Jamaica is a homophobic society We grew up to dislike homosexuals. We grew up to hate homosexuality. Jamaica’s history of homophobia
is by no means a secret. With cultural and religious conservatism rife, being out and proud isn’t exactly an option. While some of the Jamaicans’ attitudes toward homosexuality are be slowly evolving, last year actually saw an increase in homophobic and transphobic violence. With attacks often taking place in broad daylight, and shared across social media. We traveled to the capital city of Kingston to explore the reality of being gay in a country known for its LGBT intolerance. Though homosexuality is technically not illegal here, the presence of Jamaica’s colonial era buggery law, which criminalizes anal sex, can land you a ten year prison sentence with hard labor. In central Kingston, there is now a community of trans and gay youth living in a storm drain or as the locals call it, a gully. Prominent LGBT activist Maurice Tomlinson offered to introduce us to the kids living in the gully at a protest he was organizing to raise awareness about their situation. – Have they adopted that term? – It’s always got “queen” in it somewhere (laughter) Unlike many LGBT people in Jamaica, the Gully Queens weren’t trying to blend in or hide their sexuality for fear of being attacked. They actually seem to be the most visible gay community, because they didn’t have a place to hide. And by stepping out of the gully in this protest, was in itself an obvious act of defiance. It hadn’t been five minutes, before officials came out to try and work out what we were doing. – But why are people having to live in the gully in the first place? – Well, I mean, I find that kind of hard to believe, because we’ve had them sort of just standing and sort of just here and we’ve had people driving past shouting “batty man” and everything like that. Regardless of your sexuality, you could be a criminal, that’s not what I’m saying, but one of the reasons they’re living in a sewer is that they feel like they can’t be visible because they’re gonna get attacked. – You don’t believe that? – What do you feel like you’ve achieved today? – Yeah. – (laughs) Unlike what many believed, it was always the gully kids weren’t there out of choice, living under an almost constant threat of random attacks. We wanted to figure out what Jamaica’s government were doing to protect its own LGBT youth. Prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller hit headlines in the run-up to the 2010 election by making controversial statements in favor of gay rights during her campaign. She also pledged to review the ancient buggery law, the first head of government ever to do so in Jamaica’s history. Simpson-Miller: No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. But already well into her third year in office, nothing more has been said or done, leaving Jamaica’s already voiceless LGBT community at odds against her. – Portia Simpson-Miller once said that she was going to review the buggery law. A lot of people are saying that she hasn’t done that. The buggery law, it seems to be, applicable mainly just to people who are gay. – Well it’s legal. Well I’m not saying that if the buggery law changed there would be anal sex in the streets, that’s not what I’m saying. (laughs) Then why can’t it be overturned? Some of the young LGBT kids, I feel that they’re living in the gullies because they have nowhere to go because finding work is almost impossible because of discrimination against them. – Yes, we’ve been spending time with them. After speaking with a PNP, it didn’t seem that the government thought that protecting its LGBT citizens was much of a priority, shifting the blame instead onto the parents. But if the buggery law was to be overturned, this position may be forced to change. Maurice Tomlinson had been driven out of Jamaica, following an onslaught of death threats, after his same sex marriage. He returned to Kingston to front a pre-trial to attempt to overturn the buggery law. I’m waiting for Maurice on our way to the Supreme Court to try and overturn the buggery law. There is a disconnect between the Rich Queens, like Maurice himself, and the kids living in the sewers. So what I want to know from Maurice is, what is overturning this law gonna do for the people living in those conditions, ’cause I don’t even see if overturning it’s gonna change their situation at all. – What’s the pre-trial entail? What are you sort of going up to the judge today to do? We were out in the gullies last night, they’re of the opinion of once they want the buggery law to be changed, they feel that if it is overturned it’s not gonna change their situation a lot. We’re waiting for Maurice, he’s inside, he’s fighting for LGBT Jamaicans The main opponents are the JCHS, the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society a powerful team of evangelical organizations fueled and powered by Jamaica’s overwhemingly Christian population With the pre-trial over, and no immediate resolution, Maurice headed to the airport, having to leave Jamaice once again for fear for his safety. Back at the gully, Daggering’s boyfriend Andre offered to show us what life is like living under the streets of Jamaica. So how many people are living here at the moment? This is where you cook stuff? – Do you all sleep together, like all…?
