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Before Stonewall: The Women's House of Detention Changed Queer History

Hugh Ryan, historian

Hugh Ryan's crucial new book will change how you think about LGBTQ+ history.

Years before the Stonewall uprising, the Women's House of Detention was an unavoidable fixture of queer life. "It was one of the Village’s most famous landmarks: a meeting place for locals and a must-see site for adventurous tourists," Ryan writes. "And for tens of thousands of arrested women and transmasculine people from every corner of the city, the House of D was a nexus, drawing the threads of their lives together in its dark and fearsome cells."

From 1929 to 1974, the House of Detention permeated life in New York City so thoroughly that it even began appearing in songs and pop culture. In 1960, Jerry Herman, the famed Broadway composer of Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles, wrote a song for his Off-Broadway musical revue Parade! called "Save The Village," originally entitled “Don’t Tear Down the House of Detention." In 1972, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, the Broadway musical by Melvin Van Peebles, known as the godfather of modern Black cinema, featured the song "10th and Greenwich" (the well-known address of the prison). The song is considered the first lesbian love song in Broadway history.

Ryan's new book, aptly titled The Women's House of Detention, is the most thorough collection of pre-Stonewall queer lives I've ever read. Throughout the pages, Ryan takes assumed facts about LGBTQ+ history and flips them on their head. We're taught that Stonewall sparked a revolution that for the first time inspired queer people to feel pride in our sexualities, yet here Ryan's uncovered records — "prisons leave reams and reams of data" — that show an unabashed pride and joy in one's queerness that existed decades before.

And to the Stonewall of it all: The prison was just 500 feet from the Stonewall Inn, and when the riot broke out, the women and transmasculine people held there joined in, setting fire to their belongings and tossing them into the street below. "When I would talk to people about Stonewall, they would tell me, that night on Stonewall, we looked to the prison because we saw the women rioting and chanting, “Gay rights, gay rights, gay rights," Ryan states.

"This is not a secret. It's simply something we have forgotten."

The historian Hugh Ryan joins the LGBTQ&A podcast this week to talk about The Women's House of Detention, how the prison impacted queer lives in ways we're still experiencing today, and why we must think about incarceration as a queer issue. Today, 40 percent of people incarcerated in women's prisons identify as LGBTQ+.

You can listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or read excerpts below.

Jeffrey Masters: Can you talk about how the Women’s House of Detention became a meeting place for locals? That sounds counterintuitive for a prison.
Hugh Ryan: This was both a prison and a jail, which means that it held people who had been sentenced for some kind of arrest, but also people who were on trial and who were there very briefly. So a huge number of women and trans men were coming and going from the prison on a daily basis. That was happening in Greenwich Village where all of these other queer institutions and queer people were. All the way up to the close of the prison, I can find records of queer women saying, "I hung out at the pharmacy across the street to watch who was coming in and out, to see if I knew anyone." Or "When I didn't know what to do with myself and I wanted to meet queer people, I went and I hung out outside the gates of the prison."

It was a meeting place because it was one of the few public institutions for queer women and trans men that could not be shut down by the police because they were the ones creating it. So in a strange counterintuitive way, the fact that it was a site of detention and punishment made it impenetrable to our systems of punishment and detention that would otherwise have shut it down if it were a gay pride center or a lesbian bar or a consciousness-raising session.

JM: Their arrests left paper trails. It's moving to see these early records of queer lives, many of which showed people in the pre-Stonewall era who were not ashamed of their queerness. Is that what you expected to find?
HR: I was not surprised when I read that. What did surprise me, however, and what I really needed to think a lot about is that so many of the prominent early modern queer folks that we recognize, the Frank Kamenys and the Bayard Rustins, the activists who we talk about changing the world for queer people. If you dig into their histories, what you'll read over and over again is, "I went to the bars and that's where I met queer people who taught me that we weren't freaks or disgusting or strange or wrong and I was arrested. And that taught me these things as well."

And yet that idea that there was a preexisting ... before these people who supposedly gave us the idea of queer acceptance, that they are actually learning it from a group of people that we do not recognize because we do not have the individual records, because they were not rich, they were not white, they were not men, they did not have the power to publish their own stories or to bring their cases all the way to the Supreme Court. Those groups of people in community surrounding the Women's House of Detention and inside the Women's House of Detention are the ones who come up with these ideas of their naturalness, their normalness. And it predates the Mattachine Society. It predates the Daughters of Bilitis.

My biggest goal in doing this was to find those stories of the women and transmasculine people who had these lives, who have not been recognized because I knew I could not tell this story without getting close to their own thoughts, their own experiences.

JM: You write that people were arrested for things like smoking, forgery, being homeless, attempting suicide, attempting murder, wearing pants, staying out late, accepting a ride from a man, prostitution, disobedience, being alone on the street, and lesbianism itself.

