March 1, 2017 / 6:29 PM / 3 years ago

Jamaican LGBTQ youths escape persecution in city storm drains

KINGSTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kaci was always what she calls a “girlie boy.”

Growing up in her grandmother’s house in Kingston, Jamaica, that was not a problem. But when her grandmother died and her uncle became her guardian, being a “girlie boy” meant trouble.

“People started to talk,” said Kaci, a 22-year-old transgender woman, who did not want to provide her last name. “They found out I was gay and then, the community ran me down to kill me.

“My uncle turned me out, and then he turned his back on me, so I had to end up on the street,” she recently told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kaci now lives in one of Kingston’s storm drains or gullies, along with several other dozen gay and transgender people who call themselves “Gully Queens.” Most share the same story of family rejection.

Now, a grassroots effort is underway to create a shelter for the group, whose members regularly suffer violent homophobic attacks and often resort to sex work to survive.

“Every day, it’s life or death,” said Savannah Baker, a British-Jamaican creative director and photographer who is spearheading an effort via the fundraising site GoFundMe.com to raise money for the shelter. 

Baker hired some of the “Gully Queens” to work on a music video for British musician Ray BLK. She said while there have been several documentaries and photography features on Jamaica’s LGBTQ people, none of the coverage has highlighted specific ways to help them.

In Jamaica, where hostility toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) people is common, being homeless and poor leaves “Gully Queens” especially vulnerable.

Homosexuality is illegal in Jamaica. The country’s sodomy law, which dates back more than 150 years to British colonial times, makes consensual sex between men illegal and carries a prison term of up to 10 years with hard labor.

“For some Jamaicans, rejection of homosexuality is not only a defense of Christian values, it is also a marker of national identity,” the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) says on its website.

Last year, when the U.S. Embassy in Kingston flew a rainbow flag in solidarity with victims of a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Jamaica’s attorney general criticized the display, saying it disrespected the nation’s laws.

Government officials were not immediately available for comment on Kingston’s “Gully Queens”.

“YOU HAVE TO SLEEP AND WATCH”

Tayshawn Beltre, a 24-year-old transgender woman, has been homeless off and on since her mother kicked her out 10 years ago.

She often makes her home in Kingston’s gullies, which are open-air, paved channels that snake through the city.

Walled in stone, they are typically six to nine feet wide (two to three meters) and lie below street level. Like small creeks, they drain rainwater, and much of the city’s refuse, out to sea.

“We find means and ways to try and make it a home,” said Beltre.

But living out in the open means that “Gully Queens” can be victims of random violence. Beltre says she was once was stabbed in the back with a knife by a stranger.

“You cannot really sleep. You have to sleep and watch,” she said.

Many LGBTQ people do not feel protected by authorities and say they are targeted by police because of their sexual orientation.

Minutes after Beltre spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the gully where she lives was raided by the police.

She and other transgender women said they were beaten, had their phones confiscated and their clothing burned.

A spokeswoman for the Jamaican Constabulatory Force confirmed that police did conduct the raid in the gully but denied the reports of abuse. She said the women were suspects in a robbery case. No arrests were made.

Some in the transgender community say they have no choice but to resort to crime because they are exiled from the job market and cannot find legal work.

“I’m not going to put a pretty face on it. You do have people who do rob at night ... Everybody does a little thieving to survive,” Beltre said.

TRAUMA

The constant trauma of living on the streets means most of Kingston’s homeless LGBTQ population need much more than just a roof over their heads, said Dane Lewis, executive director of J-FLAG.

“Their concerns are more than just shelter,” he said. “This is a community that has been marginalized and is still straining to get access to work and a safe environment for them to be full human beings.”

Lewis estimated the number of gay and transgender homeless people in Kingston could be as high as 60 but is usually between 30 and 50.

The number who are displaced or at risk is likely far higher, Lewis said. J-FLAG gets calls almost weekly from people who need to leave their homes but are staying on friends’ couches or have found other temporary places to live.

For Mindy, a 24-year-old transgender woman who has been homeless for eight years, a roof over her head would not be enough.

“My aim is to leave from Jamaica and be somewhere where I can be free and be myself, have a job, live like ordinary people,” Mindy said.

“I don’t want to end up dead here. They don’t have us as human beings. They have us as dogs,” she said.

Reporting by Rebekah Kebede, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org

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