This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.
We do live in a f*cked up world. As women finally gain the right to drive in Saudi Arabia—a welcome development that hopefully will be an inexorable step towards female emancipation in one of the most restrictive societies in the world—a court in South Dakota sentenced a gay man to death rather than life in prison because the thought of being amidst so many men might be a reward rather than punishment for the convicted man.
As The New York Times reported, “Some of the jurors who imposed the death penalty on Charles Rhines, who was convicted of murder, have said they thought the alternative—a life sentence served in a men’s prison—was something he would enjoy as a gay man.
“During deliberations, the jury had often discussed the fact that Mr. Rhines was gay and there was ‘a lot of disgust’ about it, one juror recalled in an interview, according to the court petition. Another said that jurors knew he was gay and ‘thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.’ A third recounted hearing that if the jury did not sentence Mr. Rhines to death, ‘if he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go.’”
The prejudice and ignorance underpinning this kind of reasoning is staggering. The man was tried—and convicted—of murder, a serious crime for which life imprisonment would seem to be an apt and humane sentence. The jurors seemed to have added being gay to Rhines’ transgressions, despite the fact that being gay is not a crime. And neither is it a sin.
And yet they saw fit to pass judgment on his sexual preference. Not only that, they saw fit to pass judgment on what they imagined would be his sexual behavior, choosing to regard him as someone who would pounce on other men while in prison—and delight in doing so—simply because the population stacked the odds in his favor.
Again, quoting The New York Times, “In that note, the jurors went on to ask a series of questions aimed at whether Mr. Rhines would be in proximity to other men in prison. Would he ‘be allowed to mix with the general inmate population?’ Would he be permitted ‘to discuss, describe or brag about his crime to other inmates?’ ‘Would he have a cellmate?’”
“In other words, some members of the jury thought life in prison without parole would be fun for Mr. Rhines. So they decided to sentence him to death.”
While Rhines can’t claim to be lily-white in the morality stakes—he was found guilty of killing someone, after all—it’s terribly unfair and astoundingly stupid to equate his homosexuality with sexual depravity. Once more, idiots and bigots choose to ignore the fact that LGBTQ people are human, and instead choose to reduce them to sexual beings defined and motivated solely by their sexual urges. So that jail for such a person would represent gay paradise, what with an endless selection of tough and buff men with bulging biceps and washboard abs to fixate on and possibly have sex with. Yes, the jury thought that lifetime incarceration for Rhines would be a beefcake parade and he could prance about with a feather boa and flirt with hardened criminals—killers among them, too, for sure—instead of seeing it for what it was: severe punishment, a forcible, and crippling isolation from society that often breaks the spirit, as well as an opportunity for atonement and rehabilitation which could lead to early release via parole.
By sentencing Rhines to death so he can escape the 24/7 party that prison apparently would be to a gay man, the jury was also telling him he was not worthy of rehabilitation. That he did not deserve to serve time and make amends for his crime and, should he be paroled, reintegrate into society as a reformed, law-abiding citizen. That the system shouldn’t even bother with a parole hearing at any point during his incarceration because he should just die.
And yet the jurors, and the small-minded people who share their parochial and frankly dangerous views, ignore the fact that prisons are, unfortunately, places where violent male rape occurs with frightening frequency. And such rapes—as with all rapes—are not about sexual desire, but about power.
There is, in fact, a culture of extreme sexual violence in prisons, particularly in America. And a gay man like Rhines, far from being the aggressor would probably end up being abused more severely in prison by other inmates. As Rewire put it, “Me Too” is not exactly an option for survivors of prison rape. “Reporting sexual abuse can always put a survivor in danger, but in prison that threat is elevated because survivors are either detained alongside their abusers or their abuser is the one who holds the key to their cell.”
Rewire says that “research suggests that LGBTQ people have higher rates of assault than people who identify as straight.
“An estimated 200,000 people held in United States prisons and jails every year face sexual abuse, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study released in 2013. Inmates who reported their sexual orientation as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or other faced abuse from other inmates at a rate ten times higher than inmates who identify as straight, according to the same BJS report. And the statistics get worse as marginalized demographics overlap: Of inmates with ‘serious psychological distress’ who are non-heterosexual, 21 percent reported sexual abuse in prison, while 14.7 percent reported abuse in jail.”
In the light of such horrific statistics, one could say that the South Dakota jury may have meted out the more merciful sentence for his crime. Unfortunately, sparing him from the almost certain abuse that was bound to be his fate should he have been incarcerated for life was not part of their thought process. Instead they believed he merited the death sentence because they believed he would approach life in prison with a spring in his step and a swish of his hips, thanks to the abundance of eye candy.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.