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This forgotten women's prison helped cement Greenwich Village's queer identity

In New York City, in the 20th century, tens of thousands of women and transmasculine people were incarcerated at 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, the prisoners were charged with crimes related to gender-nonconforming behavior.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about a little-known chapter in LGBTQ history that is also an important chapter in the history of incarceration in America. My guest, Hugh Ryan, is the author of the new book "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." The House of D, as it was called, was located in Greenwich Village. The book tells the story of the cycle in which the prison contributed to Greenwich Village becoming a queer bohemian neighborhood, while the neighborhood contributed to the prison having a disproportionately large number of incarcerated lesbian and transmasculine people. In writing the history of the prison, Ryan also describes how women were punished for what was considered at the time to be gender-nonconforming behavior, ranging from being a lesbian or transmasculine man to just wearing pants.

The prison opened in 1931, was shut down in 1972 and was demolished in 1974. Among the last prisoners there were Angela Davis and Afeni Shakur, Tupac Shakur's mother. The prison also figures into the Stonewall uprising and the founding of the Gay Liberation Front.

Hugh Ryan is on the board of advisers for the archives of the LGBT Center in Manhattan and the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale. His previous book is titled "When Brooklyn Was Queer."

Hugh Ryan, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's start with the Stonewall uprising. That's one of the turning points in LGBTQ history. It's considered the start of the modern gay rights movement. Police raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village, and the gay men fought back. And right across the street from Stonewall was the Women's House of Detention, the House of D. So how does the House of D figure into the Stonewall uprising?

HUGH RYAN: In many ways, actually. One of the things that I was really shocked by was to find out that, as you said, the House of D is 500 feet from The Stonewall Inn. On the first night of the riots, people incarcerated in the prison could actually see what was happening out their windows. 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. It's funny how the frame for Stonewall has narrowed so much that these people, who were incarcerated and bravely standing up to guards and officers, have been kind of knocked out of the story entirely. But some people do remember them and do talk about them. The author Rita Mae Brown always points out what happened in the prison that night. Arcus Flynn, who was a member of the Daughters of Bilitis, talks about it in her oral histories.

In all of these ways, we know that women and trans men were in the prison resisting that night, encouraging what was happening on the street. And we also know from folks who were in and out of the prison, like activist Jay Toole, that many of the folks who were rioting on the first night, the second night, the third night of Stonewall were folks who had been incarcerated in that prison or were in danger of being incarcerated there - homeless queer street youth.

GROSS: The majority of the women in the House of Detention in the 1960s were queer. Was that true through most of the history of the prison?

RYAN: It's hard to say exactly because statistics like that just aren't taken. But what we know is that by the '50s and '60s, incarcerated women and sociologists who were studying in the prison started to estimate that around 75% of the people incarcerated in the House of D are queer in some way - 75%. Now, we know from studies being done in the last decade that around 40% of people incarcerated in women's prisons today identify as queer - verbally identify as queer with relationships before they entered prison, right? This has been going on for a long time, but we don't talk about it.

GROSS: What were some of the crimes that women were incarcerated for that wouldn't be considered crimes today?

RYAN: Almost exclusively they were being arrested for what we'd call crimes against public order - so drunkenness, waywardism (ph), disobedience to their parents, being out at night by themselves, wearing pants, accepting a date from a man, accepting a ride from a man. All of these things could have gotten you arrested if you were perceived as the quote-unquote "wrong kind of woman."

GROSS: Wearing pants is a real mystery. Why were women arrested for wearing pants, and what were some of the circumstances? Do you know?

RYAN: Yeah. That law actually dates back to the mid-1800s. It was originally a law around...

GROSS: I'm sorry, there's actually a law?

