Coast is queer: Exhibit looks at Brooklyn’s gay waterfront

Brooklyn Paper
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We’ll have a gay old time!

A Brooklyn author will offer bi-curious locals a glimpse into the halcyon days of Kings County’s queer culture at Brooklyn Historical Society’s Pierrepont Street headquarters beginning on March 5, where he will launch his new book “When Brooklyn was Queer,” and unveil an exhibit of 19th-century relics from some of the borough’s first known gay and lesbian communities.

The new show “On the (Queer) Waterfront: the Factories, Freaks, Sailors, and Sex Workers of Brooklyn,” explores the lives of Victorian-era queer individuals through period art, photographs, fliers, lurid true-crime tales, and extraordinary personal documents, including a never-before-exhibited scrapbook exploring the life of a gay woman living through 19th-century Brooklyn, said the show’s co-curator.

“She was a lesbian from Brooklyn, and a prodigious scrapbooker,” said Hugh Ryan. “It’s an incredible document, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.”

Ryan began his history of Kings County’s queer culture with famed Brooklyn bard Walt Whitman, who through poems like “Leaves of Grass,” published in 1855, exposed an otherwise undocumented interest in same-sex relationships brewing along the borough’s waterfront.

“Even though we only have records of Whitman, because he kept these records of other men, we know there was a community there, of white, working-class men on the waterfront, who were into the idea of sexual relationships with other men,” said Ryan.

The new exhibit, which the Historical Society bills as the first to ever look at the borough’s gay history, focuses on the industrial milieu of Kings County’s coastal communities, and on five professions that, for various reasons, drew the interest and talent of blue-collar queers, according to Ryan: artist, entertainer, sex worker, sailor, and factory worker.

Some gay Brooklynites were attracted to the migratory nature of jobs like shipping and entertaining, which took them to distant ports, or on cross-country tours, which allowed them to have their same-sex dalliances in distant locales, while avoiding notoriety at home.

“Part of the reason actors were more appealing is that you traveled,” said Ryan. “People couldn’t keep a close watch on you.”

During the early 20th century, the relatively high pay of factory jobs offered women a level of independence from male breadwinners that more traditional occupations could not provide, empowering women to fend for themselves — and their lovers.

“They made more money than women in traditionally feminine jobs,” said Ryan. “It’s about the opportunity to live a life of one’s one.”

“On the (Queer) Waterfront” at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont St. between Clinton and Henry streets in Brooklyn Heights, Opening reception March 5; 6:30–8:30 pm. Free. Exhibit open through July 7, Wed–Sun; noon–5 pm. $10 suggested donation ($6 seniors, students free).

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Posted 12:00 am, March 1, 2019
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Reasonable discourse

Wilbur D. Horse from Hammock District says:
I thought "queer" was a bad word, like the N word. I guess it is OK, if certain people use it.
March 1, 2019, 7:33 am
Bill DeSpazzio from Commie Mayor says:
The militants in the community once again decide what’s right and what’s wrong for the rest of us gays. I personally do not like the term queer, nor do I like to be lumped together under the LGBTQ umbrella.
March 1, 2019, 8:31 am
BunnynSunny from The Hills of Clinton says:
Queer is like calling someone a ——. Archie Bunker used to use both terms interchangeably.
March 1, 2019, 9:40 am
BunnynSunny from The Hills of Clinton says:
That three-letter word Brooklyn Paper blocked out begins with an F, ends with a G, and has a vowel in the middle.
March 1, 2019, 9:41 am
Henry Ford from Bay Ridge says:
A lot of straight people sure are overly concerned what we call ourselves. Mind your own business and let us live our lives.
March 1, 2019, 11:09 am
Ro from Park Slope says:
The use of the word "queer" has increased in recent years, particularly when connected to other respectful, affirming words, e.g., the queer community or as a queer person of color. That said, I would ask a person how they identify [LGBTQIA+] if there is a need for me to speak about them.
March 1, 2019, 5:27 pm
Chris from Crown Heights says:
Seconding what Ro said. Queer started being used fairly widely as far back as the 90's and is largely considered an inclusive reclaimed term.
March 1, 2019, 7:17 pm

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