American Horror Healed: One Lesbian’s Journey From Neo-Nazi To An Unlikely Symbol Of Hope

Angela King is living proof that there can be life after hate.

Photo by Mark Seliger

Covered in tattoos of Nazi symbols and known for her role in a high-profile hate crime, Angela King went into prison assuming she’d have her back up against the wall. Instead, her life transformed.

It was 1998. King, who had been in neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups since she was in high school, found herself sentenced to 70 months in federal prison for her involvement in a robbery and beating of a Jewish store owner.

Locked up and defiant, she was confronted by a Jamaican woman one day while she was outside smoking. The woman asked her a question she never expected to hear.

“Do you know how to play cribbage?”

Startled but intrigued, King sat down with a group of Black women who taught her how to play the game. And from then on, all the racist and homophobic comments her parents had drilled into her as a child in rural Florida, all the negative beliefs that had poisoned her mind for years, began to melt away. Not only did her time in prison release her from the mental prison of bigotry, it gave her the freedom she needed to look inward at her sexuality and come out of the closet.

“I lived a life with very limited thought, very little room for anything other than yes or no, black or white, there is no in-between,” King tells GO. “Then all of a sudden, the world was in color and everything was full, every conversation, every friendship, every decision meant something completely different than it would have before. I felt like I was reborn.”

Today, King, 42, is an advocate for others who have joined neo-Nazi skinhead groups and want to break free. She is the co-founder of Life After Hate, an organization that helps reformed violent extremists find each other and find a way out. She hopes her own transformation helps others see that there’s hope.

But King would be the first to admit that such a change doesn’t come easily.

Young King in TallahasseeCourtesy of Angela King

An American story

Hate has been woven into the fabric of American history since day one. Systemic racism, homophobia, bigotry and prejudice are, sadly, largely the building blocks on which this country has been founded, from the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of Black Americans to Jim Crow laws and racialized police violence. Beyond those structures, extremist groups such as neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan have, for decades, carried out violence to perpetuate their limited views about who has a right to freedom.

And the current political climate is only incubating a continual rise of such hate. Since 2014, the number of hate groups in our country has risen from 784 to 917, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in 2016 has only seemed to electrify white supremacists and sparked the followers of the radical right. Our community is one of many targeted by hate. In a 2017 report, GLAAD found that less than half of non-LGBTQ Americans are accepting of their queer and trans peers. And the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 42 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2017 were of transgender women of color, who experience the unique intersection of violence with racism, transphobia and misogyny.

King says we are facing distressing times, but they aren’t unprecedented. “We still live in a system of white supremacy that leverages misogyny, patriarchy, racism and homophobia, and I say it’s definitely time for change. And we have to drive that change,” King tells GO.

“The reason I think we are seeing so much more of it [white supremacy] right now, is because we have an administration that not only blatantly ignored it when it happened, but is also actually involved in it,” King explains. “[Those in the Trump administration] are not speaking up, they are not speaking out; they are acting like it’s no big deal. And that is really scary. I don’t think our nation has ever been in distress the way it is right now.”

Since 2011, Life After Hate has provided a counter-narrative to that of the violent racist extremists — all in the hopes of reaching people who have become disillusioned, but don’t see a way out. All employees at Life After Hate come from a similar background; like King, they were once inducted into violent extremist groups, giving them an intimate understanding of how hate groups organize and find susceptible new members. King sees their work as a way of planting seeds of hope.

“We know that change is possible because we have changed,” says King. “We know that growth is possible because we have grown.” King’s story is one that proves our country can find its way out of this deep, dark hole we have dug for ourselves.

King 1998 mugshotCourtesy of Angela King

From bullied to bully

“There isn’t anything you could ever do that would make us not love you — but you better never come home with a Black person or another woman.” Statements like that, and other racist comments, are some of King’s earliest memories, drilled into her head by her parents.

King became aware of her attraction to other women at a very young age. “I didn’t know terms such as ‘lesbian’ or ‘same sex attraction,’ but there was this overwhelming feeling of disgust for myself, an overwhelming feeling that if anyone ever found out, best-case scenario I would be excommunicated from my family. Worst case scenario, I’d be stoned to death and burn in the everlasting pits of hell,” King explains. “As an adolescent having that kind of fear, it really spiraled me down a negative path early on.” Though she didn’t have language to understand her desires, she inherently thought that her sexuality was wrong and something that should be deeply buried.

Being forced to swallow the secret of her lesbian identity led King to an adolescence filled with internalized homophobia. “I ran as far as possible from who I knew I really was. I did my best to bury myself. I did that with violence, with alcohol, with drug use.”