RYAN: There is indeed. It's called the anti-masquerade law. It's still on the books, and it's still being used. Originally, it criminalized people who dressed in costumes to protest tax collectors - upstate farmers, mostly. In the late 1800s, it starts to get used to target queer people, particularly those who are gender-nonconforming in some way. Now, the law says it is only illegal to dress in a quote-unquote "costume" if you're in the act of committing another crime - right? - if it's a disguise. But that's not how the law gets applied. In the 20th century, it gets used to target gay men, trans women, lesbians, trans men - anyone who dressed, quote-unquote, "incorrectly for their gender." The law not only gets used then, but during Occupy Wall Street, that's the law that gets used to arrest protesters for wearing masks or other costumes while protesting.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned waywardism was considered a crime. What did you have to do to qualify for being wayward and therefore subjected to penalties or incarceration?

RYAN: The first waywardism laws in New York state start in the 1880s, and they only apply to girls and women - originally, ones who were arrested for prostitution and then expanded greatly in the late 1800s to women who might become prostitutes. And that's where they really get into danger - right? - because suddenly, the charge of prostitution has nothing to do with sex work or exchanging sex for money. Instead, a wayward girl is anyone who was thought to be improperly feminine to the point where she has an invitation to prostitution, right? She's either too sexual or she's too masculine and unable to get any other kind of job, so of course she's going to end up being a prostitute. Waywardism could be brought against you by the police, but also your parents could have you incarcerated for waywardism without ever being tried.

The law didn't get applied to men and boys until the 1920s. Women have been vastly subjected to waywardism laws because they were seen as a threat to men. Women who were sexually active, who might be prostitutes, were likely to spread sexually transmissible infections in the eyes of the law. And so the waywardism law gets used over and over again to target all kinds of women - women who speak back to their parents, a lot of runaways get targeted under waywardism laws, anyone who is truant, perhaps, or anyone who shows sign of being a disobedient or masculine woman.

GROSS: There was a period where some of the women had to wear a D for degenerate while they were in prison. When was that, and who had to wear the D?

RYAN: That was in the 1960s. This is an interesting differentiation between men's experiences in prison and women's experiences in prison. In men's prisons, there's often a fairy wing, where folks who we would call effeminate gay men, trans women, and people arrested for specifically gay crimes, like soliciting or obscenity, would be placed. They would be separated away from the rest of the population. And that wasn't anywhere near all the gay people in men's prisons, but it created kind of a different dynamic. This doesn't exist in women's prisons - hardly at all for most of the time they exist. As one incarcerated woman from the House of D told me, there were simply too many of us. They couldn't segregate them out, but they did try sometimes.

In the late '50s and early 1960s, they codified some laws inside the prison, some rules, saying that any incarcerated woman who has a history of homosexuality should be placed in a cell by herself. And all of the guards should be notified to it. And then in the mid-'60s, early '60s, they do start putting D's on outfits of some of these women - generally, the ones who are considered masculine. We might think of them today as butches or studs or trans men. It's hard to know exactly how they understood themselves. But they were considered too masculine and therefore a danger to other women. And they were often put into solitary confinement punishment cells just because they were known to be homosexual.

GROSS: So women were arrested for prostitution but not the men who paid the women, not the johns. And you write that one of the reasons why sex workers were arrested and kept in prison sometimes for, you know, a pretty long time was that they were considered vectors of disease, that they might be spreading syphilis or gonorrhea. And they were often held until they were, quote, "cured." But there really wasn't a cure during part of the prison's history because there weren't antibiotics yet. So the women were considered vectors of disease, but the men weren't? I mean, sometimes it was the men who spread it to the women. And also, if a man caught it from one of the sex workers, then they were a, quote, "vector of disease," as well.

RYAN: The men weren't considered important, right? A lot of this stems from World War I and World War II. 1919 is actually a big year for what's called the American Plan. The American Plan was a nationwide initiative to arrest women and girls who were either sex workers or thought to be in danger of being sex workers in order to prevent disease being spread to members of the military during World War I. They knew that members of the military could be spreading those diseases themselves, but that didn't matter. The idea was to protect them. So the women were the danger, and their health didn't matter either. Many of these women and girls who get arrested are incarcerated for months, sometimes, cumulatively, for years. Many of them were arrested, found to be innocent and still kept in incarceration until they were quote-unquote "cured." And as you said, the cures and the tests for these diseases back then were terrible. Mostly, you were being pumped full of arsenic-related drugs or mercury-related drugs that didn't actually work very well and often made you very sick at the same time.

