The quick-witted Hugh Ryan has a nose for history, as demonstrated in his book When Brooklyn Was Queer. His latest The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison mines little-known historical sources to point out how a large and vocal population of queer-identified and trans people passed through the old cement monstrosity that used to stand next to today’s Jefferson Market Library in Manhattan‘s Greenwich Village.
Now a community garden, the site is a shout away from the Stonewall Inn, and Ryan writes the story of some of those imprisoned voices left out of the customary tales of the riot. In fact, prisoners set fire to their bedclothes and tossed them from the barred windows overlooking 6th Ave chanting “gay rights, gay rights gay rights.” Even before Stonewall’s impassioned response to police exploitation of gay bars, House of D. queer women, transmasculine people and other women were rioting for their rights in the jail.
Nearby lesbian bars such as the Duchess and its counterparts held parties for women being released, according to Joan Nestle, founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. She wrote that the House of D was a constant “Presence in our lives, — a warning, a beacon, a reminder, and a moment of community.” Ryan has ransacked Herstory to amplify his account of life at the jail in the words of the incarcerated. He suggests that “The House of D helped make Greenwich Village queer and the Village, in return helped define queerness for America….particularly for working -class women and transmasculine people.”
Old Abolitionists and Modern Social Workers
Ryan also searched over 100 boxes of records of the Women’s Prison Association, an old school benevolent organization founded by Quaker abolitionist Abigail Hopper Gibbons and her father in 1853. In the 20th century, the WPA proved somewhat sympathetic to some of the jailed women who openly loved other women. Their social workers sometimes narrated love stories in their case files.
Ryan has drawn moving details from these documents to humanize the bureaucratic story of incarceration and the criminal injustice system. For example, the WPA records give glimpses of the love story of Charlotte accused of prostitution and Virginia convicted of manslaughter in a bank robbery. This romantic duo plotted an escape via knotted bed sheets. Elaine and the Countess, a female impersonator met in Chicago. Elaine made money as a sex worker and got swept up in the corrupt court system criminalizing prostitution in the 1930s. When the WPA helped Elaine she told them how much she loved to go in drag as a man. Later on the WPA shared poems Elaine had written to show what talent she had – actually imagining her human potential instead of reducing her to a criminal record.
By the 1930s the purity movements of the 19th century had been revamped into Social Hygiene campaigns. Staffed with social hygienists and volunteers,as often as police, programs to halt the spread of STDs massively violated women’s rights by practicing preventative detention on (often unverified) accusations of being VD carriers and prostitutes.
Terrible conditions in the jail, (which remember was originally supposed to be for pre-trial detention – your 7th grade civics class taught you that the American justice system operates on a presumption of “innocent until proven guilty”) started immediately. Overcrowding, vermin, lack of recreation facilities, and terrible food were the norm. The admission physical itself bordered on an assault back in the day.
Jay Toole, an ex-incarcerated activist who leads Greenwich Village history tours, recalls that after her exam “I couldn’t move, the pain was so bad, I don’t know what he did up in there… When I looked down I was covered in blood you know? And they didn’t do nothing.” Prison administration left drug addicts to scream and thrash in untreated withdrawals. Only a few gained psychological services.
This wonderfully written, wonderful book has a deeply humanistic approach to a striking history. As Ryan writes “We starve our systems of care while we feed the beast of incarceration.” LGBTQIA people have greatly suffered from that burden.
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