Hugh Ryan Book Explores Intersection of NYC’s Queer and Carceral Histories


Author Hugh Ryan shared insights from his latest book, The Women’s House of Detention, which delves into LGBTQ history and the dramatic story of a now-shuttered women’s prison in New York City, as part of Brooklyn Law School’s Book Talk series.

“When I first started researching queer history, over and over again the trail led me back to prisons, as places of confinement, as places of community, and as vast unexplored archives of LGBTQ history,” said historian and curator Hugh Ryan, during an in-person Sept. 19 book talk, at Brooklyn Law School’s Subotnick Center, attended by more than 100 people. It was moderated by Kate Mogulescu, Associate Professor of Clinical Law, with participation by Assistant Professor of Law Alexis Hoag-Fordjour and Professor Jocelyn Simonson, the three co-directors of the Center for Criminal Justice, which sponsored the event.

Following that trail, in the wake of his award-winning first book When Brooklyn Was Queer, led Ryan to one infamous women’s prison in New York’s Greenwich Village. The so-called “House of D” was filled with stories of the thousands of women, transgender, and gender non-conforming people incarcerated there and subjected to neglect and brutal treatment during its existence from 1929 to 1974.

Ryan’s extensive research culminated in his newly released book, The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison. In his talk, Ryan shared many of the stories with the Brooklyn Law School community, bringing to life not only how the law served to warehouse women and trans men who didn’t conform to society’s repressive norms, but also how the House of D played a significant role in the Village neighborhood that became a rallying point for the city’s queer community, and of the resistance that it witnessed.

In the early days, said Ryan, women were arrested and given indeterminate sentences simply for wearing pants, appearing “too masculine,” or for the crime of “common lewdness.” Some prisoners were made to wear the letter “D” for “degenerate” on their uniforms. They were subject to overcrowding, invasive procedures, and received little medical care. Yet amid the inhumane treatment, these women, the majority of whom were impoverished, supported one another.

Among the population were also more famous names. In the 1950s, political prisoners such as Ethel Rosenberg and Communist Party leader Betty Gannett served time in the House of D. And in the 1960s and early ’70s, imprisoned activists like Black Panthers Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird helped forge mutual support with the Gay Liberation Front. From cells that were just 500 feet from the Stonewall Inn, during the 1969 uprising, prisoners launched their own riot, setting fires and chanting “Gay rights!”

Shuttered in 1974, following investigations of cruelty, the House of Detention has a history that’s all but been erased, said Ryan. In bringing it to light, he added, he hopes it will open the door to a past that still shadows the present. “At least one third of incarcerated women today are queer,” Ryan said. “Yet there’s almost no conversation about this crisis of incarceration today and about this part of the queer community.”

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