The 12-story Women’s House of Detention, situated in the heart of Greenwich Village in New York City, from 1932 to 1974, was central to the queer history of The Village. The House of D, as it was known, housed such inmates as Angela Davis, Afeni Shakur, Andrea Dworkin, and Valerie Solanas, and was formative in their thinking and writing. On the night of the Stonewall Riots, the incarcerated women and transmaculaine people in the House of D, a few hundred feet away from The Stonewall Inn, joined in, chanting “Gay power!” and lighting their possessions on fire and throwing them out the windows onto the street in solidarity.
Joining me to help us understand more about the Women’s House of Detention and its role in queer history is historian and writer Hugh Ryan, author of the 2022 book, The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Image Credit: “Women’s House of Detention, Jefferson Market Courthouse, View Northwest from West 8th Street, at Sixth and Greenwich Avenues, 1943,” Municipal Archives, Department of Public Works Collection.
Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History,the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.
Today, we're discussing the New York Women's House of Detention and the women and trans-masculine people who are incarcerated there. The House of Detention was a 12 story prison and jail, that operated in Greenwich Village, from 1932 to 1974. It wasn't the first prison to be located in Greenwich Village. From 1796 to 1828, the official state prison of New York sat on the spot where Christopher Street reached the Hudson River, not far from the potter's field where public hangings took place, and where paupers were buried. Today, that field is Washington Square Park. The prison, Newgate, was named after the famous London prison. Most of the people incarcerated at Newgate were men, but some women were imprisoned there for such crimes as theft or assault. The overcrowded Newgate closed in 1829. In 1838, the Jefferson Market Watch House opened in Greenwich Village at 10 Greenwich Avenue. By the mid 1840s, the house held police headquarters, a jail, a holding pen, and a police court. In 1907, night court was established at the location, a place where people arrested anywhere in New York City at night were taken for after hours arraignment. Night court failed to solve the problems it was designed for, and in 1910, the Inferior Criminal Courts Act split the night court and created a women's court in Jefferson Market. The act also mandated that arrested women be held near the court where they were going to be arraigned. In 1932, a building designed for that purpose, The Women's House of Detention, finally opened, built on the site of the Jefferson Market prison. Designed by architects, Sloane and Robertson, and costing $2 million to build, the Women's House of Detention may have been the world's only art deco prison. A note here on terminology: Although the terms "jail" and "prison" are often used interchangeably, they technically have different definitions. A jail, which is under local jurisdiction, like a city or a county, is designed to be a short term holding facility. It might house people who have just been arrested or who are awaiting trial. Jails do sometimes incarcerate people who have been found guilty and are sentenced if the sentence is relatively short, usually less than a year. A prison, which is under state or federal jurisdiction, is designed to house people who have been convicted of a crime. Sometimes those sentences are many years long. The House of Detention was originally designed to be a jail, but in the end it served both purposes, housing populations with very different needs and failing from the start to serve either well. The first floor of the high rise facility was the receiving area for both new inmates and visitors. The second floor held the chapel along with housing for staff, and the third floor included the kitchen and laundry. As today's guest, Hugh Ryan describes the rest of the building, "All told, the prison was designed to hold 400 people at a time, in individual cells spread out over the fourth through 10th floors. Each residential floor was vaguely H-shaped, with a set of cells on each of the legs of the H, allowing for four units per floor.At the intersection of one of the legs, was a communal dining room and at the other, a multi-use space. Starting in 1935, however, some of these rooms were cannibalized to make dormitory style cells. Between the two, at the center of the H was a guard station, set up to see down every part of the floor at the same time. Individual cells were on the outside of the building, and each had a toilet, sink, cot, and window. The 11th floor was the hospital. In the end it had only 29 beds. The roof, sometimes called the 12th floor, was caged over and used as recreation space in the summer." For 30 of the 39 years it was in operation, the House of Detention was officially overcrowded. It lacked staff and funding, and the combining of different populations meant that the kind of programming that should have been in place for long term prisoners, like recreation and social services, was ignored. In 1965, then 18-year-old college student, Andrea Dworkin, who later became a well known radical feminist, was arrested at a protest against the Vietnam War. She was taken to the House of Detention. Dworkin's account of the inhumane treatment she received, and the dehumanizing medical exam that all inmates received upon entry, helped raise awareness of the many human rights violations in the prison. Finally, on June 13, 1971, the Women's House of Detention closed its doors, ending the run of prisons in the village. The House of Detention was replaced by the New York City Correctional Institute for Women, located on Rikers Island. Where the House of Detention had previously stood, is now the beautiful Jefferson Market Garden. You may be wondering why this episode on the House of Detention is part of our series of episodes for Queer Pride Month. Today, at least 40% of the people incarcerated in American women's prisons identify as lesbian, bisexual, trans or queer. In the House of Detention, that percentage may have been much higher. Estimates from the 1960s were that 75% of the people in the House of Detention were queer. In his new book, "The Women's House of Detention: a Queer History of a Forgotten Prison," today's guest, historian Hugh Ryan looks at the ways in which the House of Detention played an outsized role in queer life. As Ryan writes, "The House of D helped make Greenwich Village queer, and the village in return, helped define queerness for America. No other prison has played such a significant role in our history, particularly for working class women, and trans-masculine people." Joining me now, to help us understand more is Hugh Ryan.
