‘The Drain Is Basically Their Last Refuge’ Meet Jamaica’s Gay Population Who Are Forced To Live (Literally) Underground

The director of Jamaica's Underground Gays tells us about their daily struggle to survive.


by Jess Commons |
Published on

What do you think of when you imagine Jamaica? Beaches, dancehall and cocktails in coconuts with cutesy umbrellas in? Sure. For us Brits, it’s a luxury holiday destination. But for the country’s gay and trans populations, it’s a daily battle to survive in a society where homophobia is the norm.

Andrew Carter, a director from Channel 4’s Unreported World has just visited Jamaica’s capital Kingston alongside Paralympics presenter Ade Adepitan to report on a group of gay and trans adults and teenagers who’ve found themselves with nowhere else to live but a storm drain in New Kingston, the city’s upmarket business district. ‘This drain is basically their last refuge,’ says Andrew. ‘These guys were ostracized from society and faced violence in their home areas so became homeless, living in various squats before getting chased out by the police and landlords who didn’t want them around.’ Conditions in the drain are obviously less than ideal, ‘There’s floodwater and trash everywhere. It’s pretty appalling conditions for people to live in.’

So why is there such homophobia in Jamaica? One thing that the film takes to task is the influence of lyrics found in popular dancehall anthems. Slurs and death threats against the gay community are rife, from four-time Grammy nominated Buju Banton’s Boom Bye Bye ('Boom bye bye inna batty boy head…. Boom bye bye in a faggots head, the tough young guys don’t accept fag; they have to die'), to the TOK’s Chi Chi Man ('Dem a drink in a chi chi man bar, blaze di fire mek we dun (kill) dem'). ‘The tracks are popular, but some of the lyrics are shocking the way they’re directly talking about killing, burning and shooting gay people.’ says Andrew. Another influence is the church. ‘Some of the churches’ messages about homosexuality are pretty strong and although the mainstream churches would say they don’t actively incite violence they sort of make it pretty clear to people that the bible says there are terrible consequences for homosexuality and then people take it upon themselves to put two and two together and put this kind of intolerance into action and target these people.’

Sadly for the guys living in the drain, there’s not many options for survival and so many turn to prostitution. ‘I’m not sure on details of how much money they all make,’ says Andrew, ‘We did hear one story about oral sex being sold for $10 US. We also had one conversation with a transgender woman Sacha about the money she makes and how she couldn’t save any of it. I mean she literally has nowhere to keep the cash. She keeps whatever possessions she has in this little hole down the storm drain and it gets washed through with the rain very frequently. One night we filmed her she made $5 and it got lost. It was pretty sad, people going to such lengths to make such tiny amounts of money.’

Despite the desparate things Andrew and his team saw, he did hear some rumblings of improvement on an admittedly still bleak situation. ‘We heard a police officer say that there were gay officers in his unit but they kept a low profile they were fine. In the middle classes if you have money and status and as long as you don’t flaunt your sexuality then you can get by. People might suspect that you might be gay but they won’t say or do anything to actively out you so I think there is more tolerance at that level.’

For the ‘Gully Queens’ as New Kingston’s drain dwellers have been dubbed though, there doesn’t seem like there’s much hope of acceptance any time soon. But that’s not to say they’re completely alone. The film introduces us to Yvonne, a 76-year-old lady who comes by the drain twice a week with food for the guys. She works with a charity called Dwayne’s House which is named after Dwyane Jones, a teen brutally murdered because of his choice to live as transgender woman last year. ‘We went to a meeting and they were talking about where the hostel might be and where they’re going to get funding.’ Things aren’t going to be easy though. ‘Some of these guys have been on the road and homeless for a long time and others have short periods where they’ve headed back home or live with friends so they’re in a very fluid situation. Trying to establish a hostel where there’s some flexibility but also some rules in a neighbourhood where they could be free? That’s going to be a very difficult challenge.’

Jamaica's Underground Gays in on tonight at 7:30PM on Channel 4. For more information on Dwayne's House click here.

Follow Jess on Twitter @jess_commons

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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