In New York in the 20th century, tens of thousands women and trans-male people were incarcerated in the so-called House of D, a brutal women’s prison that opened in Greenwich Village in 1932. Author Hugh Ryan says that in many cases prisoners were accused of crimes related to gender non-conforming behavior.
“Drunkenness, bewilderment, disobeying parents, going out alone at night, wearing pants, accepting a date with a man, accepting a ride from a man,” Ryan says. “All of those things could have gotten you arrested if you were seen as the ‘wrong kind of woman’.”
In his new book, The Women’s Detention House: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison, Ryan writes about prison and the role it played in the gay rights movement of the 1960s, including the Stonewall uprising of 1969.
“D’s house [was] 500 feet from the Stonewall Inn,” Ryan says. “On the first night of the riots, those incarcerated in the prison could actually see what was happening through their windows, and they started a riot on their own, setting fire to their belongings and throwing them into the streets below chanting “Gay rights!” Gay rights! Gay rights!'”
In the 1950s and 60s, Ryan estimates, “about 75% of the people incarcerated at the House of D were queer in some way.” In the 1960s, the prison began labeling gay prisoners with a “D” for “degenerate” and placing them in solitary confinement because they were considered a “danger to other women.”
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In 1965, 18-year-old Andrea Dworkin arrived at House D after being arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. Upon her release, Dworkin, who was white and middle-class, spoke of the violent and dehumanizing pelvic exam she underwent upon admission. Suddenly, says Ryan, conditions at the prison became a “flashpoint” for city and state government, and the House of D was finally closed in 1972.
“The decision to get rid of the House of D and move the women to Rikers basically starts there,” he says, referring to New York’s main prison complex. “It’s going to happen because of what happened to Andrea Dworkin, but underneath is a baseline of what’s happening to so many other trans women and men whose stories have been told but largely forgotten or ignored or dismissed.”
On the ways prison is used to control non-white males
I have constantly been shocked at how our justice system for women is simply unfair and different from the one we have for men. The incarceration of women is a different situation. It’s not about crimes against people like violence, or crimes against property like theft. It is a matter of social control. And in fact, the origins of our prison system for women date back to the 1870s, just after the Civil War. At the same time, the census asks for the first time questions on the employment of women. If you go back to that moment, that moment in the 1870s, what we see is that a system that was primarily intended to punish the violent and antisocial acts of white men is being repurposed for the social control of black people of all genders and women of all races and all those things that weren’t considered crimes or were considered to result in a fine or citation suddenly become vectors of incarceration when applied to black people and women .
On the detention center’s goal of reinforcing female gender norms
From the moment we have these women’s autonomous institutions, they focus on this idea of creating genuine female subjects. And that’s a moral imperative, but it’s also economic. At that time, it was thought that there were really only two roles a woman could have that would lift her out of poverty: to be a wife or to be a maid. Both of these things required you to be properly feminized.
So the prison system, understanding that women were often arrested because they were poor, tries to turn them into “correct” women, who will not be arrested because they will be poor because they will be able to have these jobs and that they will be good people. .
For men, prisons are trying to make you a good citizen. But for women, prison is trying to make you a good woman – and that’s a very different thing. And that’s why so many gender nonconformities people, why are so many queer women, lesbians, butches, studs, trans men caught up in the prison system, because for those who care about the lives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, the homosexuality was seen as a threat to always being a normal, healthy, happy and productive member of society.
On Arresting Women and Gender Nonconforming People for Their Clothing
This law actually dates back to the mid-1800s. It’s…still in the books and it’s still in use. It originally criminalized people who wore costumes to protest tax collectors – upstate farmers, primarily. By the late 1800s, he was starting to get used to targeting gay people, especially those who were not gender-conforming in one way or another. The law says it’s only illegal to wear a “costume” if you’re committing another crime. … But that is not how the law applies. In the 20th century, we’re used to targeting gay people, trans women, lesbians, trans men, anyone who dresses “incorrectly” for their gender. The law is not only used then, but during Occupy Wall Street. It is the law that is used to arrest protesters for wearing masks or other costumes during a demonstration.
On women and homosexuals imprisoned for “misguidance”
The first straying laws in New York State began in the 1880s and applied only to girls and women, originally those arrested for prostitution, then expanded significantly to the late 1800s to women who might become prostitutes. And that’s where they’re really in danger, isn’t it? Because suddenly the accusation of prostitution has nothing to do with sex work or the exchange of sex for money. Instead, a temperamental girl is anyone who was thought to be unduly feminine to the point where they are invited into prostitution. Either she’s too sexual or she’s too masculine and unable to get any other kind of job. So of course, she will end up prostituting herself.
The bewilderment could be brought against you by the police, but also your parents could have you imprisoned for bewilderment without ever being judged. The law was not applied to men and boys until the 1920s. Women were largely subjected to the straying laws because they were seen as a threat to men. In the eyes of the law, sexually active women, who could be prostitutes, are likely to spread sexually transmitted infections. And so the law of misguidance is used again and again to target all kinds of women. Women who answer to their parents, many runaways are targeted by wandering laws, anyone who skips school, perhaps, or anyone who shows signs of being a disobedient female or male.
On House of D’s role in Greenwich Village becoming a gay capital of New York
One of the big ways is that so many queer women and trans men were being arrested every year in the city and brought to this place where they would be tried, where they would be detained, where they would go for health checks, where they would get fingerprints. Greenwich Village became a hub for queer women and trans men because the government kept bringing them there, especially during… the 1950s, when the government raided bars, shut down private drag shows and arrested people for dressing the wrong sex on the street. When everything else is suppressed, House D cannot be suppressed, because it is the government itself that chains homosexuals there.
On unnecessary and painful gynecological examinations in prison
There are all these forced genital exams every time you go in and out of prison. And sometimes these are performed by men who would ask these really uncomfortable, really rude questions about virginity and who [the prisoners] slept with. … The gynecological examinations in the prison had several purposes. First, there was a thing called “The American Plan”, which checked if arrested women had an STI so that she was detained until she was forcibly cured. And then they also checked all kinds of contraband entering the prison: drugs, weapons. In the 1950s, after a riot, I think in 1958, a new director comes in and he does a study on these pelvic exams and these genital searches and these forced enemas, and he notes that no contraband was ever found. Twenty years of these useless and violent searches that the women had been protesting since the opening of the prison, and they had never found anything. And these searches are still carried out today on people in women’s prisons.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.