AUGUST 16, 2022
WHEN HUGH RYAN was working on his first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer (St. Martins Press, 2019), an exploration of New York LGBTQ social history from Whitman to World War II, he began to understand prisons as central to the story of that era. One prison in particular, the Women’s House of Detention, kept popping up again and again, not just as a source of information about specific individuals but as an underclass social network that generated community and identity.
The House of D, as the prison was called by its itinerant residents and Ryan, was established in late 1929, right at the time of the stock market crash that would trigger the decade-long Great Depression, and was finally shuttered in 1971. Located in what is today the Jefferson Market Library at the end of Christopher Street, the main drag of New York’s famously and historically queer Greenwich Village neighborhood, the House of D was a communal hub for the marginalized women who passed in and out of its doors, often imprisoned there for no other reason than that they were Black, poor, queer.
These women include bold-type names like Angela Davis and Afeni Shakur, but also lesser-known folks like Mabel Hampton, Charlotte B., Virginia M., and Jay Toole, the queer activist whose intimate knowledge of the House of D provided Ryan his first impressions of what the prison meant to the people whose stories it held. It is in these stories and others that Ryan brings this queer carceral history to life, illuminating not only the lives that might otherwise have been lost to us, but also a simultaneous vision of the horrific nature of our criminal justice system and an empowering story of queer survival and community that is urgent at a time when our country and culture appear poised to crush the rights people of color, women, and queers have struggled for centuries to ensure.
I recently spoke to Ryan from his home in Brooklyn. Seated at his desk, in front of a towering bookshelf and framed letters, photographs, and other collector’s scraps, Ryan speaks in a fluid and animated rush, following my questions down multiple avenues of context, relation, and argument. That’s what queer historians do: connect carefully gathered data points to tell us the story of a past to which we have mostly glancing material contact. Our conversation spans the scope and substance of that work, moving from questions of archival bias and the ethics of doing queer history to how writing The Women’s House of Detention changed Ryan’s perception of the prison system, and how queer histories offer a vital resource for the present, both as a connection to history and a model for a radical politics to come.
ERIC NEWMAN: Where was this history archived and who was doing the archiving?
HUGH RYAN: Figuring out where this history was archived was difficult. I didn’t want to tell the story from the point of view of the prison, with the folks who are incarcerated simply existing as criminals and fungible numbers. This is always a challenge with a project that looks at incarcerated folks historically — it’s hard to get their own words, to get their stories from their perspective. But if I couldn’t find their stories in that way, I didn’t want to write this book.
I tried the easy places first: LGBTQ periodicals and the meeting notes from the early homophile organizations, like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, in the notes and correspondence of famous LGBTQ figures, as well as people who were not famous but had their stuff archived in places like the New York Public Library and the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
But those didn’t get me that far. So, I had to think about how you end up in an archive, and it’s really one of two ways, generally. You either have the power to have your story preserved on your own terms: you’re famous and people want to interview you while you’re alive, you publish books about your experiences, you own a home where your belongings are saved, you have descendants who want to hold onto your things, etc. The other way you enter the historical record is that someone has power over you and you become the raw material for their entry into the historical record. You could be arrested just for being queer, you could find out that you’re queer while you’re in jail, and people with that experience would be material for social workers writing about prisons. When I made that connection, that’s how I hit on the records of the Women’s Prison Association.
You note in the book that the WPA archives are biased, that they’re shot through with a spectrum of agendas that shape their encounters with the queer women who were their subjects, as well as the stories they told about those women. How did you navigate those limitations?
Archives are always biased. We often assume that they are a kind of neutral record, but people enter into them as subjects on terms that are often not their own. With the WPA, each social worker had a slightly different focus that was baked into their records and the reasons why certain incarcerated folks became their focus. There’s one social worker in particular who was incredibly useful to me because she was a bit of an outlier. Her files were much more accepting and knowledgeable about queer identity and experience. She wanted to help these people to be queer, not to “correct” them. So folks responded better to her and she was able to have more in-depth conversations about queer experiences, and recorded those conversations in her files.
You tell the stories of so many individuals in The Women’s House of Detention — revisiting names we already know and illuminating the lives of those we might never otherwise have known. What were the stories that surprised, touched, or challenged you the most as you were working on the book?
The ones that surprised me the most were those that felt like outliers. Like the story of Honora, a Black upper-middle-class woman in the 1950s who had been dating other women since she was 13, and had a supportive family and a butch girlfriend she’d been with for years. The social workers are sort of afraid of her almost. They don’t want to offend her. They don’t want to push her on homosexuality, uh, because she is this figure who is beautiful, educated, cultured, experienced, and very knowledgeable about sexuality. She was willing to push back.
Some of the other stories that really surprised me are the stories of women talking about being attracted to trans women before there’s really language for that. You don’t expect that, in the 1930s, a 19-year-old girl would be trying to explain to her social worker that she had read all of these famous 19th-century sexologists and that she dates certain homosexual men whom she uses female pronouns for.
What really makes those documents sing is that it’s not done in a way — like in some television programs or film — where it feels like, oh, we’re just taking our modern queer selves and putting them in period drag. No, these are real people articulating experiences and identities that allow us to see the roots of our experiences in the past. That is exciting and surprising — to see that far from being modern inventions, intersectionality and the vast range of queer experience has always been there. It’s just named in different ways.
Given that these subjects don’t have access to modern identity labels like “gay” or “lesbian” or “transgender” in the ways we understand those terms today, how do you approach the work of telling their stories as a historian of a rather slippery identity?