At the same time, her parents were indoctrinating her against people who looked different from her. They sent her to private Baptist and Catholic schools that were mostly white. “Even though they weren’t overly religious, they believed that if they paid good money to send me to a private school, they would keep me away from bad elements. And bad elements to them mostly meant Black people,” King tells GO. “It didn’t seem abnormal because I didn’t really know anything different.”

Her past is neither a justification nor an excuse, she says, but it did play a role in her later involvement with neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups.

King remembers the precise moment that flipped the switch from her being bullied to becoming the bully. She was in seventh grade and had accidently sat in the wrong seat in class. It was the seat that belonged to the class bully. The bully beat her up and ripped her favorite shirt: A powder blue button-up with teddy bears on it. Her training bra was exposed to everyone in class. “I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me on the spot,” she remembers.

But soon her embarrassment turned to rage. “In my immature bubble brain, I reasoned with myself that if I was the one doing that, no one could ever humiliate me in that way again,” King explains, “In the seventh grade, I suddenly gained this level of attention and respect that I had not gotten before, and it was because I fought the school bully back.”

Violence and other forms of self-destructive behavior quickly became the answer to all of King’s pain and internalized homophobia. She started by stealing her parents’ cigarettes and sneaking their liquor. Her behavior escalated, and by 15, she was ripe for recruitment into a local skinhead group. Feeling disenfranchised from being labeled an outsider at school and constantly getting berated by her parents at home, King craved a sense of belonging. “It could have been so many other things, but the far-right happened to be there,” she says, “and that happened to be where I thought I could fill this void.”

The gang that King joined initially donned colorful mohawks and anarchy symbols that, over time, turned into swastikas and led her down a path of violence. She met them in high school, where peers would scramble out of the way when the group walked down the halls. King mistook this fear for popularity. While racism and homophobia ran rampant in these groups, which was nothing new to King because of her upbringing, that wasn’t what attracted her to them. She was drawn to their acceptance of her rage and violence.

“Coming into that group, they accepted me. They never once said ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you so violent? Why are you so angry?’ And once I realized that they accepted me in their circle, I wanted more. That acceptance felt good.”

She spent eight years in the group. It wasn’t until she was watching the news about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that King began to reconsider her affiliation with neo-Nazis. But she couldn’t talk to anyone about her doubts, fearing retaliation and isolation from her gang. She was especially fearful of her abusive boyfriend at the time, who was virulently homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic.

Women in white supremacist groups have paradoxical experiences with men, King explains. They are seen as the mothers of the white race and yet are on the receiving end of domestic violence and abuse. “I have no problem being candid about that,” King says. “There were men who would say, ‘You are a white woman, so you are important,’ and then five minutes later, if I said something he didn’t like, he would backhand me.”

A form of feminism is starting to take root in these groups, she says, but it’s not feminism if it continues to oppress others. “They use that activism to dehumanize other human beings,” King says. For example, even the so-called feminists of these groups view LGBTQ people, like King, as sinners or not even human.

But during King’s involvement, from the age of 15 to her time in prison at 23, she was protected by keeping her sexuality a secret. “No one suspected that I was gay,” King says. Her torment came from within. And it took prison to end it.

King’s tattoos inspired by racist norse mythologyCourtesy of Angela King

Freed in prison

One night in 1998, King was driving around with a group of racist, anti-Semitic skinheads with whom she was involved at the time. They got amped up at a bar when a brawl broke out, and they wanted to keep their energy going. “We drove around, drunk and high on adrenaline and talked about what we could do for the organization we were involved in,” King continues. “And we decided that we should rob some place and take whatever we got out of that robbery and send it to our group.”

Eventually, the group decided on an adult video shop that was owned and run by a Jewish man — their “reasoning” being that pornography isn’t beneficial to the white race. King stayed in the car as the lookout while the rest of the gang beat up the store owner and emptied the cash register. Though she sat in the car as a lookout and didn’t partake in the robbery, King admits to her culpability in not stopping what was happening, which led to a man being brutally beaten.

“I absolutely took part in planning it. I never once said, ‘Hey, maybe we should think about this or not do this.’ I did not go in [and] physically rob the store but [I] absolutely was involved,” King admits. She was ultimately sentenced to 70 months in federal prison for her role in the crime.

That’s when she met the cribbage players who would change her life.

King is quick not to credit the prison system for her rebirth; she says that it was the Black women with whom she was incarcerated and the process of being held accountable for her actions that sparked a vital change.

“Very unexpected things happened when I was in prison,” King tells GO. “I went in there with that mindset of not being responsible. I also went in with a mindset of ‘great, now I’m going to be stuck in here as a neo-Nazi with racist symbols [tattooed] all over my body.’”

Instead, she was shown compassion and love from women whom she knew she didn’t deserve it from — and to whom she wouldn’t have given the same respect before entering prison. It completely disarmed her. “From that experience, everything that I expected, all my preconceived ideas of what was going to happen and the opinions I had already formed of other women, were absolutely inaccurate and did not come true.”

King is still friends with many of the women she met behind bars. “I credit them with changing and saving my life,” she says. “And with teaching what real friendship is and what it means to love someone unconditionally.”

With her defenses down, King opened herself up to the truth of her past, and she began to reckon with the consequences of her actions. That led to her finally coming to terms with her sexuality.

The first woman King fell in love with hated her. She was a Black woman, and she knew exactly why King was incarcerated. While passing King in the hallway, she muttered under her breath something along the lines of, “How does someone even end up like you?” and King decided to turn around and respond to her.

They began a friendship that slowly evolved into something more. When they got past their hatred for one another, they were able to see how much they had in common, and they built a strong connection through that. It was a love that King had never allowed herself to explore before. As she stripped herself of all the shame around being a lesbian, she finally allowed herself to really experience loving another woman for the first time. The two women are still friends today. King often tells her, “Thanks for hating me, but then thanks for loving me, because you changed everything.”

One of the reasons King speaks so publicly about her violent past is because she wants to help others transform their lives. She began the work of healing communities and doing outreach while on parole by sharing her story with criminal justice students at a local community college. She didn’t start off with an intention to help reformed violent extremists. At first, King was horrified when her probation officer asked her to share her story. But she wanted to be different, so she took a risk and began publicly speaking about her violent past in hopes to heal herself and others. She worked alone in outreach for a decade.

Then, in 2011, King attended a conference in Dublin with other former violent far-right extremists. Together, they started Life After Hate. “We made a commitment to come home and work together to move forward,” King says. They worked rapidly, and in just three months, established a nonprofit.

“We go out and don’t necessarily target people currently involved in the far right,” King explains, “What we do is, we [provide a] counter-narrative. We do outreach and a lot of public speaking. We do training. We are all over social media. So lots of the people that we help are individuals who have either been referred to us or who have found us out themselves.”

The group went on to win an Emmy for producing a PSA that featured a former white supremacist who once beat up a homeless gay boy. Years later, after the skinhead changed his life, he met the boy he had beaten and made amends. The spot demonstrates that “there is still time to make the right decisions and stop hurting other people and hurting ourselves.” (The PSA led to Life After Hate winning its first federal grant under the Obama administration. Unfortunately, before they received the $400,000, the Trump administration rescinded the grant. Fundraising is still making up for the loss.)

While attending a white supremacist rally in Boston this past year, Life After Hate activists didn’t scream at or fight the extremists. Instead, they held up signs that read: “There is life after hate.” Those signs also displayed the web address to their organization. Their hope is that in the weeks, months or even years down the line, when someone is ready to leave but afraid to do so, they will remember that sign and the fact that others have found life after hate and survived.

King speaking on National Organization for Women (NOW) panelCourtesy of Angela King

Having hard conversations

King has a theory about why homophobia is often paired with far-right ideology. Internalized homophobia, she says, brings a desire not only to find acceptance in a group but also to find a cover for one’s LGBTQ identity. When meeting other LGBTQ reformed extremists, King found one commonality they all shared: They were bullied as kids and craved acceptance in a group they could call their own. In places like rural Florida where King grew up, there simply wasn’t access to supportive LGBTQ community centers or spaces where youth could find their home. And with her homophobic parents, King didn’t know that being an out lesbian was an option. Stories like King’s show that LGBTQ outreach is vital to our collective survival.

At the same time, King is aware of her advantages as a white person. “I’m somewhat marginalized because I’m a member of the LGBTQ community, but any time, I could hide it if I had to. A person of color can’t come home and hang up the color of their skin one day and suddenly be treated like a white American,” King explains. “I do have hope, but at the same time there has to be reconciliation.”

King strongly believes that resistance and activism are daily tasks filled with hard conversations and connecting with people outside the digital realm. Far-right movements use digital platforms to reach and groom people to join their cause, which is why King suggests that we all do the work of deconstructing racism and homophobia with our loved ones. While King’s mother has drastically changed her beliefs and now supports her daughter’s work and sexuality, King still has a strained relationship with her father, who continues to foster racist and homophobic sentiments. The one big difference is that now King has the willpower and knowledge to stand up to him and call out his behavior.

But there’s one person she can’t reach — her childhood self. If she had the power to go back in time and drop some of her hard-won wisdom on the little girl that went down a dark, violent and hateful path before seeing the light, “I would tell that poor girl to love herself and that it’s okay to be who she is.”

Reformed King in Seattle with Life After Hate membersCourtesy of Angela King

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Corinne Werder is the Managing Editor and resident sex educator at GO Magazine, co-host of podcast Femme, Collectively and can be found on Instagram at @corinne.kai.