Before Stonewall

By NYPL Staff
June 16, 2019

Aidan Flax-Clark welcomes co-host Jason Baumann, Assistant Director for Collection Development and Coordinator of Humanities and the Library’s LGBTQ Initiative, for a special episode about queer life before the Stonewall Riots. 

This week: Frank Collerius, Manager of the Jefferson Market branch at NYPL, interviews writer and curator Hugh Ryan about his new book 'when brooklyn was queer.' We also hear a reading of 'The How and Why of Virginia,' the personal story of Virginia Prince, the founder and editor of the magazine 'Transvestia,' read by actor LeLand Gantt.

Next week we'll hear what happened during those few days at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 from iconic transgender rights activists Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major. Jason Baumann returns for an interview with pioneering photojournalist and gay rights activist Kay Tobin Lahusen. Plus stories from Eric Marcus' podcast 'Making Gay History' and a story from the archives at The Schomburg Center.

Also mentioned:

-'The Stonewall Reader'

-The exhibit 'Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50'

Special Thanks to: The Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada for use of Virginia Prince's story.

Click here to find out how to subscribe and listen to the Library Talks podcast.

 

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

 

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>> [Background music] You're listening to Library Talks, from the New York Public Library. I'm Aiden Flax-Clark.

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>> This month, the library is celebrating Pride and marking the 50th anniversary of the riots at Stonewall. And on today's show, we're going to look at how our archives show us what queer life was like in New York City before Stonewall. And here with me to talk about it is Jason Baumann. Jason is the assistant director for collection development and he's the steward of our LGBTQ collections. He's also the curator of the Love and Resistance exhibit, which is currently on view at the Schwarzman Building, which is, you know, the big one in Bryant Park. Jason, thanks for joining us today.

>> Thanks so much for having me.

>> Okay, so for listeners who are new to this history or have heard a little bit about Stonewall but don't know what happened in June 1969, what do you tell them about it and why it still matters today?

>> So, Stonewall riots were a conflict with the police that happened starting June 28th, early in the morning in 1969 and then continuing for almost a week of conflict between the LGBTQ community and New York City and with the police. A lot of times people think this was the beginning of LGBTQ activism, which it wasn't. Really, you have an LGBTQ activist community in the US from the 1950s on and it also wasn't the first of these conflicts. And so across the 1960s, you have a series of these riots, conflicts with the police, and LGBTQ community in San Francisco, in Philadelphia, in Los Angeles, and it sort of culminates in this conflict at Stonewall.

>> So, you mentioned how there was this history of activism before Stonewall, which you also emphasize in the exhibit. And why do you feel that that's important for people to know about?

>> Part of it is just knowing our history, right? For gas and lesbians, for transgender people, there's this long political struggle that has a history much further back than Stonewall. And I think also that struggle really forms a great deal of LGBT activism and enables us to see the present in a different way. Like one of the major issues in the activism in the 1960s was military service and the right to federal employment, which is something that's again under attack, after 50, more than 50 years. So I think it's really important to see the contemporary issues in that historical perspective. I mean, also for transgender activism, I think it's important for transgender people to realize that their history isn't something that happened in the past 10 years, right? That this is something going much further back.

>> So, you did this exhibit and then you also edited this book called the Stonewall reader, which is incredible. And can you tell us a little bit about it and why you felt it was a necessary component of the exhibit?

>> So, when we were planning the exhibition, we were approached by Penguin Classics about would we do, what did we think of doing a reader around Stonewall? And I was immediately hooked on the idea. And so we framed the reader to have three sections - one before Stonewall, one during Stonewall, and one after. And so obviously the during is peoples' memoirs of what it was like to participate in Stonewall riots, and the after was really about this activism that took place. But the before section, I really wanted people to have a sense of what it felt like to be gay, lesbian, transgender, before Stonewall and before you have this mass civil rights movement that comes after Stonewall. And I think it's both the alienation, also the oppression that people suffered. I think it's very difficult for people to realize today with the civil rights and liberties that we've won in the succeeding years, that homosexuality was illegal in the 1960s in almost every state other than Illinois, that you could serve prison time in most states for homosexuality. That you could be arrested for being transgender, for cross dressing in the 1960s. And so I think it's important for people to realize that history and also to realize that LGBT people had a civil rights movement, right? That these liberties that we have today didn't just happen because people naturally got more tolerant, but because people became activists and changed our society.

>> And to honor that history, we're going to have two segments today, to get you in the spirit of Pride and give you a taste of what's in our exhibit. And even more importantly, what's in our amazing LGBTQ archives. And later in the episode, we're going to hear the story of Virginia Prince. Jason, can you tell us who she was and about Transvestia?

>> So, Virginia Prince was really this pioneering transgender activist in the US from the 1960s on. She edits this magazine, Transvestia, which is I think really unique and it documents at the time, and you can kind of hear this in the 1960s, of many people at the time who were thinking of themselves as cross dressers or transvestites, which is a term you'll see in the 1960s that we don't really use today. Many of them heterosexually identified men, many of them married to women and then dealing with their transgender identity and cross dressing, often in private, often very closeted. And it's an interesting magazine because it's written a lot by readers. She edited the magazine but it's many readers writing in about their experiences, sending in pictures of themselves. So, you get this kind of sense of this whole community that was in the United States. It's also interesting for archives. So, it's part of the LGBT periodicals collection, that we have the Manuscripts and Archives division. It's about 3000 titles from across the US from about the 1950s to around 1990. And scholars come from all over the country to use these periodicals. We really have one of the best collections of them. And that was something I wanted to focus on the reader, was to give people a sense of this breadth of the periodicals and little magazines, zines, that were existing from the 1950s, '60s.

