Hugh Ryan became interested in the Women’s House of Detention while writing his first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer. The prison, which operated on Greenwich Avenue in New York City’s Greenwich Village from 1931 to 1971, kept coming up in his research: a queer woman who had passed through it, a relationship that had started inside its walls. But it was a historical tour of the Village with Stonewall veteran Jay Toole, who did several stints in the House of D, that was “revelatory” for Ryan.
“Jay said, ‘I do these tours because young people have forgotten,’” he recalled. “And I thought, “That’s my job as a historian—to find the people in my community who say, “I’m being forgotten about,’ and to uplift their stories.”
Now, with The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison, Ryan has done just that. The book is an exhaustively researched history of the prison, beginning with its predecessor, the Women’s Court, and continuing through its demolition in 1974. Along the way, we encounter figures from the familiar (Angela Davis) to the anonymous (“Charlotte B.”) in an engaging story that presents a compelling argument for a queer politics of abolition.
In a recent conversation, Ryan and I talked about abolitionism, solidarity across liberation movements in the 1960s, and the unique role of queerness in historical analysis. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
So I thought, “There are two ways you end up in the archive. Either you have power, so your stuff is preserved. Or…someone else has power over you. You become the raw material for their archive.” When prisons do that, they reduce people down to fungible numbers. I needed to move away from that kind of “power over” to a “power over” that was at least somewhat more interested in the lives and voices of these people. And that’s when I hit on social workers. At the time, there was an intimate connection between social workers working with incarcerated women (or people seen as women) and queerness. Queerness was a reason you could be arrested, or it could develop in you in prison; or being too butch could ensure that you would never be a wife or a maid—the only two jobs women could have—and you would go to prison for stealing, or something like that. So I knew that social workers were talking about the issues I needed to be talking about.
I found this collection at the New York Public Library called “The Women’s Prison Association.” Every box was under lock and key, and no one had ever looked at them. I reached out to the WPA, and they said yes immediately. But they said, “We don’t think you’re going to find the information you’re looking for. We don’t think we were thinking about queer issues in the ’30s and ’40s.”
But they absolutely were. Within two hours of getting into the case files, I found one of the essential stories from the book. The story of Charlotte B. was one of the first files I came across. It was hundreds of pages long, and it followed her for decades.
NGL: Wow, that must have been such a lightning-strike moment there.
HR: I shrieked in the archives!
NGL: Could you tell me about how abolition influenced your writing of the book?
HR: When I came to this book, I was not a fan of prisons—I probably would have said they were broken and needed to be fixed. But in doing the research and seeing the consistency with which the same problems came up over and over again, it became clear that prisons did not solve anything. No one involved seemed to think they would solve anything. And it didn’t matter if it was a liberal administration or a conservative administration—the only “reform” that ever happened was more money for human cages, bigger prisons farther away.
And when I grappled with that, I had to turn to abolitionists. I read folks who were incarcerated in the House of D, like Angela Davis, but also modern abolitionists like Mariame Kaba. Once you disconnect from the idea that prisons are about justice or rehabilitation, you start to see what they really do and how they really function. And the only people who had a sensible, working understanding of that were abolitionists—largely Black women who were from communities that were over-policed and over-incarcerated. Not entirely, but largely. So I had to learn from that, and to see that this was not about
a broken system; this was about a marvelously efficient system that was doing exactly what it was supposed to do.
Prisons remain resistant to reform because they don’t do what we think they do. They warehouse all the people we have abandoned with our broken safety net, our broken insurance system, our broken health care system, our broken education system—all of the places that abandon people. Our state—instead of supporting people, or giving them safety nets, or supporting interventions that would allow them to stand on their feet—funds prisons to gobble them up. That’s the only way that prisons make any sense.
I just didn’t understand that. And I’m a little ashamed of that. I should have been listening to more people. I should have known more. It took seeing the consistency of it in the record for decades to drive it home to me. And then engaging with abolitionist thought and abolitionist organizations helped sharpen my thinking.
