Editors' note: Steve Mason is a 26-year-old California state inmate, librarian, and gay liberation activist who will be released in early 2015. When he is not engaged in pink politics he can be found reading Stephen King books, drawing, listening to punk & ska or playing dungeons and dragons.
My name is Steve and I am an openly queer inmate in the prison state of California. I wasn't always open and honest about who I am. At the time of my arrest I had barely come out of the closet only to shut myself back in upon receiving my sentence.
My journey starts in the Los Angeles County jail. I wouldn't wish even my worst enemies to spend five minutes there. I didn't really speak to anyone there because I was in severe culture shock. I was in a dorm setting like that of a boot camp barracks. Three bunks down from me was a white man who I knew was gay. We would talk and play cards from time to time. He knew I was gay even though I didn't say I was (sometimes you don't have to).
One day he got a letter from his lover and another white man (races group together, racism thrives) saw the letter and shouted, "Fag!" I sat there, frozen in fear as five other white guys dragged him into the showers and beat the hell out of him. I'll never forget the look he gave me as they beat him. "Help me!" his eyes screamed, but I was too much of a coward to lift my fists let alone scream stop. He was taken away after he was beaten and placed with the K-11's (the gay unit).
I knew from that moment that being gay threatened my safety. For the sake of my personal safety, I placed myself so deep into the closet I smelled like mothballs.
After I was sentenced, I was sent to the ironically named Pleasant Valley State Prison. I dodged questions about my sexuality and each and every time I lied, wanting to scream "Yes, I'm gay!" And I would have except that the things I witnessed kept me afraid. Gays are treated like shit in prison. We are seen as property, to be bought and sold. I once witnessed a nineteen-year-old sold to be a "punk" for a case of ramen noodles and I've heard horror stories about punks being used as drug and weapon holders as well as prostitutes. Three guesses where the contraband was held.
I would cry myself to sleep, much like I did as a closeted teen living in a violently homophobic home. After two years of living in a straight jacket I couldn't take it any more. It was mentally and emotionally killing me to live like that. In March of 2008, I blurted out that I was gay to my cellie. I waited for what felt like an eternity for him to respond. His answer was: "And? So what?" He explained to me that his niece is gay and he spent a good deal of time protecting her from her family. He told me for my well-being, I should keep my sexuality to myself, but he gave me the space to relax and drop the act while in our cell. For his own protection though, he said he would deny knowing about my sexuality if anyone else found out.
Six months later the news was flooded with stories about Proposition 8. I didn't think much of it at the time, but when it passed I felt a grave injustice had been done. My eyes were glued to my television for any news on Prop 8. I saw protests, marches, and outrage. Prior to this I didn't really care about bigger picture issues like this. I was never an active member of the gay community (never had the chance) and sadly only cared about my personal struggles as a gay man. But after seeing the outrage at these protests on my television I desperately wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to scream, "Fuck you!" to the straight world and become an activist.
But before I could do any of that, I had to do one of the hardest, scariest things in my life: I had to come out in prison. I knew the risks, but I didn't care anymore. I would take the beatings, the slurs, and the abandonment of my so-called friends. I wanted so desperately to be a part of something bigger than myself. Next I cut my long hair so people would not conflate my sexuality with my gender expression, pierced my right ear and kicked the god-damned door of my closet, no turning back!
Once I was out, I tried reaching out to what I thought were like-minded queers. I wrote to Equality California, Marriage Equality, GLAAD, and the ACLU requesting addresses for groups I could write to for moral support and for information on how I could help. The responses I got from them were about the same. They offered no help, no referrals, and basically wanted nothing to do with me. It was like they said, "Thanks for playing, Steve, but you don't fit into our image of what a gay person is. We all act straight and want to be just like them."
This broke my heart. It made me feel like my struggle meant nothing to anyone on the outside. But one day, fate saw it fit for me to acquire a 'zine called Out of the Closets and Into the Libraries written by a person named Conrad (a Bilerico blogger). I absorbed every word of the small booklet on queer and trans history. The information inside sparked a thirst for knowledge about our rich queer history. I wrote to Conrad and we have been pen pals ever since.
Through Conrad I contacted La-Gai and the Prisoner Correspondence Project based in Montreal. They hooked me up with numerous queer resources and newsletters that include everything from history, health, and politics. I've taken the information and shared it with other queer and trans folks at this prison and now they call me "the queer librarian!"
Being in prison has, in a sense, given me freedom. I know that if I can be open here, I can do it anywhere, unafraid. In weakness, I found strength and in fear, I have found courage. For those of you in prison, whether that prison be the closet, an actual prison or both, stay strong and know that you are not alone.