[Everything is true. The names, however, have been changed to protect the innocent and the not-so-innocent]
He doesn’t appear the least bit nervous. He sits calmly, steady legs, arms casually placed on each knee. He has a direct stare and flippantly casual responses to every question posed to him. You’d think a pair of burly, straight middle-aged men with stars on their chests would rattle you, but life had thrown Rilo Fields way trickier curve balls than this.
“Name a gay bar,” the one with the moustache demands of the grizzled 65-year-old African American.
“Gay bar? I don’t know no gay bars. You think I still drag my tired old ass to gay bars?”
“What’s Stonewall?,” the other one asks.
“Stonewall? A wall made of stone. Bam!”
“Name a gay publication.”
“Cut the shit. I’ve been here a thousand times. You think I don’t know what you’re doing?” Rilo barked. “Look, I’m a sissy. I’m a punk. I’m a faggot. I suck dick. I get sucked and I’ll fuck you in the ass, but ain’t nobody gonna fuck me in the ass, OK? I got clients all lined up waiting to pay for my services. Little Richard’s a good tipper, and that’s hot off the presses just for you.”
Deputies Belson and Landers eyeball each other, a secret code that means the test has ended. These guys have such an ease with each other that everyone thinks they’re a couple. Think away. It works to their advantage.
“OK, Fields. I think we’ve heard enough. Welcome back to K-11.”
They open a drawer and retrieve a bag filled with paints and drawing paper. Rilo’s got a fantastic ability to paint people, still lifes, intricate Rube Goldberg contraptions, and the Deputies encourage him in that direction. They often think he enjoys getting arrested so that he can have an occasional artist’s retreat.
And just like that, a Trustee escorts him to one of the three dorms designated for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates at the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. It’s 2001 and the all-encompassing LGBTQIA+ acronym had not yet entered the general lexicon. I spent my days teaching HIV/STI health and treatment to inmates like Rilo as an educator for a tiny non-profit called CorrectHELP, the Corrections HIV Education and Law Project. With just a handful of employees, we aimed to reduce HIV/STI transmission in our nation’s jail and prison populations, as well as educating medical staff and prison guards alike, so that inmates living with HIV/AIDS could receive proper healthcare. Although our outreach extended into the general population, we primarily focused on women and gay-identifying inmates at this particular jail. We based our mission on the premise that inmates not only deserved good medical care, but that our communities had a vested interest in facilities returning them to society in good health to avoid further spread of any diseases. On that note, the K-11 dorms existed to protect a vulnerable, marginalized population while incarcerated.
For the better part of five years, I taught classes, provided one-on-one treatment counseling, and distributed condoms. I felt lucky that I could leave at the end of each day, especially with staph infections spreading like wildfire and fights breaking out at a moment’s notice. I used to think it was easy to go through life without harming someone else, without stealing, without getting arrested. The term “white privilege” was rarely used back then, but man did I have a bad case of it. Every night, I’d need a moment to decompress from the upside-down world in which I had spent so much time. For those I’d leave behind, they needed so much more.
Imagine getting arrested for drunk driving, drug possession or sale, prostitution, tax evasion, or even murder or terrorist threats. You’re strip searched, finger-printed, photographed and told to wait on a steel bench in the Inmate Reception Center for as long as 24-48 hours. It’s cold, damp, and loud. You or someone else may be coming off a particularly intense high and all you want to do is rest your head. But you can’t. You need to sit up, stay alert and hope someone will see you right the fuck away. Add HIV-infection to this and you worry you won’t get your meds in time or at all. You fear disclosing your status could put you at risk of harassment or radically extend your time in reception, so you keep quiet when they ask if you have any medical needs. You’re still buzzing and you can barely keep your eyes open. They ask your sexual orientation so that you can voluntarily enter the K-11 population. If you say you’re gay, then off you go to one of the gay dorms.
Belson and Landers will pull you into their offices in the next day or so and make you “prove” your orientation. In all fairness, these men know that the answers to their questions have less importance than your demeanor, your body language, and the ease or unease you have with the subject matter. Still, have you ever wondered, when push came to shove, how you would convince someone that you’re gay…all without the benefit of your Instagram feed, that rainbow flag magnet on your fridge, or nobody around to vouch for you? Add illiteracy, a lack of education, disenfranchisement from your own community, an abusive past, drug use, or any host of issues, and this gets much harder than it looks.
You enter this cement rectangular room filled with fifty bunk beds, open showers and toilets, one blaring TV, a vending machine and 99 other inmates ready to test you. The dead inside guard in the booth, today it’s Ms. Tanner, is not your Resident Advisor. She doesn’t have an orientation packet and doesn’t care if you’re scared. She’s not gonna show you the best bunk choices or how to respond to the men who see you as a late night snack. Figure it out and deal with it. She thinks everyone’s playing her, so your questions barely register.
You look around. A bunk easily visible to the guard makes sense, but then you’ll look like a coward. Maybe that one next to the little twink works, but, then again, who knows his story? You’ll definitely stay clear of the bunks pushed together or the one wrapped in a sheet. You swear you saw it rocking. One guy you’ve already labeled as “Scary Skinhead”, has a hungry stare which scares you away from one corner altogether. Ms. Tanner, here we come.
