"I needed to read against their conclusions; to see through them to alternate possibilities."

Hugh Ryan on researching Greenwich Village's House of Detention as site of Queer History

The WPA Mural that was painted on the wall of The House of Detention in Greenwich Village

I read When Brooklyn Was Queer all in a rush, excited by the many strands of New York City history being woven together to tell the queer history of the borough. I was in awe of historian Hugh Ryan’s work and his ability to connect the stories of people across race, class and social lines to attempt to map the varied and messy terrain that makes up queer history. I also have enjoyed listening to the talks and presentations Ryan has made on his historical research-he’s a passionate speaker, able to break down complicated history and make it sound like stories about people you may know.

So I was very excited when he agreed to talk with me about his latest research on the history of the House of Detention in Greenwich Village—a women’s prison in lower Manhattan that existed as a site of imprisonment in various forms for nearly 200 years. Over two centuries, it imprisoned Black Panthers, communists, anti war activists, sex workers, writers, artists, addicts, political leaders and women who loved women. It appears in many books, novels, songs and even a Broadway show. I found it in Audre Lorde’s Zami and in Jessica B,. Harris’s memoir of Black bohemia in the 60s, My Soul Looks Back. Here, Ryan talked to me about his research on the House of Detention and his methods for looking for queerness in the archives.

KG: Can you talk a little bit about your current project, a history of the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village? How does the history of this prison relate to larger stories of queer experiences and liberation?

Hugh Ryan:  I got interested in the Women’s House of Detention as I was working on my first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer. So many stories of queer women and trans masc folks seemed to end at, or pass through, that building, and I was shocked to realize I knew little about it. Then I went on a tour of the West Village with Jay Toole, the co-founder of Queers for Economic Justice, and I heard all about how the House of D dominated the Village from the 1930s to the 1970s, and how folks on the inside held a riot all their own on the first night of Stonewall. Just the fact that there was a monumental, eleven-story prison right at the base of Christopher Street was shocking, let alone the stories of what happened there.

Suddenly, the absence of the prison – not just the physical building, but its absence from history – seemed to be screaming at me. Today, more than 40% of imprisoned folks in women’s detention facilities identify as LGBTQ in some way. How much higher must that percentage have been in the 1950s? What did it mean to have a government sanctioned space that aggregated queer people during the most homophobic time in American history? How could these women and trans folks not have a huge influence on queer history, given the role Greenwich Village has in that same story? How many pioneers and revolutionaries have been erased with the erasure of the prison?

The longer I looked at the House of D, the more it dawned on me that if prisons are the place where we punish those who resist, than the inverse must be true as well: that prisons are places full of resistance. Indeed, from almost the day it opened, the House of D was filled with folks fighting intersectional battles – Black women socialists; white trans men with histories of substance use; butch-femme couples before that language even existed. I found stories of the Gay Liberation Front doing solidarity protests on behalf of the Black Panthers, and Black Panthers teaching GLF members to conceptualize and name their political goals. I read about queer affirming social workers in the 1930s, and violently homophobic psychiatrists in the 1960s. I realized my real work was to find the stories of these individual people, and tell them in a way whereby revelations about prisons and queer history arise from their thoughts, their experiences, their dreams and fears. Instead of studying them, I wanted to restore them to history.

Marginalized communities flourish in the shadows – the neighborhoods no one else wants, the overgrown trails no one else walks down, etc. Prisons are that rare oxymoron: shadowed spaces that are closely documented. Their queer history is right at the surface, we just don’t talk about it - except in porn or comedy.

KG: What sort of archives are available for histories of prisons? What unexpected places have you ended up looking for information?

HR: I started with the most obvious ones – city and state records. Those told me a lot of statistics, but they treat people like fungible bits of data, and you don’t get a lot of life from them. Even for statistical information, they can be pretty  spotty, because prisons are such disparaged spaces, their records aren’t as well kept as they should be. For instance, throughout the entirety of the Great Depression, the Magistrate Courts and the Department of Corrections in NYC didn’t publish any annual reports.

The tricky part was getting at the lived experiences of folks who had been imprisoned at the House of D. I had to triangulate my way to those – knowing that the VAST majority of folks who are imprisoned are poor, I looked for social work organizations that worked with women in New York City. Particularly in the 1920s – 1950s, these organizations kept incredibly robust notes. Since many of them employed women who were (in their own ways) not living up to traditional expectations of womanhood, I found that their notes were much more aware of queer people than I originally expected. However, even these records have giant lacunae, as these organizations were less likely to provide services to people they deemed too old, to people of color, to AFAB people who were too masculine, to any one who admitted to drug use, etc. But they were, at least, a start.