Because of the arbitrary nature of those crimes, did that translate to there being a lesser stigma around incarceration?
HR: No, there was still definitely a stigma about having been arrested and particularly when that arrest was connected to sexual identity. A lot of these people were butch fem—bar lesbians if they were in the sort of lesbian community at all. And that community was looked down upon. It was stigmatized often. These women would try to hide their arrests because increasingly throughout the 20th century, having been arrested at all would become a mark against your character that would hold you back forever. You could not get certain jobs. You could not get certain teaching licenses. You could not have certain kinds of government assistance. You could not get into certain scholarship programs for school.

So you had to hide parts of your life in order to make it as a person. And that didn't necessarily mean you hid it from other queer people. And we find these communities that are developing around the prison through incarceration, where people are openly talking about it with each other, but certainly, they would try to hide that from any employer.

JM: With the sex work element, there was a self-fulfilling prophecy where they were arresting women for sex work, even when they were not engaging in sex work. Then she was released and unable to get employment and so she had to result to doing sex work
HR: And then you incarcerate her with a whole lot of people who actually are sex workers who can explain the ins and out of the trade to you. We created a system that made these women become sex workers.

The system is also educating people about what it means to be queer. I'm not a person who believes that we are born this way and that we have these internal identities that are the same for all of us and are trans-historical and cannot change over time. I truly believe when you look at the experiences of people in single-sex spaces, whether those are ships, or colleges, or prisons, what have you, what you see over and over again is that there are people who are constitutionally in a sort of way, queer. That they would be trans, or lesbian, or gay almost no matter what, it seems.

But there are also many of us for whom the experience of having other options, of being in other situations can open us to experiences, to emotions. Sexual orientation is not fake, but I don't think we actually understand it correctly. Sexual orientation is a guidepost. It is part of what determines the sex and desire that we have, but it is not the only element of it. For some of us, it is predominant, that our sexual orientation almost exclusively matches our desires and experiences.

But for other people, sexual orientation doesn't have as strong of a hold. You may be oriented in a certain way, but experiences, emotions, other kinds of attachments can affect it — homosociality, as opposed to homosexuality. I think all of these things actually swirl about and determine how we act as individuals. And when we get caught in this binary idea of you either are gay or you aren't gay, we don't really understand the experiences of people who get to, for whatever reason, exist outside of compulsory heterosexuality. Compulsory heterosexuality, being our entire society that is built around the idea that you will end up heterosexual and that there are supports for all kinds of heterosexuality.

JM: Can we talk about what happened the night of Stonewall?
HR: When I would talk to people about Stonewall, they would tell me, that night on Stonewall, we looked to the prison because we saw the women rioting and chanting, “Gay rights, gay rights, gay rights.” And then I found out the prison was 500 feet from the Stonewall Inn, that they could see each other, that Christopher Street dead-ended into the prison, that the Gay Liberation Front was founded in part because they wanted to protest the House of Detention, that 40 percent of people today incarcerated in women's prisons identify as LGBTQ. Over and over again, these data points seemed to tell me that this prison, and prisons generally, were incredibly important to queer history.

So much of this information seems to have just disappeared into a hole when the prison was closed in 1971 and then torn down in 1974. But the first lesbian love song on Broadway, from the show Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which is coming back this year, is centered in the Women's House of Detention. This is not a secret. It's simply something we have forgotten.

JM: One of the biggest revelations in the book for me was the stat about 40 percent of people in women's prisons identifying as LGBTQ: incarceration is a queer issue.
HR: And honestly, I came to this thinking prisons were bad and could be made better. What I understood after looking at this historically, is that prisons are based on a poisoned root, a terrible understanding of justice. They cannot be improved. It brought me to a place of abolition to understand the historical mechanism by which our prisons became what they are today.

And that I think is what is so important for me when I look at that 40 percent statistic, when I look at the prison system: it is not redeemable. Along with bringing me to a place of abolition, this helped me to understand a different idea about what LGBTQ political movements could be, because prisons are largely places where uncared for people, people who are poor, Black, queer, abandoned by their family, mentally ill, chemically addicted, get a minimal service.

The queer movement, I think, should be able to see and focus on this idea of care. That's what connects all of this is people who are uncared for. Thanks to abolitionists like Mariame Kaba, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, like Angela Davis, because of their work, I was able to understand that when we move away from crime as our idea, and we move to harm and care, I could see a queer movement that felt so powerful.

What is it that LGBT seniors without descendants need? Care. What is it queer homeless youth who have been abandoned by their families need? Care. What is it that refugees who are escaping homophobic persecution need? Care. What is it that people with AIDS need from our government and largely do not get? Care. If we reframe the queer political movement as focusing on care for individuals who are largely left outside of the nuclear family and the government as it exists now, which are the only two sources of care we're supposed to depend on, we can see a way for a political movement that is robust and powerful.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Hugh Ryan.

The Women's House of Detention by Hugh Ryan is out now.

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, Roxane Gay, and Jay Toole, who talks about her experience at the Women's House of Detention. You can listen to that here.

New episodes come out every Tuesday.

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