THE TERM “PRIVILEGE”—white or otherwise—was not really in vogue when I spent nine months in the California prison system in 2004. And it certainly wasn’t a word that any of the men I served time with would have ever thought to apply to their experience while behind bars, or, for that matter, to any other part of their lives. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that prison is where I learned about unexpected forms of privilege that I had no name for at the time. The first kind was extremely personal.
The phrase “gay privilege” may conjure images of velvet mafiosi clinking glasses at a bisexual billionaire’s swank Hampton digs, but I came to know an extremely specific and rare manifestation of it at the worst moment of my life. It was right after I had been arrested. After a week under suicide watch (a place to make you suicidal if you weren’t already), I was ushered in to see an avuncular officer who wanted to make sure I genuinely qualified for one of the three gay dorms at the Los Angeles County Jail, collectively known as “K-11.” I passed with flying colors, having no trouble listing a wide sampling of gay bars, one of which had even employed me as a bartender. As a first-time offender, he put me in the “least hectic” of the three dorms, 5100.
Mark Olmsted, author of Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir, will be the subject of three episodes of the podcast Everything Is Stories in spring 2024.