NGL: What’s great about the framing of the book as an abolitionist text is that it offers some suggestions for moving forward—not just in terms of the politics around incarceration, but also queer politics.
HR: When we think about the fact that 40 percent of the people incarcerated in women’s facilities today identify as LGBTQ, but we don’t have laws that are focused on, for example, the arrest of lesbians, that tells us that the system is doing something that has nothing to do with justice or the law. That’s why the framing for the book is abolition. Abolition allowed me to see a more useful rubric for the queer movement that emphasizes care and bodily autonomy. Those are things that I can organize around as a queer person—not just “Can I, as a gay man, get married?” when marriage is an unequal institution that our government shouldn’t be funding. Of course, I want that written inequality in the law destroyed, but I’m more interested in a broader, deeper sense of equality that helps the community as a whole.
NGL: One of the things that the book explores is this fascinating duality: On the one hand, prisons are sites of oppression, dehumanization, violence…and at the same time, the Women’s House of D was a space of queer community, connection—a hub for the Village in some ways.
HR: You know Allan Bérubé’s book, Coming Out Under Fire? He talks about how World War II created the idea of homosexuality. Homosexuality existed, obviously, but it was explained to everyone who entered the service: They measured you, they tested you, and they told you about homosexuality. They defined it as this awful thing…but then people had their own experiences.
The prison, particularly the House of D, does that for folks who have been arrested and incarcerated. In the earliest files, from the 1930s and ’40s, many of these people came in saying, “I knew about my desire.” “I knew,” as Charlotte says, “that women looked up to me like they would a dazzling football hero.” But they didn’t know the word “homosexual,” and they didn’t know to feel some kind of way about it. And the prison did that for them.
And then during the ’50s and ’60s, when bars were being shut down, the police were raiding private parties, and you could get arrested or beaten up on the street…the one place the government was supporting as a site of queerness was the House of D, because they were arresting all the lesbians and trans guys and nonbinary folks and putting them there. They created that community, and that community then recreated the Village. It’s foundational to the identity of the Village and to why the Village is the lesbian neighborhood in New York that it is.
NGL: Language about the identities of folks in the past has become so politicized; there’s so much litigation of what the specific identity was of such-and-such a historical queer person. And to me, those conversations miss the point—we’re projecting language onto the past. I really admire the way you handle these questions in the book.
HR: I get very frustrated when someone tries to boil this down to “Was X person in the past a lesbian, or were they trans?” Because in their time period, they had their own words for themselves. In a Victorian society, there was no conception of a “sexual orientation.” When we project one identity into the past, we project our whole world.
I think that, often, what people are trying to do when they project these identities backward is to claim the past. But I don’t think we need to do that to claim the past. I’m not an identitarian in my history. I’d much rather use a materialist basis that says, “These practices are non-gender-normative for their time period. These practices are indicative of homoeroticism. These practices are indicative of queerness.”
“Queerness,” for me, functions a little differently from the rest of these words. The reason I use “queer” historically, as opposed to “lesbian” or “gay” or “bisexual” or “trans,” is that “queer” doesn’t conjure up a specific typology of sexual or gender identity. Instead, “queer” indexes your sexual identity or gender identity in the hierarchy of your time period. So a “queer” person is one who is marginalized because of their gender or sexual identity. It’s the marginalization that is the through line—the marginalization based on sex, based on the body, based on erotics.
NGL: What I’m interested in, as a queer person myself, is finding points of connection historically: Knowing that someone almost a century ago had a similar feeling to me, even if they would have described it in different words, is really moving. I’m way more interested in those connections than I am in litigating what it would have been called.