Hi, Hugh. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Hugh Ryan 9:28
Yeah. Thanks for having me, Kelly.
Kelly Therese Pollock 9:30
Yeah, so this was such a fascinating thing to learn about and book to read. So I was wondering if you could start by talking to sort of how you got on to this topic, decided to write this book.
Hugh Ryan 9:42
Sure. There are actually a couple of different threads that all led me to this book. The first and most obvious threads were folks who were in my previous book, "When Brooklyn Was Queer," who were incarcerated at some point in the Women's House of Detention. There are two main ones: Mabel Hampton and Big Cliff Trondle. In fact, when I wrote my previous book I didn't know Big Cliff's first name. I only had their dead name, which I used in the book because it was the only reference point I had. While doing research for this book, I found an incredible file that documented the rest of Big Cliff's life from the moment I leave them in my first book in 1913, all the way up until unfortunately, they were murdered in 1942, I believe. So those threads were direct. They said to me, the Women's House of Detention is a place that you need to look. I also had parts in that book about prisons generally as queer spaces. And at that time, I was thinking about it as prisons, as capturers of history, as documenters, right? Prisons, produce reams and reams of information, and our penal system and our criminal legal system do as well. And all of that together often document some of the earliest queer history that I could find in the 20th and late 19th century in America. So those threads came from my previous book, but then there were all these other sort of smaller threads that were pointing me towards this that came together to push me to say that this was the next topic that I needed to do. One was the author, Lisa Davis, who's a great historian herself, as well as novelist who told me a lot about her time meeting older queer women and trans-masculine folks who in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, had been really involved in the lesbian bar scene and also in kind of the mafia world that controlled all the gay bars in New York City. And she said to me one afternoon as we were having coffee, "You know, the boys had bars wherever the elevated trains were right in the shadow of the trains, those dark city streets, you'd find gay bars. But the girls only had them in the shadow of the Sixth Avenue el in Greenwich Village." I don't know why that is just sort of squirreled away in my head as an interesting question, why? And at the time, I thought, oh, you know, Greenwich Village, it's got lots of queer history. So that's why it just is. I didn't think much about it. Then I went on a tour of the West Village, given by Jay Toole, who's a phenomenal activist who was involved with Queers for Economic Justice, and also had been incarcerated in the prison. And she specifically said to me, when I interviewed her afterwards, "I give these tours, because people do not remember this history. And it is important," right? And so I was like, "Wow, that's true." And, and in that moment, that physical moment of standing in Greenwich Village, looking at these beautiful buildings, and these sort of rich passer-bys, I tried to imagine a 12 story maximum security prison that Christopher Street led straight into, and I almost couldn't imagine it. And that again, was a real signifier for me. If I cannot imagine this, as a historian who has heard these things, how deeply this has fallen out of our public conversation. Then I came across a statistic by the Williams Institute, which said that 40%, about, of people currently incarcerated in women's prisons, and like 33% of people in women's jails, were LGBTQ in some way. And I thought, "Holy shit, that is a crisis of incarceration that I certainly did not know about, and I don't feel most mainstream LGBTQ organizations are talking about, nor do I feel like it is accounted for in most mainstream queer histories of one variety or another." And then there was another study by the Center for American Progress that said, 40% of youth in girls detention facilities identify as LGBTQ. 40%, in two different studies in two vast detention systems that are part of our sprawling system of mass incarceration certainly clued me in that there was something massive here that was not being talked about, and seemed directly within my wheelhouse. I could see the way in which my previous work led into the Women's House of Detention. I could see the way the Women's House of Detention changed the queer world, and I could see the way in which the development of women's justice directly impacts our current system of mass incarceration. But what I couldn't see were the lives of the people who mattered, the folks at the center of the story, the queer women and trans-masculine folks who created this world, who invested this prison with meaning. That's when I knew that I had a story, right? I could see the outline, but not the center. And that was my work was to find the center of the story.
Kelly Therese Pollock 14:13
Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about how you did that, and the kinds of sources that you looked at. You just mentioned that prisons produce lots and lots and lots of paper and archives, that that's written from a particular viewpoint, of course. So what what was your sort of way into this about trying to sort through the stories, find those people and what their experiences really were?
