When Brooklyn Was Queer

Hugh Ryan

This has been a slow reading year for me, but for the most part I’ve been spending my decreased reading time with really good books, cutting out the ones I would have been pushing myself to finish or charging through disinterestedly. Quality over quantity is not a bad approach. If I were to make a top ten list at the end of this year, I may not have very many books to pick from, but When Brooklyn Was Queer would definitely be near the top.

It’s an ambitious history of Brooklyn through the lens of queer people who lived there, ending at the time of Stonewall. Hugh Ryan does an impressive job striving for intersectionality, though some people’s stories are harder to tell for systemic reasons. For instance, the histories of early African American communities have sparser records since literacy rates were much lower for people who had lived under slavery. There are also many figures discussed in the book who never themselves identified as queer in any way, so even with written sources like letters or diaries, we still end up reading between the lines.

Regardless Ryan paints a progression showing how in Brooklyn’s early colonial days, the waterfront areas offered opportunities for people to freely explore their desires. Along with the development of the area into an urban giant came a shift in societal norms and more family-centric pressures, especially as community groups like the Committee of Fourteen pushed for laws that criminalized homosexuality. Then later the highways of Robert Moses physically bisected and cut off these areas from the rest of the city. But even though Brooklyn’s queer communities changed greatly, and in some cases seemed to have disappeared entirely, in the years after Stonewall, they grew again, evolving in different ways and expanded areas. This book is an entry point and a connection to a rich past that had been largely forgotten.