YOU: Excuse me.
YOU: Excuse me, Ms….[trying to see her badge]…Tanner?
After several excruciating minutes of shuffling back and forth, flipping aimlessly through her roster, and generally ignoring you, she finally approaches the window.
YOU: Ms. Tanner?
TANNER: I heard you the first eight times.
YOU: I need some help finding a bunk.
She recoils and cuts you off with precision.
TANNER: Don’t come up here with your breath all nasty like that. Brush your teeth! You know better than that!
And just like that, she walks away and giggles. You’re on your own. Behind you, Tanner gets one last good one in…
TANNER: This ain’t no Holiday Inn and I’m not your Concierge!
You wisely pick a bottom bunk about halfway back right below Lil’ Mouse, a 24-year-old transgender gang member with a soft voice but a “don’t fuck with me” stance. She treats you with kindness and offers to show you the ropes. You wonder how she was able to bring that wig of cascading hair into the jail and she shows you it’s real. They don’t allow wigs or makeup, but damned if that’ll stop her from rubbing a pencil stub on her arm and applying it to her eyebrows. Sometimes they’ll withhold her hormones or take away her shirt for a while so that everyone can see her chest. Humiliation may be the name of the game, but nothing rattles Lil’ Mouse. She’s really in charge of this dorm and you made a wise choice. Sure, she gives great beauty tips, but more importantly, she’ll show you how to make a shiv out of the rubber heel of your shoe or how to turn those dull razors they dole out into a feared weapon. For lighter fare, check out how she carves her carrots into goldfish shapes and keeps her “pets” in a baggie filled with water. She can even roll an empty potato chip bag into a sweet little “rose”. This comes in handy when courting a fellow inmate or when watching “The Bachelor”. Her power comes from never feeling the need to raise her voice. She doesn’t mind that some call her “Scary Spicy”, because she knows she’s feared. You try your best to feel safe with her, but you’ve seen enough prison shows to know kindness is merely the first half of a business transaction. You will always owe somebody something.
You wake the next morning to Lil’ Mouse showing you the lay of the land. Rilo won’t mess with you as long as you don’t go near his paints, and never tell him he’s a great artist. He’ll think you want something from him and go ape-shit on you. Stay away from the Gay Aryan Brotherhood, the ones with the shaved heads and the swastika tattoos. Yes, that’s a thing. Lil’ Mouse will tell you that some guys are straight and either seek a safe haven from the general population or want to terrorize the rest of us, so the smart choice is to avoid any guy who calls you “bro”. Best way to see a doctor is to rub welts into your arm with a pencil eraser. Otherwise, you’re gonna wait many weeks for an appointment. They have Drag Balls in here once a month, but you had better let the Lil’ Mouse win because that is her time.
Behave well enough and Belson and Landers will offer you a space in their education program. You can learn computer skills, resume writing, grammar, health education, and even get your GED. It’s a great opportunity, but let’s face it, she tells you, between the one hour a day of yard time, the segregated walks and cafeteria and the classes, any excuse to get out of the dorms is a good one. This may seem like Gay Heaven, but look closer and you’ll see the scars and bruises. Violence happens. Non-consensual sex happens. A fight can break out at a moment’s notice and you would really rather be somewhere else when it does.
See that mild-mannered guy with the glasses over there? He bashed his boyfriend’s head in with a propane tank for looking at another guy at a backyard barbeque. That skinny kid in the corner is in for shooting his dealer with the dealer’s own gun. He has balls of steel, you’re warned. Don’t ever look at him. The mean looking ones are good. The sweet ones are fucking maniacs. Up is down. Over is under. Every day is backwards day, so get out of this room as much as you can. You may be protected, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe.
You may be out, but don’t be too out. Keep calm but don’t fairy on, as the English sort of say. If all you think of as being gay are Pride parades, dancing, drinking, and sex, then you have another thing coming. In here, being gay is a cloak and a suit of armor all at once.
My time working in there opened my eyes to a different world, a different point of view. Many inmates would try to play me in order to get special treatment or a favor. I had to have my guard up at all times. A simple handshake meant physical contact, which was forbidden. Doing so could open me up to bribery. Everyone had a story. Some I’d believe. Others not so much. After a while, I didn’t believe anyone. Not even myself. I questioned everything. For many of the inmates, it’s almost impossible to get through life without harming someone. I was such an idiot for thinking that everyone had a fair shot in life. Once you’ve been arrested, it’s so easy to be released and get thrown back in again. Some people never had a chance.
I was raised to believe that if you have a dream and work hard enough, you can do anything. It’s the American Way, right? Now, I’m not so convinced. Now my dream is to never end up here as an inmate. I don’t speed in traffic anymore. I never raise my voice to anyone. For many, being gay means to speak your truth and shout it out loud. You take to the streets and demand your rights. In K-11, speaking up can get you sent to the hole. Some may think it’s easier time in the gay dorms, but it’s still time…numbing, painful, and deeply challenging. Gays may know how to make the most of it, but end up in here, and the most you can do is probably not enough.
By Glenn Gaylord