* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.You’re hardly likely to tell a stranger wearing a uniform that you’re gay, especially if you’ve watched any classic prison drama
Phil Forder is a prison manager at a British men’s jail
I remember clearly the first time I met a gay man in prison. He was called Ray* and he was a student in my class. He hadn’t arrived triumphantly waving a rainbow flag, far from it. He was out because he couldn’t have hidden it even if he’d wanted to, he was that camp. The jokes and banter he endured from everyone around him made a deep impression on me because I harboured a secret: I too was gay but unlike poor Ray I was able to conceal it.
I was wearing a mask.
The fact that you can hide your sexuality, however badly, means that most prisoners on arrival do, or at least try to. Let’s face it, having just landed in custody you’re hardly likely to tell a stranger wearing a uniform that you’re gay, especially if you’ve recently watched any classic prison dramas.
Not long after Ray’s release, circumstances in my life changed and I found my mask was cracking and beginning to fall off. I’d now become “the only gay in the prison”, which, looking back on it was quite ridiculous considering the LGBT+ staff/prisoner population exceeded 1,500 at the time. There must have been other gay men walking the landings. A couple of years later, in 2010, the Equality Act became law and all the mask wearers became protected and it fell to me to find them.
It was obvious from the outset that the challenge had two sides to it. First, the gay men needed to feel safe enough to reveal themselves, and second, any emerging homophobia needed to be challenged. Such was the stigma of being gay at that time, that even to be seen defending it was deemed suspicious. I was going to need all the allies I could get if this was going to get off the ground.
Initial attempts to establish a staff network failed miserably; nobody there was going to poke their heads above the parapet, so I began looking beyond the walls to see who I could invite in. I needed some great hero that everyone admired to pay us a visit and once they had everyone’s attention, just happen to mention that they were gay.
I found Nigel Owens, international rugby referee who took up the challenge and for a good hour “the unheard of” was being discussed inside the prison and some influential people listened.
Not surprisingly, initial support for the new LGBT+ cause came from the prison gym where rugby was God, and Nigel, his prophet on earth had just spoken. I had learnt many years ago in the school playground, to appreciate muscle-bound mates and knew that with this amount of testosterone backing me, all kinds of change was possible. To cut to the quick, it wasn’t long before we had established the first LGBT+ prisoner football team in the world and guess what? No one said a negative word.
However, the most encouraging milestone in this truncated struggle for acceptance only occurred a few weeks ago when the gay prisoners produced their own hero of sorts. “Dez”*, a man convicted of armed robbery and serving 18 years, not only publicly came out but also volunteered to be interviewed about it on camera – “to help others do the same like” as he put it casually.
Wow! How times have changed. I wish Ray could have met Dez back then as I’m sure things would have panned out very differently for him had he done so and if I’m honest, probably would have for me too.
*Names have been changed for security reasons
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