On the (Queer) Waterfront

Coming to the Brooklyn Historical Society in March 2019

To date, there has been no movie, book, or exhibition dedicated to the LGBTQ history of Brooklyn, New York City’s most populous borough; yet this history stretches back before the word “homosexual” was even coined in 1869. My upcoming exhibition On the (Queer) Waterfront seeks to tell these forgotten stories through art and ephemera that examine how the Brooklyn waterfront has nurtured queer lives, from 1850 up to today.


As places of cultural intermingling, urban anonymity, sexual potential, and undocumented manual labor, waterfronts worldwide have often provided havens for queer life. Lying outside the city’s more surveilled regions, urban waterfronts have given marginalized communities room for the expression of outlaw sexuality, non-normative gender presentations, and cross-class sociability.

Never an uncomplicated utopia, these were also places of violence, misogyny, homophobia, and labor exploitation. Yet queer people found ways to sustain themselves and their identities by working along the social peripheries, in order to obtain freedom unavailable elsewhere. Five jobs, in particular, held appeal for these queer Brooklyn pioneers: artist, entertainer, sex worker, sailor, and factory laborer.

For many working-class queer people, singing, dancing, doing drag, or being exhibited as a freak provided the rare opportunity to make a living without living in the closet. In the theaters of downtown Brooklyn and Coney Island, queer life has flourished for over a century. OT(Q)W will examine figures ranging from 19th century drag kings Ella Wesner and Florence Hines, to 20th century figures like dancer Mabel Hampton and comedian Burt Savoy.

The docks, bathhouses, and waterfront bars of Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, and the Navy Yard provided under-surveilled spaces for cisgender men and transgender women to cruise for sexual encounters and trade sex for money in an era when “sodomy” was outlawed. This section will touch on many time periods, including WWII sailors who dabbled in sex work & 19th century “inverts” who made a living as streets walkers

Throughout history, queer artists and activists have pooled their resources to create utopian communal houses on Brooklyn’s waterfront, from 7 Middagh Street (home to WH Auden, George Davies, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, and others) to DUMBA (the early 20th-century queer people of color political collective in DUMBO that was home to video artist Rashaad Newsome, and debuted/nurtured work by Le Tigre, Tribe 8, and John Cameron Mitchell.) OT(Q)W will also examine visual artists like painter Edward Casey and set designer Oliver Smith.

For lesbians and gay men, the allure of life at sea combined escape from small towns with long periods of same-sex company. To merchant sailors (like Emil Opffer, lover of poet Hart Crane) and military service members (like Rusty Brown, who also worked as a drag king at Coney Island), Brooklyn provided a uniquely welcoming port of call.

During WWII, the factories in and around the Brooklyn Navy Yard offered previously unimaginable freedom to many working-class women, particularly lesbians. OT(Q)W will display never before seen photos and scrapbooks by lesbian women who worked in and around the Navy Yard during WWII.


OT(Q)W will also serve as a springboard for a curriculum for students (grades 6 – 12) about the history of Brooklyn’s waterfront through the lens of LGBTQ communities.

On the (Queer) Waterfront draws directly from the research I have done for my book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, which will be published in March of 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. For this work, I received the 2016 Martin Duberman Visiting Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction, and a 2018 Residency at the Watermill Center.



Rachel Mattson
Archivist, Historian, Educator

Avram Finkelstein

My co-curator on this project is Avram Finkelstein, a founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, who has work in the permanent collections of MoMA, The Whitney, and the New Museum, is featured in the artist oral history at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and has a book out November 2017 for UC Press, After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Image.

The accompanying curriculum will be developed by archivist, historian, and educator Rachel Mattson. Mattson is the co-author/editor of two books about effective history curricular practice: -- History as Art, Art as History (co-written with Dipti Desai and Jessica Hamlin); and Teaching US History (co-edited with Robert Cohen, Terrie Epstein, and Diana Turk).


Are you interested in supporting this exhibition, or have materials or ephemera that you believe might be of interest? Please email me!