The up-and-coming British R&B singer RAY BLK’s new single, “Chill Out,” is a sexy, mellow exhortation to an overzealous suitor to slow his roll. But the accompanying music video, premiering today on Vogue.com, begins in a manner that’s anything but chill. Director Philippa Price spliced together a 20-second montage of Jamaican news clips, a whirlwind of footage depicting braggadocious men, some menacingly wielding baseball bats, spewing hate and fear at homosexuals. “We don’t want no one, none of them in this town here,” one man rants. “This is our town.”
Cut to the hem of a gauzy white frock rustling in the breeze. A beat kicks in. Pan out to the woman wearing the dress: Tall, muscular, blonde, and sultry, she stands in a grassy yard, cigarette dangling from her lips, silently hanging laundry on a clothesline.
The video doesn’t tell you her name, Shadiamond, or her age, only 21, though she seems older. If you look closely, you’ll see a slash of scar tissue across her left cheek, an artifact from an encounter with a knife-brandishing hooligan. But you can’t tell that she’s been shot eight times, nor can you discern that the dreamy, sun-dappled scene she’s acting out for the camera is just the sort of domestic simple pleasure she’s been denied in real life.
Shadiamond is one of four transgender women—Mindy, Beyonka, and Sasha are the others—who appear in the “Chill Out” video. They were chosen by a Jamaican producer to travel from the gritty capital city of Kingston, where they live, to the northeastern coastal parish of Portland for the two-day shoot. All four women are part of a population known in Jamaica as the Gully Queens, a small band of trans and gay young people who live embattled lives at the outermost margins of a country that Time magazine once called “the most homophobic place on earth.” They are visibly, openly living the truth of their gender and sexual identity in a nation where many choose to stay closeted, and they pay for it with complete alienation and constant abuse.
That Time quote dates back to 2006, and though strides have been made in the past decade to advance LGBTQ rights (here’s a recent Slate piece chronicling progress), Jamaica remains a place with a strong undercurrent of bigotry: a devoutly Christian nation with sodomy laws still on the books, where influential dancehall stars peddle antigay sentiment, major newspaper cartoonists mock homosexuals, and the national refrain of “One Love” blithely ignores those whose identity exists outside of the heteronormative/cisgender framework. As a 2014 Human Rights Watch report asserted, “Physical and sexual violence, including severe beatings and even murder, are part of the lived reality of many LGBT people in Jamaica. The level of brutality leads many to fear what could happen if their sexual orientation or gender identity is disclosed.”
In the U.S., the LGBTQ community represents the population most likely to experience hate crimes, but it’s specifically transgender women of color who endure the highest rates of violence, suicide, and poverty. In Jamaica, trans people, particularly those of low socioeconomic status, also count as the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. The Gully Queens—named for the sewers where they find shelter and refuge from police harassment and marauding thugs alike—are unwilling or unable to live in the closet. Both Mindy and Shadiamond, the two women with whom I spoke by phone, were outed against their will as teenagers. They separately told very similar stories of attending a party in drag, and then later discovering that they’d been photographed and those pictures had been disseminated within their communities. “I want to be comfortable and not hide in my life story, but be the person that I am,” Mindy, who is 24 and has been on the streets since she was in her late teens, told me. “I think I have the right to lead a life that I love.”
Doing so costs them dearly: They live in exile from their families and communities, unable to find work or landlords willing to rent them apartments. It’s likely that some make money through prostitution (HIV infection rates, I’m told, are high); others steal or beg. Homeless, isolated, and faced with the constant threat of violence, they are without recourse to better their circumstances. When I spoke to Mindy, she said of life in the gully: “It’s like being in hell.”