Women’s House of Detention author Hugh Ryan honored by Foundation
December 15, 2022 – Brooklyn-based author Hugh Ryan is the recipient of the Foundation’s biennial Warren Johansson Book Award for The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison (2022), which tells the story of a single building that once towered over Greenwich Village and incarcerated thousands of women awaiting trial for petty thefts or moral offenses such as prostitution, drug possession, and “disorderly conduct” of various types. When it opened in 1931, it was conceived as a state-of-the-art facility designed for medical treatment and rehabilitation of wayward souls, but through a combination of inadequate funding and over-criminalization of non-conforming lifestyles, it quickly degenerated into an overcrowded and unsanitary hell-hole that would need to be torn down little more than 40 years later.
By plumbing the archives of the well-meaning, but morally conservative social service organizations that aimed to reintegrate some of the less incorrigible women into society, Ryan reminds us that the history of women’s incarceration is largely a history of locking up lesbian women – a fact too often ignored by mainstream LGBTQ organizations today, overly anxious to present to the world an artificially sanitized image of sexual minorities that conform to domesticated standards of middle-class normalcy. Regarding same-sex attraction as an unfeminine pathology, social workers would take steps to break up post-carceral relationships between women that would have helped them find emotional support and make ends meet without returning to a life of crime. Ryan gleans out of these records enough information to paint vivid portraits of individual queer women whose lives were disrupted by each decade’s obsessions in legal, moral, and sexual regulation. The prison cast a shadow over its Greenwich Village neighborhood in more ways than one.
Ryan’s career as a grassroots scholar and activist makes him an especially appropriate choice for the award named after the itinerant polymath Warren Johansson. In addition to this book, Hugh Ryan’s earlier When Brooklyn Was Queer (2019) already won him accolades, including its status as a New York Times Editor’s Pick and recognition from the Committee on LGBT History of the American Historical Association. Perhaps his most important undertaking has been his activism in creating what he calls the “Pop-Up Museum of Queer History,” which helps “local communities create engaging exhibitions rooted in their own experience.” This is popular history in the best sense and he’s brought his curatorial skills to smaller cities all over the US.
It would take several more paragraphs to list all of the honors he has received, including the Allen Berubé Prize, a Martin Duberman Fellowship, a residency at the prestigious Yaddo writers’ center in Saratoga Springs, and his occasional teaching of creative non-fiction at Bennington and SUNY Stony Brook. To learn more about his extraordinary record of contributions, please visit his website at www.hughryan.org.