>> And we'll include links to how you can find Transvestia and the periodicals collection and everything else that gets mentioned in this episode in the show notes on the blog page. At the end of the episode, we'll hear a reading of Virginia Prince's writing in Transvestia. But first up, we have a conversation between Frank Collerius, who's the manager of the Jefferson Market Library here in Greenwich Village. And Hugh Ryan, a writer and curator based in Brooklyn, who has a new book out called, "When Brooklyn Was Queer", which he worked on at the library.

>> Yeah, he was our Martin Duberman Visiting Fellow a few years ago and was able to write the book using our archives.

>> And so Hugh came by the library to talk with Frank about what he found in our archives, ours and others, on queer history from the mid 19th century up until Stonewall. Here's our conversation.

>> So, why Brooklyn? Why?

>> Why not Brooklyn [laughter]? I mean, actually the truth is that it all started from my own ignorance, that while I had been a women's studies major in college, I'd read tons of books about gay history, lesbian history, trans history. I'd read tons of books about New York City. My family was from the Bronx. I grew up in Westchester. And yet I knew absolutely nothing about the queer history of Brooklyn. My understanding of New York City's queer history was entirely shaped around Manhattan. And I actually went to the library thinking, 'Well, there's got to be a book. I just don't know it.' You know, in my head I was like, it's probably some, like, really small press, gay press, published in the late '70s or early '80s, and there's going to be like one copy in one branch somewhere. And then there wasn't even that. And I thought well, okay. We're dealing with one of two things here. Either there is a history that has not be recorded in a way that I'm able to find it, or gay people are like vampires and we can't cross moving water and therefore we're stuck in Manhattan. So, those were my two working theories when I started the book. We're either vampires, or we were always here and just no one's recorded it.

>> You talk at length in the book about organizations that were developed to combat perceived homosexuality and queerness, and how those sometimes are the only documents that are extant about queer communities, because they were designed to actually eradicate them. But by looking at those, you discover what the attitudes were and things like that. So, like, why did archives or some research like that come in?

>> Well, part of it actually came about when the library gave me a grant to do this work in a much more structured way. I got a Martin Duberman Visiting Fellowship for LGBTQ Scholarship, which was so important. It really transformed my work because it let me concentrate on it. I started looking through the New York Public Library's archives, the Lesbian History Center's archives, the archives at the Municipal City archives in New York City. And I was looking for a variety of things. At the library, I was often looking at the collections of queer people themselves who may not have spent much time in Brooklyn. But, you know, reading through Lincoln Kerstein's diaries at the Billy Rose Theatre division, I was able, my assistant found a great mention of him going to a bar in Sand Street, in Brooklyn, in the 1930s. And there's great description of what he did and who he was there with and what the scene was like. You know, and so those moments were great. But, you're right. A lot of the other things that I was looking at, I was often reading against the archive, that I would find an archive that was about records, particularly of men soliciting for sex or, as they used to put it, people masquerading in the clothes of the opposite sex. And I would look at those and say to myself, 'Okay, what can I see here?' Like, one of the things that became really obvious is that men were being arrested in huge numbers for having sex inside the subways, in subway bathrooms.

>> Yeah.

>> And that said something to me, right? That says these are people who are everyday New Yorkers who are having sex in the place where they see each other the most. It's the most readily available. This isn't necessarily them going to a place to have gay sex. They're not finding a gayborhood. These are people who are having sex at Grand Central, at Madison Square Park, down, you know, Fulton Street, Canal Street, where there were already meeting places. And so you start to learn things that are not what they intended to keep in those archives-

>> Right.

>> But you'll find, if you look at them closely enough. That's such a challenge for a researcher and also an archivist. One of the real challenges is that some very famous people have their own archives that you can go to easily and see everything put together and that's great. But if you want to find the stories of people who were not famous, often there's no archive devoted just to them. If you're lucky, little bits of their papers have been spread out between a bunch of different archives and you might still be able to find their name. But often you're trying to find small mentions of nonfamous people inside the archives of much more famous people. And it can be very easy to sort of just talk about, you know, the Walt Whitmans and the Carson McCullers, and never talk about, you know, Bill Miller, who's a sailor that I talk about in the book. Even he was fairly famous for his day. He was a model. He was an inventor. He was interviewed repeatedly. But he's definitely not the level of, like, Walt Whitman, you know? But even finding information about him was rather difficult.

>> How did you organize it that way? What made you decide to start with Mr Whitman, the famous poet?

>> Whitman was a fairly easy place to start because Brooklyn really becomes a city after the opening of the Erie Canal in the 1820s. That's really a big part of what transforms Brooklyn. It transforms shipping in America, which then causes changes in Manhattan, which causes all of this growth in industry in Brooklyn. And once you get that kind of level of density is when you start to find more and more queer history. Not that there weren't queer people before that. There's this famous pair in Brooklyn history called The Brothers Graham, who were actually two men who changed their names to be the same as each other. One left his family so that they could be together, and they're really important in like the 1830s in Brooklyn. But there's not a ton of information about them. And I actually only found out about them when the book was finished. But by the time you get to Walt Whitman, his poetry and his writings clearly establish that there are a number of other men that he is meeting on the Brooklyn waterfront through the Brooklyn waterfront. So, he points to a community that is much larger than himself, and it's the first time I can find that evidence. Not an isolated individual or even two isolated individuals, but someone who gave me an inroad to a community. And because he's so famous and he's someone that people already know and associate with Brooklyn, it felt like a natural place to start the book.

>> I mean, you do so much in this book, and two of the things which always come to mind which I love about it is that one, you relate an economic industrial history to peoples' lives as they live it. Like, the options available to you, the resources available to you, the life available to you is sometimes not obvious to one dependent on the economics and the industry of the world around you. You think you're sort of foraging a way ahead, but your opportunities are almost directly supplied by that. And you make that very clear and you go very in depth in that. That's one thing, the economic relationship to actually society as human lives are lived. And also the evolution of language, about how people describe their experience or didn't describe their experience, how it was described for them.

