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LGBTQ+ Relationships in Prison: Power, Coercion, or Love?

LGBTQ+ Relationships in Prison: Power, Coercion, or Love?

Donnie McKinley | December 01, 2021 | 10 min. read

Sex is illegal in prison, but it happens. In a place where the main language is violence, sex is a weapon. So, what are sexual relationships like when the act is associated with power, not intimacy? Donnie knows. As a man who has spent almost all of his adult life in prison, he’s watched it all play out.

Sex is used for power, as a means of coercion, and sometimes… sometimes it turns into love. Governing all of this is the straight politics of prison. Understanding of LGBTQ+ rights from the outside world has not made it into prisons. Navigating same-sex relationships is a minefield for male prisoners, and here, Donnie tells us how it’s done.

When I entered prison 26 years ago the public conversation concerning LGBTQ+ rights was different than today. We did not have the same understanding or sensitivities, so if my language seems dated or in any way insensitive, it is not a sign of disrespect, but a sign that I am socially antiquated.

When it comes to sex, inside prison there are no experts. No one can be an expert about anything concerning prison simply because each prison is different. For this reason the prison experience is very subjective. Some people love it and thrive here, while others find it to be a complete nightmare. Prison is the ultimate land of make believe. Anyone in prison can claim to be or to have been anything anywhere in the world without having to worry about having it refuted. Almost nothing is verifiable. Therefore, who knows what’s true when it comes to sexual activity.

Violence is the main language in prison. Guards and prisoners use it to meet their ends. Without at least a threat of violence almost nothing is possible here, but this idea isn’t unique to prisons, it’s how all countries enforce rules on their populations.

Sex As Violence

When it comes to prisoner-on-prisoner violence, gangs hold a monopoly and a fair share of prison sex is the by-product of that violence. Many stories have been told about gang members in prison using other prisoners in the same way that conquering armies of the past would use the women within occupied lands.

Whether we choose to call these prisoners/gang members who used sex as a means of violence gay or not is irrelevant here, what matters most is that they did not or do not consider themselves gay. Besides being used as a weapon against anyone in opposition, sex was also used recreationally as a means of release. These men who considered themselves heterosexual could and would enlist openly gay or trans prisoners to provide fellatio or anal sex without themselves enduring any of the consequences of being labeled gay themselves.

The stratified nature of prison-life makes it possible for a prisoner to claim he is not gay while simultaneously engaging in gay sex acts simply as long as he remains in the dominant masculine position and the openly gay prisoner, trans prisoner, or the heterosexual prisoner (who through violence is forced to act gay), is placed in a submissive feminine role.

Relationships for Sexual Release

Aside from those who use gay sex as a means of violence are those who use gay sex strictly as a substitute for the sexual release. Their initiation into the world of gay sex is usually consensual and secretive. They aren’t gay, at least they would never publicly come out, and they want to maintain their reputation as a gang member or man of violence. When it can no longer be hidden or denied the prisoner must decide whether to come clean to his own gang/community or continue to lie. The lies typically attempt to downplay his reasons for associating with the gay or trans prisoner. “We be hustling”, he might say insinuating the gay or trans prisoner is helping him sell drugs or some other illegal activity. If this is someone who is truly only interested in occasional encounters then the damage is minimal. He can continue discreetly getting his dick sucked or fucking as long as it doesn’t become an embarrassment or scandal to his associates.

If he’s someone who desires a closer and more personal experience, he might want to become cellmates with his partner and this is where the line between speculation and any potential scandal crosses.

For someone to voluntarily move into a cell with a gay or trans prisoner would be seen as an undeniable sign of gay or same sex activity and it would become impossible to maintain his respect or position of prestige amongst his gang/community peers. The problem would not be his decision to participate in gay sexual activity, but his inability to protect himself from whatever rumours or lies that might surface. For example, if the gay or trans prisoner accuses him of being a “Reach Around Man” the damage would be set in stone. By this point he would now be considered gay in the minds of the prisoners closest to him. His fellow prisoners would questions if his activities had increased to intimate kissing and finally to what is known as “Flip-Flopping” i.e., alternating anal sex. If there’s any activity which exists as a dividing line between gay and straight in prison, it is the introduction of a penis to any of one’s orifices. That is the point of no return. How and why would any of this happen? For most people here, there are only two options: Either the straight prisoner begins to care about the gay or trans prisoner’s pleasure, or the gay or trans prisoner threatens to end the arrangement due to a lack of pleasure on his side.

