economic conditions of a place can foster a queer community, particularly how Brooklyn’s waterfront drew in many sailors, sex workers and artists with gay tendencies. Starting in 1855, the publication of famed Brooklynite Walt Whitman’s poem The Leaves of Grass, Hugh carries us through to 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots over in Manhattan. What passes in between is a lot of social change (immigration to the area, the invention of homosexuality as a category, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, city sanitisation, the Second World War), and Hugh charts all of this against personal stories of LGBTQ+ people in Brooklyn, exploring how attitudes towards same-sex love and gender nonconforming identities changed over time.
In that sense, When Brooklyn Was Queer is a book about Brooklyn, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s a project about queer history more broadly, the gaps in it and how we go about telling the stories of our forebears. A lot like Queer Bible then.
Take me back to the genesis of When Brooklyn Was Queer. How did you get started?
In 2013 there was a party I worked on, a one-off event called The Pop Up Museum of Queer History that was like a local exhibit of queer history. We did it in Brooklyn, about Brooklyn, so I went to the library to get a book on the queer history of Brooklyn and realised there wasn’t one. That was around six years ago. After the trip to the library there was like a couple year period where I thought, ‘Well, I’m interviewing a lot of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers generally and reading a lot of queer history books so maybe I’ll just take notes… maybe there’ll be something there.’ So for the first couple years I wasn’t paying close attention. It was only in 2015 that I got serious.
What was the process like, where did you find the records?
The process was very organic. I would find one thing, look through the footnotes of that, run names and dates through newspapers.com, ancestry.com, Google, any online database I could, to map out things I could get done from home. And then I’d go to the archives. The great thing about New York City is we have the New York City Public Archives, with the largest gay archives in the country, and then you also have the Municipal Archives, which are hell on earth to go through as they’re so disorganised, but there’s so much. I was ping ponging back and forth.
What was most terrifying though was that things would come up late in the process that seemed foundational. In 2016 for instance I thought I had a pretty good handle on most of the points in the book and someone said to me, ‘oh have you ever heard about this book called The Stone Wall, they mention Brooklyn in it,’ and then I read the book and it was fascinating, and a lot of the work in it I hadn’t come across anywhere else. That led me to this couple of dissertations by current historians… all this information I hadn’t heard of before was both exciting and also showed me that the scope of the problem, how it’s so hard to find this information!
What I like about the book is that it’s so intersectional. I loved reading the part about a trans woman called Loop-the-Loop leading a really open life at the turn of the 20th Century. I had no idea. Were some histories more invisible than others?
Absolutely. In Brooklyn particularly, because it’s so white historically, records of people of colour are really hard to find. There’s this civilian moralising group called The City of Fourteen who even say in their own internal record keeping, ‘the police aren’t arresting people of colour because in black neighbourhoods you can’t make money shaking anyone down, and we don’t employ any informants of colour so we don’t know what’s going on up there’. So even in the most awful, punitive form of record keeping you would see they don’t keep track of people of colour. Things from a woman’s point of view also get really hard to find. Thankfully letters are the big resource about women in the late 19th century. Newspaper reports are rarely from women’s points of view and often you cannot tell whose point of view because they weren’t signed. People who were illiterate and anyone who was working class – those records were hard to find. So one thing I try to do is highlight the problems in the records, to say we have this information but it isn’t necessarily complete.
I think the book is really good at doing that. It functions as a queer history but also a meditation on what it means to write a queer history.
The second part was an accident! I just found I had to explain why I didn’t know certain things… somewhere along the line it became part of the point. When I could see certain parts being left out in my own story or others I read I found myself really wanting to dig into those stories. I realised if I didn’t do that my book would be bad. I’d be saying things about Brooklyn but really only writing about people of colour as they fit into white spaces, or women as they fit into men’s.
I know when you meet people and you tell them you’re writing a book and have conversations, you get a sense of how much people generally know on the topic. Everyone I’ve mentioned this book to goes “Oh, like Walt Whitman!” Was that what you found was the headline news when you talked to people about the project?
Ha, yes! Walt Whitman was the one. Sometimes Hart Crane. Some older residents would say something about the bathhouses. People would mention Park Slope in the 90s and then I’d have to explain that my book doesn’t go up to the 90s. Some people knew Carson Mccullers lived there, one or two thought Marianne Moore was a lesbian. But it really was mostly Walt Whitman, yes!
We were talking about the process of going over these documents, what was your emotional experience writing, was it depressing to read about how LGBTQ+ people were treated in the past? The chapter about criminality, and there’s a lot of persecution there.