>> Well, I mean, I think what was important to me was I wasn't really interested in presenting a catalog of, like, Homosexuals in History [laughter], you know? And just saying there they were, look at them! I wanted to understand why we appeared in some places more than others. And I used we very loosely there. But I wanted to understand what I was seeing more than just say look, here it is. That's not, I think of that kind of history as being the raw material of history, right? People, places, dates. The actual work of history is this sweep that moves you from one place to another. And so understanding those peoples' lives and the events and the publications and all of that should inform our understanding of why their lives were shaped the way they were. And if we just talk about them by presenting them and not sort of analyzing how the world shifts, I think we're missing out on what actually makes history so interesting. The meat and the blood and the excitement. How life changes. And for myself, I'll say that I came to queer history looking for a mirror. I grew up not knowing any out gay people. When I came out, I had never met an out gay person in my life. And so queer history for me was this attempt to say no, no, no. I'm there. I exist. But the other I studied it, the more I started to see a problem with that, that what I was actually doing was forcing myself into that history. It's not a mirror. It's a window. And what's great about queer history is it shows you how different life once was, which then allows you to imagine that life can be different moving forward. And that's what I really started to see and love about doing this history, was to see how different these peoples' lives were from my life, even on axes that were fairly similar, you know? An erotic connection to other men.

>> Right.

>> But that [inaudible] very, very differently. And that is what I find so freeing and exiting about queer history.

>> So, given that context, what are some of the stories that you can tell us about from the book that resonated with you really?

>> One of the stories that really resonated with me, both the nature of the story and the nature of finding it was a combined story, actually, of two women, Rusty Brown and Madame Tirza.

>> Oh, yeah.

>> And Rusty is amazing. Rusty was a machinist, a Drag King. She worked during the war effort in World War II out in the Pacific and then came here and worked on the civilian side of things in the factories around the Brooklyn Navy yard. And she left behind an oral history and an essay of her own experiences. So, I have a lot of material about her, which is rare for women who worked in the factories, queer women. There isn't a ton recorded from their points of view. And so that was really great to find her story. And as I was researching it, like, it's amazing to watch how she has to navigate her identity at different times. She talks about being queer before World War II and terrible things happening to her. You know, being sent to Bellevue for shock treatments and stuff like that. But says very clearly that in her experience, it was only after the end of World War II that homophobia comes about in this way where you might be beaten on the streets, you know? She sort of points out that homophobia as we think of it now, historically is bounded in time. That there is a specific time period where this sort of vocal terrible homophobia really existed. And that's from World War II up, you know, through now. And before that there were terrible things, but they were different. So, that was one reason that I find her super interesting. But the other is that she has this tiny little mention in her oral history. She says after the war I tried to work as a machinist. They fired me, so I used my grandfather's name and ID and I pretended to be a boy and I continued working in the factories. And I got so good at doing drag that I became a Drag King, and she worked down at Coney Island as a Drag King. And one day she went to see a stripper show at Coney Island. And she can't remember the name of it in the oral history, right? She's kind of guessing. She's like, Ginza, I think was the name? But in the backstage, she meets the love of her life, one of the dancers who she thinks must be a straight woman. And I thought, "This is such a great story." But I was never able to find the name of that woman. She says her first name is Terry, but that's it. I can't find the last name, can't find any history of her. I look up Ginza over and over again, but it doesn't really lead me anywhere. Years later, years later in this research, I'm watching an oral history, or listening to an oral history, that was taken with a woman named Mary Loretta Hood who was a dancer at Coney Island. And this was done when she was in her 90s by the Coney Island History Project, which a really incredible, incredible website. And she says, "I was a dancer with Madame Tirza," and that Madame Tirza herself was bisexual. Her phrase for it is a he/she she/he, which was a very strange thing to come across on the tapes and I thought she was talking about something else. But she explains that no, no, no. Madame Tirza dated both men and women and that when she, and went out way too late the night before with a woman, Mary Loretta Hood would take her place and pretend to be Madame Tirza for an afternoon. And she described the routine that the woman danced in. And I realized that this Madame Tirza was the same Madame Ginza that Rusty Brown had been referring to.

>> Right.

>> And then I was able to follow how Madame Tirza's burlesque show exited on Coney Island and gave jobs to women, some of whom were queer, but some of them, like Mary Loretta Hood, weren't queer sexually or in terms of their gender identity, but were different and wanted to do things that women weren't supposed to do at their time. And Madame Tirza gave these women jobs. And she tried to sort of fight back against Robert Moses trying to shut down Coney Island. And so I was able to connect these two stories and trace how lesbian life or queer women's lives evolved from pre-World War II to World War II to trying to find jobs in New York after World War II, to getting forced out by the suburbanization of the 1950s that forced the closure of all of these burlesque joints on Coney Island. And so it was amazing to me to tape those stories together and see not only how they showed the wider world changing but to show the importance of these areas that we may not think of as being connected. You know, the Navy yard and Coney Island. But they are in Brooklyn's history and they're both waterfront spaces.

>> What is it about water?

>> Well, I think it's actually, you know, it's a lot of things but the waterfront is the places where, are the places where some of our oldest history is, because that's where trade happens, right? That's where strangers come into your town and that's where you leave your town. That's where goods come in. That's where money grows. That's where you have businesses popping up. But not just any businesses. You have businesses, you don't want to be right next door to, because they're loud and ships come in at the middle of the night and sailors are drunk. So, you have these spaces that are really popular. Lots people are passing through them, so there's this mix of urbanity and anonymity and privacy. And then at night they shut down and people don't want to look too closely at them. And you don't want to police them either, because they're probably paying people off to keep the economy running. And so you get these spaces that have all kinds of people in them and not a lot of policing, and a lot of money passing through. An that makes it possible for queer people to live queer lives.

