Loneliness is expected in a place designed to separate and ostracize humans, so I shouldn’t be surprised that it colors so much of my time in prison. However, I do feel that I have an additional stigma working against me that makes me more of an outcast than most. The reason: I’m gay. I’m comfortable with that. I like who I am. I have built an identity I am proud of. I don’t hide who I am. And, in prison, that’ s a problem. Here, others give me labels I can’t escape. I’m a faggot. A pussy. Geechee. I’m reduced by others, so that most of who I am ceases to exist.
Prison is a culture all its own. I find it odd that people are sent to a place like this to become better members of society because prison so little resembles a healthy society. It is a shadow of a bygone era of dominance, misogyny, and hate. Ignored and forgotten as the rest of the world has moved into the 21st century. It is a place constructed around power, aggression and intimidation. The physically strong take advantage of the mentally weak. Hatred and intolerance are encouraged. Love and compassion are criminalized. Individuality, reason, logic, ethics, and intellectualism all fall before the altar of blind chauvinism and emotional apathy. There is no place in this careless culture for anyone who doesn’t fit the ‘norm,’ defined around the strictest model of heteronormal masculinity. To be a ‘man’ here is to act tough, embrace violence, objectify women, insult one’s friends, and vocalize one’s ego. I don’t subscribe to this mindset, so I cannot claim manhood.
I’ve learned to accept my outsider status. I know how to deal. I lived through this back in middle school, and the harassment is similar. The difference: here the kids have facial hair. But this is not solely my story .
There are many gay men in prison. Most choose to remain closeted—understandably so. Those of us who are open about our sexuality cannot live with that lie in our hearts, and we face direct indemnity for our transgressions of honesty. Other inmates don’t want us around. Officers consider us a liability. We are moved around constantly—each time learning to navigate the hatred of w hole new groups of people. Kissing our partners on visits is labeled a ‘security risk.’ We are bullied, harassed, and abused: verbally, physically, and sexually. There is no evading this, and we have few options to push back that don’t result in direct retaliation against us. It’s our fault, after all. If we were simply not gay, we’d have no problems, right?
There’s a sanity and safety that comes wit h meeting people who share our exper iences. And some of us do manage to connect and offer support to each other. I’ve met men in prison that I have genuine love for, and their mutual love has helped me survive. These connections never last, though. In prison, we’re not supposed to care about each other. Here, love itself is inhibited. And love between two men is abhorred absolutely. The outside world may have changed, but the prison system “does not condone homosexuality,” one officer once bluntly told me with a satisfied smile. For this reason, we are consistently torn from the men we feel comfortable with-as if danger lies in the friendships of gay men. And perhaps that is true.
And so, we write. We write because we have nothing else. We have no one to go to with our troubles. We write because our community is scattered and hidden. There are lots of queers in prison, and sharing our words helps us feel a little less alone. There a re those of us, too, who may fee l their stories are solitary occurrences. They need to know the truth. And our truths must be heard. So we set free our words. We reac h out through pen and paper because it’s our only escape from upsidedownville. A world between worlds. We walk a line, unwanted on either side: detested by society as criminals and rejected by criminals as depraved. But we refuse to believe that’s the way it always must be. Writing, for us, is a way to reach out to our brothers, to let them know they are not alone. A way to remind ourselves that we are not alone. A way to tell the story of the secret hatred we experience at the hands of a dehumanizing system, which we experience not for what we have done but for who we are.
As society moves toward s a new age of tolerance, we should not neglect the pockets of intolerance, which continue to exist. Prison is allegedly intended to reform,a system of ‘correction.’ Yet, here, men are taught to hate and oppress their fellow man. One day most of these men will be back in society, and there they will pass on this ignorance and hostility, these institutionalized lessons in hyper homophobia, to a new generation. If hatred is to become extinct, all systems of intolerance must be destroyed. This is why our story is important. The blatant animosity towards gay humanity is a prison wide sickness, and we need to realize that for ourselves. That gives us power. Oppressive systems begin to teeter when the subjugated realize that the hatred they endure is not isolated, but rather widespread and encouraged. Intolerance topples when the victims know their numbers.
All humans have worth. We live in a country that purports to believe that “all men are created equal,” but this is not yet our reality. We must never forget that. Queer prisoners have a voice that is too often silenced. When we write, we become a little more equal. We write to be heard. We write to tell truth. We write because we love. We write to feel wanted. We write for change. We write for hope. We write because we must. We write because we exist. We write because we matter.