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I’m Queer and I’ve Been in Solitary. Ellen Isn’t Experiencing What I Did.

An empty solitary confinement cell at New York's Rikers Island jail.
Trans people and LGBTQ people of color are disproportionately impacted by our criminal justice system. These experiences are not comparable to social isolation.
An empty solitary confinement cell at New York's Rikers Island jail.
Dominique Morgan,
Executive Director of Black and Pink, Inc.
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April 9, 2020

On Monday, I ended a 12-hour day returning emails to incarcerated queer folks, providing direct aid for housing to folks living with HIV & AIDS who have been incarcerated and challenging the state of Nebraska to provide humane conditions for incarcerated individuals and decided to mindlessly scroll on Twitter.

I found the quote from the show Ellen DeGeneres filmed from her multimillion-dollar, multi-room mansion: “One thing that I’ve learned from being in quarantine is that people — this is like being in jail, is what it is,” she said. “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay.”

What Ellen is experiencing, as well as what many people around the country are experiencing, is nothing like jail. You have choice. You can actually social distance. I assume you were not only allowed to shower that day, you could shower for more than 10 minutes and likely as many times as you like.

This is not at all what incarcerated people who have been locked down as a protective measure in institutions all across America are experiencing. The protective measures inside jails and prisons that many incarcerated individuals are now experiencing bear a striking resemblance to solitary confinement.

When you are in solitary, your partner is not there with you. You are not calling or FaceTiming your mother as many times as you like.

At Black & Pink, which seeks to liberate LGBTQIA2S+ people and people living with HIV who are affected by the criminal justice system, we are currently fighting for access to mail and phone calls for people all across the county. The cost of contacting a loved one is extremely expensive. A video call using the JPay system currently costs $1.25 for a 30 second video.

Incarcerated people are filing lawsuits for access to toilet paper and soap. Those of us who have been incarcerated have always viewed these items as high-demand. For us, this is not new.

Here’s my message to Ellen:

I assume if you wanted you could be tested for COVID-19 immediately. On the inside, we are fighting privatized health systems where a Tylenol is $5.00 and testing incarcerated people for COVID-19 is a dream that will not only be deferred, but most likely denied.

Being queer in prison isn’t sitting on your outdoor furniture in your finest silk. For myself and the people we serve at Black and Pink it’s about keeping ourselves safe. The peace I witnessed on your face is an experience that queer people inside rarely have access to — especially in the midst of a pandemic.

The queer and transgender youth that come on your show and dance and sing? Youth just like them are inside of youth detention centers all over this country, wondering when they will be able to go home.

On any average day, prisons and jails in this country are the epicenter of the deterioration of humanity. In a time of crisis or pandemic it’s ten times worse.

I have a firm belief that empathy should be the tool we reach for first – especially at times like these. If you want to know what it’s like to be inside of jail and prisons, Ellen — give me a call. Not on Zoom though. I’m Zoomed out.

Dominique Morgan (They/Them) is executive director of Black and Pink, Inc.

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