Before the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world, San Quentin State Prison was set to hold its first-ever Pride celebration last month. We anticipated some derogatory side comments and varying degrees of judgment given the machismo environment in a men’s prison, but I was confident that the celebration would have succeeded with support and camaraderie for the LGBTQIA+ community inside the walls.
In the unwritten prison playbook, straight men are supposed to get offended when others suggest they’re gay. When one prisoner makes unexpected sexual or romantic inquiries toward another, that’s often perceived as the ultimate sign of disrespect, an affront to one’s masculinity, a challenge to their so-called manhood. That’s just how it is in today’s prisons.
For me, I never had much concern for how anyone else perceives me, and that’s relatively easy for someone who is straight. Throughout many years of incarceration, guys have questioned my sexual orientation. Some have asked if I’d like to fool around with them. I choose to regard their advances as a compliment, certainly nothing to get riled up about. I respect them for their bravery and trust in revealing their desire, since prison code calls for me to consider it an insult and retaliate.
At higher security prisons, I could face serious consequences from my peers for not violently responding to such an approach. At such a prison, a cellmate once offered himself to me politely, but insistently. I worried at first that it might be a ploy to test my character. Was everyone on the yard waiting to stop me the next day for failing to attack him? It turned out my fears were unwarranted and we shared a cell amicably for almost a year.
Despite the fears of repercussions, consensual same-sex activity transpires in most prison facilities. Just as same-sex trysts occurred in every civilization throughout history, you can be sure that people, regardless of setting, will find a way to make it happen. Guys take the risk even though it’s tough to keep a secret in an incarcerated community, and prison reputations are hard to shake off.
In 2018, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officially allowed LGBTQIA+ prisoners who were housed at protective special needs yards to voluntarily transfer to San Quentin to live and participate in programs with the general population. Our community, which was already known for its progressive, rehabilitative successes, seemed like an optimal environment for acceptance.
Slowly, more LGBTQIA+ persons arrived. Transwomen stood out the most with their budding breasts overtly poking through their state-issued bras and apparel, their lipstick-adorned mouths surrounded by the remains of facial stubble. Right before our eyes, a tight-knit LGBTQIA+ community grew. It wasn’t all smooth sailing — but as we worked and learned alongside each other in our jobs, classes, and rehabilitative programs, the previously rigid but hidden lines blurred.
Simple acts like taking a shower become great equalizers. There’s no hiding. One way or another, we all get naked, soap up, and rinse off. In San Quentin’s North Block housing unit, trans women have their own separate shower time at the end of the day after everyone else is locked in their cells. But the rest of us — gay, straight or whatever — we stand crammed together along a small narrow pathway, waiting for their turn at an available showerhead.
I recently was overheard describing our community as accepting of the influx of LGBTQIA+ individuals. A fellow prisoner nearby quickly retorted, “We don’t accept them, we just tolerate them.” I would argue the reality is that tolerance begets acceptance. More and more, I see everyone treating one another as they should and accepting the fact that we’re all fundamentally more alike than we are dissimilar.
The LGBTQIA+ community has been more gracious. They tolerate our prejudices and accept our frequently misguided heterosexuality. I often feel as if I’m the one being afforded the freedom and comfort to be my heterosexual self without judgment.
As I see conversations sprout and friendships blossom, I’m reminded that genuine human pride shouldn’t be rooted in being gay or straight or anything else. It should simply be about seeing the value, dignity, and respect in being our true selves. The LGBTQIA+ community within San Quentin is helping all of us realize and appreciate this. I’m proud to have these individuals as my friends.
Even the most steadfast bigots are showing progress by virtue of daily and inconsequential interactions. Prison environments usually confront societal changes light years behind the universe, and San Quentin is just finally catching on. Rest assured, we will celebrate Pride on the yard in broad daylight, now and later.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.