The LGBTQ Policy Center at Roosevelt House is pleased to present a discussion of The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison by Hugh Ryan. This acclaimed and singular history of a prison—and the queer women and trans people who were held there—provides a window into the policing of queerness and radical politics in the 20th century. Ryan will be in conversation with author and scholar Dr. Keesha Middlemass.

A landmark that ushered in the modern era of women’s imprisonment, the Women’s House of Detention is now largely forgotten. But from 1929 to 1974, when it stood in New York City’s Greenwich Village, it became a nexus for the tens of thousands of women, transgender men, and gender-nonconforming people who inhabited its crowded cells—among them public figures including Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, and Afeni Shakur.

In The Women’s House of Detention, historian Hugh Ryan reconstructs the little-known lives of these New Yorkers, the vast majority of whom are shown to have been incarcerated for little more than being poor and, supposedly, improperly feminine. In doing so, he makes a uniquely queer case for prison abolition—and demonstrates that by “queering” the Village, “the House of D” helped define queerness for the rest of America. From the lesbian communities forged at the Women’s House of Detention to the turbulent prison riots that presaged Stonewall, this is the story of one building and much more: the people it imprisoned, the neighborhood it changed, and the resistance it inspired.

According to Kirkus Reviews, The Women’s House of Detention is “part history, part horror story, and part blistering critique of the country’s ‘criminal legal system’…[that] belongs on the shelf with books about judicial-system failures, such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.”

Hugh Ryan (he/him) is a writer, curator, and founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History. His work has appeared in The New York TimesTin House, Buzzfeed, the LA Review of Books, and Out. His first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice in 2019 and a finalist for the Randy Shilts and Lambda Literary Awards. He is a recipient of the Martin Duberman Fellowship at the New York Public Library and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. In addition, he has received honors from the Committee on LGBT History of the American Historical Association and the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Dr. Keesha Middlemass (she/her) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Howard University. She studies the intersection of race, public policy, and marginalized populations. Her work has appeared in The Prison Journal; Punishment & SocietyAggressive Behavior; and Criminal Justice & Behavior. Author of Convicted & Condemned: The Politics and Policies of Prisoner Reentry, Dr. Middlemass is a member of the Racial Democracy, Crime, and Justice Network at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice; a former Andrew Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice; and is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

This event is co-sponsored by the CUNY LGBTQ Advisory Council and it is made possible by the generous support of the New York City Council.

Hugh Ryan — The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison | Posted on May 16th, 2022 | Book Discussions, LGBTQ Center Program