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Am I the Only One?
One partner is released; the other left behind
by Ernie Merchant
© January 3, 2002, Ernie Merchant

We were born six days apart in May of 1960. He in the deep South. Me in the Northeast.

He is quiet and reserved. Iím an outgoing chatterbox. He likes sports and I like to read. He likes country music. I like rock. Heís been down eighteen years and I was a first timer doing two years when we met at Californiaís Soledad State Prison, and fell in love.

Our story is not so uncommon behind prison walls, but rarely talked about in the free world.

We are gay.

I came out of the closet twenty six years ago, at the age of 15, in a small Maine town to a hostile and bigoted world. I entered prison with the same attitude Iíve walked with my whole life. My head held high and my fists curled and ready to defend my right to exist.

When confronted by judgment or hostility by inmates or staff, I let it be known I wasnít in prison for being gay, being gay was not a crime, and therefore I refused to be punished for it.

Then I met him. Iíll spare the romantic details but suffice it to say that he protected me, guided me, and loved me, in the world that he has lived and survived for eighteen years.

When he comes home in two years I will be here to protect, guide, and love him in the world I know. The free world.

When I paroled twenty one months ago I had to leave him behind to do four more years. The second hardest thing Iíve ever done was going to prison. The hardest was leaving him behind. Even now, as I have been successfully rebuilding my life. Three years clean from the drugs that ruined my life and put me in prison, I would rather be there with him than out here without him.

You see, we are a minority within a minority. Without visibility, without recognition, without support, without any rights as family members or spouse, by the government, the community, or the standards of law.

Is our love, our loneliness, our loss, any less valid than our heterosexual counterparts?

We think not. We all cry in the same language and heartbreak knows no prejudice. Yet the state of California, the parole department, and specifically the California Department of Corrections, seem to disagree.

Anyone that has been incarcerated or has a loved one in the system knows all about the inconsistent and petty rules that differ from institution to institution, and the bureaucratic red tape involved in even the most minor interaction. The difference is, a legal spouse, sibling, parent, or child of an inmate has recourse and legal recognition of inalienable rights within the system.

We do not. We are invisible. We simply do not exist by the standards of our system. We do not desire, nor expect special consideration. Only equal.

Even a simple application for written correspondence was denied without explanation, forcing me to use fictitious names to send packages and letters. How do you reason with a system that finds it reasonable for us to share a 6x8 foot cell for two years but are not allowed to write letters?

The parole department has forbidden me to even apply to visit, yet the visiting application forms clearly state that if you are a former inmate, on probation or parole, written permission from your supervising agent must be submitted to the institution warden. This implies that visits can be granted to a parolee through the proper channels.

We suspect that even upon my discharge from parole in three months, when I have completed my time in prison and on parole, and by all standards of the law am a free man, we will still be denied the ďprivilegeĒ of visits. Probably under the guise of the Department of Corrections endless list of vague ďthreats to institution securityĒ which is always implemented when no reasonable excuse to deny can be cited.

We are sadly aware that a heterosexual couple enjoy a vast array of rights and privileges that we are denied.

We feared when I left our little cell twenty-one months ago that we might not see each other again for four and a half years. We hoped and prayed that would not be the case, but our prayers have not been answered. Almost half that time has now passed. We have our phone calls and letters. We have our plans and dreams for the future. And we have a powerful friendship and love that transcends a compassionless system, prison walls, and time. We will survive, and maybe even live happily ever after.

I have surfed the dozens and dozens of Web sites for inmates and their families, the prisoner related support groups and legal organizations, searching for a single site focusing on gay inmates or their partners. Not a single one to be found.

I know the fear, the helplessness, the loneliness, of having a loved one imprisoned. I know what itís like to be on the other side of the bars. And my partner and I know that we are even a little less cared about in our sadness.

We are kept apart by a wall of silence and invisibility. There are no laws protecting us. There are not even any laws against us. To create a law against us they would have to acknowledge us and instigate a potential challenge of discrimination. We simply do not exist.

That is the reason for this story.

Our pain, our loss, our love, is not less because we are gay.

I refuse to be insignificant. I refuse to be invisible. I do exist. My partner and lover exists. We want, and wait, and starve for freedom from the nightmare too.

And I suspect we are not the only ones.

© 2002, Ernie Merchant
Reprinted with permission from

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