A portrait of Hugh Ryan

NYC-based Historian Hugh Ryan ’00 Brings LGBTQ+ Stories to Life

His latest book, The Women’s House of Detention, delves into a notorious 20th-century prison in Greenwich Village

By Linda Copman

In 1933, an 18-year-old named Charlotte was arrested in Manhattan and charged with being a “wayward minor” and chronic runaway. She’d spent the past three years hitchhiking across the country—and, most damningly in the eyes of the authorities, had persuaded other girls to hit the road with her.

So she was sent to the Women’s House of Detention, a massive prison in Greenwich Village that had opened two years earlier. Shortly after arriving at the 11-story, Art Deco-style facility—nicknamed the House of D—Charlotte fell in love with another inmate, and the pair tried unsuccessfully to escape using a rope made from bedsheets.

Charlotte spent the next several years coming to terms with her sexuality. As she ultimately observed: “I guess I tried to push something aside that can’t be pushed aside.”

Historian Hugh Ryan ’00 chronicles Charlotte’s story, along with those of other prisoners, in his recent book The Women’s House of Detention, which explores how the House of D influenced Village culture and contributed to its status as a queer mecca.

Among his sources were the files of social workers who interacted with Charlotte and her fellow inmates. “Through their files, we can see how the lives of these women were changed by the prison,” he writes, “and how these women in turn changed life in Greenwich Village.”

The cover of "when brooklyn was queer"

Based in NYC, Ryan focuses his work on LGBTQ+ topics. His first book, 2019’s When Brooklyn Was Queer—which Publishers Weekly praised as an “evocative and nostalgic love song to the borough”—documented what Ryan, himself a gay man, calls an important aspect of the city’s past that had largely gone unacknowledged.

“For so long, historical work has been written about us, or by us, but not for us,” he observes. “I want us to have ancestors, and to love them.”

In 2010, Ryan founded the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, which works with local groups to curate shows highlighting their communities’ stories and culture.

“I wondered what it would be like for us to be in charge,” Ryan says of his motivation, “in a queer museum, built by queer people, with exhibits on queer topics, in a queer space.”

In Ryan’s view, such projects can have vital impact—and historical tales can resonate powerfully today. He points to the recent spate of state laws directed at trans people as evidence of the urgent need to bring LGBTQ+ stories to life.

For so long, historical work has been written about us, or by us, but not for us.

“Legal attacks combined with dehumanizing rhetoric are the tools of fascism and genocide,” he says. “We need to protect the needs of the most vulnerable people in our communities.”

A women’s studies major on the Hill, Ryan helped launch Direct Action to Stop Homophobia (DASH), a campus organization that advocated for LGBTQ+ rights.

Active off and on from 1999 to 2006, DASH focused on political organizing and protests in collaboration with other student activist groups. After graduation, he spent two years as the manager of Cornell’s LGBT Resource Center.

A photo of a puppet show
Pop-Up Museum events have included 2012’s Degrees of Separation: A Queer Oral Herstory (As Told by Separatist Puppets) in NYC. (Photo provided)

Ryan is currently at work on his next book, a history of NYC’s Lower East Side as a hub for artistic, social, and political experimentation.

He also teaches writing, collaborates with the city’s Department of Education to produce LGBTQ+ curricular content, and serves on the board of advisers for the archives of the LGBT Center in Manhattan and the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale.

Lessons from a bygone landmark

In The Women’s House of Detention, Ryan delves into both the Village’s LGBTQ+ history and the roots of the modern carcel state, which disproportionally impacts those who are economically disadvantaged, queer, and/or from communities of color.

The cover of "The Women's House of Detention"

As he observed in a May 2022 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, the House of D was located just 500 feet from the Stonewall Inn, the bar where a 1969 uprising launched the modern gay rights movement.

“On the first night of the riots, people incarcerated in the prison could actually see what was happening out their windows,” he told host Terry Gross. “And they started a riot all their own, setting fire to their belongings and throwing them down to the streets below while chanting, ‘Gay rights! Gay rights! Gay rights!’”

No one knows for sure how many queer prisoners were held at the House of D, which operated from 1931 to 1972.

Ryan refers to modern-day statistics to build a strong case that many inmates were queer or transmasculine, noting that about 40% of people in women’s prisons and in youth detention for girls identify as LBTQ+.

“It’s a crisis of incarceration we almost never discuss,” Ryan says, “and it’s horrifying.”

The inmates in the House of D served time for a variety of crimes and transgressions, real or imagined—from smoking, wearing pants, and disobeying their parents to prostitution, larceny, attempted suicide, and drug addiction.

Ryan approaches his subjects with empathy, trying to imagine what their lives were like during such a homophobic era.

A man in a wedding gown in a tunnel, viewed from the rear
A performance piece honoring the life of a famed Coney Island “bearded lady” was part of a Pop-Up Museum installation in Brooklyn in 2013. (Photo provided)

“Ryan’s narrative is part history, part horror story, and part blistering critique of the country’s ‘criminal legal system’ (a term he sees as more accurate than ‘criminal justice system’),” Kirkus says in a review, adding: “While his narrative has strong LGBTQ+ interest, it also belongs on the shelf with books about judicial-system failures.”

As Ryan observes in his epilogue, the Village and its queer culture had been well studied before he began his research—so he could have wrongly assumed that there were few new tales to be told.

“When we refract all of queer American history through a single bar [Stonewall], which mostly catered to white cis men, it’s not surprising that the stories of queer women, trans men, and people of color get lost, glossed over, and ignored,” Ryan writes. “For my entire life, I have been trying to see clearer, to listen closer, to let go of what I know so I can learn what I don’t.”

Top image: Photo by M. Sharkey

Published July 12, 2022


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