Hugh Ryan 14:36
It was really a long and very organic process. The first year that I worked on this book was simply about trying to find those stories, because I didn't want to tell this from the point of view of the prison and the legal system, because they produce data, but they are not particularly interested in the lives, experiences, and thoughts of the people caught up in their systems. They are raw material, not thinkers, right. And I didn't want to read produce that kind of book. Nor would I think that would be very effective. It wouldn't tell us very much. So I started off by looking at the first sources that came to mind, the LGBTQ periodicals that go back, you know, into the 60s and the 70s. I didn't really find very much. Sometimes there were things about prisons, but they were more likely to be about prison pen pals, or maybe they were things about the criminal legal system, but only in the cases of men arrested for soliciting, or people arrested for wearing the clothing of the wrong wrong quote, unquote, gender, specifically gay crimes, which are a part of the story, but a small part of the story. Then I thought maybe the paperwork of early LGBTQ organizations, the kind of homophile organizations of the mid-century, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Again, there I found a little bit, but not very much. That's when I started to think about, okay, how do we end up in history, right? So I started to look for memoirs written by folks who had been incarcerated there, and there, I started to find some things. But those were only in the later periods. They tended to come out in the 60s or 70s, at most were about experiences in the 50s and 60s. It was something but it wasn't everything. And the people who got to write those books were a very small, narrow selection of the folks who passed through the House of D, largely, though not entirely, people who were white, people who had some class privilege, people who were traditionally gendered, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So I started thinking, well, all right, there are two ways you end up in the public record. Either you have power, and that enables you to have your stories saved. You are famous in your day, so people want to know about you, and they publish stories about you in the newspaper, or you own a home in which your diaries are preserved, and your ancestors can find them. You have ancestors that want to speak to you and want to preserve your records and don't see you as a source of shame. You publish your own books, you are so important to someone that you get caught up in an archive, etc. Or you end up in the archive because someone has power over you. Right, the prison system is an obvious example of that with its production of data. But there are other sources that are less coercive on the surface and capture more information, though they are still coercive. And this is where I really hit in on the records, social workers. Social workers were concerned with incarcerated people, both preventing folks from getting incarcerated and helping them post incarceration, and protecting the broader world from them. Right, that's always the duality there is is helping but also hindering or controlling. And they produce reams and reams of paperwork. And particularly in the early 20th century, when we began to think of queerness as something that could be prevented or changed, which was not true of how we thought of it really, in the 19th century, social workers became very concerned, particularly with young quote unquote, women's sexuality. It was part of their job in keeping them out of prison to keep them straight. And so while I was told by a lot of social work organizations that they didn't think their files would have much to do with queerness, I found that from the earliest records, there were queer people getting incarcerated, and showing up in these files and being documented as queer people with queer experiences, and their queer thoughts, desires, needs, feelings, slang was caught up in these files, particularly an organization called the Women's Prison Association, which still exists today, and has incredible files that are kept at the New York Public Library.
Kelly Therese Pollock 18:21
So we're talking some here about sort of queerness and incarceration, in sort of conflating women and men. So you talk some in the book about how the experience, you know, at least in these two particular instances that you look at, of women and women's experience in prison is very different than men's experience in prison, especially Women's House of Detention versus Rikers, where the men are held. Can you talk some about that, and what what it is about the Women's House of Detention specifically, that makes it such sort of a vibrant seems like the wrong word to use for prison, but sort of a vibrant queer space?
Hugh Ryan 18:59
Sure, pull back a little bit, I think we need to talk about the whole conception of women's justice, which is something that emerges post Civil War in America. In the 1870s, we're starting the Progressive Era, where there are these sort of social reform ideas that are ascendant. They're not always what we would think of as progressive ideas. Prohibition is a big part of the Progressive Era, right? But they are about social change, and they are at least theoretically attempts to help marginalized populations. In this moment, the existing prison system had really been developed to deal with the violent antisocial acts of white men. With the end of the Civil War, and the increase of African American people of all genders' participation in the public sphere, and women of all races in the public sphere, we start to see prison reformers taking this system which was previously about crimes against people, like murder or assault, and crimes against property like robbery and arson, and applying that to these new classes of people that are coming under the thumb of the criminal legal system, where they are now being accounted for as moral systems, right. It's no longer about punishing this specific damage that was done, but rather about social control and imparting proper morality onto these groups that were seen as inherently not moral, and therefore inherently likely to commit crime; and interlinked with that, inherently likely to be poor. So women, as they come into the public sphere, the idea in the late 1800s, is there are really only two ways for a woman to achieve a virtuous, non-poor life: marriage or being a maid. And for both of those things, you need to be properly feminine. And so the system of women's justice from its very beginning in the late 1800s, is really concerned with femininity and what get called crimes against the public order: drunkenness, prostitution, being out alone at night, obscenity, all of these kinds of things, which in the previous era, had not been considered crimes. I mean, if you look at the history of sex work in New York City, before they started arresting women, for it, men were not arrested for sex work. And in fact, in most of the 20th century, men, literally constitutionally by legal precedent, could not be arrested as sex workers or for hiring a prostitute. In all of these ways, this new system of women's justice focused on people who we would think of as queer or trans-masculine, improperly feminine, too sexual, and of course, too Black, too angry, too resistant, waywardism, all of these kinds of crimes suddenly come into the criminal legal system. And they fill the House of D, sex work, drugs, prostitution, drunkenness, these are the crimes that really fill the House of Detention. And of course, they capture a lot of queer people in it. Now, you have to then add on that the location of the House of D in Greenwich Village, which is itself known as a bohemian neighborhood right and gets an increasing reputation as the bohemian neighborhood as the decades go on. And the House of D is directly implicated in that, The House of D was at the very end of Christopher Street, right. It stood 500 feet from the Stonewall Inn. During the Stonewall uprising, the House of D held a riot all its own, where prisoners set fire to their belongings and threw them out the windows chanting, "Gay rights, gay rights, gay rights." Of course, it is directly connected to queer history. It helped to make the village queer. It also helped to make the village, the village. One of the things I was astounded by, in doing my research is, I think of the village and Cafe Society as this thing that you know, slumming rich people kind of came down in the 90s, late teens and early 1920s, to see the weird, queer, exciting,drags, bohemian stuff that was happening there, kind of the way they went to Harlem to see Black culture on display. What I discovered in doing this research, is that before Cafe Culture takes off, about a decade before, the Women's Court, which again was for sex work, and public drunkenness, became an institution for rich people to go and watch. It was in fact, specifically built to encourage people to come and see this life of shame. And that that was its most important contribution was not what it did to or for the folks who came to the court, but rather the entertainment and sort of moral lessons, it was thought to provide to the rich, who you can find records in newspapers that say limousines lined up around the corner outside the courthouse to watch these people. That is where we start the slumming tours of Greenwich Village. That is the origin of Greenwich Village as a place for bohemian life. But we never talk about that part of the story.
