In the global battle for LGBT rights, the fight often turns ugly. In Jamaica, that ugliness has manifested in the form of young people, shunned everywhere else, living in a dank storm drain.
“Any kind of injustice bothers me–bothers me deeply,” Yvonne McCalla Sobers said. A small woman with light gray hair, she is a dynamic force. As an LGBT activist in Jamaica, a battlefield country with the sixth highest homicide rate in the world, she faces violent intolerance rooted in national homophobia.
“Gay rights are human rights,” Sobers said, explaining why she joined the struggle.
Sobers chairs Dwayne’s House, an organization that offers care and support to homeless LGBT youth. It’s a daunting mission in a country with anti-gay “buggery” laws and a colonial era mentality where thousands still turn out for homophobic rallies. Sobers’ recent focus has been on the youth forced into the storm drains, or the “gully,” by their families and communities.
There are currently no Kingston organizations that provide shelter for LGBT youth. With Dwayne’s House, Sobers is able to provide food, clothing, medical care, and legal support to the LGBT residents of the gully. Meanwhile, she is working to crowdsource funding for a homeless youth shelter.
“I met with the youth, had heard so many terrible things about them, found them to be human beings like everyone else – but human beings in great need,” Sobers said.
One of the gully residents, Christoph, described life in the gully during one of Sobers’ recent trips there.
“When I left home, I never knew what to do, and I had no intention on where to go,” he said. Christoph says he was forced to leave home five years ago after repeated threats to his family and beatings from neighborhood kids.
“My mother – she talks to me every now and then,” Christoph said. “I go every Sunday to visit her. She gives me food and support. If she can give me money, she will give me money.”
In Christoph’s new home, trash overflows, flies swarm and the stench is overpowering.
“As you know we are in the gully, and we don’t have a bathroom. So, this is where we use the toilet,” Christoph said as he pointed to piles of human feces.
Christoph pointed to the shower area under a broken water pipe. The pipe has been broken for years, and to streamline the water flow, someone had wrapped a plastic bag around the pipe break to create a shower effect.
Christoph told me that when the youths get to the shower area they must present themselves in a masculine manner to avoid skirmishes with the drug addicts, with whom they cohabitate in the gully.
“There are times when they will attack us at night if we are down here. I have a friend up here by the name of Malaysia. One of the cokeheads, they cut her right here on her chin. And, her tongue was shown under here,” he said while fingering a line across the bottom of his face.
“Many of them are involved in petty theft, abuse, assault of persons,” said Julian Robinson, the parliament member whose district includes the gully. “I would say the main reason that these men are congregating here is because they are involved in prostitution, and New Kingston is the heart of the prostitution district.
Robinson said he does not think sexual orientation was a factor in the police turning a blind eye to violence against the youth.
“I don’t think they are discriminated against by the police,” Robinson said. “When you frame it that way, you are saying that they are totally the victims because they are gay. Have they been the aggressors in some cases?”
“People call them gays. We don’t know if they are gays. We see them as individuals,” said Steve Brown, superintendent of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.
Asked if Jamaica is homophobic, Brown said, “No. Never. I wouldn’t say that.”
The disruptive behavior and the robberies are just some of the reasons why local business owners are pulling back their support from programs that would help the youth leave the gully.
“They are disruptive because they are homeless and gay. If they weren’t gay they wouldn’t be living on the streets. They would be at home with their families in their communities,” Sobers said. Officials in Jamaica and those in the business community believe the young residents in the gully don’t want to leave.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Men can enter freely to hurt and kill us. We don’t have a proper shower or proper beds. Some of us haven’t slept in a bed for five years. Why would we want to stay?”