Gully Queens in HuffPo

Yet another profile of the “Gully Queens” (this time in the Huffington Post, although to be fair, it is an article profiling a photo documentary). Yet another lost opportunity to do something to help them. Raising awareness helps, certainly, but at some point you have to wonder who is being served. Is it the photographer who gets to fulfill his or her vision? The writer who is allowed to unleash the words inside of them? Is it the web site that gets more views? And I might object to the use of the word “fearless” to describe these young transgender women. They live in fear of being killed or attacked most of the time. It is articles like these that are dangerously close to sensationalizing these young transgender women. They are not dressed like this most of the time. If they were, they would likely be dead. Instead, they roam the streets in traditional male clothing, searching for food, money, clean clothes, simple companionship and support.

So in writing these profiles and taking these pictures, these transgender women become characters, one-dimensional sensations, not young people in need of shelter, clothing, food, medication and love.

But here are the words of the photographer, Christo Geoghegan, who took these picture of the Gully Queens and what he wanted to achieve:

“I wanted to be able to use the photographs and accompanying documentary film as a way for them to display their sexuality and personality the way they wanted to,” Geoghegan said, “and not the way that society had told them that they should.”

So we can say with almost certainly that the beneficiary of these articles is not the subject of what is produced. I was optimistic that the GoFundMe page would be a vehicle for fundraising, which it has been, marginally. (Please go and check it out here, money is being raised, but it appears to have stalled on its way to the goal of $10,000).

When I read this Huffington Post piece, however, I thought back to this excellent post by a Canadian indigenous woman. She writes about how to interact with indigenous people in Canada.

She wants writers to “center” indigenous voices and perspectives, to do your research, not treat subjects as mascots, to think critically about compensation, to not just extract, and to avoid stereotypes, to summarize briefly.

This article made me think beyond my usual role as a journalist, as someone who goes in, asks questions, tries not to disrupt too much, gets out, writes the story and moves on. Except that has always been hard for me to do. Especially when writing about vulnerable people. There is always this queasiness, this unease, this discomfort, that I am extracting something, that I am disturbing their lives. I tell myself I am doing a job, but I am always aware of the disparities and the structural inequities that put me where I am versus where they are in life.

Of course, there are clear boundaries in terms of compensation: to do so would be to compromise the integrity of the story and the information extracted. But is it ok to give money for bus fare if someone meets you somewhere? To give money for phone credit if you want them to call you? To pay for a meal?

These questions have come up for me here especially in Jamaica. I have done my best to respect boundaries and simply tell stories, but then I wonder why it has to be a white foreigner doing the telling. Why are there not avenues for these people to tell their stories themselves? There are other media outlets, of course, but none really awarded such legitimacy as mainstream media, at least in terms of attention paid.

In any case, please read this wonderful piece by Jess Houty. It has forced me to think beyond my role as a journalist, to stop pretending that I am just doing a job, to start taking more responsibility. I look back on one piece in particular, where I interviewed an impoverished young girl from rural St. Catherine. Her family asked for money and it was a strict policy of the outlet I was working for not to pay for interviews. But I was left with so much discomfort: I was extracting from them, what would they get in return? Would this piece make their lives better or worse? As it turned out, not much changed. And I suspect this is usually the case, but it is incumbent on the journalist to think these things through.

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