Monday, January 30, 2017

On the Queer Waterfront

Tomorrow evening, January 31, the NYPL's Martin Duberman Visiting Scholar, Hugh Ryan, will be presenting on "The Queer Histories of Brooklyn’s Working Waterfront." I asked Hugh a few questions on the topic of his research.

*UPDATE: Watch the streaming video of the talk here.

Q: What are some ways that queer populations and the working class came together in New York of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century?

A: For much of the period I’m researching (from the mid-1800s to World War II), there wasn’t really a “queer population” to speak of. Our modern idea of sexuality as a unique identity, separate from gender, was only just coming into existence (the word “homosexuality” wasn’t even coined until 1868). Of course, there were people who did and felt queer things. But they didn’t “come together” with the working class in the ways that we would imagine. Rather, they were part of the working class (as well as other classes), and in some spaces and at some times, they felt or expressed their queer desires more clearly (or at least, more visibly to a modern eye).

During this period, some of these people (particularly in urban areas) were beginning to have enough economic and social freedom to form small groups of like-minded folks – little proto-queer-communities, if you will. On the waterfront, for instance, there were jobs that queer people could have, less policed streets, lots of same-sex only (particularly male-only) spaces, a dense anonymizing urban fabric, and a global culture that understood that different places have different sexual mores. A few jobs in particular were open to different kinds of queer people: sailor, sex worker, female factory worker (in WWII especially), artist, and freak/entertainer.

So there’s a lot of queer history to be explored in these working-class communities, but it’s not as simple as finding the gay bar in Red Hook they all went to. And because these folks were poor and queer, they rarely had the opportunity to write their own histories, so I often find myself reading "against" an official source, trying to ferret out information about queer life from an arrest record, or a medical report, or an angry jeremiad written for a newspaper by a straight person.

Q: What have you discovered in those sources?

A: New York City had laws against dressing in the clothing of the opposite sex, and you can find lots of working-class folks in Brooklyn being prosecuted under these laws as far back as the mid-1800s -- like Josephine Jarneuse, a "street walker" that ran away from a "good home," who went by the name Johnson and was arrested for "masquerading in boys attire" at an early age. According to a pearl-clutching obituary in the Paterson, New Jersey, Evening News, Jarneuse hung out at Coney Island, where "from bad she went to worse," and eventually died in childbirth. But we have no records from Jarneuse's point of view -- were they trans, or a middle-class girl who ran away from home to earn money and have a free life? Or did they run away because of tensions over their sexuality and gender identity? Something queer is happening in her story, but it's impossible, at this remove, to say exactly what.

Sometimes newspaper articles have more information, but it can be misleading, like in the case of Tina Becrens, who was arrested in Brooklyn in 1898 for wearing women's clothing. To the newspaper, Becrens claimed they wore women's clothes solely to find work, but the more I read, the more that felt like an excuse wrapped in the truth--as an obviously queer person, Becrens probably was unable to get work when dressed like a man, but that wasn't the sole reason they dressed in women's clothing. These stories are always isolated from any kind of queer community, but by looking at them in the aggregate, you can begin to build a picture of the queer population in Brooklyn at this time.

Later, especially around the 1920s/1930s, you start to see some conscious queer community building. For instance, the poet Harold Norse was well aware that Walt Whitman and Hart Crane both lived in Brooklyn Heights, and it's part of what drew him to go to Brooklyn College when it was still near that neighborhood. There, he would meet a number of other gay men, students and teachers, which would propel him into a queer arts circle that included W.H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles, and Allen Ginsberg. Living as a queer artist, however, often meant not making very much money, which both made Norse a member of the working class, and meant that he lived and socialized in places where other working class people went--although his queerness and his literary output also gave him access to more highbrow spaces. That access, really, is a connection to power, and because of his connection to power, Norse's life was deemed interesting enough that he was able to publish a memoir, which means we have much greater access to his thoughts about his own sexuality. But the further back you go, the rarer that kind of information is.

Q: What made working class spaces more welcoming to queer people than middle or upper class spaces? (If you think they were.)

A: This is a great and complicated question. I hesitate a little around “welcoming,” but I will say that during this period, you had a few conditions that made queer experiences more visible (and possible) among working class New Yorkers. First off, according to historians of sexuality generally, the working class was more open to all kinds of non-marital sex, not just same-sex or gender nonconforming desires. Many of these communities were predominantly immigrant, and the ratios of men to women were all out of whack, making marriage less of an option. Men and women inhabited separate social spheres, and had little access to private spaces where they could meet together – but at places like the municipal baths or aboard ships, men (and to a lesser degree, women) had chances to gather together in semi-private places. Also, new ideas about sexuality-as-an-identity were more common among upper-class people, and those ideas gave an added level of risk to same-sex desires, because now not only were you participating in an activity that might be frowned upon, that activity defined who you were as a person.

