It was another hot and humid afternoon in Kingston Jamaica and I was getting ready to climb down a 10ft wall into a storm drain. After a bit of messing around with my wheelchair, I decided it would be too difficult to use it whilst down in the drain. So I went on my crutches. I don't use them that often because they don't give me the freedom I need to live my life.
Thinking about my lack of mobility and independence as I carefully plotted my route through the inner sanctum of the storm drain made me shake my head at the irony of the moment. I was there with director and cameraman Andrew Carter to make a film for C4's Unreported World. We were on our way to meet a group of gay and transgender Jamaicans who were searching for their own kind of freedom but only found intolerance and violence and had ended up living in these disgusting conditions because of their sexuality!
As Andrew filmed my hazardous journey to meet this group, in true Unreported World style he asked what my first impressions were of the drain. It was filthy I couldn't use the entrance that its occupants normally used so I had to come via the toilet. At times the stench of human excrement was overwhelming it was everywhere I had to concentrate very hard on not stepping in or slipping on the waste. It made me angry that this group of people were forced to live like this it didn't make any sense.
The group was understandably wary when they met me even though they knew we were coming. All had experienced extreme levels of violence, which made them very cautious of outsiders - especially ones carrying cameras and asking lots of questions. I spoke to Sachaberry first, she was born male but feels her true gender is female. Sacha was very slim, wore a long-haired wig and make up. She talked to me about the abuse she had suffered growing up, and how she left home and eventually like most of the group had to start selling her body to men to make ends meet. I asked all of them if they'd ever thought of dressing like men and keeping their sexuality a secret. Sascha's answer was unequivocal: "Wearing man's clothes cannot change nothing at all. This is me Sachaberry!" Krissy was another member of the group who wanted to talk. Also born male, Krissy was softly spoken, extremely articulate and acutely aware of her predicament. They were all living on the very edge of a society, where many viewed them as diseased, and wanted them out of sight and out of mind.
76 yr old human rights activist Yvonne McCalla Sobers was a beacon of light that cut through all of this darkness. She was also on the board of directors for the charity Dwayne's House, a charity set up after the brutal murder of Jamaican transgender teen Dwayne Jones at a dance in Montego Bay last summer.
"Aunty Yvonne" as she was known by to the guys in the gully, with assistance from Dwayne's house, took twice-weekly food parcels to the group. She also helped them with medical issues and sometimes with legal problems. Yvonne told me she knew these guys were no angels, but felt they were outsiders like her, treated differently because of a lack of understanding. A lot of the intolerance comes from the message of the church.Yvonne said she felt the church in Jamaica had changed in her lifetime. The influence of the American evangelical movement created an environment where many thought it was ok to be violent towards gays. Couple that with Jamaican law, which states that male gay sex is punishable by 10 years hard labour, and some of Jamaica's biggest dancehall music tracks openly talking about burning and shooting gays in their lyrics. You can see how people like Krissy and Sacha end up living in a storm drain.
One of the biggest revelations in this story for me came from Krissy. Even though she has been estranged from her family, ostracised by her community and violently attacked, she still believes there is a god and one day things will change, I hope for the sake of all of them it does.
Watch Jamaica's Underground Gays on C4's Unreported World Friday May 23rd at 7:30pm.