Kelly Therese Pollock 23:54
What was the experience like then inside the prison sort of both inside on its own but then also because it's right in Greenwich Village? And they can see out and sort of interact with? What what does that experience become like for the incarcerated residents of the House of D.
Hugh Ryan 24:11
It's very difficult, and there are a lot of different experiences that happened because the House of D is both a jail and a prison right? So it serves or incarcerates people who had been sentenced and people who are awaiting sentence who are theoretically at least in our system, quote unquote, innocent. It also has material witnesses. It has populations under the age of 18 and over the age of 18. It in many ways encapsulates a lot of what's happening in the criminal justice system generally because it serves so many different populations. It also serves addicts, it serves mothers, it serves psych patients, huge variety of people passing through it. But what is over and over again, the truth is that it is overcrowded, underfunded and less concerned with assisting the people who are inside the system and more with containing and controlling them. So one of the things that comes up over and over again in every decade of the prison is that upon release, these people who were largely arrested because they were poor, were released with a nickel or a quarter or $5 and then expected to survive without returning to sex work, or theft or other kinds of what might be called survival crimes, although I kind of hate the distinction about crime and not crime. How was that possible, right, and this continues decade after decade after decade. The same with the medical care, the medical care is terrible from the very beginning. It is brutal, it is abusive, it is often sexually violent. The searches that are performed on these people as they come in and out of the institution, violent and that continues to this day. Those searches are still being done on people incarcerated in women's prisons, isn't the never ending. Andrea Dworkin referred to it at one point as the I think she says the constant sadomasochistic experience that is almost unchanging, in a sense. The world outside changes, the people who pass through change, but the way they are treated by the system largely does not. And in fact, one of the things that really came to me over the course of doing this was an abolitionist perspective on criminal legal systems, because I saw over and over again, how reform does not work, how dedicated reformists in the system say the same thing for decades, how dedicated reformists outside the system, say the same things for decades, how in liberal moments and conservative moments, we say the same things, and nothing improves. In fact, what happens at best is more money gets thrown at the system to create more cages, that then relapse right back to cruelty when everybody looks away, because we ignore incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people. We ignore the communities they come from. And I think part of the reason the House of D gets moved out of the Greenwich Village, out of Greenwich Village in the 70s, and onto Rikers Island, is because, in part, we understand that more mass incarceration cannot happen if we watch. If we see what we are doing, we would be ashamed of what we have done. And so we hide it, right, we hide these people in prisons, and then we make those people who have been incarcerated no longer eligible for different kinds of jobs. We refuse to allow them to vote. We keep them away from other people, we put them back in the system, we don't give them the resources they need to survive and thrive outside the system. We drug them, we put them away for drug offenses, and then drug them the entire time they're in prison. Over and over again, we try to separate incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people from the larger community so that we can keep the system of mass incarceration going.
Kelly Therese Pollock 27:32
Yeah, that that was really striking. I mean, I think I had read other things about prisons and was sort of starting to get to it in abolitionists' perspective anyway, but reading this I think really just drove home how incredibly cruel the system and I don't want to say broken because it's designed to work that way. But but how it just doesn't seem to be helping anybody.
