White is Just the Beginning: Privileges Revealed in the Most Unprivileged of Places
THE TERM “PRIVILEGE” — white or otherwise — was not really in vogue when I spent nine months in the California prison system in 2004. And it certainly wasn’t a word that any of the men I served time with would have ever thought to apply to their experience while behind bars, or, for that matter, to any other part of their lives. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that prison is where I learned about unexpected forms of privilege that I had no name for at the time. The first kind was extremely personal.
The phrase gay privilege may conjure images of velvet mafiosi clinking glasses at a bisexual billionaire’s swank Hampton digs, but I came to know an extremely specific and rare manifestation of it at the worst moment of my life. It was right after I had been arrested. After a week under suicide watch (a place to make you suicidal if you weren’t already), I was ushered in to see an avuncular officer who wanted to make sure I genuinely qualified for one of the three gay dorms at the Los Angeles County Jail, collectively known as “K-11.” I passed with flying colors, having no trouble listing a wide sampling of gay bars, one of which had even employed me as a bartender. As a first-time offender, he put me in the “least hectic” of the three dorms, 5100.
Once there, I soon discovered that a third or so of the inmates were nominally straight on the outside, but here had sexual or romantic interactions with other inmates who were trans (usually breast implanted but retaining male genitalia, so housed with the men) or temporarily adopting a female presentation as a survival strategy in prison. Some straight men had no such relationships but had learned how to lie their way into these protective dorms, because there were no racial politics there, and it was far safer than “gen-pop.” They preferred rumors of their sexual preference filtering back to their homeboys rather than being the potential target of violence by gang-bangers settling scores. I resented them, wondering if they had displaced actual queer boys who should have been here, but they weren’t the kind of men you challenged.
Those of us who were HIV-positive had another layer of privilege in the dorms. We were given an…