The (Almost) Lost Gay History of Brooklyn

Illustration: Remie Geoffroi

In 2010, the writer Hugh Ryan, incensed by the Smithsonian’s decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from display, created the Pop Up Museum of Queer History in his Bushwick loft. The experiment was enough of a success (and a fire hazard — the police shut it down on opening night when 300 people showed up) that Ryan was inspired to dig deeper into his adopted borough’s own gay history. His research became the new book When Brooklyn Was Queer. The story starts with Walt Whitman’s depictions of gay cruising in Leaves of Grass, likely the first in American letters, and continues through to the queering of Sands Street between the World Wars and the demolition of landmarks of gay life during Robert Moses’s construction of the BQE in the early ’60s. (Though with the companion creation of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the master builder unintentionally fathered a whole new cruising ground.) While the lives of white gay men in Brooklyn are the most historically documented, Ryan makes a particular effort to include women and gender-nonconforming people. He ends the book right before Stonewall, that natural line of demarcation for queer life in America. Here, some of the mileposts Ryan resurrected.

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A Walking Tour with Author Hugh Ryan

1. Fulton Ferry Landing
Walt Whitman kept a ledger of his waterfront encounters that goes on for over 15 pages. One example: “David Wilson night of Oct 11, ’62, walking up from Middagh — slept with me — works in a Blacksmith shop in Navy Yard.” And the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” contains this ode to cruising: “Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.”

7 Middagh Street. Photo: Municipal Archives

2. 7 Middagh Street
Nicknamed February House, this building was home to Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis, novelist Carson McCullers, poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears, and burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee in the 1940s. It’s also where set designer Oliver Smith, then 22, met Leonard Bernstein.

3. 110 Columbia Heights
During the 1920s, this building would become an artists’ commune created by gay socialite Hamilton Easter Field, which is where the poet Hart Crane would write his most important work, “The Bridge.”

Oliver Smith. Photo: David Attie/Getty Images

4. Oliver-Capote House
After Oliver Smith made his name by designing the set for On the Town, which was inspired by the bars on Sands Street and gave us the song “New York, New York,” he bought a Greek Revival mansion at 70 Willow Street and rented out the basement apartment to his friend Truman Capote.

5. Brooklyn Heights Promenade
When Robert Moses cut off access to the Brooklyn waterfront with the construction of the BQE, he created a new cruising spot. In 1962, one letter writer complained in the Brooklyn Heights Press of advances from the “Princes of the Promenade.” Surprisingly, many people wrote in to defend “our Brooklyn Heights homosexuals,” with one married man describing them as “cultured, quiet, and amiable, a credit to our community.”

Tony Bonner’s Supper Club. Photo: Courtesy of Hugh Ryan

6. Tony Bonner’s Supper Club
The first true gay bar in Brooklyn, which opened in 1950 at 80 Montague Street, had the motto “Where it’s never too late to dine.” The management used a series of flashing lights whenever police entered to warn “boys to stop dancing with one another.” Police raids prompted a 1963 Times exposé and eventually led to its closure.

7. Clarke Street Station
The only entrance to this stop is at the front of the St. George, and from the 1920s through the ’60s, the bathroom there was notorious as a gay hookup spot. Hart Crane wrote that a friend loved Brooklyn Heights because of “the attractions of the St. George subway station”; he later alluded to it in “The Bridge,” describing love as “a burnt match skating in a urinal.”

8. Hotel St. George
Ryan describes this hotel, once the largest in the country, as “perhaps the most elegant cruising ground in all of Brooklyn’s history.” The Beat poet Harold Norse’s English professor tried to seduce him by taking him to bathe in its Olympic-size saltwater pool. Later, the bar at the hotel was used for the infamous scene in The Godfather (that totem of heterosexuality!) when Luca Brasi is killed; the pool is now in a gym, the Eastern Athletic Club.

9. 32 Sands Street
The site in 1916 of one of the first recorded police raids of a Brooklyn bar frequented by gay men. An undercover officer posing as a sailor was invited to a building on Schermerhorn by a group of men, who told him, “If you come down there, we will suck your cock.”

Photo: The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, NY

10. Brooklyn Navy Yard
The influx of sailors during both World Wars once made the Navy Yard synonymous with vice and sex. In 1931, the tabloid of its day, Broadway Brevities, breathlessly reported that the Navy Yard had become a “Center of Flagrant Camping for Gobs [enlisted sailors] and Society Slummers.” During World War II, Thomas Painter wrote, “Millions of men … Boys who would have stayed at home as quiet farm boys or middle-class youths in small towns, now in the Navy, will have been fellated or pedicated.”

11. Brooklyn College
The school song of Brooklyn College was written by the gay Jewish poet Robert Friend. Harold Norse met Chester Kallman at its original Downtown Brooklyn location and became his lover. Their relationship collapsed when they went to see Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden give a reading and Isherwood invited them over. Kallman went alone, and he and Auden became lifelong collaborators.

Ella Wesner. Photo: Library of Congress

12. The Gaiety
The Gaiety, which opened in 1889, hosted the male impersonator Ella Wesner that fall. Billed as “England’s favorite and America’s pride,” Wesner preferred men’s dress throughout her life, and her love affair with a minor actress was noted in the Chicago Tribune as an “unnatural attachment.” She’s buried in the Evergreens Cemetery in men’s clothes.

13. 329 Pacific Street
An infamous “peg house” was run in this two-story townhouse. Police and naval intelligence raided it in 1942, and rumors soon surfaced that Nazi spies hung out there, as well as a U.S. senator, giving rise to a national scandal referred to as the “swastika swishery.” The Post blared, “Senator Linked to Spy Nest Which Lured Service Men.”

Raymond Street Jail.

14. Raymond Street Jail
In 1923, New York criminalized same-sex activity, making it a misdemeanor to “frequent or loiter about any public place soliciting men for the purpose of committing a crime against nature or other lewdness.” Brooklyn’s “criminal perverts” were locked up pretrial at the Raymond Street Jail, which once held Elizabeth Trondle, who was sentenced to three years for refusing to wear women’s clothing.

15. The Starlite Lounge
From 1962 until it closed in early 2010, the Starlite was the oldest gay bar in Brooklyn and the most welcoming for black gay clientele. When it was shuttered, a former manager told the Times, “The Starlite was sort of for the Brokeback Mountain types … We’d go over to the Seville in our furs and then put them in our cars and head over to the Starlite.”

Prospect Park.

16. Prospect Park
The Vale of Cashmere, which many know and love today, first became a cruising ground in the 1940s. Ryan suspects its rise to prominence was a result of police crackdowns around the Brooklyn Navy Yard after World War II. In an October 1945 letter to the mayor, one precinct commanding officer warned of the “growing menace of sex degenerates in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.”

Photo: Courtesy of Hugh Hagius

17. Coney Island
By the 1920s, the “Nickel Empire” started attracting large crowds of gay men to its bathhouses. In 1929, Washington Baths held a male beauty contest; Variety reported that the hardest part of judging the competition was “picking a male beaut who wasn’t a floozie.” By the ’40s, part of Coney Island was known as Muscle Beach. A fire destroyed the Washington Baths in 1955, but by that time, Robert Moses had largely succeeded in sanitizing the place.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is out today from St. Martin’s Press. A companion exhibition, “On the (Queer) Waterfront,” will be on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society through August 4.

*This article appears in the March 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The (Almost) Lost Gay History of Brooklyn