This institution, the American Plan, continues through the 19-teens (ph), the 1920s, the '30s, the '40s, the '50s, the '60s, some places up until the 1970s. And in a really ironic and dark twist, those drugs that do eventually start to work on gonorrhea and syphilis, the sulfa class of drugs that we developed during World War II, were tested nonconsensually (ph) on incarcerated sex workers at the Women's House of Detention so that they could be used for soldiers in World War II.

GROSS: Were you constantly being shocked when you were doing the research for this book?

RYAN: Oh, absolutely. I think that's actually one of my favorite things about being a historian is that I come into it thinking something is important. I can see the outline of where it should be in our shared memory, but I don't know what I'm going to find. I try to keep that openness so I can follow the tracks as they appear in the records. But constantly, I was shocked to see the way in which our system of justice for women simply is unjust and different from the one we have for men. Women's incarceration is a different situation. It's not about crimes against people, like violence, and it's not about crimes against property, like theft. It's about social control.

GROSS: Well, we need to take a break right here, but we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Ryan, author of the new book "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hugh Ryan, author of the new book "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." That prison, the Women's House of Detention, aka the House of D, was located in Greenwich Village. It was operational from 1929 to '72. And there were a real disproportionate number of lesbian and transmasculine people who were incarcerated there. It's an interesting chapter in the history of incarceration and in the history of gay rights.

So, you know, we were talking about how, in the 1800s - that some of the laws were repurposed for social control of women and Black people. You quote an 1875 annual report from the first stand-alone women's detention center saying that the goal of this detention center was to, quote, "take these incarcerated people and so remold, reconstruct and train them as to be fitted to occupy the position assigned them by God, like wives, mothers and educators of children." Was that the goal of women's prisons early on - to make women more traditionally feminine and teach them how to be wives, mothers and teachers? Or not even teachers - educators of their own children, probably.

RYAN: Absolutely. From the moment we have these stand-alone women's institutions, they are focused on this idea of creating proper feminine subjects. And this is a moral imperative, but it's also economic. In this time period, it was thought that there were really only two roles that a woman could have would get - that would get her out of poverty - being a wife or being a maid. And both of those things required you to be properly feminized. And so the prison system, in an effort, understanding that women were often being arrested because they were poor, tries to remold them into proper women who will not be arrested for being poor because they will be able to have these jobs and they will be good people.

For men, the prisons try to make you a good citizen. But for women, the prison tries to make you a good woman. And that's a very different thing. And that is the reason why so many gender-nonconforming people, why so many queer women, lesbian women, butches, studs, trans men, get caught up in the prison system - because for those people who are concerned about the lives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, queerness was seen as a threat to ever being a normal, healthy, happy, productive member of society.

GROSS: Well, how do you think that the women's prison contributed to Greenwich Village becoming a gay capital in New York?

RYAN: Well, one of the big ways is that so many queer women and trans men were being arrested around the city every year and brought to this one place, where they would be tried, where they would be held, where they would go for health screenings, where they would get fingerprinted. Greenwich Village became a center for queer women and trans men because the government kept bringing them there, particularly during the period of, like, the 1950s, when the government is raiding bars and shutting down private drag shows and arresting people for dressing in the wrong gender on the streets, right? When everything else is being cracked down on, the House of D cannot be cracked down on because it is the government themselves who is concatenating queer people there. And the prison had these windows, so people could yell up and down. So incarcerated women, their lovers would be on the streets yelling up to them. They would live their lives, their queer lives, publicly, where people could see them and attract other people.

