In the horrifically homophobic Jamaican capital of Kingston, young LGBT’s live in the city’s storm drains. We can learn a lesson from them, says Rob Buchanan.
It is a tragic paradox that often the most exploited and downtrodden societies in the world are usually the ones most likely to inflict similar exploitation and marginalisation on subcultures within their own communities. Its visible in the tide of homophobia in Africa, were the priority is arresting queers rather than feeding babies. Likewise on the streets of Russia, where instead of tackling unemployment and corruption, society is intent on gay witchhunts.
You can call it a hangover from British colonialism, with hatred resulting from antiquated laws that still make gay sex illegal. You can call it some type of Freudian transference, or an attempt to somehow gain self-worth by the abused becoming the abuser. You can call the scapegoating of queers a political ploy by corrupt regimes to distract from what’s really going on.
But no matter what you call it, I dare you not to be shocked into silence by the story of the Gully Queens of Jamaica.
The culture of homophobia in Jamaica is notoriously overt and aggressive. It’s estimated that 80 per cent of people express shocking views about LGBT people, and they are not shy about doing so. Everything from pop music to the local newspapers contains violent threats and tabloid fever-dreams about evil “batty men” that would likely make Putin blush, given their absurdity. So in such a relatively small nation with a constant environment of oppression and violence, where are LGBT teens to turn to for escape and sanctuary?
The terrible answer is The Gullys. The underground storm drains of the capital city, Kingston have become a type of dystopian underworld hideaway for the LGBT young people of Jamaica. They trade the dangers of assault, rape and murder at the hands of gangs, or their own families, for the dangers of disease, drowning and starvation in The Gullys.
I watched the VICE documentary about the gays of The Gullys, which you can also do below, with a mixture of abject horror and rage at the dehumanising conditions that LGBT young people are forced to live in because of pointless, misguided hatred. But I also felt a great admiration for these kids and their absolute refusal to deny their identities, and for the obvious love and camaraderie they show to each other in a world that roundly rejects them.
Whole communities and “families” have sprung up in The Gullys, with people protecting each other and trying to maintain their dignity and their sanity. In this underground world the teenagers can express themselves with pride. But the Gully Queens are not immune to the dangers of the vicious homophobia in Jamaica.
LGBT’s, especially trans people, are regularly murdered when they emerge from their hideouts to try and find work or social life outside. The police response ranges from ambivalent to almost defensive. They claim that “batty men” are engaged in crime and that the Gully Queens are outlaws rather than victims.
It is certainly true that many of the Gully Queens are involved in prostitution. The majority of them are trans women or effeminate or cross-dressing men. With no other source of income, it’s no wonder many of these people are forced to sell their bodies, ironically to the very same ‘straight’ men who condemn them on a daily basis. And certainly there must be thieves and drug users among the Gully Queens.
But I would ask anyone who judges them for it: How long would you go without food or clothing, living literally in other human’s waste like a monster pariah, before you turned to stealing to feed yourself or drugs to you’re your mind escape? We cannot dismiss the great courage and dignity that it takes for people in situations like this to stand up and be themselves.
They are kids in trenches in a war zone. There’s a steely knowledge in their eyes as they face life with a stoicism that only suffering and injustice can forge. Despite their almost post-apocalyptic tunnel-living and their awful daily struggle, the Gully Queens still harbour hope and determination to make better lives for themselves. There is a real sense of defiance about them, an assertion that they are neither evil nor wrong, despite what Jamaican papers and the preachers say. Neither are they dirty or disposable, like the rubbish they live amongst.
As another queen once said, we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.
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