28 September, 2016

When Prison Culture Meets Black Lipstick

Tony and I were walking from the dining hall to the housing unit when he caught up to me. He'd seen the teaser for MTV's 7 September episode of Unlocking the Truth, the one introducing my case, and of course wanted to tell me so.

"They showed a picture of you in drag, all painted up."

I practically snorted, thinking, Good one, Tony. The photo in question shows my pale young face, cheekily glancing away from the camera, wearing eyeliner and a black-lipped smirk. My black velvet shirt and black coat can barely be seen. My fifteen-hole Doc Martens are out of the shot altogether, as are the silver chains draped from my right shoulder. I don't recall wearing jewelry more outrageous than my everyday piercings and two handfuls of silver rings that evening, but that doesn't mean I didn't. Jokingly calling this gothy getup drag was typical Tony, and I accepted the dig amiably.

Only later, replaying our conversation in my head, did I realize that Tony might not have been kidding around. He's been locked up for a long time; might he not know the vast difference between drag and goth? And if he doesn't, what could that mean for others who see the show — people around the prison who don't even know me as tangentially as Tony does?

For the very first time since Unlocking the Truth started delving into my case, I was nervous.

The average convict isn't known for his open-mindedness or reasonableness. Penned in by razor wire and walls, the tattooed swastikas, neighborhood affiliations, and gang code on most prisoners' bodies speak to their intolerance of the Other. Ask almost any citizens on the street and they'll likely supply two accurate facts about prison life: (1) it's governed by a rigorously enforced power dynamic; (2) it's run through with a current of barely contained sexual frustration. What might the sight of me in the summer of my eighteenth year, made up and dressed for a party, inspire in the mind of Billy Badass, DOC number 40926, who's been down since 1981 and ain't never seen no shit like that in his jerkwater hometown, where only whores and queers wear makeup, and the livestock are all a little jumpy? Would his shuttered mind compute? Or would he default to the old mental schema, Lipstick is for girls. The boy in the picture wears lipstick. So he must want to be a girl. I will make him my girl, thereby inciting an unpleasant circumstance for all involved? You can understand my concern.

The episode in question, when it aired, glossed over any meaningful definition of goth, probably because MTV's demographic has grown up in a culture that's more inclusive than those of previous generations. I suspect that every Millennial had at least one goth kid at their high school. My lawyer's description alone, that labeling someone "goth" was how law enforcement, post-Columbine, branded that person as "bad," didn't seem like enough for the population of Crossroads Correctional Center to comprehend the goth subculture.

Walking the yard with my friend and former cellmate, Zach, the following morning, every comment that came my way (there were more than I anticipated) was complimentary.

A neighbor said, "I loved how, in your interview, you threw in a little humor. When you said, 'I was a weirdo — I'm still a weirdo,' that really got me."

Some guy I'd never before spoken with said, "That's exactly what prosecutors do: they dehumanize you to prejudice the juries. You got right to the heart of it, there."

Another guy: "When they came, at the end of the show, and played that phone call, I was like, 'Damn, people, he didn't answer her question because he doesn't respond the same as other individuals would: he's weird.' I just needed to let you know, I believe you, man. Fuck that lying crackwhore."

And so on, from countless strangers and acquaintances alike, for days. No one made so much as a peep about the party photo Tony saw in the teaser. If anyone was struck by my smoky-eyed makeup in almost every other pic, they uttered not a word about it to me. It seems like my concession to weirdness wiped away any questions about my particular, peculiarly dandyish, brand of masculinity.

For decades I've held that the elegance of honesty needs no adornment. My outspoken truthfulness sometimes lands me in trouble, but this time the maxim is right.


  1. Once a wierdo, always a wierdo. Wierdos united! Must be the difference between cyborgs and humans. Hang in there! The walls of injustice in America come tumbling down! Your friend, AV.

  2. Byron, this is the first I have read you blog. I enjoyed this entry and will be reading more. I like what you said at the end....the elegance of honesty needs no adornment. I have never heard that before and it speaks volumes.


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.