After years in the Michigan prison system, Ryan McCarthy finally learned how to reclaim his integrity and stand up for what he believes in.
My involvement with Michigan’s court system as a younger teen had already shown me things I had never hoped to see, but they just kept coming, despite my repeated attempts at sobriety and responsible living. During my teens I had become separated from a basic awareness of the roles empathy and compassion play in the healthy decision-making process. It seemed my experiences in life so far had instead shown me detachment and dissociation, both of which hindered the existence of inclusiveness or acceptance.
When I received my prison number in 1997, I felt as though my role in society was downgraded from “bottom feeder” to “non-existent”. My life was now on hold for 8-15 years and that thought became my constant for many months, further adding to my overall exhaustion and the desire to quiet my brain. The quiet I found at the time also included an easily digestible mindset described as primeval, animalistic, and slightly suggestible. Add my youth into the equation and it’s no surprise I was able to align with the general attitude of most inmates in the MDOC: Everything in prison is gay. Oh yes, very gay.
Straight men, white men, black men, any man, inanimate objects, an unfortunate turn of the cards, the weather, the food, meal rotation, the laundry schedule: Gay. This attitude permeates each prison in Michigan regardless of location, security level, or dinner menu. In each institution, a frighteningly high percentage of inmates refer to all perceived negatives as gay and call everybody they see a “fag”.
So as to avoid confusion as we move on, I used both words many times in all the hateful, spiteful and confused manners in which their respective three letters can so loudly represent.
And yes, so as to add to the confusion while also partially explaining it away, I have had physical, consensual relationships with men since a teen, but refrained for many reasons while incarcerated.
And no, I am not here to spin anything or explain anything away, just to share some facts from my perspective.
All along I knew what I was doing was wrong, and therein still lies the problem. My brain at the time had difficulty processing the ‘although I know what I do is wrong, I allow it to continue’ thought. Insanity, right? Over the years this cycle repeated itself in many iterations, including using the word “gay” as an insult, probably making some noticeable dents in my psyche along the way.
My supposed friends and I were dehumanizing other people (largely each other) by identifying them with the group somehow collectively identified as being the weakest: homosexual men. Easy prey for the poker table’s daily group of fellas. This degradation somehow elevated my own ‘stature’ to a degree that fed my ego enough lies to survive the day, but never did I, nor any of my various “crews” openly acknowledge our collective sin. This unspoken awareness turned each of us into an accomplice of sorts and allowed the skirting of one more issue for one more day. After all, any possible way to assert strength was embraced, utilized, viewed as valid and ultimately considered necessary for continued day-to-day survival.
It now seems quite apparent that the hateful uses of “gay” and “fag” were largely as physical manifestations caused by other confusions and frustrations common to a prisoner. Their invoking hoped to represent manliness, validation through perceived heterosexuality, lack of fear, clarity, alpha male assertion, respect, etc. Obviously, these misrepresentations were seen by most for what they truly were, but even with an absolute knowledge that our schtick was just a sham, I still allowed the nonsense to continue. I was a part of a larger game of survival and I was not about to lose that. After all, it was only me in there, so how could I ever put anyone above myself when my own head is on a swivel twenty-four hours a day?
For the first nine or ten years of incarceration, I did not possess a solid enough belief system that would allow me to speak up, so I coasted as a loner or follower. Whether partially due to the large groups of large men that could be quite forceful when they chose, the hope of blending in, an attempt at privacy, the desire to not share my true self with anyone or just the simple will to make it to the next meal, I lost sight early on of my power to directly affect other people’s realities and perceptions. Sadly, it took until after my release to take that power back, but now it exists as it should.
Fortunately, I wound up in some relaxed facilities as I slowly approached my 2008 release date. Because I had been convicted of violent felonies, my eventual release substantially hinged on my participation and completion of the ‘Assaultive Offender Program.’ AOP was a year-long program that met for three hours weekly and consisted of sharing, critique, developing a relapse prevention plan and generally trying to figure out the reasons behind our respective offenses. Facilitated by a ‘professional’ and attended by a dozen inmates, it was impossible to hide who we were. It became instantly clear we were expected to share and be honest, so after one or two classes it also became apparent I needed to put up or shut up.
I knew I was intelligent enough that I could offer myself a life outside of institutions and had always heard the word “potential” used in relation to my talents and gifts. It was time for me to start connecting some dots and soon enough, I actually did. Walking the yard a month or so into the AOP classes, a mini-revelation bared itself to me through the mental fog: There are aspects of my incarcerated life I truly did have the ability to control, and it was time to claim them as mine.
Over the next few months, my diet changed, exercise became a release rather than a chore, and I managed to identify parts of my existence I was not pleased with. At this point, instead of ignoring and denying my negatives, they were acknowledged and allowed to work themselves out. This therapy of sorts was working, but some things were slower to be removed than others.
Through deep meditative thought and focus I arrived at some concrete conclusions about life. After getting a glimpse of the light at the end of a very long tunnel, approaching thirty years old, and finally understanding myself enough to be able to like and trust who I was becoming, I knew it was my time. I finished the AOP class and was transferred to a Level 1 facility where I encountered as much of the “gay/fag” confusion as I had anywhere before. This time I did not play the game and separated myself from guys who would not tolerate my tolerance. My rebukes were careful, as anything in prison still could get twisted and cause unnecessary drama. Shortly after my transfer I was granted a parole and have been out almost five years.
The bigoted mentality I was surrounded by and engaged in for so long also exists in free society. Those hateful words are tossed around less now than I had gotten used to in prison, so it has become exponentially more frustrating and disappointing to hear them spoken. Each and every iteration mumbled within my earshot still draws a reply. Most are communicated immediately, regardless of who else is around. Some discussions obviously work better after the fact and in a more appropriate environment. The remaining few run far away to observe from a distant place or to yell more nonsense from across the street. Turns out that a confused teenage girl of average build is substantially easier to confront than a confused 240-pound neo-nazi explaining to the entire yard his hatred of “dicksuckers.”
“Fucking gay.” “Fucking faggot.”
The definitions we now give to these words and their variations are largely irrelevant. The gay/straight part of this equation is also mostly an afterthought at this point. It truly seems that most bigots are really just trying to communicate one or two of these basic ideas:
#1. Misguided anger.
#2. Misdirected aggression.
#3. How do I fit into the world?
#4. I think I am gay.
#5. I dislike myself but I do not know why.
#6. I want to suck your cock but am too scared to actually say it.
A huge percentage of mankind’s inability to understand human connections stems directly from the existence of confusion and its resulting manifestations. Instead of communicating honest and clear thoughts, it becomes easier to accept a confusion, keep it in and hope it gets worked out.
So, how do we then identify and fix these core (read actual) difficulties? Offering honesty and safety at all times is a good place to start. Speak up if ever found in the presence of hate. Assuming the situation at hand would become uncomfortable rather than life-threatening, use your voice. As much power as those words may be allowed, we must each remember that every one of us has been afforded the power to negate their existence by offering a few timely words of our own. Use your voice. No matter how small the situation, the results gained by stopping a dangerous cycle before it accelerates far outweigh the passive acceptance of ignorance and hate.
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Photo: Flickr/ nicocrisafulli