>> Wow. What about the language you discovered through the research? Like, you said that woman called her a he/she she/he. You talk about in the '30s there was that pansy craze, like in Hollywood as well as like on the streets of urban cities. Like, where those were sort of like a vogue?

>> Yeah, it was very popular to sort of have effeminate men, possibly drag queens, possibly trans women, you know, these categories are not distinct in that time. But it was very popular to have them in movies, to have them in vaudeville shows. And that really has a long history. I mean, as far back as you trace sort of vaudeville and variety acts to the 1860s, you see acts that play with gender and play with queerness are a really important part of that history. And in fact, some of the earliest queer history that I could find were depictions of "fairies" or masculine women onstage. And then the actors who played those roles.

>> It also makes you think that, like, history isn't just this linear thing that keeps improving and improving and improving. It like goes in and out of vogue or progress is made and then retracted. Like the '50s seem to have done socially so much damage. And then '60s almost is like an explosion response to that.

>> Yeah, and categories are invented. I mean, previous to the 1920s ish, you know, loosely, what our idea of sort of a gay man or a lesbian woman, it's not exactly what most people thought back then. You see a lot more incoherence about what these ideas mean and if they're good or bad. There was sort of as much as there was kind of a broad idea of queerness in America before that time, you see this idea of what's called the invert. And the invert is a mix of things that we today think of as separate categories. It's being intersex, which means that, you know, you have secondary sex characteristics of quote unquote both binary sexes. Being transgender, so you're moving across the boundaries of, again, those so-called binary sexes. And being homosexual. So, you have desires that are incorrect. But all of those are kind of mashed together in this category of the invert, and not separated out into different identities the way we do today. And so it's interesting to see how our understanding of ourself changes and then that understanding is played out in the real world. There are people who identified as inverts who thought my body, my actual physical body, is different from a quote unquote man's or a quote unquote woman's because of who I am, in a way that we don't think that as much anymore today. But it certainly was what they believed about themselves then.

>> I mean, that's what's so important about language, about the language you give or get to describe yourself or you describe to by others. It's so important. It could change everything.

>> Totally.

>> So, what, I mean, a lot of history is as you point out too, also talk about and maybe legitimately so because of just document available, like the white histories. A lot of male histories seem to exit previous to female or women's or other races. Like, how did you find out about that in your research?

>> A lot of things, to be honest. One of the things that surprised me when I started this research, because again, I started from a place of ignorance, was how white the history of Brooklyn is. That from the end of slavery in New York up through the 19, like '30s, Brooklyn is never less than 98%, 99% white. I just wasn't expecting that, until I sat down and did the research. And that then caused a lot of other questions and a lot of other concerns. But it said to me okay, well, why? Why was Brooklyn so white, right? I don't want to take this as a neutral, just a fact of life. This is, like everything else, caused by a set of conditions. And so you can see that Brooklyn in some ways starts off as a racist space. Particularly like Brooklyn Heights is imagined as the first set of suburbs, and so you have those same concerns we think about with suburbs today, of a parochialism and an escape from urbanity which is about mixing of all kinds.

>> Yeah.

>> And that mindset is present in Brooklyn from sort of the very beginning of its origins as a city. Not when it's, you know, a bunch of separate towns on Long Island. And so that was one of the first things that I discovered. I knew in my research I was really going to have to look closely at because the experiences of people of different races, people of different genders, etc, etc. In the Victorian era, that ultimately and completely changed your experience of the world. And if I weren't to find those stories, even though the numbers were smaller, then I'd be leaving out all kinds of experience that were very different from the experiences of white people and the experiences of men on the Brooklyn waterfront. But it also points to why those histories are the easiest to find. Right? White men are the most likely, the people with the most economic freedom. So, first off, they're the first ones who are going to be able to live this new-found queer life, because they're the first ones to have the economic freedom to do so. And that economic freedom is going to be part of what makes sure that their materials end up in archives and they end up discussed. And so this played out in basically every bit of research that I did. One of my favorite sets of stories in the whole book are the drag kings and drag queens who performed in the late Victorian era at Coney Island and Brooklyn Heights. Drag was huge. It wasn't called drag back then. You would've called it male impersonation or female impersonation. But there were tons of acts performing in drag, way more drag kings than we have now. And they performed openly, they were celebrated, they were profiled in newspapers. But it was a very different experience for white people and for black people performing in drag. And I could find all of this information about [inaudible], the most famous white drag king of the time. She is everywhere. She was paid by cigarette and champagne companies to hock their wares from the stage. Newspapers reported on her extensively. Tons of pictures of her in archives. But Florence Hines, the most famous black drag king of the same time, I can find lots of articles in the black press about her but much fewer, much less information in the white press. I could find notes of where she was performing in the white press but none of these profiles that give you more information about their lives. And certainly almost no images. And she was so famous that she was the highest paid female performer of color in the late 19th century. I was able to find a single drawing of her, that's it.

>> Wow. I mean, it was, I guess it stayed that segregated well into the next century. I mean, for sure.

>> Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, these things change but I don't know if they ever go away. I don't think we've cured racism, sexism, transphobia. It's just going to stick with us forever, and it means the work of being a historian if you want to tell good history, you have to research this. Otherwise, the truth is that your book is white history.

>> Right.

>> And I don't think most people want to write that on their books, so they just pretend that what they're doing is universal.

>> So, you've mentioned this in the book and tell me a little bit about the community in Brooklyn called Weeksville.

>> Weeksville was the first and largest settlement of black people, free black people, in Brooklyn in the 1800s. It's in the area, or was in the area that today is Crown Heights. And it had at one point around 500 people living in the community, free blacks. This was probably in the 1850s, 1860s. It was an important empowered community. It was on the forefront of school integration in America. Two different newspapers were founded there ta different points in its history although today you can only find one issue of one of them.

