Hugh Ryan, whose first paying job (after babysitting) was as an Irvington Public Library page, was back there on Oct. 10 — virtually — to discuss his 2019 book “When Brooklyn Was Queer.” The library presented the Zoom conversation to coincide with its celebration of LGBTQ History Month.
Ryan, now a Brooklyn resident, said the Irvington Library “was the first place I found a gay book — one by Sarah Schulman. So [it] was a formative place for me.”
The 1996 Irvington High School graduate earned his bachelor’s degree in women’s studies from Cornell University in 2000 and master’s degree in creative writing from Bennington College in 2009.
He is the recipient of numerous grants and honors including the 2016 Martin Duberman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts grant in nonfiction literature, and the 2019 Allan Berube Prize for outstanding work in public LGBT history from the Committee on LGBT History at the American Historical Association.
Ryan’s parents, Pat and Jack, still live in Irvington where Pat Ryan is co-president of the Irvington Historical Society.
Before beginning work on what he called “the first book ever about the LGBTQ community in Brooklyn,” Ryan spent the years between Cornell and Bennington as a youth worker in New York City.
“I’ve always been interested in the marginalized communities and how social power works,” he said. “As a youth worker I dealt with the homeless, with the LGBTQ community. I loved it, but it burned me out. But I also loved writing. So, I thought, I want to write about these things. I want to try. So that’s when I went back to graduate school.”
Ryan knew little about the subject he was drawn to — the queer community of Brooklyn’s past — so he devoted seven years to research before writing, hiring an agent, and submitting a book proposal.
“When Brooklyn Was Queer” covers the years from 1855, when Walt Whitman published “Leaves of Grass,” to 1966, when the Brooklyn Naval Yard was shut down.
As much as the book is peopled by gay artists such as the poet Hart Crane, the drag queens of Coney Island, the lesbian performers like Mabel Hampton, Ryan’s book provides a history of Brooklyn’s waterfront, the shipping activity that put it on the map, and the urban density that followed.
“I wanted to focus on the big picture of what Brooklyn was like during the time when it went from being a small Dutch town to a metropolis, and to find the people inside that story who would tell the LGBTQ story,” Ryan said. “For those 111 years the Brooklyn waterfront provided job opportunities for many within the gay community.”
As Ryan explained during the Zoom session, the waterfront offered opportunity in the five categories in which a gay person — male or female — could find employment: as sailors (male only), factory workers, artists, entertainers, and sex workers. Brooklyn was like other port cities around the world, according to Ryan.
Immigration also played a part, as many men who came to America to earn money and expected to return home lived in male-only boarding houses. Women, too, lived in same-sex facilities. Then there were the bars along the waterfront that welcomed all. Coney Island was the most libidinous place for “masculine women” and “feminine men.”
All that ended, Ryan said, when the waterfront was unable to handle the larger ships that arrived following World War II. The Brooklyn Naval Yard was subsequently closed in 1966.
In the prologue to “When Brooklyn was Queer,” which Ryan read to the Zoom participants, he shares a conversation he had with a man named Martin Boyce to illustrate how little was known about Brooklyn’s rich and welcoming history with the gay community. Boyce, who had been an active participant in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, was knowledgeable about Manhattan’s three “gayborhoods” — Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Harlem — but not Brooklyn’s.
“I felt at times like I was working with a giant jigsaw puzzle without having any idea what the finished picture would look like,” Ryan said.
One piece of the puzzle that did fit with Ryan’s history of Brooklyn, and that of his hometown, was a gem he discovered about Hampton, one of the most well known lesbian performers and activists of her time, having been part of both the Coney Island scene and the Harlem Renaissance.
In one of the interviews about her life, Hampton, who passed away in 1982, talks about parties at the estate of A’Leila Walker, daughter of Madam C.J. Walker. Madam Walker, a first-generation freed woman, created a successful cosmetic and hair care product line for women of color. Her mansion, Villa Lewaro, which was built in 1918, still stands on Broadway. Hampton’s description of A’Leila Walker’s parties leaves little to the imagination. Ryan shared snippets of the interview during his talk.
“When Brooklyn Was Queer” is published by St. Martins Press and is available through Amazon.com and at bookstores.
Ryan’s next volume, “The Women’s House of Detention,” is about the 11-story prison — demolished in 1974 — that was located at the intersection of Sixth and Greenwich avenues in Manhattan’s West Village. The book is on course to be published by Bold Type Books in 2021.
Keshet Roman, reference librarian and director of adult programming, served as moderator for the Zoom conversation with Ryan. The event was recorded and can be accessed https://www.irvingtonlibrary.org/adult.