Queer History in New York’s “House of D”

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NPR’s Fresh Air recently aired a segment called The Queer History of the Women’s House of Detention (May 16, 2022). Terry Gross interviewed Hugh Ryan, the author of  The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison. The book raises interesting points about decade-spanning gender-nonconforming violence within the confines of capital punishment. 

Here are some highlights of the Ryan’s NPR interview:

On the ways in which prison is used to control people who aren’t white men:

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. And in fact, the origins of our women’s prison system come about in the 1870s, right after the Civil War. Right at the same time, the census is asking about women’s employment for the first time. If you go back to that moment, that 1870s moment, what we see is that a system that had mostly been intended to punish the violent, anti-social acts of white men gets repurposed for social control over Black people of all genders and women of all races and all of these things that weren’t considered crimes or were considered maybe something you would get a fine for or a citation suddenly become vectors for incarceration when they’re applied to Black people and to women.

On the goal of the detention center to reinforce female gender norms:Cover image of The Women's House of Detention by Hugh Ryan

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 that would get her out of poverty: being a wife or being a maid. Both of those things required you to be properly feminized.

So the prison system, 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…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.

Read more here.

The Women’s House of Detention was published earlier this month by Bold Type Books.


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