The thing that made me saddest – and maybe partly as a historian – was reading about people burning their letters or destroying their diaries or having their letters and diaries destroyed by others. Something about that was tragic, that they’d committed these things to paper, and they were so scared about what would happen to them that they burned them. It happens so often. People who seemed really comparatively ‘out’ this happened to. Hart Crane kept all his letters and then his mother burned them. Walt Whitman wrote down that he would be sitting in front of a letter thinking about how important it was and then burn it. And when you get to the end, the 50s and 60s, the homophobia is so visceral and terrible, there are suicides, people forced out of their jobs… that was soul crushing. But it gave me the realisation that when I was growing up, I was told that’s what all gay history was. That everything before Stonewall, if there was anything before Stonewall, was that. But there was so much more.
There’s going to be so much chat about Stonewall this year because it’s the 50th anniversary, which is great, but it’s so nice that you look at what came before that, because too often we act like that’s the beginning of queer history.
We do. And it was really important to me because I know all of the country is grappling with how to add LGBTQ+ history to curriculums and I think part of how that is going to shake out is: what do people expect to be taught in school? If we don’t have popular titles telling people that there was queer life before Stonewall, people aren’t going to know. It’s this weird moment for queer history where we’re hitting the wall of mainstream acceptance… people fought for visibility, it’s kind of coming true… but then we have to grapple with a new set of problems: who writes the gay canon? That’s a scary question.
For me, part of doing this was me saying I want to put down a flag. I may not get all of this right but here is my arc of what I think developed in one place before Stonewall, so we can at least say, there’s a book out there on Brooklyn that you can read if you don’t have a PHD in queer theory. I love academic texts and they’ve helped me understand a lot but they can be really hard to read. It’s astonishing how few queer books there are not by university presses.
I agree! That’s why I chose to write mine, because I find queer theory so opaque. But anyway, I found your narrative very compelling and also how you paint cinematic scenes of old Brooklyn and the clandestine romances of the characters. You cleverly chose to divide the book up chronologically but also by theme at the same time, so it’s super easy to follow. Can you talk about what those themes or topics are…
I started doing the research and a friend pointed out it was mostly on the waterfront, this history. There were jobs there… and I realised a big part of what these histories were about was finding the resources to live an independent queer life, being able to live away from family and still make a living. So queer cultures thrived off the working waterfront. And I realised there were five main jobs within that: artist, sailor, sex worker, female factory worker and entertainer, and those jobs seemed more open to or interesting for queer people. So that’s how I pitched the book, about five portraits, and my agent was like ‘ummm yeah just do it chronologically!’
After that, I rethought it, and realised there there was this story where the community grow and subside with the waterfront, Post World War Two the communities I had been following begin to dwindle, and new queer communities eventually come up in their place. I really started to see an 111 year arc, starting from 1855, the publication of Leaves of Grass and going to around 1966 when the Brooklyn Navy Yard closed for good. But up until then you could follow the Navy Yard and the jobs and economic possibilities it provided for queer people.
Once I had most of the schedule worked out I could see where to insert points I wanted to talk about. For instance, bearded women and people we would today classify as intersex working on sideshows in Coney Island, I could find evidence of that all the way back to the 1870s and all the way up till I moved to Brooklyn and the bearded woman at Coney Island taught me how to do stilt walking! I thought ‘I could place this anywhere’ but I decided to put it in the 1940s so I could talk about this woman called Jane Marnell, the most well-documented bearded woman at Coney Island, active in the 20s, 30s and 40s. So that’s how it worked with a lot of things.
Did anything really surprise you? There’s a lot that surprised me. Like that people thought that if you can’t whistle it proves you’re gay!?
Well when I was first thinking I wanted to write a book about queer history, I didn’t want to write one that centred white people. Most of the queer history books out there were doing a pretty good job of that. I thought, ‘wow Brooklyn – such a diverse place!’ Then I started looking at the history and realised that Brooklyn was 97% white from the end of slavery in New York up through to the 1940s. That was a thing I had to account for in my work.
Another thing that shocked me is that you get to the 1920s and there’s this thing called the Schackno bill, the first law that really made same-sex sexual activity a crime. It allowed the police to arrest men they thought were looking for same-sex activity. And so I could look at how many men were arrested for that in New York. It was thousands every year, mostly in subway toilets. I didn’t realise that these spaces were used for cottaging and cruising was such an open secret. I knew that to be true of say the 60s and 70s but I didn’t know it was true of the 20s.
Thanks Hugh. Final question – I forgot to ask – are you from Brooklyn yourself?
No. I live there now but I grew up outside the city in the suburbs and I have family from the Bronx and Manhattan. I have one great aunt who moved to Brooklyn in the 1940s and my grandmother told her: ‘no one will ever visit you!’ And no one ever did so she moved back.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.