This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
I was walking the prison track on a sunny southern California day in 2006 when a friend I’ll call Michael joined me. He looked like he could barely hold it together. His dark complexion was ashen, and there was dried toothpaste around his mouth. When I asked him how he was doing, it took a full four seconds before he answered.
“I’m going to kill myself,” Michael said.
He said it matter-of-factly, but when I looked at him to see if he was joking, his shoulders were slumped, his head down, his eyes focused on the track immediately in front of him. I wondered if he had the same feeling I had, that any verbal misstep could end in disaster.
“Come on man,” I responded, with a lightness that I hoped hid the nervousness I felt. “Nothing could be that serious.”
“There’s a guy in my building that won’t leave me alone. He’s pressuring me to have sex with him.”
This threw me for a loop. I knew just about everybody on the Yard, and I was skeptical of his claim of abuse. I remembered that Michael had a reputation in our circle of friends for being overly dramatic. Often, he would bring up “problems” that were just attempts to get attention.
After a few minutes, we rounded the track past the handball courts and came up to a row of picnic benches on the south side of the Yard.
“Let’s have a seat,” I said.
He took it like I was trying to create some privacy for us, but in truth, I was stalling for time. In my seven years of incarceration, I had never been propositioned for sex, let alone pressured. Of course, I’d grown up hearing the stories and the “don’t drop the soap” jokes that people tossed around so freely. But I still couldn’t shake my skepticism — why would this predator pick Michael, of all people?
Yet something about Michael’s demeanor seemed sincere. If he was making this up, what did he hope to get out of such an embarrassing story?
Slowly, Michael began to tell me what had happened, starting very early on in his life. He’d grown up in an abusive household — I’m talking about one of those homes where the kid never has a fighting chance. Beatings with extension cords, whole days locked in the closet. It seemed like everybody in his life either hated him or was indifferent.
One of his mother’s boyfriends had been different, though. He would let Michael hang out with him while he ran around the hood; he’d buy Michael brand new clothes, or take him out for pizza; he’d come into Michael’s room late at night to spend time with him.
It soon became clear that the only person who’d shown Michael any attention had also sexually assaulted him.
To me, this was clearly an abusive relationship, but Michael said he didn’t see it that way. He seemed to appreciate the positive attention that his older male companion had shown him, and spoke about their relationship with an affection he didn’t bother to hide.
By this time, I realized Michael was not lying about the guy pressuring him. I also realized that Michael might be gay and therefore, according to my way of thinking at the time, shared some blame for what he was going through.
“I know what the problem is,” I said. “You have a spirit of homosexuality. So does the guy pressuring you. If you reject that spirit, I believe he’ll leave you alone.”
“The fact that I’m attracted to men has nothing to do with this. Because I’m not attracted to this guy...”
I was extremely uncomfortable at this point. For some reason, Michael could not see that this person was reacting to Michael’s homosexuality. And to top if off, he was unapologetic about it.
Still, Michael was a friend of mine. I couldn’t let him continue doing what I then felt, like many inmates do, was a sin, a weakness that made him deserving of all he got in prison.
“It doesn’t work like that,” I told him. “You can’t play around with homosexuality and just think you’ll only attract people you like. In that lifestyle, predators come after you. Especially in prison. Besides,” I said, “you’re a Christian.”
Then he said, “Is that Christianity, or just your understanding of it?”
Looking back, I now realize that, like many survivors of childhood abuse and neglect — so many of whom are in prison — Michael was well-acquainted with shame. My response, which was to blame him, was as familiar to him as his name.
Over the next few months, Michael and I had many more talks. Though I prided myself on being a compassionate Christian, I never missed a chance to subtly attack him for his sins. And since my attacks fit the ashamed self-image that he had internalized as a child, we slipped seamlessly into our new roles.
Perhaps two years after our conversation, Michael propositioned a friend of his. The guy attacked Michael in the middle of the dayroom. It took three guards and a full can of pepper spray to pull them apart. They took Michael to the hole, and he never came back.
By 2014, he was a distant memory. I was in church listening to a visiting preacher give a sermon about godliness when he spotted two gay men sitting in the pews. Without hesitation, he said, “You can’t play with God. You can’t be swishing around here trying to entice men, and thinking you can just go to heaven.”
Every eye in the room focused on the men. People were smiling with approval, loudly proclaiming “Amen, brother!”
All I could see, though, was the hurt and embarrassment on their faces.
Anger started to burn inside of me. Here I was, sitting in a room full of men who had no problem stealing from the kitchen or lying to the guards. A thought struck me: Who were the sinners here? When it comes to women, I have little choice in who I feel attracted to, and I was sure these men didn’t, either.
I also realized that I was guilty of the same hypocrisy. The question Michael had asked me long ago came to mind. Was this Christianity, or just our — or my — understanding of Christianity?
Michael and I are no longer in the same prison. From time to time, I find myself wondering how he’s doing. I believe he’s still incarcerated; I just hope he has found some friends who are wiser and kinder than I once was.
James King, 48, is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., where he is serving 30 years to life for second-degree robbery. (He received the life sentence because the crime was his “third strike” under California law.)