In fact, this is something that is true about every gayborhood in America. The folks on the street who perform queer street life are often those who have nowhere else to go. They're folks who are low income, or they're youth. And they bring the vibe of queerness to the neighborhood. And that's been recognized in Greenwich Village in various histories in the 1930s, the 1920s, the '40s, the '50s. Every decade, we know that people talk about the street life in the village being developed by queer, young people, queer people of color, working-class queer people. And why were they there? Well, in part, they were there to go to the bars, right? And in part, they were there because of the bohemian reputation of the neighborhood. And in part, they were there because there were a lot of gay men there. But they were also there because of the prison, because the prison brought them there, because the prison brought their lovers there and because the prison, with its central location in Greenwich Village, soon had a constellation of bars that served queer women opening up all around it. The first lesbian bars in New York opened up in Greenwich Village, not in other gayborhoods - why? - because of the prison.

GROSS: So you referred to how people trying to visit women incarcerated in the House of D would stand outside and yell up to their friend or girlfriend. And there's a song I want to play that's very directly connected to that. And it's a song in a show that was written by Melvin Van Peebles, who's one of the fathers of Black independent cinema. I didn't know about this show before. But there's a song that depicts somebody yelling up to a woman in the prison. And this song is also on the album "Brer Soul." So give us some background for the song before we hear it.

RYAN: Sure. This is a phenomenal song. Melvin Van Peebles is an incredible filmmaker, an incredible musician and an incredible playwright. And in the '60s, he ends up living on a bench for a little while outside the Women's House of Detention. And he sees women calling up to their lovers above. And he gets this idea for an entire album, an album, like you said, called "Brer Soul." And on that, there's a song called "Tenth And Greenwich," which is all about a woman asking her imprisoned lover to give her a sign, to turn on her light. She's sending her news about what's happening in the neighborhood, how she's looking forward to dancing with her again. That song is the first lesbian love song I can find in the history of Broadway. Yet, this show almost never gets talked about. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, including the woman who sang "Tenth And Greenwich," Bernice Wendy (ph). She was nominated for a Tony Award, but it's almost entirely forgotten about today. Although, luckily, the show is returning to Broadway this year, thanks to Van Peebles' son.

GROSS: No, really?

RYAN: Yep, opens up later this year.

GROSS: Yeah. And his son is the filmmaker Mario Van Peebles. Wow. That's - I didn't know that. So here we go. Let's hear the song.


MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Is that your light, sugar? How they treating you, sugar? Make me some kind of sign so I know it's you because you so far away, Dorothy (ph), I miss you. Baby, is you gon' ever come back and dance with me?

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. And I want everybody to know there's another song we're going to play that relates to the Women's House of Detention, written by Jerry Herman, the famous Broadway composer who wrote "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame" and "La Cage Aux Folles." So stay tuned for that. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Ryan, author of the new book "The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


VAN PEEBLES: Guess what? They got a new kind of hairspray. I know you dig it. You got a can waiting on the shelf for you. Sugar, I'm waiting, too.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Hugh Ryan, author of the new book "The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." It's the history of a women's prison that opened in 1932 in Greenwich Village and stopped operating in 1972, was torn down in 1974. It had a disproportionate number of lesbian and transmasculine men, incarcerated women for actions and behaviors we wouldn't consider a crime today and played a surprising role in the gay rights movement. Hugh Ryan is also the author of a book about the gay history of Brooklyn called "When Brooklyn Was Queer."

What was gay life like inside the women's prison? You know, a lot of the women are arrested for gender-nonconforming behavior, which wasn't called that, of course, when they were arrested. But that was the gist of why many of them were in prison. Many of them were imprisoned for being sex workers. So for the women who were lesbians or started acting out that behavior that they felt they couldn't act on when they were outside of the prison - how capable were you in the prison of actually having a relationship?

RYAN: It depended on what you were there for, how long you were there for and the time period you were there for. But at almost every time throughout the prison's history, the women and trans men that I can find say that it was the place where they met their lovers, where they had sex for the first time with another woman, often, where they made relationships that were crucial to them. There are all of these strange ways that they found to make what was a terrible, cruel, violent, dangerous, locked-down place a haven for themselves in certain ways. I don't want to overplay it and say that the prison was this, like, great, amazing (ph) utopian space. But these women and trans men found what joy and love they could.

