A Pride flag waves in the foreground with barbed fence wire behind it • Getty

As the nation ramps up its war against the LGBTQIA+ community in the form of “anti-gay” legislation and hateful conservative rhetoric in mainstream media, I’m sitting in a prison dayroom at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center speaking with a fellow prisoner. Confused and wondering glances are directed our way.

Throughout my incarceration, I have witnessed firsthand what gender and sexual violence looks like within these walls. I can say without any hesitation that the carceral system is not built for humanity, especially for those of us brave enough to live life outside of patriarchal norms.

Recently, I was privileged enough to sit down with one of these brave individuals. Standing at an intimidating 6 feet, weighing some 290 pounds, at first glance, one would never guess that Country (an adopted nickname from his “cornfed” stature — he/him/his pronouns) has been receiving Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for the last five months. Nor would anybody know that Country has been taking daily testosterone blockers and receiving estrogen shots.

And not that it’s anybody’s business, but nobody would’ve known that Country is bisexual. And damned proud of it!

No. If not for the purple pajamas issued to individuals who are gender transitioning, nobody would’ve had a clue.

Prison doesn’t allow for interpersonal vulnerability.

Country, after months of HRT, has decided to stop transitioning and has chosen to quit using she/her/hers pronouns even after the painstaking process that the Department of Corrections (DOC) has put him through. The DOC requires an official diagnosis of gender dysphoria just to qualify for the treatment in the first place. All of this is a traumatic experience within itself.

But this story is not just about scientific terminology or the ins and outs of prison bureaucracy — there are way more qualified individuals than me who can speak about that. This story is about all of us. Our shame, our guilt, our ignorance, and our fear.

Country, 39, who is 12 years into a 30-year sentence for murder, patiently sits in front of me across the table, vulnerably answering my questions for this Pride month installment of ‘On the Fence Line.’ Yet as a self-proclaimed ally, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m the one who’s anxious about what people are thinking as they watch us at this table having an intimate conversation.

Will people think I’m gay? Will they make fun of me? Will I become a victim?

Here he is, courageous enough to share his personal life experiences, and I’m over here thinking about the negative implications to my reputation. What a fucking coward! Ironically, it is this same toxic masculinity and fear that weaves our stories together because it is this same ignorance that unfortunately makes prison and our community hotbeds for violence and discrimination against people like Country.

It’s not easy for people who identify as queer in prison. Recalling his decision to finally come out to the world, Country describes it as “social suicide.”

“I’ve always been popular, so it was a hard pill to swallow knowing I’d be the running joke… a spectacle,” he told me.

Hearing this, I’m embarrassed and ashamed. I remember making “locker room” jokes about the purple pajamas in the past and while it wasn’t out of malice, I realize that it was neither my place nor my decision to make. Another hard lesson learned. Another pill to swallow.

Reflecting on my own insecurities, I cannot even imagine how difficult a decision it must have been to live his life freely and unapologetically, especially in prison. A decision that takes the type of courage that I may never understand. The type of courage I envy and admire dearly.

In this kind of environment, where one can be victimized and categorized as a deviant if you’re not straight, queer folks often face violent consequences. Fellow prisoners are not the only ones who make life dangerous — closed-minded staff also contribute.

“Staff don’t even like us, and filing formal grievances [to voice concerns] only make you a target,” said Country. Furthermore, admitting that you’re feeling uncomfortable or unsafe can potentially land you housed in segregation units alone with no privileges.

I continue to listen intently, wondering how lonely it must feel to know that even asking for help can bring you harm. The world is a cruel place. How have we all contributed to that cruelty?

Country proceeds to tell me about his relationship with his mother, who tragically passed away in 2018. Growing up, he always knew he was different, although his first sexual experience with a man wasn’t until he was incarcerated.

He never got to explicitly tell his mom about his identity and decision before her passing, which he regrets, but finds comfort in knowing that she knew him well enough to have her suspicions. “She just already knew,” he said.

I’ve also lost my mother, chronicled in an earlier ‘On the Fence Line’, so I understand the pain of things left unsaid. The heaviness of the unknown. How much weight must be on his spirit? How does one cope? As I scribble jumbled notes like the amateur writer that I try to be, it takes everything in me to hold back the tears. Nope, not today.

A couple weeks ago I ran into Country as we crossed paths while I was heading to the visit room to see my wife. He was just leaving and heading back to our living unit after a visit, looking as joyful as can be. What I didn’t realize was what he had just been forced to endure.

We’re all required in prison to get strip searched after a visit. For me, I cope by numbing my mind to get over the embarrassment of another person inspecting my naked body like cattle. That’s the only way we get to see our families.

For Country, this is even more traumatic since its male guards who conduct these searches. Need I say more? I’ve never even considered this.

Country and I conclude our 2-hour conversation with him attributing his decision to stop HRT to the process “not necessarily helping with his mental health” and him finding peace in the love from his wife of 18 months. “[She’s] an amazing and loving person who accepts me for me,” he said. Exploring Christianity has also influenced his recent decision.

Considering how all of the factors he shares with me ultimately changed his mind regarding his gender transition, I can only imagine the overall hardships of everyday prison living that likely also contributed. It breaks my heart. Quite frankly, I’m angry.

Not only am I angry for Country, I’m angry at myself and society as a whole. I’m angry because the DOC and our communities do nothing to encourage education and cultivate understanding regarding LGBTQIA+ issues in prisons and outside.

Instead, they’ve actively attacked peer-led cultural groups such as the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG) whose mission is to create platforms of change and education for marginalized communities by centering those directly impacted by institutional and systemic discrimination and providing safe spaces for people like Country.

As a cisgender heterosexual man, I’ll be the first to admit that I have never experienced what it feels like to walk in the shoes of somebody from the LGBTQIA+ community in prison. I want to do better by genuinely standing beside these individuals in what I hope is the most meaningful way possible.

That means demanding more from myself and my peers. That means asking questions and listening from a place of true understanding. That means not being guided and restricted by shame, guilt, ignorance, and fear.

The world does not need more “saviors,” that only replicate the tactics of institutions of oppression in the first place. Saviors are for those who need saving. We need equity, love, and inclusion. But most of all, the world needs more courageous people like my friend Country.

He reminds me that after all he’s been through he’s still “not afraid of figuring it out.”

“I’m a stronger person because of what I’ve gone through,” he said. 

Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him with questions for “On the Fence Line” via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, 191 Constantine Way, Aberdeen, WA 98520.

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