>> Wow.

>> It had schools, it had churches. When there were race riots in Brooklyn and Manhattan in the late 1800s, this was a place that people came for safety. It was a center for many, many people who did not live there might travel from Manhattan or from out in Long Island for cultural events, for education, for political meetings. It was a really important place. And in the 1800s, one of the things I noticed right away is that if you look at, say, the history of black sailors in New York. Immediately after shipping becomes really important when the waterfront economy starts to build up. The percentage of black people employed as sailors goes down, right? They're forced out of good jobs as the jobs become more prevalent. And in the earliest parts of my history, I realize that the factors that I was looking at at the waterfront that allowed queer life this economic possibility, safety, privacy, anonymity, were not the same for people of color, particularly for black people. They were not anonymous along the waterfront, because the waterfront was so white. They could not get the same level of jobs there because the waterfront was so racist. And so all of these freedoms that I can constructed in my head as being what established queer communities would only work primarily for white people, and particularly white men. And so I started to look at Weeksville as a place that was physically disconnected from the waterfront on purpose because they wouldn't let black people live down there. But was actually economically very closely connected. Many of the people who lived in Weeksville had jobs that were either related to the waterfront or were directly on the waterfront. And so there's this work going back and forth between the two of them. And now the history of Weeksville has been very poorly kept. It only gets rediscovered in like the 1960s. It's forgotten. Like I mentioned, that newspaper's been destroyed. So, I wasn't able to find very many records produced by people in Weeksville themselves. But I could hypothesize that the conditions that allowed white queer life to flourish on the waterfront allowed black queer life to flourish in some spaces in Weeksville. And so that was my hypothesis. And then in doing my research, I discovered that in the 1890s, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson, the poet and activist, moves from New Orleans to Brooklyn. And in Brooklyn, she lives on the waterfront with another woman who's active in the racial uplift movement. But her job is in Weeksville. She's working in the schools. And you could see how this provided certain kinds of freedoms for her. She had economic freedom because of Weeksville. She had social freedom because she was sort of a Victorian woman on the waterfront when these women were getting more power. And then the two of them, the woman that she lives with and herself, volunteered in a mission up in Harlem, which was the other center of black life. So, I started to see that it's kind of this archipelago of spaces that provided space for queer people of color. Now, Alice Dunbar Nelson does not, that we know of, have queer experiences in New York. She doesn't keep a diary while she's here. She marries her husband, so most of what we know is her letters to her husband. But within a few years, by 1907, we can find letters where she's having intense relationships with other black women in the uplift movement. So, the same community that she's embedded in Brooklyn, within 10 years she's having queer relationships in that community. And it suggests to me in these letters, she is not surprised by these feelings or these behaviors. Which says that she has some experience with them previously. Is that in Brooklyn? I can't say for sure. We don't have those records. But her story showed me that Weeksville did provide these same kinds of safety and economic freedom that I postulated would make it sort of a refuge for queer people of color.

>> Wow. I wonder if there's anything in the Schomburg Center. Have you ever, did you work up there?

>> I did some work at the Schomburg Center. They had a lot of information about individual people. That's where I actually found some great photos of Alice. But I didn't find a ton of information. Unfortunately, just, the records of Brooklyn, particularly people of color in Brooklyn, are not well kept. And the further you go back, the less there is. The Schomburg had some great resources. I looked at a lot of African American newspapers that were really, really helpful. In general, I mean, the New York Public Library has such incredibly archival connections and collections that I was there all the time doing research. One of my favorite actually is a weird collection. It's a collection called the committee of 14. These were a bunch of moralistic busybodies at the turn of the 20th century. They were rich people who were against prostitution. And so they started off by paying all of these informants to go into bars where they thought there might be prostitutes and go into hotels and shut them down. But in doing so, what they ended up doing was spending a huge amount of money to send people to every bar, saloon, disorderly hotel in the five boroughs. They had a whole separate Brooklyn-specific division, and they produced reams of notes. So, first off, you have these investigators reports. Then they used these investigator reports and gave them to the police so they would then connect their reports with police arrest records. And then they would think about why they were seeing the crimes that they were seeing. And they weren't particularly interested in queer people at first, but it was a kind of immorality that when they saw it, they recorded it and then they helped to work around laws to punish queer people. They helped to work around the first, what's called the Shackno Bill of 1923 which is the first law in New York City history to specifically criminalize queer sexuality. They're not particularly interested in queer people but when they find them, they'll certainly go after them. And their records at the public library are incredible. If you want to know, particularly about these more nameless bars that maybe only existed for six months or three months and never show up in a newspaper, their records are invaluable.

>> So this book is so good and so well-written. It's like at one point I was just like, I found myself lost in it, reading it as if it was a novel. I mean, it's vivid and it's real, it's fabulous. And then I get to the last chapter that leads up to the late '60s, Stonewall. Which you call the great erasure. And I had a feeling of ugh, after all these great stories of all these people living these great lives, what happened? What happened in Brooklyn leading up to the late '60s. So much happened post war. The first like, two, sort of segments of the book as I think about them is the first, you know, the late 1800s you have the establishment of the way we think about sexuality now. So, that's leading up to the sort of modern ideas about sexuality. Then, the early 1900s through like World War II, you have this growing queer world. Which isn't organized the way our queer world is, but is growing in power and speakability and people are finding it. And there is repression, but it's different. What happens after World War II is the institution of what I grew up at the very least thinking was all of gay history. That's when this really vocal ideas about homophobia come in. They come in in the military, they come in in journalism, they come in politics. You know, Joseph McCarthy's, we think of the Red Scare about communists but he also had a lavender scare about queer people and how queer people were so dangerous. And we get psychology, and this idea that sexuality, you know in the earlier part, like I talked about in the 19th century, sexuality lived in your body. You could see it on someone. If someone was queer, they behaved in weird ways. They looked wrong, yada, yada, yada.

