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Life Inside

I Never Thought I Could Fall In Love With a Woman. Then Came Prison.

We call straight women who couple up with fellow prisoners “gay for the stay.” That slang masks the complexity — and often beauty — of these bonds.

An illustration shows two people, wearing green uniforms, with their medium-skin toned hands touching each other. They sit on a brown bench against a gray wired fence.

There’s a phrase that is often used in women’s prisons: “Gay for the stay.”

When I first heard it, at Taconic Correctional Facility in 2019, I didn’t understand what it meant. This was my first time in prison, and I was a married heterosexual woman with six children.

But during my first visit to the recreation yard in this Westchester, New York prison, I couldn’t help but notice how many women were coupled up.

Later on, another incarcerated woman told me that she was “gay for the stay.” When I asked her about it, she said she was married to a man, had never been in a sexual relationship with a woman before, and had every intention of returning to her husband upon release. But while she was serving her time, she, like so many other women, still had sexual desires that needed to be met.

I remember thinking to myself, That’s crazy. How can someone pretend to be something they have never been, be intimate and not develop feelings? I just knew that was never going to be me.

Countless times I was approached by women who were interested in me, but I always turned down their advances. I did not consider myself a lesbian or “gay for the stay.” However, as time went on, I began to get to know the women I was housed with, and I became friends with a few of them.

There was one particular woman I became fond of, whom I’ll call A. She and I had a lot in common, particularly when it came to our past experiences and disastrous relationships. The more time we spent together, the more my attachment grew.

One night, I came in from my work program as a porter in the health clinic, and headed for the shower. Of course, there is no privacy in prison, so A. entered the shower area and began talking to me. I remember the way she slowly pulled the curtain open and looked at me with desire.

I remember asking her, “What are you doing?” and then telling her she was not supposed to be there. But she stepped into the shower fully clothed, and at that point, I did not know what to do. I was thinking and feeling so many things: I was nervous because I did not want to be caught, scared because I had never been with a woman before, and excited because of the way A. was making me feel.

All I could do was back into the corner of the small shower as she continued to get closer and gently started to touch me. As she awaited my reaction, she kissed me. I became so aroused that I let her continue.

I don’t know if I let her keep going because I was vulnerable, or because I hadn't been touched in years. Perhaps it was both. What I do know is I enjoyed every second of the experience. It was as if A. ignited a fire in me that was waiting to be lit. I was amazed by the way she, a woman, was able to make me feel. But I also felt that I was doing something wrong.

From that day forward, I viewed A. differently. I began to appreciate her presence. I found myself in awe over little things about her, admiring the glow of her skin and the way her silky hair glistened in the sun. I began battling with myself, trying to reassure myself it was OK to be fascinated by a woman, and that perhaps giving myself to her would not be such a ghastly idea.

I eventually resolved the mental battle; A. was all I could think about. Still, I often asked myself if this could be real or if it was just something all women did in prison. Did A. really have feelings for me, or did she just want to satisfy her own sexual desires?

I decided to ask some of the other women at Taconic to get a better understanding of the terrain. Their responses included wanting companionship, seeking sexual gratification, and achieving financial stability. (Some of us who don’t have family members to send us money will get into a relationship with someone who can buy them or share items from the commissary.)

Some of the women told me they were just curious and wanted to experiment with their sexuality. A few said they did it simply to adapt to the environment because it was one way to fit in.

I believe women in prison enter relationships because they are trying to fill a void within themselves. Many of us have suffered all sorts of trauma, and we are searching for an alternative. To survive, we try to continue as if we are still at home. We get up, go to work or program, and, instead of cooking for our kids, we cook for our lover. We go out on dates in the yard and come back to shower.

Just for the record, it is prohibited to engage in a sexual relationship while incarcerated. We are subject to consequences. If we are caught, we could receive a misbehavior report followed by a hearing. After the hearing, if found guilty, we could be sent to a special housing unit for a period ranging from 72 hours to 15 days. There could also be loss of privileges such as recreation, packages, commissary, phone or tablet. That is a lot to lose for a few minutes of pleasure. Perhaps this shows how desperate we are, that we are willing to take these risks just to feel like a woman again.

In this environment, however, many women feel more comfortable and willing to reveal their sexuality. Gays on the outside are often bombarded with criticism, hate and abuse. In prison, I believe it is easier to express ourselves because so many of the other women are doing it as well.

Don’t get me wrong, though: We do face discrimination from the security staff as well as a handful of the incarcerated population who do not like the fact that they are working and living with lesbians. Sometimes we are forced to move to another unit as a consequence.

And when the correctional staff learns that two women are in a relationship, one of the women might be moved to another unit or building to separate them. What I learned is no matter where someone is in the world, we will always face some sort of discrimination.

Within two months of my first romantic encounter with A. I made the decision to give the “gay for the stay” thing a try. We genuinely fell in love with each other, and two years later, she and I are still in a relationship. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time.

I had been raised to believe that only a man could love, provide for and protect a woman, but the man I had married provided none of these things, and I divorced him. A. showed me I did not need a man to make me happy, and she introduced me to a world I never knew existed. She showed me how I was supposed to be treated. And I learned how to love just when I thought it was impossible.

I never thought I would fall in love with a woman, but I am grateful God brought A. into my life. Because of her, something beautiful came out of the demoralizing predicament I am in. Our relationship has helped me to understand that we should never judge anyone because of their sexual preference. We should never be ashamed of who we are or with whom we fall in love.

Being with A. is like a breath of fresh air after spending over two decades with a man who was mentally and physically abusive to me. I think God removes people from your life and replaces them.

I believe I was placed in prison in order to work on myself and to get to know the real me and what I am worth, flaws and all.

A. was released from prison at the end of 2021, went home, and kept every promise she made to me. She has formed an amazing relationship with my mother, and, most importantly, she has created a strong bond with my children.

I am a better person today because I accepted A. into my life, letting her provide me with the love and affection that I need. I provide her with the same, making her feel desired and appreciated. So now, when I am asked, “Are you gay for the stay?” my answer is, “No, I’m now gay at the gate, but only for A.”

Samantha Vantassell is serving a seven-year sentence at Taconic Correctional Facility for drug trafficking. She is originally from Poughkeepsie, New York. While incarcerated, she earned an associate’s degree with high honors from Marymount Manhattan College. She expects to be released in April 2024 with time-earned credit for educational achievement.