Prisoner is just the messenger, try to see the message instead

Editor's Note

Q-Notes readers have voiced their concerns about our editorial decision to publish a limited-run column from a gay North Carolina man convicted of indecent liberties with a minor. In this issue, we’ve published a guest commentary from a reader who takes issue with our decision. We’re proud our editorial space can be devoted to polite and civil discourse on such important issues and matters.
I thought I’d take the time to explain our editorial decision-making and thought processes regarding prisoner Joseph Urbaniak’s column.

Like many of you, Urbaniak has been a Q-Notes/Front Page reader for years. In 2007, he filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Department of Corrections seeking to grant LGBT prisoners the right to receive non-sexual, LGBT-themed newspapers, magazines and books. Much like heterosexual prisoners are able to receive magazines like Newsweek, People and Time, Urbaniak argues that LGBT prisoners should be able to receive magazines such as The Advocate and OUT and newspapers such as Q-Notes.

When Urbaniak approached us, via letter, with the idea of publishing a few of his narratives, he was forthright and honest about his conviction for indecent liberties with a minor (his victim was an adolescent). In fact, Urbaniak also offered a piece which details what he has learned through his court-mandated sex offender treatment and how he has come to realize his relationship with his adolescent victim was a sexual offense.

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Urbaniak wrote in a letter to us in November, “I would like to send you another article about my charges. I know the stigma around gay men who have sex with minors and I would like to write about the mistake I made, the people I hurt and how I found help, understanding and hope through the Sex Offender Accountability and Responsibility [therapy] program … Hopefully, it will encourage any of your readers who may be where I was to seek help before they hurt others.”

My associate editor and I jointly came to the conclusion to allow the publication of his writings after reading them and seeing a valuable message and lessons within them. Regardless of his crimes, Urbaniak’s stories reflect the overall experience of LGBT individuals in U.S. prisons. Many face extreme circumstances of discrimination, harassment, and physical and mental abuse from fellow prisoners. Many must endure disparate and discriminatory treatment from security and prison officials. Sometimes, as detailed in Urbaniak’s Dec. 27 column, LGBT prisoners find themselves at a greater risk of being victims of rape and other sexual offenses. Unfortunately, fatal injuries are also common.

We recognized early that some readers might have a distaste and outright disgust for Urbaniak’s crimes. As an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I understand very intimately the emotional reaction that might come from knowing of Urbaniak’s crimes and how that might color a person’s reactions to his words.

As a journalist, I had to ask myself — and challenge our readers to ask themselves — how my reaction to his message might be different if he’d been convicted of some other crime. Would I have seen the message with more value? Would I have had as strong a reaction against its messenger?

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In life, it is up to the individual to find meaning and value, if any, in the various messages brought to us through our time here. We often find ourselves wading through tough and uncomfortable issues and emotions along the way. In all of history, some of humanity’s most glorious triumphs of the mind and spirit came as the result of often dolorous and excruciating journeys. Nothing worth having comes without pain or discomfort.

We’d like to challenge our readers to look past the messenger and instead find the value and meaning inside the message he brings. In the coming weeks, I hope you will have the chance to learn about what it means to be gay in prison. I hope you will see value and learn lessons from Urbaniak’s writings.
We know he isn’t the perfect messenger for LGBT equality. We’re not asking him for that. In fact, we’d never ask him for that. But he does offer us a chance to get just a small glance into a world most of us will never see or experience — a world we’re privileged to never endure. And while we sit safely on the outside, we might just find truths and realities we’ve never really thought of before.

Note: Q-Notes takes reader comments, suggestions and criticisms seriously. We want to know what you think about this issue. I hope you’ll participate in our Qpoll.

Be sure to read the accompanying guest commentary in this issue, “Stop publishing writings from prisoner.”

{democracy:21}
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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.