>> They presented the opposite gender.

>> They presented the opposite gender. But in the 20th century, once psychology comes in, homosexuality can be hiding inside anyone. And that changes everything. Now, you have to police yourself. You have to police every bar you go to, every movie you watch. Even your best friend. Even your mother could be a dirty homosexual, right? And that changes the nature of things. And you combine that with the suburbanization that's happening in America. So, this resurgence of binary gender ideals, this idea, you know, we go from Rosie the Riveter and her overalls and her uniforms to Donna Reed and her aprons. And this happens not just on a mental level but also on a physical level. New York City as a city becomes more about the suburbs and making roads that will get people on Long Island to Manhattan. And those roads go right through Brooklyn, but they don't care about Brooklyn. So, in all of these ways, the queer community in Brooklyn ends up under attack after World War II. And everything starts to fold. Places where people talked openly about queerness in previous generations, Coney Island, Brooklyn Heights, that conversation dries up. It becomes more dangerous to talk about those things. It becomes more dangerous to be public in those ways. And those spaces where queer people and straight people mix become policed. Straight people don't want to go to them anymore because it says something about them. And so you get these kind of like, this idea of gay bars that I certainly grew up in the '80s with as being, you know, small and dirty and separate and hidden. All of that comes about in the '40s, '50s, '60s, leading up to Stonewall. It creates the conditions that allow the Stonewall uprising to happen, right? The reason Stonewall doesn't happen earlier is because we don't have the same one level of organization, because you have that language that you need for organization in the 19th century, and that you don't have that density. But once you get that in the early 20th century and then homophobia starts getting applied to it, you get a community under tremendous pressure. And so as spaces in Brooklyn close down for queer people, they end up going to Manhattan. And we can watch. This is when we get gay bars that are what we think of as gay bars opening up all throughout Greenwich Village, because so many queer people who are more diffuse and spread out, who may not have thought of themselves as queer, or may have socialized in a bathhouse at Coney Island or in a club in Brooklyn Heights, now need to go to a specifically gay space. And so you get this tremendous pressure on those communities that remain. And eventually that explodes into the force of Stonewall. It's a really depressing ending to the book, though. The '50s and '60s is really a time where if you're doing queer historical research, it's just, you know. And then they committed suicide. And then they burned all their letters. And then they were arrested. And then they were institutionalized. You know, it's a really dark time. But I think it is important because-

>> Certainly that's what I thought all of queer history was growing up. And the reason I even termed my book When Brooklyn Was Queer is not to say that Brooklyn is not to say that Brooklyn is not queer now, but that there was a time, a time that I grew up in, where you would never think of Brooklyn as somewhere you went for queer experiences. Brooklyn was a place you came from, never a place you went to.

>> Yeah.

>> But if you go back far enough into the 1920s and '30s, parts of Brooklyn were known as queer neighborhoods where you would go to have specifically queer experiences. And that's just not the case after that great erasure.

>> Oh my god, you have so many stories in this book about that. A great interview with this guy named Martin Boyce who was like 20 when Stonewall happened. And then what he said to you put so many things in perspective about that time to me. It's like he, there was a lot of freedom in terms of finding sex and finding connection with other gay men. But also that daily abuse he encountered. I mean, like, it's easy to now sometimes to fantasize like, Oh my God, guys are having sex with each other all over the place! And, you know, in the village. But the abuse that he encountered. He said you'd go to the movies, you got beat up. You walk down the street and you got beat up. You went to a different neighborhood, it was a different gang that was running that area. And what he said was he didn't know, he personally didn't know that the village was his turf, or gay turf until Stonewall happened. And all that preparation of being so abused and bullied and being on guard for abuse exploded that night. And he said the next couple of days, there would be loud chanting and screaming through the streets like, this is ours. This is our place. I'm gay and this is our thing. And he really beautifully articulated that experience and I love how you open the book with him.

>> Yeah, what I found so powerful when he was talking about that is he says that the homophobia that they endured made them excellent urban guerillas because they knew how to break and reform. That they were used to being chased. They were used to being harassed. What I think is fascinating about Stonewall, and this isn't in the book but came up in doing the research and talking to Martin. Is that the Stonewall riots were a number of days in June of 1969. What we don't remember is that about a year later, there were another set of riots that lasted for more than one day when a bar called the Haven was raided. And marchers came down from Times Square. They'd been protesting, this is in 1970 in August of 1970. They had been protesting the treatment of queer people by the cops in Times Square. And the cops, knowing they were going to be out of the village, raided another bar that night, destroyed it. They smashed everything inside, had destroyed 2000 records, caused $20,000 damage to the stereo, destroyed all the furniture, dragged the patrons out into the street to arrest them, at which point they encounter this rally coming down from Times Square. And it turned into an all-out pitched battle in the streets. People arresting, queer people from cops, people being stabbed, people being beaten. It goes on for more than one night. And yet we've forgotten that entirely. Stonewall has kind of taken the place of all of these other things. But what Martin Boyce's interview told you, told me was that Stonewall was about conditions. They were under these terrible conditions and those conditions aren't about a single night. Those conditions are about this pressure of being queer in this very limited physical and mental space. And that that explodes outwards over and over again. And before Stonewall, not even in New York. You know, we have the Cooper's Donuts riots. We have the Compton Cafeteria riots. Around America, these pressures were exploding in different pockets everywhere. Stonewall is an incredibly important event, but it is an event that is produced by much greater forces. And I honestly believe that were it not Stonewall that night, another night, another bar, something was going to happen. This community could not live this way for that long. And it happened at Stonewall in June of 1969. But Martin's story and the story of all of these other people tell you that after a certain point, the community was going to rebel.