I always say that my history is materialist, not identitarian. I think that identity is actually a really bad ground from which to try to do historical work. You can never go back to a historical figure and be 100 percent certain that their identity is how we today think of their identity. It’s also too easy to say, “Well, if they just had access to my language, then they would identify how I would identify them.” Historical figures are always more complicated than that.
What I can say is that this person is defying the gender norms of their day (and maybe ours). I can say that there is same-sex attraction. This is why I love and use the word “queer,” because it provides this big sort of umbrella for lots of different things. It doesn’t call up a specific idea, like a lesbian woman or a trans man. “Queer” gets us around that comparative specificity, but it also functions differently to capture a broad range of behaviors, experiences, and self-understanding. So for me, that’s why, ethically speaking, I use queer as a broad brush that does not project a specific identity onto those people like lesbian or trans man, but does suggest the continuity that I find in them as ancestors.
What about the ethics of outing someone in the archive? Of revealing something about someone that they may not have wanted revealed?
My personal take on this as a queer historian is that once you are dead, we do not owe you your closet. We should be respectful, of course. You are a real person and we are not here to trash you or use you to score political points. We are here to learn from you. And we can only learn from you in your fullness. And if we pass on information that is partial because we are afraid that it was something you were ashamed of, we are reinflicting your damage down the line. We are not doing the work we need to be doing. And I am not okay with that.
There are moments where, yes, there might be survivors or children for whom that revelation about a family member can be problematic. And we might want to talk to those people in advance. We do need to consider the living subject, but I don’t think the dead deserve that kind of consideration so long as the focus is on meeting them respectfully, giving the fullest picture possible of their life, trying to understand how they saw the world and communicate that as fully and accurately as possible.
Incarceration is a whole other issue, though. A whole different set of secrets. I tried to deal with that very carefully. For women and trans men whose stories were largely public, in the sense that they existed in newspapers, etc., I would use their name. But for folks who I largely learned about through social worker files, folks who never had the option to come forward with their stories, I mostly referred to them by their first name, in an effort to be respectful.
How did your research and writing in this book change your view of the prison system and queer politics?
Hugely. A few years ago, I would probably have described prisons as broken. I don’t know if I would have told you I was a reformist or an abolitionist. I don’t think I had thought that closely about it. But doing this research has shown me that, whether we’re in liberal or illiberal times, whether the jail is overcrowded or under-full, whether it is in New York or out of the city, whether you’re white or Black or straight or gay, innocent or guilty — the prison experience is consistently always bad, always terrible.
And reform isn’t changing that. In fact, reform almost always leads to bigger prisons and more cages. Eventually the impetus behind the reform sweeps away, and then the conditions have not changed. We still have this place where we put people who we already think are bad and then we hide that place. How is that ever going to work?
I started to read all of these abolitionists. Angela Davis, Ruth Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Andrea Ritchie, and others. I began to see the ways in which the prison system isn’t broken. It is, in fact, uniquely efficient and has been doing the same thing for generations, which is to be a catch basin for all the problems and people that our society simply doesn’t want to address. A prison is a drain, and until we fix the problems in our society, that drain will always have to exist, no matter what reforms you do. We need an abolition movement because what the system is for is the problem.
For a lot of abolitionists the answer is care. Care is a really operative ground on which to build queer politics because we live in a society that sees care as largely coming from the nuclear family, which we all know isn’t often a sustainable or supportive resource for queer folks. For me, that need for care really connects queer politics with abolition. If, instead of prisons, we had systems that care for the very people who end up in the carceral system, we could prevent harm and improve so many more lives than the prison ever will. And that’s simply because the prison is not meant to improve lives; it’s meant to arrest and forget them.
What can queer history, of the sort you pursue in When Brooklyn Was Queer and The Women’s House of Detention, help us see in the present and imagine for the future?
There’s a tremendous interest in queer history right now from queer people and from nonqueer people. Young people are particularly interested in queer history. But there are two problems. One, they’re not necessarily interested in books. I think that we just have much shorter attention spans, and queer history is one of those subjects in which the shortened versions, like on TikTok or Instagram or in memes, tend to be really crappy. And the less your history is known, the easier it is to pervert it or distort it or destroy it. At the same time, the internet has made it possible to share queer history so much more widely. It just has to be done right.
I came to queer history because I grew up not seeing any reflection of myself in the world. I came out before I knew any out gay people. I had some cousins who everybody knew was gay, but they didn’t quite say it. I had a teacher here who everybody knew was gay, but nobody said it. There was an occasional character in a movie or something like that, but they probably died in the end.
I came looking for images of myself. And it was very easy, at first, to think I had found them. But the great thing about queer history is that when you go back further and further, when you get to the early 1900s or the 1800s, you start to see how different those people were — not just how they lived differently, but how they understood themselves differently, how being queer was different for each of them. We can’t even talk about heterosexuality at that time because they did not see a world in which men’s sexuality and women’s sexuality were the same. In that sense, there are no straight people in the 19th century, just as there aren’t gay people in the 19th century. And those different ideas around sexual identity enabled folks to have all kinds of romantic, sexual, and other intimate relationships that, to our modern eyes, sometimes might look like hetero- or homosexuality, but functioned or were understood very differently. That is incredibly powerful. When I look back on a hundred years ago and see how folks were living differently then, it enables me to see a future for us that is different too.
And we need to imagine new futures. We need to be able to imagine a future without prison. We need to be able to imagine a future without divisions between gay people and trans people. We need to imagine things that are far beyond what we have been doing up until this point, because what we have been doing is cracking us and our world apart. When abolitionists say abolition is the floor, not the ceiling, that’s what they’re talking about. The more you dig into how sexuality and gender have changed over the decades, the more it enables us to imagine a different future. And right now, I think we need to be able to imagine some pretty radically different futures.
Author photo by M. Sharkey.