HR: I always go back to the 19th-century “invert” model. The concept of the invert collapses and condenses our ideas today of being homosexual, being trans, and being intersex. It was assumed it was part of your body. In Victorian times, men were expected to spend all their time with men, express their love for other men, sleep in the same bed, etc. The same was true for women. All of these homosocial behaviors made homosexuality invisible, both to the world and to homosexuals themselves, largely. They understood that some people might be receptive or not. But they didn’t think of themselves as a different kind of person.
But inverts were a whole other class. An invert in today’s time might identify as an effeminate gay man, or they might identify as a trans woman. Those are two groups that we think of today as being in different categories and which have different concerns. But we go back to the 19th century, and that was one group with one set of concerns. This bright line of “sexual orientation” that we think is the primary indicator of desire didn’t matter all that much back then.
That’s a different world, and that’s powerful: It says that the whole world could be different in fundamental ways. I’m not looking back on the past and saying, “These fucking idiots, they didn’t understand what sexual orientation was—they were actually gay!” Instead I’m saying, “Here are the concepts you lived in the world with; here’s how you organized yourself.” It’s a different model. It’s not wrong or right; it’s just different.
Instead of flat containers, I’m more interested in pathways. I think that a lot of the folks who might fit inside the circle of “gay,” for instance, are traveling on different paths. The behavior that our culture thinks matters is the same, but why it is being expressed, how we arrived at this state, how we think about the world—that’s different for different groups inside this gay umbrella. The more we can allow ourselves to imagine that to be true for people in the past, the more we can start to imagine it for ourselves as well.
NGL: The point is not to collapse difference, obviously. It’s just to say that identity is specific to our time, to our culture. Even the very idea of personal identity is really a modern concept.
HR: We’ve gotten very confused, I think, where we think identity is real. Like, it’s not real, but it’s true. It’s like saying, “I’m a Democrat.” There’s not a thing in nature that we can point to that is called a “Democrat.” And you and I might use that word and mean totally different things. It’s a useful organizing principle and allows us to see certain things the same way from a distance. But you get up close, and it’s very different for everyone inside that container.
I think we need to allow ourselves more thinking that way around gender and sexual orientation. But we’re so caught up in this [notion of] “I’m born this way. You have to give me rights, because I couldn’t be something better.” Which makes me want to vomit. I don’t care if you were born this way or if you chose to be this way—it’s your right to be this way. It should not be this biological essentialism. But we are very essentialist about identities, and we police the boundaries of them. Because our rights are based on saying, “I was born like this. I have no choice.” And I just don’t find that kind of thinking to be very helpful.
NGL: Tell me about something that surprised you in your writing of the book.
HR: One thing that was flooring for me was to see how closely interconnected the Black Panther Party and the Gay Liberation Front were through specifically the House of D. Not just the larger, general organizational connections, but Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird being there on the night of Stonewall. The Gay Liberation Front being founded to support the Black Panthers, who were in the prison at that moment. The fact that the Gay Liberation Front’s first protest was outside the prison. We never talk about that!
When Huey P. Newton got out of jail and came to New York, he met with reporters in Jane Fonda’s apartment. And Afeni Shakur called the Gay Liberation Front and said, “Send people over here so that we can meet afterwards and talk about our concerns—so that we can work together.” It’s so clear that these folks saw the interconnections between queer oppression, Black oppression, Latino oppression. All of these things flow through the prison-industrial complex, and that was spoken about openly. And that’s why I think groups like the Gay Liberation Front and the Black Panthers had a real vision for transforming society. They weren’t looking at siloed identities; they were looking at the ways in which all of us were being oppressed by these systems.
I kind of knew that, to a degree, or wanted that to be true, to a degree. But I’d also spent years hearing stuff like, “Those ’60s and ’70s liberationists—they matter, but they were dumb and privileged in a lot of ways.” It’s another way in which we don’t empathize with people of the past. We look down on those activists; we judge them by the things that we see them getting wrong. And they were getting those things wrong! We have to learn from those things. But we also need to give them the space to have gotten things right, to have things to teach us. To be full humans who make mistakes and also do some good.