By James King
At breakfast, I sit at the front of the chow hall near the front door. Two correctional officers stand near the door and watch every one who goes in or out. One morning, I was sitting there, when a couple of incarcerated transgender women walked in. After they walked by, the guards looked at each other and shook their heads with disgust. No one else noticed, everything continued as normal, but I was dumbstruck.
As a black man who has grown up in America,I know what it’s like to be followed through stores, or have people cross the street as I approach. But this was something even deeper. This was two people expressing disgust at someone else’s very presence. Repugnance at the fact that they exist.
I thought back to the other things I’d seen during my time in prison. The time several incarcerated men had exploded in laughter as an officer told another transgender woman, “This is California Men’s Colony. If you are here, you are a man.” The stories I’d heard about LGBTG people being extorted for sex. And the time I’d told a young man who’d come out to me as gay that he was being pressured because of his sexual orientation. “If you reject homosexuality, you’ll be safe.” I told him.
Over the years I learned to recognize my own homophobia and see the commonality in our experiences. I’ve worked hard to correct my biases against people who I have no right to judge. And I’ve learned that even though hate is powerful, there are ways you can resist being broken by it.
In spite of the opposition here, the LGBTQ community at San Quentin State Prison is growing stronger. They’ve started a self-help group dedicated to helping them gain healing for the traumas that are so common to their experience. They’ve also started their own church. And they have fought hard for the right to have separate shower times and separate spaces.
My hope is more of our incarcerated peers learn to see them for the fighters they really are. The pride they demonstrate, and the ways they strive to nurture each other, is not just a reply to the disgust they don’t deserve, but even more, it’s a lesson. Their response to the casual harm and frequent violence they endure can teach all of us how to exist in a world that reduces all of us to our orientation, our race, our legal status, our job, our bank account…and for me, it’s taught me to see the privilege I possess, where I’m willing, I can bond with a Correctional Officer or my peers over tearing down one of the most marginalized groups in our society. I’ve learned that just as surely as I possess that privilege I can also use it to advocate with and for a community that deserves our admiration and respect.
The two women who entered the chow hall that morning never saw the negative looks, and probably wouldn’t care if they had. In their own little private corner of the monument to state sanctioned violence that we call prison, they had each other’s back.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.