Hugh Ryan 27:54
Yeah, I mean, I was able to see this evidence of it's not working. But what really helped me to theorize and understand about abolition was reading abolitionists who are really deeply involved in work against incarceration and against the criminal legal system. Angela Davis, Miriam Kava, Andrea Ritchie, Joe Omegle, Kay Whitlock, like these folks who have been doing this work for decades, the work of intersectional feminists like Audre Lorde, and Kimberle Crenshaw, folks that I read in college. That kind of grounding helped me to take what I saw, as evidences of individual moments of systemic failure and systemic racism, and to conceptualize them as something that cannot be reformed, where the root of it is actually toxic, and we can not fix that root. But it did also give me a vision for a broader queer movement, because abolition asks us to think about who is harmed by the state and who is cared for by the state. And my frustration with the modern queer movement has often been that it's caught up in ideas about representation and formal equality in front of the law, but the law itself might be broken, right. So the movement for gay marriage, of course, I don't think gay people should be denied the same rights as straight people. But I also don't understand why the government has a fundamental interest in my sex life, right. Marriage law is a clumsy attempt to ensure that people are cared for so that that work does not end up on the state. Why can't we look further than that? Why can't we look at a queer movement that says, "Queer elders are likely not to have descendants who will take care of them. Queer youth are often likely to have family structures that do not take care of them. Queer refugees are coming from places where they did not have support to a new country where they do not have support. The AIDS crisis shows the lack of care our government provided to people who get sick in stigmatized ways. All of this is about care, which is the same question that abolition makes us ask: "Who does the state harm and who does the state care for?" So doing this work and understanding an abolitionist perspective on it helped me to see how the queer movement could be so much broader and more progressive and strike more at the roots of justice. And that was inspiring.
Kelly Therese Pollock 30:08
So I think a lot of depictions of prison life in in popular culture, make it seem like the the homosexuality that happens in prison is sort of a result of being in prison. And that may be the case for some people. It seems like what you found is often, you know, as you were saying, sort of the reasons that people were in prison in the first place often had to do with sort of their their queer identities. There are cases in prison, where people do start to to look to homosexuality, because they are lonely and bored. You talk a lot about the boredom in in the House of Detention. But maybe, could you sort of reflect on that sort of larger piece of it of you know, and with the records that we have not always knowing? Is this something that is part of somebody's life before they get there? Is this something that is affected by being in prison? You know, what, what all might be going on there?
Hugh Ryan 31:03
It's a really broad question with a lot of different parts. But what I sort of landed on as the most important part for me, in looking at this evidence was an idea that sexual orientation is perhaps a limited frame that only informs so much of what we know about our sexual experiences and our sexual lives. We want to believe that sexual orientation, and gender identity are these unwavering and permanent experiences, even for people who come to a quote unquote, realization about them many years later in life. We then go through this process of saying, "Oh, now I can identify, I can look backwards and say, I was always this thing, even when I wasn't this thing, right." And the more I looked at the experiences of incarcerated folks, the more I began to see that while that is true, sexual orientation is real, in a sense, and gender identity is real. It's not necessarily unwavering. And it's not the same for all of us, right? We don't all feel it at the same intensity, right? Sexual orientation may inform who I have sex with, or sexual desire for. But it's not the only part of that. We see it as a bright line that says, "Gay people only have sex with people of the same sex/gender, bisexual people, both, straight people, just but that's one element, sexual orientation, kind of the direction of your desire generally, is only part of the makeup of all of the things that we do that produce sex and desire and experience. I think of it like the label Democrat, right. From a distance, it's useful, helps you find other people who are kind of broadly similar to you, maybe hopefully, and you can work around some places of meaning of experience, and you can organize through it. But it doesn't necessarily tell you a lot about the life, thoughts, experiences, and desires of an individual. And I think words like gay, straight, they're very similar. And when you look in places that are really single sex stratified, so prisons, but also ships and boarding schools, and the colleges, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, you begin to see the ways in which outside of the architecture of heterosexuality that is the world, many people move in different ways. I often think that better than thinking about simply gayness as a unified experience, we might think more about the pathways that we take to sexual desire and sexual experience. Perhaps for some of us, homo- sociality, our desire to be friends and close with people of the same sex and gender is more important than homosexuality. Maybe both of those things together can produce desire sometimes, and can inhibit desire at other times, right. I think it's a much more complex matrix than what we often want to think about. We want things to be simple. We want identity to be permanent. We want to be born this way. Because then it sort of implies, well, I deserve rights, because I can't change. And I just don't think that's true. I don't think the fact that I cannot be this terrible thing, right? I cannot escape homosexuality, therefore, you cannot oppress me for it is bullshit. You should not oppress me for it, because it's not your goddamn business. And I should be allowed to live how I want, even if that changes day by day, I have no idea if I answered your question. I went really far afield.
Kelly Therese Pollock 34:13
I liked the answer regardless. Yeah. And so I think as you're doing this research, there's both this sort of piece of it, but there's also a terminology and how terminology changes over time. And so the words that we might use for some of the women that you're writing about, and trans masculine men that you're writing about aren't necessarily the words they would have used. Maybe they're the words they would use now, maybe not, you know, it's hard to know, because these things change, but also, as you're getting these things from records, like social workers, you know, there seems to be this inclination on their part to be like, you know, that they have friends who are women, but no, no, no, they're not gay, you know, and so, you know, how do you sort of pick through that, as you're doing history, thinking about the way language changes the way, the way we might hide things or might be hidden because people don't want to see them and sort of sort out what what may be actually going on?
Hugh Ryan 34:13
There's a lot of parts to that. One of the ones that's most important for me is to think of these people as smart, real and sincere, and not to think of them as Dum Dums, who simply couldn't see the reality that we see in the world. When they write the things they are thinking, it's not just a different label for the experience we have, right? It's not just my identity and period drag. It's a different way of constructing the world that has real effects about how we think about ourselves, how we behave, how we behave about others. So one of the most obvious ones in the 19th century, there's this sort of idea of queer identity that revolves around sex and gender, all personalities kind of in an American context, right? We're talking in America, all personality revolves around the body, we have phrenology, right the science of feeling the head to learn about personality, and we have eugenics which will tell you things like thin lips, implied dishonesty, right, the body is the personality there is no separating that. But at the same time, you live in a sec stratified Victorian world, men are expected to spend all their time with men, women are expected to spend all their time with women. And not just that, they are expected to profess their love for each other to sleep in the same bed to have these intense emotional and physical, though not necessarily erotic relationships. In this schema, queer identity was most visible when it was a crossing of gender lines, right? Lots of queer practices are happening. But what is visible and what gets conceptualized as identity are people who cross gender lines, people who we today might think of as trans women, or effeminate, gay men, or intersex folks, those kinds of get put into one category. A similar thing happens with trans men, butch lesbians, and intersex folks. They're sort of another category of invert, or fairy or masculine woman, all of these roles are what we understand queerness as and it's based in the body can't change an invert because they physically are what they are. And that physical body produces their personality, it produces their sex drive, yeah. Now, as that starts to fall apart, because we live now in these urban places, where you can start to see that there are people whose behavior is not directly connected to their body in this sort of simplistic way. Or you can see gender normative people who desire other people of the same sex, or homosexuals as we would think of them suddenly start to become more visible, because straight people, quote, unquote, straight people who were not straight back then because they could not imagine a sexuality that men and women would share equally, right. But the people we today might qualify as straight start to act differently. They are not into homo- sociality anymore. They're expected to spend their time men with women, women with men, we get compassionate marriage, all of this starts to change and our conception of sexuality changes with it, right? We get Freud and the sexologists who move personality into the mind instead of the body. There's a group in New York called the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants who do this massive study in the 30s and 40s, where their first question is to prove that sexuality exists in the brain or in the body, right? That's what they're trying to figure out. And this is in the 30s. This is not the late 1800s. These ideas are happening in the late 1800s. But they continue on. And this is when the prison opens. So when, I know we're going a long way away from the House of D, but I swear to God, we're getting back there, as the prison is opening, the older generation of people who have access to this formal education about what sexuality is and what gender is, they're the social workers, the lawyers, the judges. The folks who this system is working on don't have access to those ideas, necessarily. And this is where they learn them, right? All of these people in these records get arrested and dragged in front of a judge where they get told they're a homosexual. One of the women that I follow, Charlotte, in fact, says, up until this moment, she had considered herself like a football hero. It wasn't her fault that women looked up to her. That was who she was. But the court starts to tell her she's a homosexual that homosexuality can be changed and denied and that it is dirty. It's the same thing that World War II largely does for men during conscription. Right? It teaches people these new ideas of sexuality, but it does not get rid of the old ideas. They are at war with one another. So you get these records that on their face can look really dumb, right? You might want to make fun of the person, the social worker will say something like, one of the social workers gets introduced to a person who we would call a trans woman in the 50s. And she says, "Oh, I understand this. This person is bisexual." And to her that means two bodies, right, bisect, intersect, and that produces the bisexuality we think of today because two bodies, you're going to want to have sex with two different kinds of people. We can see the conceptual linkage, but the people she's talking to are laughing at her, because they are saying, "No, bisexual, like the sexual orientation, their sexual orientation." So she says, "I understand that, you know, she is bisexual." And they say, "No, I mean, she dates men for money, but she really only gets her kick with women." And there's this sort of like conceptual smash, where they cannot understand each other. They're using the same term, but they mean very different things by it, and how that affects the way they live their lives and how they treat people. So over and over again, you'll see the social workers really coming down on the femmes in butch-femme relationships, because they think they can be saved because they are bodily normal. They've just been conscripted into this sort of perversion by the butch, who is bodily different and cannot be changed. So these ideas change, the terms change, but with them the way we live and experience our lives change as well.
Kelly Therese Pollock 40:50
Yeah, so interesting. So toward the end of the book, you talk about sort of the the ways that sort of the public starts to hear a bit more about what is going on. It doesn't actually get better, even when they close the House of Detention, because then they just move to another place where terrible things are happening. But can you talk about the kinds of people and the kinds of stories that finally make it out into the world, that that make the horror that is going on there visible to the public?
Hugh Ryan 41:24
Sure, there's a wide variety and they really start in the 50s. We have moments of resistance before that. There are newspaper articles, there is public acknowledgement of the prison. But in the 50s, we start to see a number of things, riots, first off, the folks who are incarcerated learn that they are surrounded by a city, right, and they can throw things out the window, they can set fires, they can scream for help, they can talk down to the people on the street, right? This is one of the reasons they have to get rid of the House of D. You can communicate with people on the outside, not through guards, not through lawyers, on your own terms. Now those terms sometimes are calling down, sometimes they're throwing a flaming mattress out the window. Either way, it's communicating on their own terms. These kinds of communications get publicized in the newspapers, the riots, but they also start to make their way into popular culture. So in the 60s and into the early 70s, we start to see the House of D showing up in books, in memoirs, in Broadway musicals. In fact, the very first lesbian love song that I can find on Broadway is set in the House of Detention. Melvin van Peebles lived for a while on the park bench outside the House of D. And he saw people calling up to each other, and it inspired him to write his album "Brer Soul," which he then turned into the Broadway show, "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death," an incredible show that has been largely forgotten, right? When we talk about the queer histories of Broadway and queer songs, everybody talks about "Fun Home," which is fantastic, incredible play, or they jump all the way backwards to those really sexy, you know, like early Broadway shows that were a little more, I don't want to say closeted, but you know, like a Noel Coward kind of play that they're using gay jargon, but they still are talking about gay things. But this love song, between women set in a prison in a show that was nominated for five Tonys in 1971, is erased from this story. We knew at the time, people knew that there were queer lives here. But it gets ignored. And I think largely, it's because these lives were by that point, especially Black and brown women, people who were working class, people who were queer, people who were drug users, people who were on the margins of society in many ways, but they changed the village. They gave the village its queer vibe. They made it the lesbian neighborhood that it is. And that got recognized in many ways, and then forgotten, particularly once the House of D was removed. Once the House of D was removed from there, the neighborhood worked very hard and very fast to erase it entirely. They destroyed the building, which there had been some talk about turning it into community centers for gay groups and women's groups, or into housing for the elderly, and the homeowners in Greenwich Village actively protest this. And in their paperwork, they say things like, "If it stays here, there's a chance it will become a prison again," and it's very classic nimbyism, you know. "These services are needed, but not here. This is the wrong place." And we start to get this idea of incarcerated people as a problem that has been visited on the neighborhood, not co- creators of the neighborhood together. Instead, the folks who own the land, who are the ones who are the Johnny come lately is start to say, no, no, we are the proper inhabitants. We are the families of this neighborhood. And it's not that these people are bad, but they're a disturbance and they should go somewhere else that's more suited to them. Right? They take this history and they twist the whole thing until those people are erased and seen only as a problem to be solved, which is in general, I would say how our government largely deals with Black women, particularly if they are working class, that over and over again, you see them as a dissolution of the neighborhood. They are drug users, sex workers, people who are to be pitied and dealt with, not citizens to be served.
Kelly Therese Pollock 45:11
Yeah. And then lastly, I think we should mention Angela Davis. So you said Angela Davis's name earlier. Of course, she's connected, strongly connected with the abolition movement. She was actually in the House of D, and that was formative for her. So can you talk a little bit about that, about her experience there and why that is so important.
Hugh Ryan 45:32
Sure, she's written about this in her autobiography, which is phenomenal. I encourage everyone to read it. It is an incredible book. But one of the things she says is that in the House of Detention, that was the only time she was in the general population in a prison. Everywhere else, she was incarcerated, she was kept separate. So it was here that she began to see how prisons weren't just political in the sense that they incarcerated political prisoners, but rather that they were fundamental to the maintenance of state racism and state misogyny in general, because she saw the ways in which all of these people who were incarcerated there were there for not having the money to make bail, you know, so they're kept for months on end. And it changed her thinking on prisons, and open up her abolitionists, thinking in new fields and new ways in ways that she has continued to work on and through ever since. It also, as for many women, introduce them to other queer people. And Angela Davis talks about this a lot in her memoir. And that I think, is one of the truths about women's prisons versus men's prisons. Women's prisons, what you'll hear over and over again, if you talk to formerly incarcerated people, is that there were so many queer people, they could not be kept separate. They were simply part of life. There was no fairy wing or something like that what you find in men's prisons. Afeni Shakur talks about this too, in her memoir. She says, "Being in the prison introduced me to queer women, and I saw their strength and it introduced me to political Gay Liberationists who were protesting outside the prison. In fact, the Gay Liberation Front gets founded in order to protest the treatment of Black Panthers in the Women's House of Detention, though that's largely forgotten in their origin story these days. Women's prisons encourage women and trans masculine people to explore their own identities around sexuality and gender, and to make political pacts with people across sexuality and gender. Men's prisons encourage people to be violent to one another around queerness. It's not that queerness is any less visible, right? Or any less endemic or any less part of the prison experience. But if you look at the memoirs written in the 1970s, by men in prisons, they will say, "The officers told us, 'If a faggot hits on you, you should kill him, because otherwise everyone will think you're a faggot, too,'" right? Or they would have these special trans housing units, they be called the fairy wing or something like that. And they would see queer prisoners as separate, as needing state protection, as maybe in some ways implicated in the system itself. So we get a really different experience of prisons produced by men's prisons and produced by women's prisons. When I think we see this in the work of so many female Black liberationists, members of the Black Panther Party, members of the Young Lords members of the Gay Liberation Front of Radical Lesbians. We see the way in which prison experience for women and trans men promotes political understandings. Audrey Lorde says in "Zami" at one point, I'm gonna get the quote a little bit off, but she says, "Black and white lesbians were the only people trying to work through race issues in the 1960s. And that is not the fact that we did not do it well, and that white women were still racist does not mean that we did not try," right. And I think that is true, in part to the experience of women's prisons.
