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Who are you? 

We all wear masks, to some extent, as a way to hide our insecurities. The goal is to appear as perfect as possible to gain one of the most important of human achievements: acceptance. Acceptance from our parents, acceptance from our peers, from those we desire. Without acceptance, you feel alone without value and constantly in pain. 

Whether or not you choose to wear a mask, acceptance is still a necessity for all humans. The single most damning punishment a person can endure by another person is alienation. Who you are or what mask you choose to wear will ultimately decide who you will become, and the kind of future you will have. 

When you are an inmate at the Arizona Department of Corrections, you may be faced with one question: “Who do you run with?” 

The answer defines your identity. All my life, I have worn different masks.

When I was about eight years old, I knew I was different. I was smarter than all the other kids. I had both parents and did not grow up around violence or crime. However, I did not interact well with other kids. 

When I moved from a small town in North Texas to San Antonio, I started out as the smart kid at a new school, Elrod Elementary. Two years there did me well, and once I graduated to junior high, I was popular with many friends. I played sports throughout the rest of grade school, including football, soccer, and track and field, but as I grew older, I realized what was really making me feel so insecure. 

I was hiding my true self from everyone. I did not feel accepted despite all the groups and extracurricular activities I participated in. I never had any girlfriends. I was afraid of what my mom would think. I was more fearful of my stepdad. This was during the 1990s when interracial dating was still an issue, and I never felt accepted by my own race because I was never part of one race. 

During that time, my attraction to guys also became evident. I was petrified. My sexuality was not a discovery, a transition, a result of abuse, or a choice. My sexuality was who I had always been, but if others knew I was gay, I could lose something very precious to me: acceptance. 

In prison you cannot be in every group like in high school. You only have one choice. I felt like Tris Prior in the book “Divergent.” But on top of that, the group you choose has to accept you and if you ever decide to change your mind, there is a painful consequence. 

While my skin is as dark as most Latinos and Blacks, I identified more with Latinos based on my upbringing. Within the Latinos are two sub-groups, the Chicanos (domestic Latinos) and Paisanos (non-natives). I am a part of the Paisanos. I eat with the Paisanos in our section of chow hall, I celebrate holidays with the Paisanos, and when shit gets serious, all matters are handled through our leader. 

Aside from race, there is another important group, the LGBTQ+ who are known as “The Family.” At South Unit in Florence, Arizona, the Family is recognized as a race of its own. 

If you are transgender or gay, what you do, who you assoicate with, and how you carry yourself is always scrutinized. There are still many people within each race who are closed-minded and believe the LGBTQ+ are all gay, flamboyant, promiscuous, or feel like we were born in the wrong skin. We are viewed as weak, and this is dangerous. 

Over four years ago, I entered Arizona’s Department of Corrections’ Eyman Complex at Meadow Unit in Florence as a “fish.” While my sentence was only for five months, my first month was my hardest. A week after my arrival, a young Chicano approached me on the recreational field and asked if I was gay. I said yes. 

In the days that followed, his friends would taunt me and make flirtatious and unwanted comments to me. When I finally got commissary the following week, they paid extra attention to me. When I got a TV at the end of the month, I was approached by three Chicanos who demanded sex from me, threatening to smash me and steal my property. If I decided to fight back, they said they would make sure I never made it out of prison alive. 

I refused, got my shit taken, and left Meadows defeated. I ended up moving to Cook Unit, where fortunately there was a larger LGBTQ+ community. 

I am not a fighter, but I did wonder, “What if I had lied about who I was, gay? What if I was never gay at all? Would my life have been any different?”

What about those who wear a mask? 

If you are  a closeted man in prison, the fear of being made fun of or ostracized for being gay is real. They hide their true identity as a front, so they are not alienated as “a Cheeto,” the common name given to the LGBTQ.

While association with a Cheeto is no big deal behind closed doors, if a straight guy is seen with a Cheeto on the yard, your friends are sure to notice and call you out. Association with a Cheeto is a guarantee that rumors will spread about you rapidly across the yard. 

A person’s image is often what will define you in prison. People take notice if you work out, have tattoos, who you hang out with, what job you have, and how much store you have. They notice if you do drugs, shower regularly, get mail, gamble, or hustle. What you do or don’t do may determine your status on the yard. Your actions throughout your prison career will always reveal the truth of your character. 

I love who I am and who I have become over the years. If I had chosen to hide my true self, the people in my life would have never gotten to know me. I would not have gained respect. I would not have grown into the person I am today or be a model of inspiration to others. 

By being my true self, I can inspire those in fear of alienation to stand tall and find acceptance within themselves. No one should ever feel the need to sacrifice who they are for a good reputation. Reputation is simply what others say about you. Character is who you really are, your image and your identity. Good character will give you self-worth and acceptance.

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.

Chastyn “Nova” Hicks is a writer and artist incarcerated in Arizona.