With rouged lips, long hair and a strut that would give Naomi Campbell pause, Dave Williams, 47, works the 75-foot runway that stretches between crowded rows of green chipped-paint bunk beds at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Men’s Central Jail.
Williams, a transgender inmate known on the inside as Yah Yah, glides past a hooting and hollering crowd of her fellow gay and transgender inmates, perched atop their beds for a prime view. She’s flaunting a white cotton halter-top baby-doll dress and matching white Cinderella gloves, hand-crafted for her by one of the trans women inside this infamously tough downtown L.A. jail.
Laughing onlookers chant, “Work it, Yah Yah!” “Perform honey!” “Better work that runway!”
Catwalking on the balls of her feet as another inmate improvises syncopated beats by banging on a metal bed frame using a plastic spoon and a plastic 7-Up bottle, Yah Yah is in her element. Her infectious energy lights up the locked, windowless room filled with roughly 140 inmates. Two other inmates, both with long dark hair and wearing form-fitting minidresses, jostle to be the next to parade down the aisle. They twitch their hips and seem to be having the time of their lives as scores of men and transgender women whoop and shout out unprintable encouragements.
The impromptu fashion show broke out the moment after inmates spotted L.A. Weekly’s video camera. Shortly before, Yah Yah, one of four inmates approved by the Sheriff’s Department to speak to, and be videotaped by, the newspaper, had been explaining, “You’re allowed to be with whomever you want to, talk to whomever you want and do whatever you want to, basically, as long as you do it in a respectable way.”
The scene seems all but impossible inside this tough, urban jail, one of the largest in the world, outfitted with 1,000 security cameras and employing some 500 Sheriff’s deputies as jailers, where hardened inmates sometimes manage to murder other inmates. And this year, seven of the county’s own jailers were convicted as part of an ongoing federal investigation into obstruction of justice and use of excessive force against inmates.
MCJ, as many dub it, is a cauldron of racial tension where violence is easily stirred by a fluctuating daily population of 3,900 to 4,700 inmates packed in close quarters. But among the roughly 400 people housed in “K6G,” the gay wing of Men’s Central Jail, there’s little outward expression of racial prejudice or gang rivalry. Inmates in these three open-plan dorms don’t worry much about the gang politics and violence among the “general population.”
Duncan Roy, a gay British film producer who was held in K6G for 89 days without bail in 2012, under ex–Sheriff Lee Baca’s controversial interpretation of “immigration holds,” recalls, “In other parts of the jail, you try and smuggle in drugs and cigarettes. That didn’t happen in our wing.
“If you were going to smuggle something in, it would be dresses and bras.”
The gay wing at Men’s Central Jail is an exceptionally rare, if not unique, subculture, the only environment of its kind in a major U.S. city. Nothing like it exists in America’s 21 largest urban jails, all contacted by the Weekly, where officials described in far more modest terms their own steps to deal with and house gay inmates. San Francisco has a transgender housing area, but gay inmates live among the general population. In New York’s Rikers Island, whose similar gay wing was shuttered in 2005, a jail spokesman laughed out loud, saying that whoever decides which men get placed in L.A. County’s gay jail wing “must have really good gay-dar.”
A spokesman for the Fort Worth jail system quipped that L.A.’s inmate population is so big, officials probably could create a wing for “left-handed Frisbee players from Albania. But we smaller jails don’t have enough size to create special groups.” The closest thing to a gay wing in another big, urban jail system, though it isn’t close at all, is at the Old Wayne County Jail in Detroit, which offers a small number of locked cells to gay and transgender inmates.
MCJ’s gay wing was set up in response to a 1985 ACLU lawsuit, which aimed to protect homosexual inmates from a higher threat of physical violence than heterosexuals faced. But something unexpected has happened. The inmates are safer now, yes. But they’ve surprised everyone, perhaps even themselves, by setting up a small and flourishing society behind bars. Once released, some re-offend in order to be with an inmate they love. There are hatreds and occasionally even severe violence, but there is also friendship, community, love — and, especially, harmless rule-bending to dress up like models or decorate their bunks, often via devious means.
Filing down a plastic razor blade, say, to create a sewing needle, not a shank. “Smuggling” a rumored male seamstress from another bloc to handle custom work on a dress. And neatness counts among some of these men, who repurpose newspapers into long-handled brooms.
“For some people, this is their home because a lot of their families have disowned them and shunned them, so we’re their family,” explains Yah Yah, a crack cocaine addict first jailed decades ago, at age 22. “A lot of people’s walks in here have been hard walks.”
