By Thom Senzee
Originally published on Advocate.com July 31 2014 5:30 AM ET
Not a sewer, Shoemaker Gully is a storm drain that in addition to catching water from Kingston's streets, serves as home and hearth for the Jamaican capital's forsaken LGBT youth.
"Jamaica is a homophobic society," is the plainly stated fact in the opening scene of Vice News' new documentary, Young and Gay: Jamaica's Gully Queens. "We grow up to dislike homosexuals. We grow up to hate homosexuality."
The film is a gritty, real-life telling of the story of a tight-knit band of young, LGBT Jamaicans who have found shelter, camaraderie and a modicum of safety-in-numbers in a storm drain beneath the streets of Kingston. It is the second installment in a series Vice is producing under the moniker "Young and Gay." It follows on the heels of Young and Gay in Putin's Russia.
Life is never easy in Kingston's gully life. That's evident during a scene in which some gully residents unveil scarred necks, arms and torsos — battle scars of their predicament as LGBT people in one of the western hemisphere's most violently homophobic societies.
These youth are faced with Jamaica's "murky history" with homophobia and the ongoing tug-of-war about a colonial-era anti-buggery law fought between the country's religious-conservative groups and its more progressive political establishment. Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, for example, brought up the idea of repealing the law when she ran for office three years ago. But as noted in Gully Queens, her promise to review the law, which criminalizes anal sex and provides sentences of up to 10 years in prison, has yet to materialize.
While opposing groups duke it out in Jamaica's political arena and on the streets, where a group of nearly 25,000 supporters recently expressed an almost fetishized protectiveness of the buggery law, the LGBT community in Kingston is split in two.
"We have a kind of classism of rich queens and scary queens — the poor queens who live in the gully," says a Kingston "rich queen" identified in the Vice film only as "Maurice."
"Rich queens say, 'if they'd just be more like us, they'd be safer,'" Maurice continues. Hardly an elitist, Maurice is shown in the film leading an awareness campaign to bring the "gully queens" out of the shadows of the storm drain and onto the street where he hopes they can assert their right to live free of fear and violent assaults. But as soon as their peaceful demonstration starts, drivers shout antigay slurs as they pass.
The film compellingly portrays how homophobia and transphobia are so engrained in Jamaican culture that the tragedy of the young LGBT Jamaicans seems lost on a government official interviewed. The official says it's not the government's responsibility to care for youth whose families have forsaken them.
Meanwhile Vice's new film reveals a world beneath the streets of Kingston where some of Jamaica's young LGBT residents work to maintain their health and hygiene while also making a living, sometimes by selling snacks — and sometimes via sex work.
Recent reports say a homeless shelter for this largely ignored population may be in the works. The Jamaica Observer reports that Deputy Police Superintendent Christopher Murdock has proposed a homeless shelter where "gay men in New Kingston can access medication, psychological evaluation, counseling and skills training." He was speaking at a meeting near Shoemaker Gully, where the LGBT population featured in the new Vice documentary film live.
The meeting was arranged to address complaints from local residents that the LGBT youth living in the gully have been involved in murders, robberies and break-ins, and to discuss solutions to the homelessness problem in the area. A judge in New Kingston actually had to rule in March on whether the homeless youth should be kicked out of the sewers because of the complaints. In what qualifies as good news, the judge allowed them to stay.
Ironically, as Gay Star News reports, some of the organizers of the meeting were involved in closing down a shelter that once existed to serve the same population those same organizers say need a shelter now.
Watch Vice's Young and Gay: Jamaica's Gully Queens in the video below: