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"There had also been a lesbian run coffee shop which had closed down years before. Alas, I never found out it had closed down, so I spent maybe the first six months living in Brooklyn trying to find this mythical lesbian coffee shop in Park Slope."

When Brooklyn Was Queer
June 23, 2020
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Few things are quite as enjoyable as reading. Discovering Hugh Ryan’s debut book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, was one of the literary highlights of 2020. A stunning and beautifully researched book about the queer history of Brooklyn that offers the reader a rich and detailed history. This is a book that I spent time reading, mainly due to the fact that I found myself researching names and places that kept popping up (and buying more books along the way; the Robert Moses biography is a beast).

We spoke with Hugh over Zoom during Pride Month 2020.

We’ve been using lockdown to create a new series of interviews for our Pride Month series, and after reading When Brooklyn was Queer, I thought it would be really great to talk to you about your book. To be honest, I have become pretty obsessed with LGBTQ history of late. Have you heard of a guy called Jack Saul?

I don't believe so. Who is he?

He was a pretty notorious Victorian rent boy and was part of a really big scandal involving a male brothel (close to the Parliament in London) and it is alleged that a member of the Royal Family was involved. When I came across your book, I thought it was so interesting that we can live in areas where there is so much LGBTQ+ history that is directly connected to us, but we don't really acknowledge it and we sort of forget it. This was why I was so excited about your book and talking to you.

Oh, thank you. Yeah, I agree. I think that's one of the things in writing the book, I started off from a place of total ignorance; I knew nothing about the history of Brooklyn and it was actually a shock to even realise that I knew so little that I didn't even realise how little I knew.

Are you from Brooklyn?

No I moved to Brooklyn about 20 years ago. I was raised in the suburbs of New York. My mom grew up in the Bronx and my dad grew up in Upper Manhattan before moving to the Bronx before they moved out to the suburbs.

Many years ago, Brooklyn went through a sort of revival with a new wave of people moving in. I don't want to say gentrification, because that's a horrible word. But what drew you to Brooklyn?

It's funny, different neighbourhoods in Brooklyn have gone through that or are going through that at different times. So I would say yes, that was happening when I moved here, but it had started before that when my older brother moved to Williamsburg in the nineties. I actually ended up moving to Park Slope, which by that point had really gone through this transition of becoming a neighbourhood that people were moving back into. For the longest time, Brooklyn was thought to be a place you came from rather than a place you went to.So I arrived in the middle of this reemergence of Brooklyn. There was new excitement around Brooklyn, new growth in the population centre in the neighbourhoods, which included big demographic shifts. All of that was happening. But honestly, the reason that I moved to Brooklyn was mostly that I had just left a job Upstate where I was not making a tonne of money and I could afford it. My brother told me about some sublets I could probably afford and suggested I go check them out.

When did you start to really explore the community in Brooklyn?

Well, I would say right away. In fact, two years before I moved to Brooklyn, there was this event called "Eruption", which I believe actually started in Europe, and the second one was held in Brooklyn. That was the first time that I ever thought about Brooklyn, and I tried to go there, but I got lost. I didn't have a smartphone back then and I could not figure out how to get to Dumbo and then kind of put it out in my head. When I moved back to the city and as soon as I moved into my apartment in Park Slope, I discovered my new landlord was gay and had lived there for a long time. The two women who lived downstairs from me were lesbians and had also lived in Park Slope for a long time. So I knew right away that there was something of a community or at least had some hints, and I started asking around and checking things out. 

Back then, there were still weekly magazines that got handed out in New York, I think it was "Extra Homo", "Extra" and or "HX" as it was eventually called, and "Next" I think was the other one. And that listed all of the places. So from there, I found out about the two gay bars in Park Slope. There was a bar called "Gingers" and a gay bar called "Excelsior" and that was my first entry into Brooklyn. There had also been a lesbian run coffee shop which had closed down years before. Alas, I never found out it had closed down, so I spent maybe the first six months living in Brooklyn trying to find this mythical lesbian coffee shop in Park Slope.

How did you go about talking to people, particularly local people from Brooklyn?

The book came later. I had actually been working as a journalist and as an artist/curator, doing all kinds of things. In around 2010, there was a show at the Smithsonian called "The High Seek Exhibit," which was their first ever explicitly LGBTQ show. And there was a piece in it by an artist that I love named David Wojnarowicz. A big controversy erupted around it as his piece "A Fire in My Belly" was pulled from the show. And there were all these protests around museum censorship in New York and all around New York City. As I was participating in these protests in 2010, I realised that I was protesting the removal of a single piece of artwork from a show in DC that I was never going to get to see and that most of the major museums in New York City had never done a focus show. 

And while I was angry about the censoring of David Wojnarowicz, my bigger anger was way beyond that and was about how history and museums specifically handled content. And so that got me thinking about culture and history. I started an event called the Popup Museum of History, which was originally a one-night party. It was not my intention to form an organisation. I just wanted to see what it would be like if people made exhibits about history in a space for an audience and hundreds of people showed up. By the time it was over, people were saying "when is the next one?" But I didn't have any plans for the next one, so we formed a small collective and we started meeting regularly and began curating these shows.


Three years later, in 2013, we had a pretty good idea of what our model was. We would work with a nonprofit in the local community of whichever community we had been asked to come to, and they would help us figure out what the community might want and what resources the community had. Then we worked with them to develop a show about the local history and the collective in New York would bring in things from the outside that the community expressed an interest in, be it materials that were not available locally, funding, press, artists, etc., and we would fly them in. We had been doing this for a couple of years and we realised that while we had started in Brooklyn, we had never done a Brooklyn-focused show. 

And as this was now going to be our model we thought ‘great, we’ll come back to Brooklyn and do a Brooklyn show, it’ll be fantastic.’ But almost immediately, when we put out the call for proposals, we discovered that, unlike other cities like Philadelphia or Bloomington, Indiana, lots of people knew about local history and they wanted to talk about it. When we put out the call in Brooklyn, most people responded by saying that they didn't know very much about Brooklyn's history. Basically, three things came up; Walt Whitman, the gay poet from Brooklyn; cruising in Prospect Park; lesbians in Park Slope. But those last two things, people didn't have any kind of a history or any theories, it was just that they existed and there were no reasons why they were there or when they had started in Brooklyn or what the community was. 

It was shocking.

It was in that moment that I realised that I, myself, actually did not know anything about the history of Brooklyn, so I thought, "Okay, if we're going to do this show, I need to learn." And I went to the library to get a book, but there was no book. And then I thought, ‘well, there's gotta be a movie, a documentary, something put out by, you know, some indie publisher in 1979 or something.’ and I couldn't find anything. It was so shocking that I started simply asking people the question, ‘What do you know about Brooklyn's history?’ It might be this show or it might be something I would write an article about. I didn't really have a purpose at the beginning. I just wanted to know more. And so that's how I started. These questions kind of piled up over time and started to develop into this idea of doing an exhibition, and the Brooklyn Historical Society, who had heard about my research, invited me to do a much larger show than the organisation and I had done through the Popup Museum of History.

This would be an institutional show with a real budget, and when I got a grant to support the research from the New York Public Library, they said to me, "When this grant is done, you should have your book proposal finished." And that's when I thought, "Maybe I am writing a book," so it was all very organic and it truly has all flowed from what came before. I would say that at no point did I sit down and think I was going to write the gay history of Brooklyn.


Does this lack of access to social/community histories in places like Brooklyn play a part in the reason why accessing and collating this history is so challenging?

In the case of both Brooklyn and the people, I would say that for a very long time there has been no interest in documenting history or in documenting Brooklyn history. They are both marginalised in very different ways and for very different reasons, but both kinds of marginalised identities have not been explored to anywhere near the degree I think they deserve.

If you think of the community as a whole, I sometimes get a little frustrated with the idea that we have to wait for a heteronormative view of our history. And we have to wait for permission from them even though the LGBTQ+ community has an abundance of this Pink Power or Pink Dollar, which is quite derogatory. We have an abundance of cash that we can actually invest, but for some reason we seem to wait to get permission to do it rather than just doing it.

I think it's hard because anytime someone starts something new, you want to know that you can trust it before you can throw your weight behind it. And I think often, particularly when it comes to history, science, or anything that gets taught in a school setting, you have this feeling of needing someone to say, "Yes, this is good." "Yes, this is righteous." I think that rarely have those kinds of approvals been given to books written by and for LGBTQ+ audiences.

The example for me that I always turn to is Sarah Schulman. I think Sarah's nonfiction is some of the most amazing thinking that has happened in the last 20 years. I think that she writes these really brilliant books, and yet she gets very little attention from the mainstream. I think it’s often harder for communities to really get behind her the way that they should, even though I think she's more well known in the community than outside of it. I think that it is very true that we don't have a tonne of recognition globally, and so therefore it's a little harder for projects that are focused on people from these perspectives to get attention, to get funded, etc. I applied for a couple of big grants for my new book from the National Institute for the Humanities, and the comments from the reviewers on my grant application said, "You know, this work of bringing LGBT history to the mainstream is laudable, but I'm not sure it's what the National Institute of Humanity should be doing." They always had this very interesting threading of the needle. They weren't against it; they just weren’t sure if this is the work they should be doing.

How did you approach When Brooklyn Was Queer, did you have a lot of access to archival material or was it quite a struggle to try and put all the pieces together?

It's funny; there turned out to be a lot of archival material, but it was exactly that putting the pieces together... There was no single repository that I found myself going to. So I spent a lot of time going to very different places, looking at a single archive here, a single collection there. There were a couple of big ones, like the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Lesbian History Archives, a few that I kept returning to. And I also found myself going to a whole lot of different universities. I went to Swarthmore, Yale, and Harvard, and I contacted the University of Washington and all of these different places where there would be a single collection here or there.

So it was a very organic process. I spent a lot of time looking for things, talking to people and just saying, tell me anything about Brooklyn, truly anything. It can be a place, it can be a person, it could be a half-remembered rumour or it could be a book. And then I was making these long lists, putting all the information I got from people into a timeline, just so I could start to say to myself, "Okay, am I seeing certain things?" Some things appear in a particular period of time, but not in another, or there is lots of material from this moment but not from that moment. Once I had a lot of data, I could then start generalising from it. That is sort of what I thought I needed to do, get a bunch of information, look at it and start to ask myself ‘are there patterns here’ because the first question I had in doing this was, "I know the gay liberation slogan says we are everywhere and that is absolutely true, but we're in some places, a whole hell of a lot more than others."

And for all I knew, there could have been something about the unique relationship between Brooklyn and Manhattan. That meant that even though people obviously lived in Brooklyn, perhaps their public lives were really lived in Manhattan. Perhaps I wasn't going to find the density of organisation or the history that I thought. And so that's kind of how I started, just collecting a lot of information through these general ideas, and once I got enough information, I began to notice, for instance, that the waterfront came up over and over again. I thought, "Why is that?" And I started to ask myself, what was it about the waterfront? How does the waterfront appear in these narratives again and again? How is it different in different time periods? And I realised it was really an economic proposition as the waterfront economy boomed, making all of Brooklyn much more of an urban centre. As urban life increased, gay life was possible and recorded in certain ways. I ended up realising that what I was following was a particular economic story that was the story of life in America as a whole, at least part of it; the story of how urbanisation led to the recognition of homosexual identities as we know them now and the organising of those identities into the kinds of cultures that we talk about today. This was the story. I was following the Brooklyn specific piece of it, but the over story was one that was really applicable to all of us and potentially to other countries too, but I wouldn't want to generalise that far from my own work.

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"...the more I started to find roads that led me back there, the more I started to say to myself, this is like looking at the history of Brooklyn. There is some big invisible form here, and I'm only getting the tip of the iceberg in my research."

Was there any particular story you discovered that you not only really connected with, but that you might consider expanding a bit more in another book?

Yeah, absolutely. Actually, my next book kind of flowed directly out of this one. I'm working on a new piece. It's not about Brooklyn, but is about New York City, and a place in Manhattan called the Women's House of Detention, which was a prison for women that was in Greenwich Village. It started construction in 1929 and it was torn to the ground in 1974, I believe. And it's really mostly forgotten today. There's a small plaque in a garden next to a library that used to be the courthouse. And that's the only mention that you'll see of this place. When I was doing my research on Brooklyn, I kept finding women and transgender people who would end up in the house of detention or they would talk about the house of detention. And I started to realise, like we were talking about at the beginning of this interview, you can suddenly see something that was invisible for a very long time.

I thought, "Wait a second." There was a 12-story women's prison in the heart of Greenwich Village on Christopher Street during the same time period when Greenwich Village became known as the heart of the community in New York and America. And that seemed like something that there had to be connections between, whether they were causal or relative. I didn't know, but the fact that those two things were true and yet never seemed to be put in conversation with one another in anything I had read about New York's history or about history felt really off to me. And so, the more I started to find roads that led me back there, the more I started to say to myself, this is like looking at the history of Brooklyn. There is some big invisible form here, and I'm only getting the tip of the iceberg in my research.

But I thought that if I dig in, I'm going to find really fascinating, completely under-remembered history. I wanted to work on a project that would be very different from my last one. You've read the book, you've seen this; it really was very white for most of its history. Most of the records that exist, you find a lot of them related to people who were very economically privileged and a lot of them related to cisgender men. So the prison not only showed me a piece of history that felt very important and very hidden and forgotten in the way Brooklyn was. It also connected to New York City life and helped me to figure out what kind of history that wouldn't privilege the narratives of cisgender white men, which, again, for a lot of economic reasons, end up being the histories that are easiest to find. And so, in many ways, this project came directly from the last one and fit kind of the shape of the next project that I wanted to work on.

Looking at cities like New York, an enormous number of historical places are destroyed or a lot are repurposed, and it must be really frustrating and fascinating at the same time. Do you think that books like When Brooklyn was Queer could inspire people and communities, or filmmakers or writers, to start to explore the history that exists in these different places? 

I really do hope so. Some artists have started to use the Brooklyn book already, like Kelly Mayard, who is a fantastic photographer. They've been doing some work. Kelly’s most recent show featured a lot of their work. They used the book to help them create this imagined queer black non-binary Vaudeville performer character, with whom they then documented their journey to New York. It's really wonderful stuff. I believe their website is if you want to check it out. Uh, and I'm hoping to see more projects like that. Absolutely. I think that, uh, in some ways, I see my research almost as schematics and raw material. I feel like I'm making a map of something very large that I'm pointing towards, gesturing towards, and saying, "Here is a scaffold, here is a theory." Please take this and run with it, going deeper and further.

I often think I will find these corners that have not been fully explored or they've been explored, but the explorations have been kind of left undone. And so I can connect these pieces back together. A lot of what I've been doing recently has been going back through Black Panther party members' writings and lesbian feminists' in the 1970s and connecting the different things they wrote about this prison. So I really think that the work that I end up producing, I hope other people are going to take it and do more with it, go further with it. You know, particularly in the case of Brooklyn, my book ends basically right around Stonewall, which is because the one community that I was tracing, this waterfront community, dissipates in that moment. But that destruction, that falling apart, ends up creating space for so many other communities that open later. And I hope that someone takes the book and uses it to kind of tell the stories of these other communities. I think that's a lot of what I hope happens with my work.


And what do you think is the most important thing that you discovered and took away from the process of writing this book?

Hmm, that's an interesting question. I think the most important thing for me that connects this book with what I had previously done with the Popup Museum is that there's a real hunger for rigorous, well-researched, well-written history. And that right now, or up until very recently, I think that we've had a problem where most history has either been academic, and therefore not written for popular audiences and not necessarily really inviting to most readers, or it's been very thin. It's been reduced to memes to be shared on the internet. And I'm really excited to see writers right now who are producing work that is rigorous and thoughtful but for popular readers for a mass audience. And figuring out how to make this more accessible to more people has been very important to me in my work.

How can I bring more readers, particularly more readers interested in what I can do in my work to make it as accessible as possible? and also as emotional and as captivating as possible. I want people to have a real emotional experience with their history, a real connection to Saidiya Hartman's "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments," which is a book that I look to a lot. I just think that it's written so incredibly well. And then, on top of that, there is the excavating of so much great history. That's the kind of stuff that I think is really important that I learned in doing this. That is exactly what I intended to do when I wrote in that style. There was a real need and desire and hunger for that kind of history within the community.


The LGBTQ+ community's experiences are not just part of the LGBTQ+ community but part of the wider, mainstream communities as well. Do you think more can be done to showcase how the experiences of one group are actually a somewhat universal shared experience?

Yeah, you know, I think that anytime you write a history, you're really writing within overlapping circles. Right. You know, I think of my book as being a history of Brooklyn, but you could talk about it as being a history of New York. You could talk about it as a history of the transition from the 18th, uh, from the 19th to the 20th centuries. You know, there are a lot of different lenses or venn diagrams that could get captured under. And I really hope that it gets seen as a Brooklyn book, uh, as much as a book. And I think that that has been true, that I've had a wonderful reception from, you know, Brooklyn College, the Brooklyn Historical Society of Brooklyn, the public library, uh, churches in Brooklyn, reading groups in Brooklyn, they've all reached out to me. And most of them have been, you know, people taking the lead, or the affiliate within the company is the one that invites me. But still, there's been a real attachment to it as a thing about Brooklyn, as well as a thing about history. 

Finally, what do you hope your readers will take away from When Brooklyn was Queer?

I think, more than anything else, I hope that people walk away from it with a sense that they have a history that is long and deep, but also very temporarily bound that this isn't a historical thing. "Gay history is gay." People are the same as we have always been. I think so many of us, and I include myself in this, come to history looking for a mirror. We want to see ourselves reflected in a way that we have not seen ourselves reflected in the past. I mean, growing up in the eighties and nineties, I didn't learn anything. So that's what brought me to the study. The more I realised that it's not okay. We want to see visions of ourselves that we were not taught in schools and did not see on television or in books, but the longer I studied this history, the more I realised it's not a mirror, it's a window. It's allowing me to see something that's very different. And yes, my reflection is sort of caught in that window, but that's not the truth of it. If I just see myself in history, I won't actually engage with how different they were from us. And that's what actually ends up being really empowering about history: not that you can look back 200 years and see a lesbian just like today in historical garb, but that you can see people whose lives were incredibly different. And that potential, the fact that I know that our whole ideas of sexuality and gender have changed so much over the last 200 years, gives me hope that moving forward, we can change just as much or more.

And so that's what I hope the book really gives people when they walk away from it; not only a sense of yes, my desires and people like me have existed throughout time, but also people completely different from me have existed. And that there is the possibility for change.

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