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Lil Nas X with background of prison cells overlaid with colors of the rainbow.
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi. Photo of Lil Nas X by Jean_Nelson on Depositphotos.

Lil Nas X’s 2021 music video “Industry Baby” opens in a courtroom, as the young artist is sentenced to five years in the fictional Montero State Prison. The video features boldly gay scenes, including an all-male nude dance party in a prison shower.

While the video is entertaining, it does nothing to show what many queer and transgender people endure behind bars.

In Black & Pink News, Ky Peterson says of Lil Nas X: “He’s a guy that is unapologetically gay, and he just lets everyone see him the way he is. … He has a way of saying whatever is on his mind and not caring how people feel about it.”

Here we have an entertainer who doesn’t mind boldly representing being gay. Yet his music video set in prison fails to bring awareness to the horrors that LGBTQIA+ people face while incarcerated.

Not many people are aware of the suffering that transgender and queer people sustain in prison — the rapes, the threats, the humiliation, the discrimination and, in some cases, the loss of life.

The rights of transgender people are too often ignored by the criminal justice system. And in my experience some prison officials treat transgender people as freaks of nature who shouldn’t have rights.

Lil Nas X’s massive platform, combined with his bombastic proclamations of belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community, comes with responsibility. If he doesn't take every opportunity to expose the injustices that our community endures, I feel like he has failed the community he claims to represent. When you are aware that serious problems exist — as Lil Nas X surely is — and you make a video that pulls a blanket over them instead of exposing them, that is a failure of responsibility.

Let’s be clear: In prison, there is no celebration among trans men, women or other queer. There is no dancing.

While I disagree with his representation of queer life in prison, Lil Nas X deserves credit for having used his noteriety to help others in the past.

The same summer this music video debuted, Lil Nas X started the “Bail X Fund” with the Bail Project, a national nonprofit, to raise money for cash bail and free people from jail. That fund has raised more than $45,000 and is part of a larger effort that raised close to $500,000 for 16 different charities supporting marginalized communities.

These deeds show that Lil Nas X is not only a talented performer, but has grasped the importance of his platform. That only makes it more disappointing that he didn’t produce a music video portraying the harsh realities of prison life for LGBTQIA+ people.

I’m not saying Lil Nas X should have solutions. This isn’t a personal attack. It’s a call to action — or, rather, a call for help.

Lil Nas X has the power to reach millions of people, so he must use his megaphone to expose the systemic racism and chronic injustices the incarcerated LGBTQIA+ community endures.

LGBTQIA+ prisoners are fighting for their lives. I don’t have enough room to write all the names of the transgender people who have died in jails and prisons, but several high-profile cases have occurred in the last couple of years. For many of us who survive and ultimately get free, we leave with enduring psychological scars.

For the queer and transgender community, prisons inflict unimaginable pain and suffering. Despite what you might see on TV, there is no party in here.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Khaȧliq Shakur is a trans writer incarcerated in Texas.