"Prison is the ultimate land of make believe. Anyone in prison can claim to be or to have been anything anywhere in the world without having to worry about having it refuted. Almost nothing is verifiable. Therefore, who knows what’s true when it comes to sexual activity."

STIs & Sexual Health in Prison

Drugs are the main recreational activity in prisons - beating sex by a large margin. With certain types of drugs comes possible exposure to hepatitis, AIDS, and other infections that are spread through intravenous drug use. This issue is further exacerbated by a lack of safe sex options for those who are having sex inside prisons. This problem has recently been remedied by laws which make condoms accessible to prisoners, while maintaining that being caught having sex is still punishable by disciplinary action. In places where openly gay or trans prisoners are almost unheard of the condoms remain in place, but in places where sex is rampant the condom supply cannot always keep up with the huge demand, meaning the reckless behavior of some cannot be stopped.

Love in Prison

Recreational sex in prison has the same possibilities that exist outside of prison. One or both might fall in love no matter how unlikely the situation seems.

When love does happen, it doesn’t receive the correct nourishment it deserves. The majority of the people in prisons hold very strong homophobic views and gay couples are never given the platform to speak their truths. No one cares why or how they fall in love, it’s just seen as an affliction which might be contagious if not held in check. Personally, I despise this simpleminded approach and have held plenty of conversations where I have defended people’s rights to be who they are.

I’ve seen hardcore gang members seemingly fall in love. This was often manifested through kisses, tattoos as a visual sign of ownership, rejection of their gang ties due to pressures to leave the gay or trans prisoner, and even injecting themselves intentionally with needles used by HIV positive prisoners so they might get infected and be able to move into the HIV unit with their lover. It might sound far fetched, but it’s true.
Gay weddings were a reality too. Well before gay marriage was legal, possibly anywhere in the world, gay and trans prisoners were celebrating their love in non-binding ceremonies on prison yards.

Homophobia in Prison

Ironically, while prison is the domain of killers and thieves, it is also home to some of the most conservative religious people and therefore some of the staunchest opponents of homosexuality. Another factor that might determine one’s views on sexuality is education. Most prisoners lack college education, and their views of sexuality are mostly informed by religious morals. Therefore, if you were to ask the common prisoner the underlying question of whether gay sex in a prison setting makes a person gay the answer would be a very biased and overwhelming “Yes”.

"When love does happen, it doesn’t receive the correct nourishment it deserves. The majority of the people in prisons hold very strong homophobic views and gay couples are never given the platform to speak their truths."

My Journey to Acceptance

I have come a long way in my evolution towards tolerance and respect for the rights of all human beings. Many of the themes I wrote about above were from things I witnessed during a two-year period in the late 1990’s ending when I was 23 years old. At that time none of the protections now in place for LGBTQ people were in place and I had no way of putting such things into context without reverting to the toxic ideas I and so many of my peers were taught culturally about gay and trans people. Seeing people named Monica and Sara in a men’s prison was a shock to my young mind and more so was the open sexuality between them and others who considered themselves straight. I respected their humanity and rights to exist, but at the same time the sexual energy they created in others disturbed me. Prison wasn’t supposed to be the place I went to see people sunbathing in booty shorts or having orgies behind closed doors, but it was all there to be seen.

Years later, after being so far removed from that type of environment that it was almost as if I dreamed it, I grew and matured into the person I am today. Admittedly it still bothers me whenever I see two prisoners sharing a moment, but not out of any fear or hatred on my part, if it must be labeled maybe it’s something closer to jealously. They are here receiving and giving the pleasures and companionship I wish I could have with the person I care about. Having it all in my face is just a reminder of what I don’t have.

Beyond that, in conversations about the rights and privileges associated with being a citizen of this world, I am a staunch supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. In my mind the issue over LGBTQ rights is a “treadmill” issue, meaning the debate is not taking us anywhere and I am tired of running in place, so I am ready to move on. Personally, I’m too concerned about starving kids and climate change to be hung up over who’s loving who. Everyone should simply try loving each other a little more and maybe then the world would be a better place.

In closing I add that if the meaning of being gay simply means engaging in same-sex sexual activity then all of the situations above qualify the participants as gay. However, as with anything, how people identify themselves is what matters most here. None of what I have written should be construed as any type of judgment over the sexual activities of responsible and safe members of the LGBTQ community and is meant solely as a way of giving partial insight into what may be happening inside of a prison near you.

Donnie McKinley is an American author and activist from California. He writes about sex and sexuality, social justice and personal growth. But Donnie is not just any author. He writes from the perspective of an innocent man who has spent more than a ... Read More
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