Yah Yah says she has served roughly 20 years, in total, on charges ranging from petty theft to drug possession to commercial burglary. She’s become something of a den mother for the revolving community of gay and transgender inmates. “I call [them] my kids,” she says with a proud smile. “I try to give them the love that they aren’t receiving from their families.”
Today, some straight inmates vie to get placed in MCJ’s gay wing, in part because it’s a safer harbor for ex-gangbangers afraid of being confronted by violent enemies, jailers say. The Sheriff’s Department even uses a “classification officer” to weed out impostors, through a series of controversial test questions about gay culture.
Deputy Sheriff Javier Machado, a classification officer, relies on a series of go-to questions, such as asking purportedly gay inmates to name a local gay bar they frequent. If an incoming inmate manages to correctly name a gay bar in L.A., Machado immediately asks tougher follow-up questions, such as, “What’s the cover charge?”
According to the gay inmates, another reason some straight men try to get into K6G is that they want to hook up with often-pretty transgender detainees.
But a major reason, almost certainly, is that the gay wing is a far less dangerous, more humane place to be. Unlike the angry, racially polarized culture of Men’s Central Jail, in K6G many of the inmates help one another face their days, and sometimes their years, together.
Yah Yah is her dorm’s elected House Mouth, a position of influence. She’s much more often called the House Mouse — a term of endearment in K6G but an insult inside prisons and the military, often denoting a person of extreme submission or someone who colludes with their superiors. David Arrieta, one gay inmate given permission to speak to the Weekly and be videotaped inside the gay wing, explains, “Being a House Mouse in [the heterosexual side of Men’s Central Jail], you are considered a rat, whereas in K6G you are considered a fairy.”
Duncan Roy, the producer, says the House Mouse in the gay wing is a “very powerful position [because] it is the liaison between the deputies and the dorms. Depending on how good your House Mouse was” at speaking up for the rest of the inmates, he recalls of his time inside, “really determined the quality of life you had in the dorms.”
The K6G wing’s three bunk bed–jammed “dorms” each house 128 to 140 men on any given day. In her Dorm No. 9200, Yah Yah has used her position to encourage a relatively nonthreatening, even warm atmosphere. When the Weekly entered No. 9200 in the presence of a deputy and inmates realized a female guest was present, the first comment to rise from the chatter was, “Oh, I love her shoes.”
Later, on a highly secured rooftop yard used for recreation time, inmates began hurling flirtatious and boisterous commentary in the direction of the Weekly’s video camera and microphone. “Trannies unite!” called out one transgender resident. Before deputies could react, one inmate pulled down his “baby blues” — official jail pants — low on his thighs and preened his bottom before the video camera.
Why? Nothing lascivious. Just to show off his fancy cotton underwear — formerly a jail-regulation T-shirt that had been carefully cut apart, refashioned and hand-knotted down the sides to create a peek-a-boo look.
Roy likens the dorm culture to an episode of Project Runway in which “they would just cut everything up” and transform it. When inmates are first assigned to a gay dorm, they are immediately stripped of their general-population, dark blue jail uniforms and given the powder-blue uniforms that signify they are gay or transgender. As Roy notes, “For the first time in my life, I was identifiably gay.”
According to one lieutenant, the gay inmates continually tweak their bleak environment. A row of poles embedded in a rooftop exercise yard, where inmates are allowed to spend a minimum of three hours a week, has become a popular outlet for pole-dancing. “They were entertaining themselves,” Lt. Sergio Murillo says with a grin.
The show doesn’t end on the jail’s roof. Every Friday, the gay dorms put on self-organized events such as “Family Night,” in which they present fashion shows, and engage in “dorm dating” (a form of speed dating). In one of the three gay dorms, inmates compete in Mr. Gay Dorm 9100, named after their room number.
“The community comes alive, they look after one another,” Roy says. “It’s not just about violence. They’re inventive.”
That’s surely an understatement. In the gay wing, soap becomes strangely effective hair product, and foil is carefully scavenged from the inside of cereal boxes to be fashioned into shiny silver buttons. Jail-issue bedsheets are fashioned — actually transformed — into fetching wedding gowns and tuxedos.
Weddings are fairly common in K6G’s culture, and even the deputies have borne witness to full ceremonies in which inmates invent fabulous, hand-stitched dresses and suits.
Being Transgender or Gay is not a choice, being Transphobic or Homophobic is, so don't be a Twonk