Lockdown: Tang

[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.]

I was transferred to another facility this week, so I can take a program for sex offenders. This camp is much bigger than the one I came from, with well over 1,000 inmates and a campus that is about half-a-mile from end to end — the biggest facility in the state.

I wasn’t surprised to see several guys I’d known from other campuses I’ve been to over the years. Bobby is one of them, a black man about five foot nine who works out and has a big chest, arms and shoulders and a scar across his face where someone attacked him with a razor years ago. He and I had been in a dorm together about seven years ago — more acquaintances than friends — and share a dorm here, too. Since I’m new and don’t know most of the inmates, I asked him if he knew any of the gay guys here. He said sure and offered to point some of them out to me.

The next day Bobby and I went to the chow hall together for dinner and he pointed out several guys, including a short Asian with thick black hair parted in the center and wearing wire-rim glasses, whom he said was called Tang. Seeing him, I think he might like to read my copy of Noodle Magazine, a gay Asian magazine I subscribe to [Ed. Note — Noodle is now out-of-print.] So the next day at dinner, when I saw Tang in the chow hall, I introduced myself and said, “I’ve got a magazine you might like to read.” We agreed to meet after dinner so I could give it to him.

I felt good. I always try to establish friendships with other gay men on my camp. This kind of “family” bond is important to me. It gives us all a kind of togetherness in prison and lets us talk about problems and feelings that you can’t discuss with straight guys. Plus, we can look out for one another.

I remember one friend I made several years ago, a skinny Mexican named David. We developed a bond that was like brotherhood and even called each other “brother.” We still keep in touch and will be friends for the rest of our lives. I’m not saying that I was hoping for the same thing from Tang, but I thought that at least we could be friends.

Tang and I met outside my building and I handed him the magazine.

“What’s it about?” he asked, looking at the picture of Margaret Cho on the cover.

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“It’s a gay Asian magazine.”

“Gay? Why are you giving it to me? I’m not gay.” He shoved the magazine back at me.

I stood there holding the magazine, feeling like a total ass. “You’re not gay?”

“No! Who told you that?”

I didn’t know what to say. The last thing I wanted to do was piss someone off by accusing them of being gay — especially in prison, where accusations like that can get you beaten up, if not killed.

“Look, Tang, I’m really sorry. I guess I got some bad information. I’d never have come to you like this if I hadn’t been told you were gay.”

“I’ve got gay friends and don’t have a problem with gays, but I’m not one myself.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to get my ass beat. But I apologized several more times, just to be sure.

“Who told you that?”

“A guy in my block.” I described Bobby, but Tang didn’t know him.

I apologized one last time, said I hoped there weren’t any hard feelings, and Tang said there weren’t. We parted on a handshake.

The next day at dinner I saw Tang sitting at a table and asked if I could join him. He motioned me to sit down.

“I still want to know who told you that,” he said.

A few minutes later, Bobby came through the serving line.

“There he is,” I said to Tang. “The guy at the drink machine.”

After chow, Tang waited for Bobby outside to talk to him. I stood against a building across the yard from them so that, if Bobby denied telling me Tang was gay, I could come over and join the conversation. After a few minutes, when I realized that Tang was not going to call me over, I left.

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Back in my dorm Bobby walked over to me. “You shouldn’t have come right out to him like that.”

“You told me he was gay. That’s what I was going on.”

“Yeah, but you should have gotten to know him first. Let him tell you when he’s ready. Not jump right into it.”

“I did what I always do when I meet a gay guy on camp. I go up to him and ask if he’d like to see my gay newspapers and magazines when I finish with them.”

“Yeah, but Tang’s a very private person and he doesn’t know you.”

“That’s why I introduced myself. I’m not trying to hook up with him. I just wanted to be his friend.”

“That’s what I told him, but I think you freaked him out.”

“He’s in the closet, or something?”

“A very private person.”

“You should have told me that from the start. He may think I’m stalking him or something.”

“You can’t act that way here. This is a different camp.”

“I act the way I do everywhere. This is the first time anyone reacted like this.”

Later I ran into Tang in the yard. I wanted to say something to him, but didn’t know what. By the look on his face, he didn’t know what to say to me either.

— 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.

He has requested that Q-Notes publish his contact information in hopes of finding penpals. Write him at P.O. Box 1569, Lillington, NC 27546. All correspondence should include his inmate number: 0415899.

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