– No – So the water comes out these holes and comes down this thing here? So this water’s coming through, and there’s cockroaches and people are cooking Do a lot of people get sick down here? It’s not like a sewer like some people make it out to be. So what’s it like living down here? What do most of the people do down here for a living? Is than mainly the trans girls doing the sex work? They do as well? And is it a lot of the customers thinking that the trans girls are women? And what happens when they find out that they’re not women? And is it just gay kids, bisexual kids, transexual kids that are living down here? Do you think that the vast majority of young kids that are gay in Jamaica are living away from home? Like on the streets? Is the reason why there’s different families in the gullies because the kids coming down here just feel that they’ve been separated from their family so they kind of want to create their own one? Do you have any brothers or sisters, gay brothers or sisters? Given the isolation felt by many after being disowned by their own family members, the gully has created its own family units. Friends become mothers, daughters, fathers, and brothers This is the line they wash their laundry on, where they hang their panties up. – So is this the delicates then?
– Yeah, this side here.
– (laughs) That’s yours? (points off camera) What’s happening up here? And what are they getting ready for? Do you mean like sex work? – Heyyy! There she is! She’s done that before When did you start calling yourself Rihanna? Which Rihanna video is your favorite? What would you do if Rihanna came down to the gully? Well, there’s gonna be a bit of jealousy because you’re the Rihanna of the gully and she kind of, come on your turf Is the water clean? Oh, so it’s from a fire hydrant? And is there any sort of bathroom drama, down here? That’s just clean water. Are you like, premium real estate here Andre? “That cake is not too sweet,” she said! (laughs) (laughs) She’s never had it? (laughs) Is she just bitter then? It’s pretty amazing down here. I didn’t realize how deep it went. So all the way down there by the main road, and you’ve got this gully bit which is behind businesses, so you’ve got a bank up there and just a car park. It’s pretty close knit, and it’s quite interesting to see why people live here and you can kind of understand why they do, because it offers a bit of seclusion that you wouldn’t get sleeping on the streets. Feeling pretty smug about that (grunts) Do you need a hand Andre? No, you don’t need a hand. Despite a relatively peaceful afternoon in the gully, it’s still impossible to say that it’s exactly a safe haven for these kids. Especially when a lot of the people here are used to solving day-to-day problems with violence since that’s what they’re constantly exposed to out here on the streets Kevin was an example of this. It’s difficult to say what police would do to stop violence in the gully, considering their track record with the community thus far. Police launched a crack down against who they are unruly gay men The men fled on the approach of the police team, but slowly returned to see some of their belongings going up in smoke. They were heard criticizing the police and calling for urgent assistance. But it’s not just the most visible of Jamaica’s gay community that feel defenseless from homophobic abuse. I went to speak with Angeline Jackson, who runs Jamaica’s only organization to deal specifically with the abuse against lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. After hearing Angeline’s story, I was nervous about meeting up with Daggering in downtown Kingston given what had been in the news recently about a crowd mobbing a gay man in the streets of May Pen. In spite of this, Daggering invited us to go shopping with her before her impending birthday celebrations that night. As Daggering prepared for tonight’s party, it wasn’t clear if Jamaica was quite ready for the Gully Queens to be out and proud on the streets particularly after hearing about what happened to trans teen Dwayne Jones, otherwise known as the “Gully Queen” who was beaten, stabbed, and shot on the streets of Montego Bay after attending a party dressed in women’s clothing Dwayne’s friend Khloe, who was with him on the night he was killed, has also taken refuge in the gully. After Dwayne’s family initially refused to collect or bury their own child, Jamaica’s only visible gay rights organization, JFLAG, stepped in and offered to help. We spoke with Dane Lewis, head of JFLAG, in order to understand how things were ever going to change for Jamaica’s targeted gay youth. Our social support initiative basically is our response to the issues of homophobia, persons being displaced, being injured because of homophobia often times because of mental anguish people are have to go through, mental abuse Sometimes it also includes counseling Our data shows that there’s only a 17% level of tolerance among the society, just in terms of how people relate to LGBT people The crossdressers and the drag queens have helped and they play their own role in terms of advocacy So it requires all of us to play our own role, thought leaders to speak up against injustice It requires church leaders to speak up, it requires our Parliamentarians to speak up The Gully Queens were by no means shying away on the sidelines and Daggering’s birthday party was proof of that. It’s your big day, don’t be nervous I can pray I haven’t prayed in a long time, but I want to bless the cake, I want to bless Daggering, and I want to bless everyone here and every LGBT Jamaican and hope for a better life… so, amen. Should we cut the cake? (Everyone) 1… 2… 3… (cheering) We have the mother, and her daughters are all here, so it’s a massive celebration, as you can hear We want their storytelling So, the police have just come down and made their presence known So, it’s kind of just like a show of force. It looks like the queens have won this one. (laughs) This is better than my birthday With homophobic violence still such a prevalent part of Jamaican culture, and the buggery law looking likely to remain a long staying fixture of Jamaican law, things aren’t looking great for its LGBT community Though the party down at Kingston’s gully is allowed a proud show of defiance, the reality of what the Gully Queens and other gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Jamaicans will wake up to the morning after remains as bleak as ever.