Brooklyn’s LGBTQ history is focus of ‘On the (Queer) Waterfront’ exhibit

"On the (Queer) Waterfront" explores the stories of workers, residents and entertainers in Brooklyn across 150 years. Pictured is Edward Casey's "Stevedores Bathing Under Brooklyn Bridge," from 1939. Photo Credit: courtesy of the Green-Wood Historic Fund

Photos, ephemera and artifacts will tell the tales of LGBTQ people from across 150 years.

"On the (Queer) Waterfront" explores the stories of workers, residents and entertainers in Brooklyn across 150 years. Pictured is Edward Casey's "Stevedores Bathing Under Brooklyn Bridge," from 1939.
"On the (Queer) Waterfront" explores the stories of workers, residents and entertainers in Brooklyn across 150 years. Pictured is Edward Casey’s "Stevedores Bathing Under Brooklyn Bridge," from 1939. Photo Credit: NYPD / Twitter

When Brooklyn’s resident poet Walt Whitman published his then-provocative "Leaves of Grass" in 1855, there was already an LGBTQ presence in the borough, even if it wasn’t spoken about.

An entire queer-identifying community lived, worked and traveled along Brooklyn’s coastline during the 1800s up through World War II, and it will be the subject of the Brooklyn Historical Society‘s forthcoming exhibition, "On the (Queer) Waterfront."

Through photographs, ephemera and artifacts culled by the Brooklyn Historical Society, the exhibit, which opens March 5, will tell the tales of LGBTQ people from across 150 years, including Walt Whitman, looking at both the changes and lack thereof in our ideas about sexuality. 

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, male impersonator Ella Wesner was an in-demand vaudeville performer and had her own troupe. She was paid to advertise champagne and cigarettes and performed and lived in Brooklyn. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetery -- in "men's attire," as she requested, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society.
From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, male impersonator Ella Wesner was an in-demand vaudeville performer and had her own troupe. She was paid to advertise champagne and cigarettes and performed and lived in Brooklyn. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetery — in "men’s attire," as she requested, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society. Photo Credit: courtesy of the Collection of Gillian Rodger

The exhibit will examine five types of work that were welcoming or interesting to the community — artist, entertainer, sex worker, sailor and factory worker, according to the historical society.

Male impersonator Ella Wesner, burlesque dancer Madam Tirza and Whitman are just a few of the people you’ll meet.

"No other exhibition to date has ever focused on the LGBTQ history of New York’s most populous borough," curator Hugh Ryan said. "Until recently, ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘queer history’ have rarely been associated with each other, but it is my hope that this exhibit will begin to broaden our understanding of the history of Brooklyn, the history of queer people, and the history of queer people in Brooklyn."

Ryan, who will release his book "When Brooklyn Was Queer" on the same day the exhibit opens, co-curated the exhibition with Avram Finkelstein, who is a founding member of the Silence = Death Project and the Gran Fury AIDS activist artist collectives. 

Madam Tirza was a burlesque dancer who became a licensed plumber and trucker in order to haul her 1,200-pound "wine fountain" around the country. Oral histories say Tirza was queer like many of the women she hired at Coney Island during her time there, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Madam Tirza was a burlesque dancer who became a licensed plumber and trucker in order to haul her 1,200-pound "wine fountain" around the country. Oral histories say Tirza was queer like many of the women she hired at Coney Island during her time there, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society. Photo Credit: courtesy of the Collection of David Denholtz

Ryan’s book launch party and the exhibit’s opening reception are set for March 5, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., but there will be other opportunities to sit in and learn about the intersection of LGBTQ identity and history:

Whitman used symbols in his poetry for men who loved men, dubbing their feeling for one another as "adhesiveness." Some scholars think his poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," references looking for sexual encounters on the Fulton Ferry, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society. Pictured is Samuel Hollyer's engraved frontispiece for Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in 1855.
Whitman used symbols in his poetry for men who loved men, dubbing their feeling for one another as "adhesiveness." Some scholars think his poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," references looking for sexual encounters on the Fulton Ferry, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society. Pictured is Samuel Hollyer’s engraved frontispiece for Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass" in 1855. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Plus, Brooklyn Historical Society’s podcast, "Flatbush + Main," will release an episode on this history following the exhibition’s opening.

The new exhibit, which will be around until Aug. 4, is being done in conjunction with the historical society’s long-term exhibition and experience "Waterfront," which is about the history of Brooklyn’s coastline through stories of workers, industries, activists, innovators, families, neighborhoods and ecosystems. 

If you go: Suggested admission to the exhibit is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and teachers and free for students. The Brooklyn Historical Society at 128 Pierrepont St. is open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

Shaye Weaver