Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer is an exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the queer women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond.
When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history: meticulous research, easy-reading narrative, fascinating small events within significant larger ones, and personal interest ... Painstaking research and attention to detail highlight the richness and mystery of stories that have been largely hidden until now. Ryan is careful to point out the challenges of this kind of research ... Ryan is sensitive to the intersecting limitations faced by women and people of color ... a compelling, essential read.
It’s a satisfying retort to the idea that there was nothing queer there before ... A hungry archivist, Hugh Ryan unearths vivid material to populate this story ... Ryan takes care to note that 'racist and misogynist structural realities meant that even at its outset, American queer life developed in splintered pockets' ... At times this drives him to too modest conclusions ... The archival discoveries that Ryan has made, however, evoke a world of affection and pleasure that is at odds with the prevailing story that sexual liberation only began in the 1960s ... Ryan’s history posits that the urban world of prewar Brooklyn produced a certain kind of queer, and that postwar suburbia enforced a kind of forgetting. The prodigal return of the suburban queer to the city is often underwritten by the promise of redeeming a sense of unclaimed belonging, and Ryan’s archaeology successfully seems to notarize it ... I felt a warmth reading about these forgotten lives, which left an infinity of traces on the same streets I walk, though the frame Ryan operates with presumes that everyone else had forgotten, too.
...a funny, tender and disturbing history of LGBT life ... The book is studded with the stories of Brooklyn-based A-list gays of yesteryear: Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Truman Capote ... the book also excels in uncovering what life was like for 'ordinary' queer folk ... One of the fascinating aspects of the book is how accepted the queer community was in Brooklyn at certain periods (and by certain people) ... There’s probably no better time for us to relearn Brooklyn’s queer history.