Drag Shows, Weddings, and Pole Dancing: Inside the L.A. Jail’s Gay Wing

On Tuesday, L.A. Weekly released an astonishing story and accompanying video about a place that’s so miraculous its existence feels like a mirage: the gay wing of the L.A. men’s central jail. Before I spoil any of the fun, you should go ahead and watch the profoundly humane, often hilarious video.

How does this little sanctuary exist? As L.A. Weekly explains, the wing was set up as a result of a 1985 ACLU lawsuit aimed at shielding gay inmates from the bias-motivated violence they experience at startlingly high rates among the general population. But over nearly three decades, the wing has blossomed into a community—or “family,” as many inmates describe it—of mutual support and love. (A number of inmates start relationships in the wing, and some stage weddings.) Prison clothes are re-sewn into gowns, skirts, chic underwear, and hot pants. Correctional officers take a laissez-faire attitude toward harmless rule-bending.

And how does an inmate gain access to the gay wing? With a quiz, naturally. Prison officials know that, with its low rate of violence, the wing is a coveted home for many inmates. So they test applicants on their knowledge of gay bars—first asking them to name one, then demanding to know its cover charge and interior design. Officials also lean on their own carefully honed gaydar.

The gay wing, of course, is still a jail, and most inmates yearn for their eventual release. Many were disowned by their families after coming out and turned to drugs to cope. About 150 of the 400 inmates take self-improvement classes to help them stay clean when their sentences end, but a number of repeat offenders wind up back behind bars. Life in the gay wing isn’t a happy ending, nor is it necessarily a new beginning. But in America’s cruel, overcrowded prison system—where brutality and sexual violence toward LGBTQ inmates is horrifically common—the gay wing serves as a tiny bright spot of hope.