boundaries 4 all

+ thoughts on "when brooklyn was queer"

I created a skillshare/workshop on **boundaries** and since you’re on the newsletter you get to sign up first before I announce it elsewhere. You only have a few hours so don’t wait (zoom has a 100 person cap)!

Building Better Boundaries Sunday July 26 at 7-9PM east coast time. 

Boundaries are key to healthy relationships both with yourself and with others. This skillshop will cover how to self-assess your own boundaries, how to be mindful and practice self-accountability, and how to recognize and respect the boundaries of others. This is my first virtual workshop, and my first workshop NOT on BDSM. So thanks for supporting and hopefully it goes smoothly :) 

Tickets are $15 and I will be donating a portion of the proceeds to Marsha P. Johnson Institute. I have reserved some free spots especially for QPOC who are low on funds. If this is you, please email me at

I just finished reading When Brooklyn Was Queer (WBWQ) by Hugh Ryan. It was a densely historical and fascinating read! Queer history is gripping because it’s not sunshine and rainbows. It’s illicit sex and criminalization. It’s alternate economies and secret cruising spots. What I loved about WBWQ is that it gave me the history of all things gay through a really interesting time period that doesn’t often get discussed 1883-1969 (pre-Stonewall). Simultaneously this was layered in with the colonization and subsequent development of Brooklyn, a place where I have spent a third of my life. 

I love gay history! I always thought history was so boring until I started learning more about gay history. I think that a huge reason why I love it so much is that as a very white person of mixed European ancestry, I don’t have much of a family history. My ancestors came from different countries and settled in the North East and Quebec and lived very normal working-class lives. Beyond being Catholic, there was no culture, no heritage, no ancestral knowledge passed down to me. My Beeba, who was an asbestos miner in Canada’s Appalachian mountains, used to make us crepes for breakfast when we visited. I would speak what I believed to be French to my grandmother by spouting incoherent childspeak in my completely made up language. She wanted to fit in as American so she never taught her kids how to speak French.

This grandmother, Monique, is my last living grandparent. In the late 1950s she was preparing to enter the convent to become a nun (!!!) when an Irish Catholic sailor from Philadelphia blew through her small town near Quebec City. She was barely legal, did not speak English, and accepted a marriage proposal from a man she had met only a week prior!!! She would leave Canada to marry him, then her older sister would marry his older brother, and her younger sister would marry his best friend. (My mom and her first cousins all have the same 4 grandparents) The way my grandmother tells it, he saved her from the convent.

Grandma Monique (on the right) and her older sister, 1950s. Wearing clothes they made and greaser hair they cut themselves… okay…

After my grandparents were married, my grandfather shipped off to sea for months at a time while leaving her at his parent’s house to raise their children. Like many others, she learned to speak English from watching soap operas. My grandfather’s job in the Navy was to make dentures, a trade he ran with after his time in the service by going on to teach this skill to dental students. He lived on submarines in the middle of the ocean throughout the 60s and 70s making new teeth for soldiers. Years later, he confessed to my grandmother that he had been deployed to Vietnam, a secret he kept so as not to worry her.

When I read about queer people in the past, especially leatherdykes, I absolutely fantasize about them as my ancestors-grasping at anything I can get my hands on for some semblance of roots that I can relate to. I think we’re allowed to do this. I think we should do this. Those of us who are different from everyone who shares our blood, we can choose a new lineage (but let’s not do this as a way to distance ourselves from the sins of our actual ancestors). Every time I read Joan Nestle my heart swells and I think that her being my real life grandmother would make a lot of sense. I saw an old femme in sequins zipping around a BDSM convention and someone told me that she practically invented needle play. I didn’t get to meet her, and she doesn’t know it, but she’s my auntie.

My thirst for Leather history and pouring over books from decades past made me realize that no one is documenting our stories today the way they used to. Creating a printed, archival item for what leatherdykes are doing today seemed really important because of the prevalence of digital, the impermanence of digital, and also the increasing censorship of digital outlets, and thus FIST was born. It all comes back to preserving our stories and being visible for future generations. This is precisely why a lot of queer history, especially from queer Black communities (which the author discusses in WBWQ), before the early twentieth century is really hard to find. Much of what we know is from personal journals and letters, and the intersections of race, class, and queerness made literacy for many racialized people nearly impossible.

In WBWQ, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was immortalized as a queer hotbed. Up to WWII the area around the Navy Yard, Sands Street specifically, was very well known for cruising and bars where queers were welcome. Sailors would discover how to make extra money while docked in Brooklyn by working in “peg houses” (brothels for manly male sex workers vs. molly houses, which were for cross-dressing or gender variant male sex workers). Before WWII, it wasn’t really gay for men to fuck men, and sexuality was defined more in terms of gender presentation. If you were an effeminate man or a masculine woman who had relationships with the same sex, you were an invert only because you must want to be the other gender. This is pretty confusing! The big takeaway here is that to be in the Navy was to be exposed to a ton of gay men, or at least sexually open and gay for pay. This was true for the women who worked the hard jobs when men left for war, and it was also true for the women who eventually joined the Navy themselves. 

Other than me, there is one officially gay person in my extended family. This was a late in life revelation when last year my grandmother told me she was going to her niece’s wedding in Connecticut. I had suspicions of lesbianism in my head as I pictured her haircut from my childhood, very Guy Fieri-esque. I furiously googled her and found a wedding registry page with two brides. My grandma went to a lesbian wedding. I have never even been to a lesbian wedding. I got the gossip from Monique - My cousin married a woman twenty years younger than her who she met while she was her boss at the Outback Steakhouse. Hey, good for her!

BUT! Knowing what I know now about how gay the Navy used to be… What about my grandfather who was stuck on a submarine with a very small crew in the waters surrounding Vietnam for months? What about his father who served twenty years in the Navy at the time period laid out in the book as Very Gay? What about my mother who also entered the Navy after high school to do ship maintenance, which was traditionally men’s labor? My dad was also in the Navy (where my parents met) and I remember him telling stories of the super flamboyant gay men that he worked with. Not to project my own queer hopes and dreams onto my dead and estranged family members, but statistically there had to have been some homosexual activity afoot. There are so many stories that we will never know. 

My mother in the Navy with a shockingly queer mullet in July 1983