They did all of these creative things. Like, you could only have two kinds of jewelry in the prison - a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David. In the 1960s, a social worker comes in, and she's studying what she calls the play family, which really means lesbian relationships and the sort of extended familial structures that they built inside prisons, both the House of D and other ones around New York. And while she's studying these women, she at first thinks there is an unusually high number of Black Jewish women in the prison before she starts talking to them and discovers that the Jewish Star of David is a highly prized bit of jewelry for femme lesbians in the prison, particularly ones who aren't Jewish. And what she's actually seeing are all of these Black women who are wearing stars given to them by their Jewish girlfriends. Little moments like that show us how widespread this resistance to the forced heterosexuality was. These women found all kinds of ways to meet each other.

GROSS: Were lesbians in the prison victimized by straight women?

RYAN: A lot of the women in the prison, particularly those who are masculine, talk about being tortured or focused on or made uncomfortable by other inmates sometimes, but often by the system, by the guards who are trying to feminize them or who are putting letters like degenerate on them to keep them away from everyone else. The physicals are really brutal. There are all of these forced genital examinations every single time you come in and out of the prison. And sometimes those are performed by men who would ask these really uncomfortable, really gross questions about virginity and who they were sleeping with. So in many ways, lesbians were targeted in the prison, particularly if they were masculine, but not necessarily by other incarcerated women, though that did happen.

GROSS: Were the gynecological exams to see if you were hiding anything, or were they for another purpose?

RYAN: The gynecological exams in the prison were for several purposes. First, there was a thing called the American Plan, which was checking to see if any arrested woman had an STI.

GROSS: Oh, right. Yes, right.

RYAN: ...So that she would be held until she was forcibly cured. And then they were also checking for any kind of contraband coming into the prison - drugs, weapons. In the 1950s after a riot - I think in 1958 - a new warden comes in, and he actually does a study on these pelvic exams and these genital searches and these forced enemas. And he notes that no contraband has ever been found. Twenty years of these needless, violent searches that women had been protesting since the very day the prison opened, and they had never found a single thing. And those searches are still being performed today on people in women's prisons.

GROSS: Were you able to interview many women who had been incarcerated in the House of D?

RYAN: I interviewed several women who were incarcerated in the House of D, unfortunately, almost all of whom died over the course of writing the book. One in particular, though, Jay Toole, is an incredible activist who is still today leading tours of the West Village to tell people about the history of the Women's House of Detention because so many people don't remember. She, in fact, got involved in the House of D after living homeless on the streets around the Village in the '60s. She was kicked out by her father when she was 13. And she would go on to be foundational in an organization called Queers for Economic Justice. And through her advocacy, shelters in New York now allow people to self-identify as to whether they want to go into a male or a female shelter, and they recognize domestic partnerships on the same plane as married couples.

Jay Toole, an incredible activist, gave me so much information about what the prison was like in the 1960s. I also talked to a woman named Carol Crooks, who was there in the late 1960s, early 1970s, where she met Afeni Shakur, and they were in a relationship for a year afterwards and connected the Black Panther Party with the gay liberationists. These were incredible folks, but only so few of them have survived today because the life of folks who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated is often so hard.

GROSS: So the women who you spoke to who had been incarcerated in this prison, what insights did they give you about how they carried out their relationships in prison and what the conditions were like?

RYAN: One of my favorite insights that Jay Toole gave me about relationships around the House of D was that she and the other butches would actually stand outside the prison, in Whelan's Drug Store, and watch women come in and out to keep track of people that they had met while incarcerated or had met in previous incarcerations but hadn't been able to find and keep track of in New York. And that's a practice that goes back to the 1930s. Women talk about standing outside the prison to meet other people because it was so hard to keep in touch. If you were incarcerated in the prison, you might be able to keep in touch through writing kites, which were little notes that were folded up that then got passed, often by a person, say, doing the laundry or working in the kitchen. So they have access to different floors and they get to pass them around.