Kelly Therese Pollock 48:51
So it's an incredible book, and I think everyone should read it, can you tell them how they can get a copy?
Hugh Ryan 48:57
The Winchester edition is available everywhere. So if you have a local bookstore that you like, I really encourage going to them. If you have a local library or a school library, ask them if they have a copy. It's available as an ebook, so you can get digital copies, or you can get physical copies. It's also available as an audiobook, so you can listen to it if you'd like. It's available anywhere. It's on all of the major websites where you might happen to buy a book. But I highly encourage folks if you are able to, to talk to your indie bookstore, because the support of local bookstores keeps authors going and allows us to do events around the country, which are a way that we make money and survive to write more books. So it's available everywhere. Buy it wherever you need to.
Kelly Therese Pollock 49:38
Excellent. Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about?
Hugh Ryan 49:41
I think the one last thing that I would say is that while some of the information I found about the people incarcerated in the House of D is new, and I feel like that's something that I bring of value to this work, my work is built on so many other writers, so many other historians and thinkers, folks we've discussed already like Angela Davis and Afeni Shakur, but also people like Saidiya Hartman and Cheryl Hicks and all of these thinkers who are named in the book. And I highly encourage you if this is a subject that you're interested in, go and read them. There are so many great writers out there working on issues of mass incarceration, working on issues of queer history, working on women's justice. And I hope that my book is not the only one you read.
Kelly Therese Pollock 50:22
Yes. And to anyone who thinks it sounds utterly bizarre that this would have been right in the middle of a city, I live in Chicago, where we still have I think, it's called the Metropolitan House of Corrections or something, which is right downtown in the Loop. Protest marches actually walk past it all the time. So this still exists in our in our systems.
Hugh Ryan 50:43
During the pandemic, one of the prisons in Brooklyn had, you know, like a power and like environmental failures and people were like, scorching to death in their in a prison in the city. I mean, this is not it has not stopped.
Kelly Therese Pollock 50:57
Yeah. Well, Hugh, thank you so much. I learned so very much, and I'm so grateful that you were, that you came on to talk to me.
Hugh Ryan 51:06
No, thank you for having me. And yeah, have a good rest of your afternoon.
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode @UnsungHistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.
I am a writer, historian, and curator in New York City. My current project, entitled THE WOMEN’S HOUSE OF DETENTION, is a queer history of the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village. It is the story of one building: the people it caged, the neighborhood it changed, and the resistance it inspired.
My first book, WHEN BROOKLYN WAS QUEER, was called a “boisterous, motley new history” and “an entertaining and insightful chronicle” by the New York Times, who made it an Editor’s Pick in 2019. In 2019, I was honored by the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Committee on LGBT History of the American Historical Association, and the Brooklyn Borough President for my work on the queer history of BK.
I have received the 2016 Martin Duberman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, several New York Foundation for the Arts grants in Nonfiction Literature, the 2019-2020 Allan Berube Prize for outstanding work in public LGBT History from the Committee on LGBT History at the American Historical Association, and the 2019 New York City Book Award. In 2021, I was an artist in residence at Yaddo (a truly incredible experience). In 2017, I was a resident artist at The Watermill Center, and an alumni teaching fellow at the Bennington Writing Seminars, of which I'm a very proud graduate. I regularly teach Creative Nonfiction in the MFA Program at SUNY Stonybrook. I am currently on the Board of Advisors for the Archives at the LGBT Center in Manhattan and The Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Ft. Lauderdale.
A few favorite pieces include Crush Notes (about the Pulse Massacre, my family, the origins of homophobia, and an 8th century Arabic poet named Abu Nuwas), Downton Abbey’s Thomas Barrow and the Future of the Gay Past (that one’s pretty self explanatory), The Three Lives of Malvina Schwartz (a look at one of the most famous NYC drag kings of the 1940s and '50s), My Year of Sarah Schulman (a deep dive into everything Schulman ever wrote), and Power to the People (a profile of activist and artist Marsha P. Johnson).
I'm delighted to be represented by Robert Guinsler at Sterling Lord Literistic.
If you enjoy my work, please consider becoming a supporter on Patreon, where you can get access to early drafts and behind-the-scenes stories from my deep dives into archives across America.
In 2010, I founded the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, a grassroots organization dedicated to helping local communities create engaging exhibitions rooted in their own experience. Through Pop-Up, I’ve curated shows around the country and had the opportunity to give lectures and lead workshops on queer history, AIDS activism, and museum praxis at museums, colleges, community centers, and punk houses of all kinds. The proudest moment of my life might be the day that George Chauncey told me, “You’re making history cool.”
“The proudest moment of my life might be the day that George Chauncey told me, ‘You’re making history cool.’ ”
I’m also a development associate with the Urban Justice Center, an Advisory Board member of the academic journal QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking and of the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art, and a proud alumnus of Team Awesome / The Rude Mechanical Orchestra. In previous lives, I ghostwrote twelve young adult and middle grade novels, worked with queer youth at The Hetrick Martin Institute, was a professional house-sitter, volunteered on a rape crisis hotline, and typed emails for lawyers late, late at night.