Oh yeah, I know I’m going to be bombarded on the yard and with letters to the editor about why there are so many stories about LGBTQ and transgender people in the June paper, celebrating Pride Month. I understand that the number of LGBTQ prisoners who are out is a small community compared to the whole general prison population.
And no, San Quentin News is not trying to make people in outside society think everybody in prison is gay. However, transgender and other LGBTQ people have always been part of the prison landscape, just as they have been in ancient societies around the world.
The difference is that they have been marginalized enough that we act like we don’t see them. There are PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] policies in prisons nationwide for a reason. Trans people, as well as gay men and women, have suffered physical and sexual assaults from both prisoners and correctional guards alike. This trauma only compounds the childhood suffering that led them to prison in the first place.
Personally, I was groomed in that hyper-masculine ideology that says you are not supposed to care about anybody, no matter who they are—and don’t you dare be soft. I adopted this mindset until I started going through my transformational work, self-help groups and my spirituality. Transformation is more than a few buzz words about triggers and empathy. I actually had to reflect on my own biases.
One day, I walked into the prison clinic. I greeted everybody there except for a trans woman standing alone in a corner. I was shocked to my core at my own behavior. Why didn’t I speak? Did I emotionally harm that person by not speaking? I had to ask myself: who the hell am I to shun someone and not to see them for who they are? I made sure that the next time I saw that person, I spoke.
The incident made me flash back to my childhood, thinking about my uncle Ferdia, who was gay. I didn’t know anything about sexual orientation; I just knew my uncle had a boyfriend named James. Though gay marriage was not yet legal, as far as their love was concerned, James was his husband.
My uncle was one of the major male figures in my life before he passed away. He was more than his sexuality to me. He gave me money, took me places, was a shoulder to cry on and he protected me whenever I needed it. Even when I came to prison he didn’t shun me, he comforted me and said everything will be alright.
My uncle meant the world to me. If I would have told him about the clinic incident he still would not have judged me. Just like in society, prison is changing. People in prison are debating the use of pronouns for trans women in particular at the same time as many in the outside world have expanded the number of pronouns to describe different gender identities. We have some volunteers who come in that identify as “they.” It’s a new world and some of us have been incarcerated for decades, so for many it’s about processing a new emotional intelligence.
I even had to go through a workshop on pronouns to make sure we respect how someone “shows up” and presents themselves. I want to make sure I know the proper way to cover them in the newspaper. While I understand some people’s concerns with the way that the conversation around LGBTQ issues is changing, I’m not blind to what goes on around me while in prison.
I see the drama of real and sometimes questionable accusations of sexual harassment, domestic violence in relationships and those who are struggling with their sexuality.
I also see some of those in the incarcerated LGBTQ community holding support groups and advocating for social and criminal justice reform. There are a lot of things going on in prison that not everybody is a part of—be it productive or destructive.
So with that said, I may not celebrate the month like those who it truly affects, but I will celebrate and take PRIDE in honoring my uncle Ferdia.