[Ed. Note — Joseph Urbaniak is an inmate at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, N.C., and is the plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Corrections to secure the right of LGBT prisoners to possess non-sexual, LGBT-themed books, newspapers and magazines. Q-Notes is publishing a collection of Urbaniak’s writings in this exclusive, limited-run column about life as a gay man in prison. Names of individuals in the story have been changed; in some stories, Urbaniak refers to himself as Sebastian McShane.]
It was unprecedented. At least, it was something I’d never seen before in my 10 years in the prison system. Here I’d been sitting, wishing I had some gay boys to hang out with in my dorm — some “family” to have around. Sure, every once in a while there might be one in the same dorm with me, but it wouldn’t be long before they’d be gone, transferred to another dorm chasing their latest boyfriend or shipped off camp. But now, within a week’s time, five other openly gay guys got moved into my dorm. Five! I danced and shouted praise to Eros. I had family to hang out with!
Three of them were sisters who sashayed as they walked, wrists limp at their sides, most of their sentences punctuated with “honey” —
“What’s for lunch, honey?”
“Are you going on the yard, honey?”
“Oooh, honey, he is a cute one!”
Ronnie (aka Shamika), Mark (aka Chanel) and Tim (aka Tammy) were all in their early-to-mid-20s. Shamika was the only black in our family, a big girl who spoke her mind. Chanel and Tammy were both small and skinny and had performed at several clubs together in full drag. Chanel’s act was more serious, with elaborate costumes and expensive wigs. Tammy lip-synched, but Chanel could sing, honey.
Chanel had some studio portraits of herself. One showed her in an elegant green gown covered with rhinestones, a huge halo of peacock feathers and a rhinestone crown on her head signifying her title as Miss Southern Belle. Another photo showed her in a cut-off T-shirt, black leather chaps and cowboy boots; in it she bore a striking resemblance to Britney Spears. Most of the straight guys she showed the photos to drooled over them and said things like “That’s not really you — is it?” or “Oh…my…God!” or “Hey, are you hooked up with anyone?” A couple of guys even thought about leaving their wives.
The other two in our family were more masculine. In his early 30s, Andy was over six feet tall and big; he looked like a linebacker and kept his hair cut close. Paul was new to the prison scene, down for only a couple of months. He was short and skinny, with long black hair that he wore in a pigtail and still had the fear of prison shock about him. He’d only be here for seven more months, so he didn’t need to get used to the prison routine.
The six of us were having a great time together. None of them had been on this camp before, so I showed them around, pointing out the officers who might give them a hard time, the guys who messed around, the homophobes and the guys who were looking to hook up.
By the end of the first day on camp, Chanel had found a man, but T.C., the guy who hooked up with him, didn’t stay hooked up long. A cute guy of average height and build, with brown hair he wore in a mullett and a goatee, he was overbearing and easily made jealous. He lasted almost a week before Chanel had had enough of him.
We all talked about the club scene, how much it had changed for the 10 years I’d been locked up and how much it hadn’t. Sure there were more gay clubs around, but once you got inside, one was pretty much like any other.
The six of us became a gang on the yard, where we’d claim a table for ourselves and watch the guys walk by. It was like a construction site: we were the construction workers, and the other guys were the pretty girls, getting whistles and catcalls. Some of the guys ate up the attention, while others shot angry glances our way and stopped walking by.
By the end of our second week together, I started hearing complaints. Sometimes it was a mumbled comment with the word “faggot” thrown in, but sometimes the inmate made sure that both he and his comments were known.
One afternoon, while the six of us congregated on the stairs, two black Muslim inmates walked past and one said to the other, “There’s too many fags in this dorm.” The comment was meant for us to hear.
Shamika turned to them and said, “What’s the matter, honey? You ain’t getting enough dick?”
One guy turned around and shot an evil glance our way, but his friend put his arm around his shoulder, pulling him away. “C’mon. It ain’t worth it. There’s other ways.”
After that, I noticed the officers seemed to be keeping a closer eye on us. We were told we couldn’t congregate, we had to move on. Some of the staff pushed the seldom enforced rule of one man to a room, but only with regard to our little gang; the other inmates could still have guests in their rooms.
Other inmates started telling us of rumors about members of our cliqué, who were said to be hopping from room to room in wild sex orgies; there had been complaints to staff about these supposed goings-on. Then one guy actually got caught by staff standing at his door jacking off, while looking across the day room at Tammy and Chanel, who were sitting at a table together.
By the beginning of the third week, it happened. An officer came into the block and told Chanel, Tammy, Andy and Paul each in turn to pack their stuff, they were moving. Paul and Tammy were sent to the neighboring unit, and Chanel and Andy to the neighboring dorm in our unit. I was actually surprised that it had taken them three weeks to break up our gay gang. They had given us just enough time to begin to feel comfortable and safe together, then they separated us.
We still saw each other on the yard, even though we had to talk to Paul and Tammy through the fence that separates the yards at a distance of 20 feet. We other three didn’t spend as much time together as we used to, just a few minutes here and there. Chanel and Andy eventually became glad of the move, since they found boyfriends in their new block. As for Shamika and me, we’re holding down the fort in this dorm. Shamika is hunting a man of her own; I think she’s jealous of Tammy and Andy. Me, I’m back at my desk doing what I seem to do best: writing down these stories of prison life.
— Joe Urbaniak was sentenced in 1995 to 20 years imprisonment for indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature. He hopes to be released in 2010. He was awarded Second Place for Memoir in the 2003 PEN Prison Writing Awards and has recently earned his B.A. in Business Administration.