>> All right, everybody. You have to read this book, "When Brooklyn Was Queer," by Hugh Ryan. It's just amazing and I'm looking forward to your next book.

>> Me too [laughter].

>> Hugh, thank you so much.

>> Thank you, Frank. This was wonderful, and honestly, I will say to everyone out there, if you have never been to do research at the New York Public Library, it's easy to do. They're wonderful people. They will help you find what you want and if you like listening to podcasts, the experience of listening to an oral history, to an actual person telling you what life was like in the 1920s or '30s or '40s is amazing. Go and do it right now.

[ Music ]

>> And now, a reading. Actor Leland Gant, reading Virginia Prince. It's called The How and Why of Virginia, and it's in The Stonewall Reader.

>> I am Virginia. But I was not so always. I used to be Muriel. But I was not that always, either. Before that, I was, you guessed it, a boy. Today I am 49 years old, 5 foot 8 inches tall, I weigh about 155 pounds, have brown eyes and greying hair, wear a size 18 dress and an 8B shoe. But these are just the vital statistics today. Let's go back and start at the beginning, where all good autobiographies should start. To begin with, may I say that I suffered none of the experiences that psychiatry feels cause TVism. My parents are still together today. They didn't drink or fight. I was never punished by being made to wear dresses, nor did they want a girl. I've checked this with them. I was always a boy. When I was 4, a sister arrived, and that was all. The beginnings of my interest in attire are shrouded in mystery. My first interest was in high heeled shoes. The only reason I can think for this interest was that my mother never wore them. She was not dowdy, but she did not dress as fussily feminine as many women, and she was proud of her feet and was not about to deform them with such monstrosities as high heels. By comparison, a boyhood chum of mine who lives across the street, had a mother who was always dressed in the height of fashion and with heels, of course. She appeared to present a better picture of feminine motherhood to me. Anyway, if we ever had lady guests in the house who wore heels, I would be sure to visit her room on an inspection tour. I also began at this time to cut out pictures of high heeled shoes from magazines and newspapers and made a scrapbook of them. Since some nice pictures of shoes also involved lingerie shots, I began to cut these out too. Although I cannot date the beginnings, it must've been around 12 that I took to visiting my mother's bureau in her absence and dressing in her lingerie. Of course, like everyone else who did this, I was most careful to put things back just the way they were found. I progressed to dressing completely. If my parents were to be gone long, I'd walk around the block. Later, I would get on a streetcar and ride a couple of miles, get off, and return the same way. I well remember one Sunday afternoon when I got attired in a dark green velvet skirt and light green silk blouse of mother's, plus a sheer garden party type of hat with a wide brim and appliqued flower. Thus dressed, I ventured out of the house in the afternoon sun and walked a few blocks to a main street and along it for several blocks, and then home. Joy of joy, thrill of thrills. I was a lady on a Sunday afternoon stroll! And the whole world saw me and knew I was a lady. Any TV will know what I mean. As I grew older, I bought more of my own things, began to go into cafeterias for meals, to shows at night, and generally to do more venturesome things. All during college and postgraduate days, I had some feminine things with me. And on vacations home, I continued my excursions downtown when things were clear. I was never caught by my parents or anymore else. After getting out of college, I became active in a young people's church group. And whenever they would have a Halloween or a New Year's Eve party, I would turn up in some sort of feminine getup. So, I became rather known for this sort of thing. Inevitably, I fell in love and eventually married. The day before the event, I burned or disposed of all of my clothes under the happy misapprehension that marriage would end all this silly stuff. I had imagined that being rather shy with the girls, I had created a girl for myself using my own body and therefore, since I was now going to have a real girl of my own, I would have no need for such artificiality. Many of those who hear this will recognize the feeling and also the error of it. No, marriage didn't cure me. It slowed me down for awhile but whenever my wife was away, I was right back into it again. Finally, one Halloween about three years after we were married and had moved back to the same town where we had been active in the church, things just got to be too much. I had decided to go to the party with a half man, half woman costume. By turning one pantleg and one shirt and coatsleeve into the other, a half suit could be made. This meant putting on the dress first and then the coat and pants on one side and pinning the outfit together. Of course it required a dress rehearsal the night before the party. What I had finished proving that the costume would work, I just stayed in the dress and heels and came out and laid down on the sofa to read. My wife nagged me about it six times to get up and take those clothes off. Now, I hadn't had an opportunity for a long time and I wasn't about to get out of them. However, her nagging finally got to me, and I sat up and said, "I'm not going to take them off. I enjoy wearing them." Her look was incredulous. And I told her I wouldn't bother to explain things that night, but I would after the party, and I did, giving her the whole bit. This resulted in my being permitted to wear things around the house every couple of weeks. On these occasions, she would go to bed. Being left alone was almost worse than being denied the opportunity because it made me feel despicable and unfit for company. However, this went on for several years. One day, I had the shock of my life, and a turning point was reached. I had gone to another city about 400 miles away. There I paid a visit to an older TV whom I had known and met his understanding girlfriend. The TV had to go to a meeting this night and suggested that Muriel, the name I used in those days, and his girlfriend should go windowshopping downtown, which we did. We talked and talked girl talk. We went to some of the hotels and had a drink, rebuffed a couple of friendly marines [laughter] and eventually went home. When I got back to the hotel and began to undress, I also began to cry. I went to bed and cried. Cried like my heart would break, and did so in fits and starts all night. The odd thing bout it was that I didn't really know what I was crying about. I completed my work in the city and took the train home. But the work and the ride home were difficult because every time I would have a moment to myself without either talking to someone or reading, my eyes would fill with tears. I had never been so completely miserable in my life before or since. It took me about four days to get over the jag. In all the time, I was thinking and analyzing my feelings to see what had brought this depression on. Finally, after several days, it came to me. For the first time in my life, I was about 33 then, I had been treated by another human as a girl. Without pretense or strain. This woman and I had had a woman's evening together. This had proved such a terrific contrast to all my previous life that it just broke the barriers that night in the hotel. My growth started from that experience. The first thing that became evident to me was that I had been blackmailing myself through fear of discovery. I asked myself who in the world did I least want to know about my TVism, and the answer was my father. I therefore determined to tell him and thereby break the blackmail. I did. I met him as Muriel and told him all about it. It was tough on him, and tougher on me. But it helped because I had killed this fear and I no longer had to worry about it. Several years later, I was divorced. My wife had gone on a trip and while away, had consulted a psychiatrist who, on the basis of what she alone had said to him, told her that I was undoubtedly a homosexual and that she should get a divorce. This was hard to take. One, I didn't want a divorce. Two, I was not a homosexual. Three, she took my son, house, and everything else. And four, she was unwilling to even try to work things out with professional help. So, my life was wrecked. But that didn't stop her. About two years later, she went to court to try to deny me my visitation or weekend custody rights with my son. The grounds were, of course, that I was an unfit father and should not be allowed to have my own son with me unchaperoned. And of course the whole TV bit came out in the papers, picture and all. But the judge was one of the few wise ones and ruled in my favor. I was permitted to continue to have weekend custody. And this too was a horrible experience. But I grew because of it. Again, public exposure was the thing that I had feared the most, but it had been brought upon me, so I could now afford the luxury of not worrying about it anymore. It had been done. I forced myself to do another difficult task at this point. I was going with my present wife at the time. In fact, she stood with me all during the trial. But the day after it, we went back to the weekly dance at the church where I had appeared so many times at parties. Many of my friends had read the papers and seen my picture, but I appeared anyway and brazened it out. This too gave me strength. You know, they temper metal by fire and cold water. Intense fear, emotion, and release tempers people too. Well, to cut long story short, I married my present wife with her having full knowledge about the whole TV bit. She had not always understood. In the early days before our marriage, we talked a lot about the subject. Although she went along with me, she didn't really understand. Then one morning about 4 am, I was awakened by a phone call. It was she, and the first thing she said was, "I understand." Being half asleep, I neither knew or much cared what it was she understood, but she had lain awake for a long time and suddenly a light had burst on her and she knew that this TV feminine expression was a much a part of me as brown eyes. That it was an inherent part of my personality. She has staunchly maintained that position ever since. Though she didn't like the name Muriel, though. So, Virginia has been my name ever since. She has helped make a lady out of me and I am grateful. We have gone on trips together as two women, and to many shows, dinners, and shopping trips. Our marriage is a very happy one, since it is based on a complete understanding. I have a rather large feminine wardrobe, which is kept in a special room designed for the purpose when we built our house. I dress exactly as I like on weekends and in evenings. Because of such complete acceptance, I have been able to grow out of the "I must wear a dress and heels or nothing" stage. I have several pairs of capris, girls slacks, suits, etc, which I wear together with flats and slippers, running about with or without wig, makeup, jewelry, etc, as fits my mood. I find that now that I can be accepted by her and have also learned to completely accept myself and as a girl, I'm interested in feminine relaxation and comfort as she is. Three years ago, I started to publish Transvestia because, in thinking back over my life, I saw all the pain and heartache I'd been through and how much of it could've been avoided if I'd known myself better and if my first wife and parents had know more about the TV matter too. Thus, I decided that the very tempering experiences that had hurt me so much had given me the growth, the freedom, and the guts, if you will, to start doing something about it for others in the hope that they might be spared some of what I had been through. So, it's one of the biggest satisfactions of my life when I get letters from so many of you indicating that my own heartaches, which led imperceptibly toward my present activities, have not been in vain. Your letters of appreciation tell me so every day.

