On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn's Hidden LGBT Past
By Out.com Editors
It's queer history month, and the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, a grassroots organization that transforms spaces into temporary installations celebrating the rich, long, and largely unknown histories of LGBTQ people has a new exhibit, On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories. A scatter-site-specific investigation of the queer histories of the borough, the exhibit includes performances, talks, and related events. For more information, visit the tumblr page.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was a popular cruising ground for the poet Walt Whitman during the decades after the Civil War. Whitman found numerous lovers, and recorded the accounts in his Notebooks. Others, he merely worshiped from afar.
“Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly,” Walt Whitman wrote in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," “yet never told them a word.”
The Navy Yards continue to be a center for Brooklyn gay life through the turn of the century. In 1905, a committee is founded to investigate prostitution and finds number spots in Brooklyn, such as Sands Street, between Navy and Jay, where both male prostitution and gay cruising thrive. The reports of the Committee of Fourteen are available at the New York Public Library.
The Washington Baths on Coney Island were quite popular—and quite a queer space, with drag shows and more.
Bert Savoy (pictured) was a popular female impersonator who starred for many years in a vaudeville show entitled Greenwich Village Follies. However, in 1923, according to Harpo Marx, Savoy ”drowned off Coney Island after being struck by lightening, and the next day a New York columnist had written an obituary for him in the form of a love letter. Also on the following day, so the legend goes, all the pansies at Coney Island were wearing lightening rods.”
In 1929, a male beauty contest staged at the Washington Baths on Coney Island, took a very queer turn. As George Chauncey writes in Gay New York, “most of the people who gathered to watch the competition were men” and “most of the men participating in the contest wore paint and powder.” A journalist reported, one “pretty guy pranced before the camera and threw kisses to the audience,” and “one man came in dressed as a woman.” Others had mascara on their eyelashes. “The problem,” as the reporter put it tongue-in-cheek, “became that of picking a male beaut who wasn’t a floosie no matter how he looked.” In essence, “on a packed summer hot afternoon, gay men had taken over a male beauty contest, becoming its audience, its contestants, and its stars.”
Jean Carroll, the gender-bending “Bearded Lady” of the Coney Island freak show, shaves her beard in order to marry her husband in the 1930s. Unwilling to leave circus life, she begins to get tattoos, becoming the Tattooed Woman instead.
The St. George Hotel (in what is now called DUMBO) becomes a popular social hangout and residence for gay men in the 1940s.
Gay men also frequent automats and cafeterias such as the Childs and Horn & Hardart Chains.
In the early 1940s, 7 Middagh in Brooklyn Heights becomes an enclave of art and sexual freedom. W.H. Auden, Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee are among the residents.
Gay composer Virgil Thompson is involved in a raid at a male brothel at 329 Pacific Street, which is alleged to have become infiltrated by Nazis seeing to ply secrets from drunk sailors. David I. Walsh, a Senator from Massachusetts, is also implicated.
In 1964, Grove Press publishes Hubert Selby Jr’sLast Exit to Brooklyn, which portrays graphic sex and encounters between men along the Brooklyn waterfront. The book garnered attention from the likes of Allen Ginsberg and, in 1967, was tried for obscenity in Great Britain.
Poet Maurice Kenny moves to Brooklyn Heights, where he lives for two decades. Much of his writing focuses on the intersections of his identity as a gay man and a Native American, and some of his poems explore the Brooklyn waterfront.
The Spectrum opened as a gay men’s club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Since demolished, it was one of the locations used in the film Saturday Night Fever.
The DUMBA collective is founded in a space in DUMBO, becoming an epicenter of the Queercore movement and queer life in Brooklyn. It hosted punk shows, sex parties, film festivals, and political events. In 2000 it was renamed the DUMBA Collective, which remained its name until the organization’s lease was lost in 2006. Part of John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus was filmed in the DUMBA space.