Carol Crooks, who was incarcerated there in the late '60s and early '70s talked about coming back and bringing her dogs and walking her dogs outside of the prison so that she could yell up to the folks that she had seen. And sometimes they would even throw down little cigarette boxes tied onto a string, and you could stuff money into them or cigarettes. So it was a way to get around the rules that kept these women from having simple things like cigarettes or milk or sugar, which you had to buy from the commissary. So if you didn't have any money, you didn't have any access to those things. Even if you were pregnant, you didn't necessarily get milk. Someone had to pay for it for you. So these women were able to create relationships in the prison.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Ryan, author of the new book "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hugh Ryan, author of the new book "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." It's the history of a women's prison that opened in 1932 in Greenwich Village, closed in 1972 and was torn down in '74. It had a disproportionate number of lesbian women and transmasculine men.

Let's talk about Afeni Shakur, who was one of the women incarcerated in the House of D in its final days. And she is the mother of Tupac Shakur, and she was pregnant with him while she was incarcerated, right?

RYAN: Yeah. She gets arrested as part of what's called the Panther 21, which is this police conspiracy that the Black Panthers were intending to blow up a number of targets all around New York City. She's one of two women arrested. The other one is named Joan Bird. Both women were queer. Both women met girlfriends in the House of Detention during their incarceration. Afeni Shakur was a leader in the Black Panther Party at that point, even though she was only, like, 20, 21 years old. She, in fact, becomes her own lawyer and is the reason that the Panther 21 got off on all charges because she was so eloquent in prison.

And she says that being in prison, she saw the banners of the Gay Liberation Front protesting outside. Because after Stonewall, there was a meeting held to center the energy of activists who wanted to do something about gay rights. And older gay groups said they didn't want to protest the prison because they didn't want to piss off the cops. And a group of younger activists formed one of the most important LGBTQ organizations of the 1960s and '70s - the Gay Liberation Front. And they formed it to protest the Women's House of Detention in support of the Black Panthers, like Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird. And Afeni Shakur talks about seeing those banners outside and how that connection helped her to think about the connections between Black liberation, women's liberation and gay liberation.

And when she got out of the prison, not only did she connect with Carol Crooks and start a relationship with her - in fact, Tupac Shakur's original last name is Crooks because she said Carol was the father - not only does she connect there, she actually starts connecting with Huey P. Newton, the leader in the Black Panther Party who famously wrote a letter saying that the Black Panther Party's next front was connecting with women's liberation and gay liberation. Afeni Shakur and Huey P. Newton arrange for a meeting between them and the Gay Liberation Front at Jane Fonda's apartment. After that happens, Afeni Shakur goes to the Revolutionary People's Convention, the Black Panther Convention, to write a new constitution for America. And she meets with the gay men's workshop and talks to them about how to formulate their demands and how they can work together.

Afeni Shakur, over and over again, is connecting Black liberation and gay liberation. As a queer Black woman activist, she sees the ways in which these things are interconnected, and the early gay liberation movement did, too. They protested this prison, along with the radical lesbians, the Youth Against War and Fascism, women's groups. All kinds of groups met together to protest this prison in an intersectional way that we don't often think about 1960s liberation movements doing. But they really were closely interconnected.

GROSS: Why was the House of Detention closed down in 1972?

RYAN: The House of Detention was finally closed for a lot of reasons. In the late '60s, there are a lot of protests, a lot of public information happening about what is going on with the folks in the prison. But in particular, a woman named Andrea Dworkin is arrested, and she's only 18. She's not yet a feminist icon. She's arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. And when she gets incarcerated, she has the same violent, dehumanizing exams that every woman and trans man talks about going through at the prison. And they scar her internally. And when she's released, she connects with Grace Paley, the writer, who amplifies her story, gets her story into the papers.

