Our Voices > Walk in Our Shoes

The Life of an Incarcerated Black, Gay Male

May 9, 2024

The perspective of

Leon Lipscomb

Incarcerated at

Federal Transfer Center
in Oklahoma

Year incarcerated


Home State


When I first entered jail, I was painfully aware of my gayness. I was told this environment operated 20 to 30 years in the past – not a safe place for a Black gay male. 

Of course, this fear was not exactly new. Everyone in the LGBTQ+ community, out or not, lives with an acute awareness of our existence in relation to the spaces we occupy. As a teen, I wrestled with my sexuality and endured both taunts and assaults from those who often just assumed I was gay. In response to the external, as well as internal, pressure, I worked hard to conform, as if I could “pray” away my real identity. 

So, since I was already adept at suppression, I entered the DC jail prepared to blend in and fly under the radar. Although I didn’t have any tattoos, didn’t speak the dominant slang and walked without “swag,” I hoped that over time, I’d internalize the mannerisms and cadence of those who fit in. I was silent and observed closely. But it wasn’t until I was moved into the “general population” of the jail that I fully grasped my new normal.

The new normal

Jail is a space that is saturated in toxic masculinity and phobic reactions. The need to demonstrate your masculinity, in part by rejecting any behavior that could be interpreted as feminine, is paramount. Psychologist Robert Branna summarized the manifestation of manhood with the admonition, “No sissy stuff!” He explains, “One may never do anything that even remotely suggests femininity. Masculinity is the relentless repudiation of the feminine.” To be a man is to be strong, reliable and in control. And we must constantly prove it, as other men “watch us, rank us, then finally grant our acceptance into the realm of manhood.”

Those realities dared me to stand in my truth and confront the question, “How proud are you?” During my first few months, I answered with a resounding, “Not very.”  

More than just the fact that I am gay, it is my feminine way of being that places me in opposition to the men around me. Everything about me is perceived as a challenge to their own masculinity. Thus, they ostracized and demeaned me, tactics of self-defense that create a sort of distance. As Leverenz noted in 1966, “the real fear is not of women, but of being ashamed or humiliated in front of other men, or being dominated by stronger men.”

Religion and race are also influential dynamics. Christianity and Islam are the predominate faiths in jail. These belief systems, or a misinterpretation of them, label homosexuality as a sin, and those who identify that way as abominations. The population of the DC jail is also overwhelmingly African American, a people with a long history of male emasculation – capture, sale, abuse and incarceration. 

I exist in this mix of tensions as a Black Gay Christian.

After years of learning to accept myself and growing into my unapologetic truth, entering jail felt as if I had stepped into a time machine, facing my fears for the first time. I shrank into myself, literally hid if I could, and tried to conform to what was expected. To some extent, I was being smart. Faced with the emotional separation from my family and friends, now saddled with a criminal record and facing a new way of life, the last thing I needed was more hardship. 

However, at the same time, I reinforced the common belief that my true self was not worthy. And this self-denial unleashed a plethora of feelings: shame, rage and a deep sadness. If only I was straight. These five words crossed my mind repeatedly, with an intensity I had not felt since I was young.

I would be lying if I said I quickly passed through this stage. Just as my initial decision to come out took time, so did going public inside these walls. However, the frequency of disparaging comments about the LGBT community, and the corresponding ill treatment of those who identify that way, initially paralyzed me. 

The power of kindness

And then one day one of the guys who moved into my housing unit served as a sort of reality check. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his kindness. He lived on the other side of the unit, which meant that when he was out for recreation, I was in my cell. And he made time during his five hours out to stop by and talk. He shared his personal journey, both in and out of jail, and offered advice on how to “move” as a first timer. He listened patiently as I expressed the welter of emotions I felt. It was during one of these conversations that he suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, said, “If you think you’re hiding that you’re gay, you’re not.” They were hard words, yes, but they were delivered without any judgement or expectations. And they weren’t crafted as a veiled threat to watch my back, which would have suggested that I had been outed. Instead, what was communicated was that I had been seen, fully, by him (and others). Leon, you do not have to hide.

As I progressed in my incarceration, I found others who didn’t view my sexual orientation as an impediment to friendship, and I surrounded myself with them. In some instances, my sexuality was never broached. In others, it was made clear that “who you are doesn’t matter to me. You’re a good dude.” And while they toxic masculinity and put-downs continued in the larger environment, I found myself immersed in community of men who did not define themselves by who they avoided, but by who they included. They chose to focus on my intellect, humor, kindness, talents and shared experiences. Together, we played Uno, vented our frustrations and debated city politics. In other words, we made the time inside a little more manageable. And they stood up for me when other residents questioned our relations or attempted to demean me in their presence.

Yes, that happened. In November 2021, six months into my “bid” (time in jail), a guy named Tommy hit the unit and became part of my story. We began talking due to our shared Christian faith. He was an ardent Bible reader during recreation, and we discussed what he had read that day. That led to a lively analysis of the various interpretations of scripture. Over time, I confided in him my spiritual struggles caused by the failures that led to my incarceration. As a former minister, Tommy was skilled at both listening and comforting. He also possessed a wealth of wisdom that sustained me during my lowest days. As time passed and our friendship grew, others began to notice.

Hesitantly, Tommy told me that he had been approached with the “news” that I was gay and advised not to associate with me. At this point, I had already told Tommy I was gay (and he had already figured it out). And despite admitting that he had been dismissive of gays in the past, he accepted me completely. He was proud to call me his friend and let it be known.

Tapping into my inner strength

To persevere through countless incidents like this one sometimes feels like it requires more than I can give. There are moments when I second guess who I am. But I have endured them before – the taunts of classmates, the tears of shocked family members, the teaching in some churches and schools that people like me are “unnatural” and “other.” I would swap for a life devoid of these experiences any day. However, I have grown in my strength and become a mostly confident human being. At those times when I need “back up,” I turn to books that validate who I am and remind me of my worth or take me on a trip into another world. I immerse myself in music that gives voice to my feelings. I tap into my creativity and write, creating a world of my own. I turn to friends and family who accept who I am and give me the space to be my authentic self. I savor memories of people who have helped me become the proud man I am. And, always, I rely on my faith that God loves me, letting the breadth and depth and length of that embrace empower me. All of these positive influences are my anchors.

There is no monolithic narrative of gay experience inside carceral spaces. My story is just one of thousands happening simultaneously. And although each is unique, what is universally true is that we all exist in a space that does not welcome us and forces us to dig deep for the will to move forward. It’s a process that both molds and empowers us – wearing us down, but also serving as a catalyst for growth. 

I have now been incarcerated for 24 months and am en route from the DC jail to an institution within the federal Bureau of Prisons. And the cycle will begin again.

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