When Brooklyn Was Queer

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When Brooklyn Was Queer is a groundbreaking exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond. No other book, movie, or exhibition has ever told this sweeping story. Not only has Brooklyn always lived in the shadow of queer Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but there has also been a systematic erasure of its queer history―a great forgetting.

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WBWQ tells the stories of people like Ella Wesner and Florence Hines, the most famous drag kings of the late-1800s; E. Trondle, a transgender man whose arrest in Brooklyn captured headlines for weeks in 1913; Hamilton Easter Field, whose art commune in Brooklyn Heights nurtured Hart Crane and John Dos Passos; Mabel Hampton, a black lesbian who worked as a dancer at Coney Island in the 1920s; Gustave Beekman, the Brooklyn brothel owner at the center of a WWII gay Nazi spy scandal; and Josiah Marvel, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum who helped create a first-of-its-kind treatment program for gay men arrested for public sex in the 1950s. Through their stories, WBWQ brings Brooklyn’s queer past to life!

Watch me give a tour of queer Brooklyn with NY Mag!

“A funny, tender and disturbing history of LGBTQ life.” ―The Guardian

“His metanarrative, like all good history writing, brings the past vividly alive and makes us excited to learn more about who we were, are, and possibly may be in the future in this dynamic, evolving city many of us call home.” ― Lambda Literary

“A hungry archivist, Hugh Ryan unearths vivid material to populate this story [of queer Brooklyn]….The archival discoveries that Ryan has made evoke a world of affection and pleasure.” ―The New Republic

An exquisite, strange, and beautiful book.” ―Out.com

“A dynamic combination of meticulous research and impassioned prose.... A romantic, exquisite history of gay culture." ―Kirkus Reviews, starred

"This evocative and nostalgic love song to the borough and its flamboyant past offers a valuable broadening of historical perspective.” ―Publishers Weekly

When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history.... Thorough research, engaging storytelling, fascinating stories and a history of obscurity make this investigation of queer Brooklyn a compelling, essential read.” ―Shelf Awareness

What advance readers are saying:

A monumental achievement of queer social history, Ryan animates a time not so dissimilar to our own in which desire and loneliness fuel a need for intimacy and community. When Brooklyn Was Queer is an important new addition to the work of pioneers such as Joan Nestle and George Chauncey, a story told in vivid prose that's filled with small moments both heartbreaking and beautiful.” - Ira Sachs, filmmaker

“When Brooklyn Was Queer is a treasure for anyone who wants to look deeper, who wishes to better understand the city and its history, for anyone who walks through Brooklyn and sometimes feels the ghost of history. Spanning centuries, neighborhoods, races and classes, this is an ever fascinating story of the inventive, fascinating, striving, hustling and romantic queers who made and make Brooklyn the magical, heartbreaking place of promise.” - Kaitlyn Greenidge, author

“With meticulous research and fierce compassion, Hugh Ryan brings stories and communities almost lost to history to vivid life. Ryan’s brilliant work is a thrilling portrait of the endurance, resourcefulness, and indefatigable joy queer people brought to bear upon the challenge of their own survival. This is an essential book, and I’m more grateful to it than I can say.” - Garth Greenwell, author

"Tender, compelling, fascinating--Hugh Ryan is doing essential work here, bringing us stories of the lives we almost lost to time and gentrification, stories we need urgently, of the queer life that thrived before this moment. Ryan brings us back to a time before we had even the expectation of legal acceptance, and the lives people made as they could, and his interlocutor's eye for where to look is, as ever, brave and unstinting." - Alex Chee, author

“A delicious, fun, and moving study, cohered and popularized from generations of queer historians and deepened with new and exciting primary research. Hugh Ryan’s love for queer Brooklyn is page-turning, intersectional and an engrossing read.”  - Sarah Schulman, public intellectual, novelist and AIDS historian