Post-1950, I found that more and more of these people the opportunities to tell their own stories – in tabloid magazines, in memoirs, in political organizing and consciousness raising groups, etc. So my research really shifted, at that point, to looking at community-based organizations, activist and resistance groups, and individual people who spoke about their experiences at the House of D.

The last major aspect of my archival research was to look at the archives of formerly imprisoned people who were considered notable enough to have their own papers saved: Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, Grace Paley, Valerie Solanas, Afeni Shakur, Claudia Davis, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, etc. These, plus a few famous prison administrators (particularly judge and city commissioner Anna Kross, whose papers are at the American Jewish Archives and Smith College), helped me really dig into a small number of very notable stories.

KG: What can sites of imprisonment tell us about the historical record?

HR: Everything! And I’m only sort of joking. Too often, I find that histories of marginalized people are considered only interesting to or for those people. But part of my project in all my historical work is to show that marginalized communities 1) have effects on the entire world, and 2) can be used as the exemplars through which we learn history as a whole.

For instance: in the 1940s, I started to see an uptick in people being arrested for drug use. To answer why that was the case, I had to understand the history of drug law in America, which was deeply tied into race, slavery, foreign relations, tax policy, immigration, and the development of the modern American administrative state as a response to the Great Depression and World War II. Then, I could impart all of that information through the experiences of Florrie, a white Jewish heroin addict who discovered her queer sexuality in prison, and Toni (a Black lesbian) and Big Cliff (a white trans man) who knew they were queer, but learned about drugs in prison.

Studying sites of imprisonment also tells us specifically about these sites themselves. I came into this work as a progressive who believed strongly in the need for prison reform; three years into my research, I’m convinced that abolition is the only way forward. Prisons function somewhere between a catch-all and a pressure valve for every broken system in the country – medical, educational, familial, etc. Prison reform generally takes a malfunctioning, overcrowded prison, and pours some extra resources into it, expanding its footprint or hiring more staff. This relieves the momentary issue, but does not change the fundamental nature of the prison or its place in our social structure. So as soon as the public looks away, it degrades back to a baseline that is at most only marginally better than what it was before – only now the prison is larger and ready to cage more people. It’s an unending cycle that can only be broken by wholesale systemic change, starting with fundamental questions like does imprisonment prevent more social harm than it causes? I think the answer, often, is no.

KG: Your first book When Brooklyn Was Queer was remarkable in that it drew on multiple archives across identities--archives of white upper class Brooklyn; white working class Brooklyn; Black upper class and Black working class Brooklyn; military history and performance history--AND across time. Can you talk a bit about which archives you found most valuable for that project and how you identified them?

HR: I was lucky with When Brooklyn Was Queer, because I didn’t know I was writing a book. I spent years just asking people about queer Brooklyn, which allowed my research to move organically, with no preconceived notions and no “center” around which I was circling. I tracked individual stories to dozens of different sources, from formal ones like the Manuscripts collection at the New York Public Library (which was invaluable), to a private archive of Black vaudeville and performance history owned by a couple in Manhattan. Unlike my current project, where there are perhaps 5-10 central collections I’m building around, there was really no single collection that was more necessary or helpful than any other in my Brooklyn research.

KG: One of my favorite parts of your history was the story of Loop the Loop, a trans woman sex worker of early 20th century Brooklyn who named herself after the roller coaster at Coney Island. How did you find her in the archive? And how did you position her story, knowing that it came to you through the filter of a medical history that necessarily pathologized her life?

HR: I knew sexology was going to be a big part of my book, because these researchers spent a lot of time studying queer people, and they kept good records. But most of them were straight, and the more I looked at their writings, the more I realized that their work wasn’t a good representation of queer life – it was better understood as a record of what upper-class white straight people knew, assumed, or thought about queer people. Given their rigid control over most institutions – particularly educational, medical, and legal ones – the thoughts of these people were an important part of my story. But they were not the heart of it. Rather, I needed to read against their conclusions; to see through them to alternate possibilities.

