color photograph of a rainbow poster partially torn through the middle, exposing brick wall behind it
The paint of a rainbow peels off a brick wall in downtown Laramie, Wyoming, on Aug. 13, 2022. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

CW: Mentions of homophobia and censored homophobic slurs

We recently got DirecTV at the London Correctional Institution in central Ohio, where I am incarcerated. It was just in time to see all the commercials for the streaming services everyone in the outside world is switching to. I’m in an open dorm, so I can see what everybody else is watching. P. Diddy’s hip-hop channel Revolt is very popular since it’s the only access we have to music videos. I’ll often hear people yelling the slogans of popular artists down the aisle: “Bia Bia!” or “Another one!”

One day they played “Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X—a Black gay artist—and Jack Harlow, who is straight and white. The song starts with Lil Nas X lying in a prison cell bed with another man twerking in his face, followed by a nude dance routine in the communal prison showers. Harlow, whose heterosexuality is made explicitly clear in a scene with a female guard, helps Lil Nas X escape into the yard. The video ends with the pair driving a prison bus out of the facility’s front gate against a backdrop of smoldering guard towers.

One might assume that a video containing such a highly subversive message would appeal to those who are actually behind bars. Yet the comments I heard echoing throughout the dorm were the exact opposite:

“Man, this is some f— ass shit,” one person said, using a homophobic slur. 

“I can’t watch this.”

“They’ve taken this gay shit too far.”

Despite greater societal LGBTQIA+ acceptance in the last few decades, prisons remain hostile to us. Many of us would not even know that the LGBTQIA+ movement exists if prisons did not have televisions. If we had the chance to learn about the changes brought about by this movement, it could help raise awareness and reduce bullying and violence within the institution. 

Society’s ideas about race, gender, and sexuality have shifted dramatically. If efforts are not made to teach us about these changes while we’re still incarcerated, how are we meant to gain the knowledge we need to succeed when we leave?

* * * 

I worked at the reception desk in recovery services at the prison—where we receive counseling for substance use dependency—for about a year. During the holiday season, I saw other prisoners* scrambling around with big rolls of colored tissue paper and boxes full of glue, scissors, and other supplies. We can’t just go to Walmart to buy decorations, so we’re lucky the administration allows us to make our own.

I did what I do every year around this time, dividing construction paper into six pairs of pink and purple sheets. Then I folded, cut, stapled, and taped until I had a big, 3D snowflake. I hung it over the reception desk.

The next day, a tall, lanky man named Stretch came over to the desk with a couple of his buddies. Along with participating in the substance use recovery program, they also worked as porters in the building and often took 15-minute coffee breaks at the desk after mopping or buffing the floors.

Stretch pointed to my creation. “Whose gay snowflake is this?”

After he left, I grabbed 12 more pieces of construction paper, this time six colors instead of two. I had the entire rainbow minus indigo, but I figured everyone would still get the message.

Before I got started, I told one of the staff members, a counselor, about the project. She had previously expressed support for the LGBTQIA+ community to participants in recovery services. I brought my new snowflake to her when I was finished. With the brightest smile, she told me she loved it and would hang it above her desk, right in the main office for everyone to see. 

The next day, I saw Stretch standing directly beneath my giant rainbow snowflake as he talked to the counselor.

* * *

Having at least one progressive staff member can make a big difference when you’re in prison surrounded by prejudiced people. However, even the most well-meaning people suffer from implicit bias and commit nasty aggressions.

A friend of mine had used a sewing kit to tailor a pair of state-issued pants into some “skinny jeans” for me. He had to re-sew them a few times because I kept busting out the sides. One day, while wearing them at work, the same counselor who hung up my rainbow snowflake noticed them. 

“You and your Vans and skinny jeans,” she said.

“Yeah, maybe I’ll wear them out to the gay table in the yard,” I replied.

“Just don’t bring that into this dorm,” she snapped.

She clearly wasn’t talking about the pants, since I was already wearing them. All I could say was, “What?”

“We’ll kick you out of this program.”

I was stunned. I was talking about wearing a pair of pants into the yard, not having sex in an open dorm. The one person I thought was supportive was threatening me because of my sexuality. I had just started being open about that part of myself. I started to regret that decision and considered going back into the closet.

* * *

According to a 2022 report from the Safety and Justice Challenge, LGBTQIA+ people are three times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population. Behind bars, these individuals also experience heightened levels of physical and sexual abuse from other incarcerated people and prison staff. In a survey conducted by Black and Pink, 76% of incarcerated LGBTQIA+ respondents reported that prison staff intentionally placed them in situations where they would be at high risk of sexual assault

Prisons are built to be sites of control, surveillance, and violence. According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, psychiatry and criminology, and their corresponding places of confinement—mental institutions and prisons—partly arose as a way to control and repress people’s sexuality. In most U.S. prisons, officials control our access to intimacy—there are no conjugal visits, and sex and even masturbation are prohibited. Can you think of a bigger intrusion into somebody’s autonomy? Or of a more powerful way to exert total control over a person? The state has ensured that I haven’t yet had sex at 28. I could tell you how this has profoundly affected my sense of self and individuality, but that would be beyond the scope of this essay.

If prisons acknowledge LGBTQIA+ issues, they’d have to recognize that incarcerated people are still sexual beings. That we are still fully human. Perhaps they’re afraid of the doors that will open.

While officials must take more meaningful strides to protect LGBTQIA+ incarcerated people, small steps can at least provide us with some affirmation. One day, I hope we can celebrate Pride Month in prison, where we could have access to documentaries about Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson, Kate Bornstein, and others. They could play movies like “Rocketman” and invite guest speakers from universities and LGBTQIA+ organizations. Education, awareness, support, and affirmation are powerful ways to fight both explicit and implicit homophobia and transphobia.

Ahead of Pride month this year, I’m going to contact the administration here at London Correctional and see if they’ll host Pride events. If you’re reading this on the outside, know that you can make your voice heard. I’ve often heard upper-level corrections staff worry about “public perception.” Contact the Department of Corrections in your state or any local correctional institutions in your area. Tell them that hatred and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people are not only wrong, but they create an environment hostile to the interests of safety and rehabilitation. I believe and hope that we can start changing that reality with measures such as official, administration-endorsed Pride Month events.

*While Prism often uses the phrase “incarcerated people,” this personal essay uses the word “prisoner.” As Michael Ray explains, “This is the term I generally prefer, and there are certain progressive/radical publications that use it, too (Prison Legal News, Black and Pink). It does not have the humanizing effect that ‘incarcerated person’ has. But it is less euphemistic: it reminds ourselves and others that our situation is not natural. There is a very clear agent (the state) holding us prisoner.”

The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.

Michael Ray is a freelance journalist, researcher, and a contributor to The Portager. He has been incarcerated since he was 18 years old and has dedicated his life to freeing others from the prison industrial...