And suddenly, the city had the kind of victim that they couldn't blame, right? She's white. She's middle-class. She has a good education. She's well-spoken. She's presenting as a feminine, straight woman at this time. She's condemning the prison for its homosexuality. In every way, Andrea Dworkin was the kind of person that they could not dismiss. And her story gets picked up and becomes part of the mayoral fight that year. And the conditions in the Women's House of Detention suddenly are a flashpoint for the city and state government. Five different investigations are started all at once. And the move to get rid of the House of D and move women over to Rikers basically starts in that moment. It's going to happen because of what happened to Andrea Dworkin. But beneath that is a base of this happening to so many other women and trans men whose stories had been told but largely forgotten or ignored or dismissed.

GROSS: So there's actually a song, a comic song, about tearing down - demolishing the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village. And it's from a revue called "Parade" from 1960, written by Jerry Herman, the Broadway composer who also gave us "Hello, Dolly," "Mame," "La Cage Aux Folles." We're going to play it. We're going to hear it. But before we do, tell us a little bit about this song and the intent of this song within the revue.

RYAN: The intent of this song really was to memorialize the House of D as a queer women's institution. They sing about celebrating the love in the showers and how it's really their only house in town. It's saying that queer women have no other landmark in the city but that the House of D was a queer landmark.

GROSS: And we should mention Jerry Herman was gay, and "La Cage Aux Folles" was about a gay couple.

RYAN: Exactly. And when he wrote "Hello, Dolly!," at one point, he wanted Flawless Sabrina to be the star in it, a trans, queer woman in New York City. He's always been promoting the queer community. And "Parade," this very first album that he puts out, it's right there.

GROSS: So this song has two titles. What are they?

RYAN: "Save The Village" and "Don't Tear Down The House Of Detention," showing how closely those two things - the Village and the House of D - are related.

GROSS: And the singer is Dody Goodman.


DODY GOODMAN: (Singing) Cease, oh, cease this senseless demolition. Save, oh, save our landmarks from this pillage. Won't you sign your name to our petition? Won't you sign your name and save the village? Don't tear down the house of detention. Keep her and shield her from all who wish her harm. Don't tear down the house of detention, cornerstone of Greenwich Village charm. Do not disperse the chums I've adored - Ginny McManus (ph), Kathy Wood (ph) and the rest too tender to mention, girls who instilled me with decency and truth. Don't tear down the house of detention. Let it stand, a symbol of my youth. A golden memory's locked in every locker, the basement track meet and the rooftop soccer. Fight, fight, fight for H of D. Fight for truth and camaraderie.

GROSS: That's Dody Goodman from the cast recording of the Jerry Herman music revue from 1960, and the review is called "Parade." Let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Ryan, author of the new book "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hugh Ryan, author of the new book "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison."

Your previous book was called "When Brooklyn Was Queer," and you live in Brooklyn. Why did you want to investigate forgotten places that were secret centers of gay culture in Brooklyn before it was really safe to be out, before there were, you know, gay bars that you didn't have to keep hidden from the police?

RYAN: I wanted to focus on queer history because, like a lot of marginalized people, I came to history wanting to find reflections of myself. I wanted to see that I existed and I wasn't a singular freak. But the real magic that writing "When Brooklyn Was Queer" and doing queer history in general brought me was a vision of how different things were. I didn't find exact replicas of myself in period drag in the 1850s. I found folks who were doing similar things - loving men or performing gender-nonconforming behaviors - but they thought of themselves completely differently. And that is what is so amazing for me about doing good history. I can't predict the future. I can't tell you if the world will be different in a hundred years. But I can tell you it was incredibly different a hundred years ago, and that gives me hope for tomorrow.

GROSS: What do you mean when you say they thought of themselves differently?

RYAN: A lot of folks in the 19th century who we today might think of as gender-conforming homosexuals probably didn't think of themselves as all that different from, quote-unquote, "straight people." The 19th century was an incredibly homosocial time in America. Men were expected to spend all their time with men and women with women. That time was very physical, very erotic even if it wasn't understood as a sexual relationship as we would think of it today. But you look at these records; I mean, this is why gay people seem to appear at the end of the 19th century - because straight people start acting differently and spending less time together and professing their love to one another less and spending more time intermingling - often in cities like Brooklyn - that give rise to our modern ideas of what it means to be gay.