Additionally, having obvious same-sex or gender non-conforming desires (or making no effort to hide them) frequently led to trouble securing work or housing, as well as family issues, and the attention of the police – all of which made queer people more likely to be working class than upper or middle class. Almost all of the people I’ve researched – from butch women who worked in factories, to trans men who worked as sailors, to famous gay male artists like Hart Crane – talked about the ways in which their queerness made it hard to get work, or how only certain jobs were open to people “like them,” or how they had to hide who they were for economic reasons.

Q: What were the differences and similarities between lesbian and gay male participation in the working class world?

We don’t really know the answer to that question, because our pool of information is limited to those people who were out (and were recorded, in some way, as being out). Being out isn’t about desire or sexuality, per se, but whether you had the social space to acknowledge and/or enact your queer desires, and then whether that acknowledgment or enactment got recorded. Women, in general, had less access to economic and social freedom, and their lives were less recorded. So the history of all queer people assigned female at birth (whether lesbians or trans men or however else they may identify) are less common, harder to find, and tend to occur in the latter half of the time period I’m researching.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that queer working-class women were less common than queer working-class men. When working-class women suddenly had access to well-paying jobs, mostly with other women, in less-policed and less-gendered spaces, we see a huge uptick in records of queer women – for example, in the factories of the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII.

In a similar way, race and racism really complicate these queer histories. People of color have also been historically kept out of many kinds of employment and many neighborhoods, and this (in part) determined the kinds of queer lives they were able to live (and which we as historians are able to find traces of). So when the Navy Yard suddenly became a source of jobs for queer working-class white women, women of color were kept out of those jobs, which then divided the burgeoning queer community that this work made possible (in fact, of the first 200+ women hired at the Navy Yard in WWII, only twelve were women of color.)

Q: How did transgender and gender non-conforming New Yorkers make their way in blue-collar spaces?

A: This is a tricky question to answer, because there are a lot of folks for whom it’s impossible to say whether they were “transgender” or “gay.” At the time, most people who thought about queerness as a specific sexual identity saw it as an inversion of normal gender. Basically, they collapsed our modern categories into one catchall group. Those who were most likely to be “out” were those who couldn’t hide their queerness – particularly “butch” women, “femme” men, and trans people of all stripes. But how they would have identified if they lived today is an open question.

That said, there are records of people who were obviously what we would today consider transgender. Often, these are arrest or medical records, because these people usually had so little social power that they never got to keep their own histories – and because the simple act of wearing clothes appropriate to their gender could get them arrested. Like all working class people, however, they tried to have jobs that could afford them a modicum of social privacy and stability, from domestic worker to sailor to sex worker.

Q: Why/how did the working class and the queer go their separate ways in the 20th century -- or did they?

A: My research really stops around the fifties, so take all of this with a grain of salt, but my guess is that they didn’t – at least in terms of actual behavior. In fact, research shows that queer people are still more likely to live in poverty than our heterosexual peers. However, as the presidential election showed, our modern concept of the working class is of a white, homogenous, rural (or rural-adjacent), religious, poor, and socially conservative monolith. That idea of the working class is often pitted against an idea of the queer community, which is thought to be urban, non-religious, progressive/liberal, wealthy, and diverse (although we’re usually still thought of as all being white). But while these concepts have parted ways, I don’t know how reflective they are of a real separation between “queer people” and “working class people.”

One tendency I do think is worth looking at, however, is the connection between poverty and religiosity in America. Mainstream American religions are still mostly struggling with queerness, and obviously, the impact of religious homophobia is going to be stronger in communities that are more religious.

Also, it’s worth remembering that the connection between queerness and the working class that I’m exploring in Brooklyn (and which George Chauncey explored so marvelously in Gay New York) is a very specific one. It occurred in an urban world that was a global nexus for cultural intermingling, at a time when men and women lived very separate lives (and when there were generally way more men around than women). Other working class groups, defined by other sets of conditions, probably had very different ideas or experiences or prevalences of queerness.


Unknown said...

good read. have any of you read "queer street" by james mc court?? detailed history of gay life in NYC, how it has changed.

zuzuzpetals said...

Fantastically interesting. Thank you.

kgny said...

This is great. I look forward to the book when it is finished. The painting at the top of this post: Where did this painting come from? Who is the artist and when was it painted? Where is it now? It is a tantalizing image, I want to know all about it. Thanks.

Hugh Ryan said...

The painting is by Edward Casey (a Brooklyn Heights resident) and it is called "Stevedores Bathing Under Brooklyn Bridge." It was painted in 1937, and is currently owned by the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

kgny said...

Thank you, Hugh Ryan! Does the Cemetery exhibit it somewhere? I would love to see it with my own eyes. I hope to learn more about Edward Casey. That painting is stunning.