Loop was studied by one of the nastiest sexologists – a virulent racist named R. W. Shufeldt. So to position her story properly, first I had to understand why he was interested in her, which eventually made me realize how tightly sexology was tied into white supremacy. Shufeldt wanted to protect the white race, and in his eyes, Black people were an external threat to whiteness, while queer people were an internal one. He was interested in presenting Loop as a pathetic failure – stupid, immoral, loveless, broken – because his only interest in queer people was using us as a cudgel by which to more tightly control white heterosexual breeding.

At one point in the article, Shufeldt snidely referred to Loop proclaiming that she had once been pregnant, as a way to show how dumb she was. I found myself trying to imagine that interaction from her point of view, because I knew I couldn’t trust Shufeldt. What if she was lying to him in order to “prove” her womanhood, as a way to get validation from a medical authority – the way countless trans people are still forced to do today to be seen as real? Or what if Loop was making fun of Shufeldt, some stupid doctor who knew so little about “fairies” that he’d believe she had been pregnant? We can’t know the answer because Loop didn’t get to write her side of the story, so bringing up reasonable doubts about Shufeldt’s account was a way to level the power imbalance between them.

KG: Another favorite person of that book was the Black woman lesbian who gave an oral history about all of the fantastic Black women only parties held in Queens and Coney Island. I was astonished, a bit later, to read nearly an identical description of one of those parties in Audre Lorde's. ZAMI. Can you talk about the intersection of oral history and literature in tracing queer histories--especially of place so groups that are elusive in the wider record?

HR: I think oral histories are invaluable to queer history for two main reasons. First, they happen largely on a peer-to-peer basis, without the intercession of larger gatekeeping institutions, which are all too often homophobic or simply too ignorant to capture what matters. Second, the subject of an oral history has much more control over the shape of the final product – they can meander; connect unexpected things; answer questions that the researchers never thought to ask; etc. Unlike articles produced by journalists or social scientists, or records created by prisons and cops, oral histories give us more of the whole life of the person, rather than a narrow focus on the “thing” they are being interviewed about. In this way, oral histories provide more room for stories that have been so hidden researchers don’t even know to ask about them.

KG: During your talk at the NYPL on your research, which is available online you gave the really resonant insight that. queer history is a bit different than other marginalized histories in that by its nature, it isn't passed down, traditionally, through a family structure. It isn't like Black history or Jewish history, which is maintained, policed and transmitted through defined in-groups. It’s passed on through friendships, through word of mouth, through dreaming, almost. (Apologies if this sounds overly romantic). This means, as well, that each generation has to start over, in a way, in building this knowledge and this history. How has this influenced how queer history was written in the past? How has this changed with the advent of the internet and so many online archives? 

HR: I think of queer history as a largely avuncular tradition, passed sideways or diagonally, but rarely horizontally, from ancestor to direct descendent. This makes it harder to find, and means we often come to it later in life, but it also means we value it more, because we have to work for it. This keeps it from ossifying, but also means significant histories can be eradicated or lost more easily, because they are held so loosely.

As well, it means that our base understanding of queer history is only as diverse as our proximate community, so for the many decades where queer history was primarily written by upper and middle class white men, it was easy for them to ignore other queer histories.

With the advent of the internet, and large interest in queer stories, this has – to a degree – set the queer community up for strife, in that so many of us have inherited severely limited histories, to which we are passionately connected, which only receive a tiny amount of attention in the mainstream. For example, if there was more room to discuss and validate the vast queer presence in the liberation movements and riots of the 1960s, I believe we would have fewer fights over who was or was not part of the Stonewall Riots.

KG: What do you make of the proliferation of online archives of queer history? Are there any that you currently use in your research?

HR: This is going to ruin any credibility I’ve gained with readers throughout this interview, but hopefully I’m long-winded enough that most of them don’t get here: Yes! I love online research, and in particular, I employ a rigorous research methodology I called “getting stoned and Googling.” Because queer history is rarely  kept in a singular place, and because the ways we refer to queerness and queer people have shifted so much over time, I spend many hours plugging names, phrases, and dates into archives like Newspapers.com, Ancestry, Fultonhistory.com, JSTOR, the Chicago Defender Archives, etc. in a brute force attempt to find lost stories.

Now, with the pandemic, I also find myself emailing a lot of wonderful, selfless, hard-working research librarians and archivists all around the country, who have been helping me access documents while their institutions are closed. I cannot sing their praises highly enough.