GROSS: In the queer history of Brooklyn, you write about the importance of the docks as a gathering place and a meeting place, a cruising place, for gay men. How did the docks become so important?

RYAN: The docks became so important because they were the lifeblood of the city. They're a place anyone could go to for some reason. So you've got a lot of good intermingling, which makes for great cruising. And you also have all of these people who - like, sailors, spending all their time with other men, much like being in prison, and being introduced to all these cultures around the world where there are different sexual mores. So you have this interplay of ideas happening on the docks. And you also have the streets that are less policed, less gentrified, places where assignations can happen, where sex work can happen, where bars that catered men who were flaming and women who were masculine could appear and be slightly safer than in more mainstream locations. For all of these reasons, the docks become these epicenters for early queer communities.

GROSS: What were the gay bars near the docks like?

RYAN: They were all over the place. A lot of them in the 19th century and early 20th century weren't necessarily what we would think of as a gay bar. But they were bars where men met for sex. They were often sailor bars. Those were really popular. All of Sands Street, which today is not all that remarkable but back in the late 1800s and early 1900s was known as Sailor's Heaven. Men from all around the city who understood themselves as gay went there to meet sailors and dockworkers who may not have ever thought of themselves as gay but were having sex with other men. And they recorded those things in their diaries and journals. So we don't have a lot of information about these places from the point of view of the sailors and sex workers who were going there. But we can see them in the records of men like Walt Whitman, who wrote all about his interactions with these people on the Brooklyn waterfront.

GROSS: What's an example of another gay gathering place that was secret to everybody else, hidden from everybody else?

RYAN: One of the most interesting gay gathering places I learned about when I was writing "When Brooklyn Was Queer" was a small part of the beach down on Coney Island, which during the 1950s, under the boardwalk, had an unnamed, as far as I can tell, bar that catered to queer Puerto Rican people, men and women - though, slightly more men. And it was there for three summers. It was underneath a bathhouse called Stauch's, which was known for many decades as a gay bathhouse. And there's a man who wrote about it in letters to sexologists, describing how it was one of the most integrated, interesting, safe places he had ever found as a queer person. And it's made predominantly by Puerto Rican queer men who are coming to America in the 1950s because of what has been done by colonial American capitalism on the island itself.

GROSS: With Roe v. Wade likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court, are you concerned about marriage equality eventually being overturned?

RYAN: I'm absolutely concerned with Roe v. Wade being overturned that it will lead to all kinds of other rights rooted in privacy being overturned from gay marriage to the rights to contraception, to interracial marriage.

GROSS: If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it means, you know, government has a say in what happens in women's bodies, you know, whether they have to carry to term or not, you know, that the government can basically force you to have a baby even though you would like to terminate your pregnancy. Do you see any connections between the likelihood of Roe being overturned and the historical policing of women's bodies?

RYAN: Absolutely. I mean, we go back to the origins of women's justice in this country in the 1870s, and they were saying the goal of women's institution is to train her to be a wife or a mother. There is a forced birth agenda that is at the heart of our understanding of the criminalization of women in this country. And Roe v. Wade being overturned is going to make that worse. But already - particularly for women of color, immigrant women, indigenous women, poor women - there is a forced birth agenda that is happening in this country. Women are being arrested for miscarriages. Women are being arrested for all kinds of things, again, that men will never be arrested for generally.

GROSS: Hugh Ryan, thank you so much for talking with us.

RYAN: Thank you, Terry. This was wonderful.

GROSS: Hugh Ryan is the author of the new book "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll feature my recent interview with Frank Bruni, which was preempted on most stations by the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings. Bruni is an opinion columnist for The New York Times, where he's also been a White House correspondent and chief restaurant critic. His new memoir is about losing his vision and one eye, which was blinded by a rare kind of stroke. His previous memoir was about his passion for food and a struggle with his weight. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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