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The (Almost) Lost Gay History of Brooklyn

In 2010, the writer Hugh Ryan, incensed by the Smithsonian’s decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from display, created the Pop Up Museum of Queer History in his Bushwick loft. The experiment was enough of a success (and a fire hazard — the police shut it down on opening night when 300 people showed up) that Ryan was inspired to dig deeper into his adopted borough’s own gay history. His research became the new book When Brooklyn Was QueerThe story starts with Walt Whitman’s depictions of gay cruising in Leaves of Grass, likely the first in American letters, and continues through to the queering of Sands Street between the World Wars and the demolition of landmarks of gay life during Robert Moses’s construction of the BQE in the early ’60s. (Though with the companion creation of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the master builder unintentionally fathered a whole new cruising ground.) While the lives of white gay men in Brooklyn are the most historically documented, Ryan makes a particular effort to include women and gender-nonconforming people. He ends the book right before Stonewall, that natural line of demarcation for queer life in America. Here, some of the mileposts Ryan resurrected.

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And let’s be honest, that’s pretty darn gay.