[ Music ]

>> That was actor Leland Gant reading selections from what Virginia Prince wrote about herself in Transvestia, the magazine that she also founded. And before that, we heard Frank Collerius, the manager at Jefferson Market Library, talking with Hugh Ryan, who's new book is called When Brooklyn Was Queer. And Jason, it seems like Hugh came to the library to do all this detective work, to sift through records and archives. To bring back a history that's kind of been forgotten.

>> Most definitely. And there's all of this documentation but a lot of it people don't remember today, and I think part of Hugh's journey was showing that queer people in Brooklyn isn't a new thing, that Brooklyn has this much longer queer history. In a way, this connection with Transvestia, similarly, there's, Prince did all of this work to document the lives of these transgender people in the 1960s and 1970s, and similarly these kinds of stories get forgotten. And it's something that I'm constantly finding at the library. Is that the past is a lot more interesting and a lost more complicated than we know and maybe we're allowed to know in so many of these records and small magazines and documents there in the archive waiting to be found.

>> Well, Jason, thanks so much for being here.

>> Thank you for having me.

>> Next week, we'll hear more about what happened during Stonewall.

>> There they were, chasing the police, humiliating the police, and no one would've guessed that such a thing was possible.

>> [Laughter] She lived in New York. She was a New Yorker. She's at Henrietta. She's at the Cubbyhole. Everyone knows her. She's just so charming.

>> People being all hopped up and happy over Stonewall, well, that's, you know, okay, that's really nice. But having been there and getting my ass knocked out, why wasn't it better for my community afterwards?

>> We'll also hear Jason speaking with pioneering photojournalist and gay rights activist Kay Tobin Lahusen.

>> He said, you know, I think it's time that we take it to the White House. Well, that was a revolutionary idea then.

>> This special episode of Library Talks was produced by Gabrielle Galineck, Skylar Swenson, and Reichardt Schnor. And our theme music was composed by Allison Layton-Brown. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.