Lene Wold, author of Inside an Honor Killing
Nonfiction books not to miss this season
When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan (St. Martin’s Press 2019) $30; 308 pp.
Once upon a time, Brooklyn was little more than farms and fields. That’s the vista Walt Whitman saw when he stepped beyond the boundaries of the city where he created Leaves of Grass. He loved the area, a love he shared with laborers, prostitutes and the rest of the crime-ridden, mostly-white population of Brooklyn in the mid-1800s.
As a gay man, Whitman would have been amazed by its upcoming changes.
In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened, making it easy for residents to reach New York City. There, male and female impersonators found work at live entertainment venues, where race barely mattered, where sexes and social classes mixed freely at saloons, concert halls, dancehalls, theaters. For African-American actors, that relative permissiveness led to greater acceptance … and, sometimes, fame.
By the time Brooklyn merged with The Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island in January 1898, a new word had emerged. “Homosexuals” had been targeted by obscenity charges for quite some time, but though laws were created against them, they had a solid presence in mainstream society. Even so, author Hugh Ryan says most people didn’t learn much about homosexuals until World War I.
And yet people couldn’t get enough of queer folk, especially in cabaret shows, vaudeville and freak shows so wildly popular and a subway ride to Coney Island, costing just a nickel. New Yorkers flocked to the boardwalk, perhaps titillated by the idea that the performers were gay. But things started to go off the rails for the LGBT community at the end of World War II. Being gay was perceptually equal to a crime. Starting then, says Ryan, “…the vibrant queer histories of places outside Manhattan would soon be forgotten.”
Reading When Brooklyn Was Gay is something like frosting a cake. From the starting point of a poet and a wharf full of sailors, readers glide smoothly to wood-floor dancehalls; sweeping near audacious lesbian actors, scandal rags, legal fights, burly-Q stages, then to the Jazz Age and beyond. Each spot is covered, sprinkled with asides, personal anecdotes from the author and modern references to create connections, then gently folded into the next subject.
What may delight readers the most, though, is in the details. While this is a history of Brooklyn specifically, and New York in general, we’re taken to other cities and cultures to see how worldwide changes impacted Brooklyn’s residents. Like the inner workings of a clock, tiny facts turn larger events that become part of a big picture for readers to see.
Unlike many books, this one doesn’t ignore anyone in the LGBT initialism; all are mentioned here and given due diligence. For readers searching for a fun, fascinating, all-encompassing history, When Brooklyn Was Queer is a
Inside an Honor Killing by Lene Wold (Greystone Books 2019) $26.95; 224 pp.
Lene Wold had to lie to set up the interview. She knew that, as a lesbian, she was in danger just traveling through Jordan, so she made up a fictitious husband for her own safety. She lied to be prepared, should the subject come up during conversations she had with “Rahman” who, after over a year of effort, finally sat across from her in a small café.
He was a killer, but she knew that he deserved to tell his side of the story.
When he was a child, Rahman told her, he witnessed the death of a young classmate buried up to her shoulders in desert sand. The 7-year-old had been raped, he said, but that act brought shame on her family because villagers believed that she had caused it. Stoning her brought honor back.
Rahman wasn’t supposed to have witnessed the killing, and when his mother learned that he did, she packed her things and left, a departure that impacted him for the rest of his life. He vowed that what happened in his father’s house wouldn’t happen in his when he married a very conservative woman, and raised two daughters and a son.
Years later, as the younger daughter, 17-year-old Amina, prepared for marriage, she noticed that her 19-year-old sister, Aisha, seemed preoccupied. Only when Amina overheard intimacies and learned that Aisha had fallen in love with another woman did she understand her sister’s fears; there is no law against homosexuality in Jordan, but it’s a cultural sin that brings shame on a family, and Aisha’s secret couldn’t be held. And so, pressured by his wife, Rahman acted to restore honor.
There is no way to soften this: Inside an Honor Killing is absolutely chilling. An ice-down-the-spine account of a rape that inexplicably didn’t happen opens this book, illustrating the dangers Lene Wold endured to get the interviews she needed to tell this story. That, and the how and why of it, are the books’ introduction, and while you’re there, Wold also shares statistics that will put you in a heightened state of anticipation, though you ultimately know what happens.
Take a quick breath, then, before you plunge into chapter 1, because that’s the last chance you’ll get for air as this story alternates between Arabian Nights and Nightmare on Elm Street, between idyll and magic, and horrors we can only imagine.
This book isn’t one bit easy to read, but if you’re concerned about women’s rights or current events, it’s essential that you do. But beware: Inside an Honor Killing will stun you almost the minute you get it in your hands.
Growing Up Queer by Mary Robertson (NYU Press 2019) $26; 224 pp.
During the Obama Administration, after the repeal of DADT and after three states made same-sex marriage legal, Mary Robertson began volunteering at her local LGBT resource center — specifically, in the basement teen hangout called Spectrum. She was working on research, and she hoped, over time, to interview Spectrum’s teen clientele. But she was nervous: As a cisgender straight woman, what would the kids tell her? Plenty, as it turned out.
While there were gay, lesbian and trans teens at Spectrum, the majority of the youth she studied identified as “queer,” a wider-encompassing identity. As one young man indicated, identifying as queer was easier than repeatedly resetting his self-identity as he learned more about himself and the people he might be attracted to.
Many of her interviewees told Robertson that they knew early in their lives that they were not heteronormal. Many teens told stories of recognizing their own interest in same-sex actors and performers when they were young, and of precocious self-acknowledgment of same-sex leanings. One claimed innocence that compelled him to ask for clarification on slurs, thus learning negativity about his feelings long before he knew his feelings “had a name.”
Robertson says that suicide rates for LGBTQ students are high, but she also notes that today’s queer teens have access to an abundance of support: Her subjects often noted family attitudes that have shifted with the times, and there seems to be more acceptance from peers. Gay-straight alliances weren’t widely known in high schools until the 1990s, but today most larger schools have a GSA, and nearly every state in the U.S. has at least one LGBT center. For her queer subjects, this is good news, says Robertson. “This is what gives it so much promise.”
Yet Growing Up Queer can sometimes read like a thesis paper made of cardboard, perhaps due to its original intent for research. When the narrative dips like that, it feels a lot like when your newly-PhD’d brother expounds on his favorite subject; it grows complicated, often unnecessary and sometimes redundant. Thankfully, Robertson gets out of the way enough to make a reader want to forgive such transgressions and just enjoy the teens she meets. There’s life in them, deep introspection and philosophical thought, as well as acceptance covered slightly with the scabs of perseverance. Their voices are real and need no explaining.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer