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Two black men hug with their faces obscured by a rainbow flag.
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi

This article was published in partnership with LOOKOUT, a non profit LGBTQ+ news service serving the greater Phoenix area. Subscribe to their newsletter.

Being Black and from Phoenix, Arizona, I wasn’t afforded the same opportunities as other kids.

I was born and raised in south central Phoenix, surrounded by a vibrant Black community. But the area, in my experience, was heavily influenced by homophobia within churches, which were pillars in preserving strong Black families.

My family attended Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, and as a kid I was sent to a youth summer camp where the pastor told me I was possessed with demons and then put his hands on me to “release” me from the “curse” of homosexuality.

I was told I was abnormal. I was going to hell. My dad said I would not be anything but a “fag.” And, in turn, that meant to me that I was unloved and unworthy. So for the greater part of my life, I have been engaged in a war within and against myself.

I have been suicidal since I was 12 years old, and have struggled with low self-esteem and severe depression. And after my mom died eight years ago, I began using methamphetamine.

I was homeless, grieving, hopeless, vulnerable and desperate. God wouldn't hear me because I was gay; my dad was unavailable for the same reason. So I found my peace in “party and play,” the term used by gay men to smoke meth and have sex, often unprotected. A series of bad situations with people, never substantial enough to be considered relationships, led to STDs, more drug usage and eventually prison.

Now, I have PTSD. I am in recovery. And I am currently incarcerated for a charge of disorderly conduct and am down to my last 80 days of an 18-month sentence.

I am currently in the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program, which is a therapeutic community. Prisoners like myself take part in a program that explores the causes of our addictions, their effects and provides us with some resources to aid in our recovery.

But the RSAT program, like most of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry programs, promotes heterosexuality and is negligent — at best — of the specifics of being a homosexual.

More often than not, I find myself educating staff and prisoners alike about the realities of being a gay man. In my conversations with straight men on sexuality I am often giving perspective to their one-dimensional worldview.

For them, it is expected and demanded that gay men “come out the closet” and “show respect,” but these obligations are seldom reciprocated. Instead, people like me are forced to be gender-conscious and sexually aware, and yet when we ask for the same from the rest of the world we are “forcing gay upon everyone” or being disrespectful.

But just as being born straight was not a choice for them, or being born Black was not a choice for me, being born gay is the same — I just got lucky!

To be fair, that’s not so different compared to the outside. Being gay in prison is merely a smaller experience of what being gay in south central Phoenix is like on a normal day.

In my experience, though, being a gay man has meant that I have to be tougher, smarter, more self-reliant and more resilient than straight men, both in and out of prison.

A lot of gay men in prison (or “cheetos,” as they’re called in here), are more than complacent in surrendering to their abuse. There are innumerable incidents of sexual assault, harassment and other abuses that slide under the radar — prisoner on prisoner, as well as staff on prisoner.

I’ve seen male inmates violated in the shower, on the toilet and even in housing units by both male and female staff who watch us, like voyeurs.

For me, being incarcerated has taken the best of me; I have given more than I have received and lost more than I have gained. I have nonetheless been unapologetically audacious and honest about who I am as a Black gay man because I have nothing to prove — or to lose — at this point.

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.

Markel L. Sumler is a writer incarcerated in Arizona.