The first time I saw the inside of San Quentin State Prison, I almost forgot to be afraid. I was 23 years old, and the soaring expanse of 150-year-old concrete architecture was at once both intimidating and impressive. The cells are stacked five tiers high and seemed to be a quarter mile long, a series of lines blurring toward a distant vanishing point, fronted with black iron bars and nameless faces.

The first impression is always visual; the second usually comes from being overwhelmed by sound. Few people are prepared for the noise of so much humanity shoehorned into such a small, dense space.

But the lasting impression, the one I carry with me even now, is the dichotomy of hatred and compassion in that space.

Being a queer person in prison isn’t easy. It’s an environment steeped in anger and rage, ever on the edge of violence. Many gays who can pass for straight take shelter in the darkest recesses of the closet, the safest refuge available. They deny their identity and live in fear of their secret becoming known.

Hiding in plain sight, however, usually isn’t an option for trans people in prison, or for anyone who doesn’t fit stereotypical gender roles. Those who cannot pass often seek out relationships for protection, money, drugs, or all of the above. Nobody wants to feel like a wounded seal pup in a tank full of sharks. 

I always assumed that intangibles like dignity and respect were out of reach for gay, trans, and non-binary people in prison. It’s not a rule that’s written down anywhere, it just seemed like a natural progression, an inherent extension of the environment.

I later came to understand that my perception came to me through the lens of my own shame.

On my last and final prison term, I chose a different route. I chose to make my own way, broke down the closet door and owned my queerness. And I was fortunate enough to have a small handful of friends who showed me a different side of myself that I could take pride in, that I didn’t need the approbation of others, and that the only path to dignity and respect was to be completely, unapologetically me.


I’ve never been to a Gay Pride event. Maybe that will change this year because I’ve come to understand that, like every meaningful thing in this life, Pride has very little to do with all the glitter and sparkle that shines on the surface. Pride is far deeper and more meaningful than I ever knew. It represents a historic struggle that continues on even now behind the walls of prisons across America.

More than half a century ago, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 poured gasoline on the glowing embers of a quietly smoldering resistance. Following the second World War, gay people in America faced a legal system even more draconian than in some member-nations of the Warsaw Pact. Even in California, sexual intimacy between consenting adults of the same sex could result in imprisonment for life in a psychiatric institution, where a person could be subjected to castration, electroshock therapy, and even lobotomy; administered by physicians aiming to “cure” homosexuality.

That was a long time ago. Queer people have come a long way in the fight for civil rights, and it is in that fight that I find my own personal sense of Pride.

I met the love of my life at San Quentin. A Marine Corps veteran with an incredible smile, whose intelligence balanced his silly sense of humor. We met in a support group for incarcerated LGBTQ+ people, and I felt drawn to him immediately. Max is the perfect amalgam of strength and vulnerability, confidence and sensitivity. 

In 2019, Max suffered a homophobic attack by another inmate in one of the prison’s blind spots, a well-known corridor once called Blood Alley by prison guards and residents alike. To this day, he doesn’t remember the attack. He does, however, recall the multiple surgeries he underwent to repair the damage, including spinal fusion and maxillofacial reconstruction. 

He spent 23 days in the hospital, and I have never felt more lost. But he emerged both humble and somehow stronger than ever, and that’s when I really began to get acquainted with Pride in prison. 

That November, San Quentin held its first—and thus far only—Transgender Day of Remembrance. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first event of its kind held in any prison in the country, and it was attended by such movers and shakers as Kristopher Applegate and Senator Scott Weiner. Max and I had the opportunity to meet with them and talk about the attack. Shortly thereafter, California passed the Transgender Respect, Agency, and Dignity Act, establishing protections for incarcerated transgender, non-binary, and intersex people. 

Within San Quentin, there are people who are movers and shakers in their own right, doing powerful work at the ground level. They are the embodiment of Pride, embracing the fight to prove that love is love, and that love always trumps hate. Max forever has my heart, but to these life-long friends, I owe my awakening. 

One of them is Billie Mizell, executive director of the nonprofit ALIGHT Justice. She has long worked with incarcerated people to build transformative programs like the groundbreaking Acting with Compassion & Truth (ACT), the first-ever self-help program created inside a prison to explore the social justice intersections of mass incarceration, race, gender, and LGBTQ+ identity. Empowering the incarcerated to draft and build upon their own curriculum has given them the voice and the agency to advocate for their community and educate their general population peers at the same time. 

And there are a handful of incredible, inspiring LGBTQ+ incarcerated people who I wish I could name because the world should know that they are carrying on the fight that was begun at Stonewall all those years ago. My friends Tony, Moe, and Randy worked for months on end to revive ACT with Billie following the Covid pandemic. Straight allies like Silk and Nate worked alongside them, poring over every word of the new curriculum, dedicated and working toward the goal of a prison community where everyone is safe from the threat of hate and violence, where every single person is met with compassion and understanding, irrespective of their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 

Even in prison, they are living lives of integrity and service to others, letting the strength of their individual and collective character rip to shreds the twin lies of hate and prejudice. 

It’s been said that the prison mindset lags 25 years behind society. Change is slow to come, because the isolation keeps the prison population so far removed from what is going on in the real world. But there are people like Billie on the outside, and others like my friends on the inside, who are moving the ball forward. 

That kind of work takes sacrifice and a drive to do something in service to others. It takes dedication, and a sense of purpose. Sometimes it can even mean putting oneself in harm’s way. The people I know who do this work in the hostile environment of California’s prison system make me proud to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

But the people I met at San Quentin who taught me about Pride did so through their actions, not with mere words. Because that’s what the fight for Pride has always been about, from its roots at the Stonewall Inn to its modern arena. 

Andrew Hardy spent several years as senior layout designer for the award-winning San Quentin News, eventually becoming managing editor of Wall City Magazine, and reporting on issues of social and criminal justice. He is currently editor of the San Francisco International Arts Festival’s newsletter and is interning with California Lawyers for the Arts while continuing to write as a freelancer.