As the US marks Black History Month, we learn how Voodoo can give freedom to LGBT Haitians
As I celebrate Black History Month I’d like to recognize one of my indigenous West African ancestral religions that’s not homophobic – even if some of the practitioners are.
To the disbelief of many – it’s Voodoo (also sometimes called Vodou, Vodoun or Vodun).
Haitian Voodoo is an ancestral folk religion whose tenets have always been queer-friendly, accepting people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions.
It’s just one of the religions brought to the New World by the African diaspora, but there is no religion that frightens and fascinates the world over as much as Voodoo.
Misconstrued by racist images of zombies rising from graves, jungle drums, cannibalism, orgiastic ceremonies ritualizing malevolent powers of black magic, and by today’s popular culture images courtesy of Hollywood’s and New Orleans’ tourism industry, Voodoo is a persecuted and misunderstood religion.
The Catholic Church demonized Voodoo during slavery, but also by Haiti’s political ruling elite who feared its revolutionary potential.
As a monotheistic religion, Voodoo believes in one God, and that individual behavior is guided by spirits called ‘loas’ or ‘lwas’. The spirits derive from the belief traditions of the African people of the former kingdom of Dahomey, now Togo and Benin.
These spirits are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer as well as gender-fluid, from being androgynous to dual-gendered.
Gay men in Haitian Voodoo embrace the divine protection of Erzulie Freda, the feminine spirit of love and sexuality. They are allowed to imitate and worship her.
Lesbians are under the patronage of Erzulie Dantor, a fierce protector of women and children experiencing domestic violence. Erzulie Dantor is bisexual and prefers the company women. LabalÃ¨n is a gynandrous (or intersex) spirit. And LaSirÃ¨n who is the Voodoo analogue of YemayÃ¡, a maternal spirit, is transgender and revered.
But let’s not be fooled. The 2002 documentary Des Hommes et Dieux (Of Men and Gods) by anthropologist Anne Lescot exposed the daily struggles of Haitian transgender women. Blondine in the film said: ‘When people insult me because I wear a dress I am not ashamed of how I am. Masisis [gay males] can’t walk down the street in a wig and dress.’
Gay men are also ostracized anywhere Haitians live, including the queer-friendly state of Massachusetts. In 2008, a 22-year-old Haitian gay male there committed suicide because of his sexual orientation.
Ironically, homosexuality has been legal in Haiti since 1986. But few protections and provisions come with it. For example, same-sex marriage, and civil unions are not recognized.
It’s unclear whether same-sex couples can adopt children or have custody of their own children.
LGBT Haitians don’t openly serve in the military. They don’t have anti-hate crime bill that specifically addresses the discrimination and harassment they face on the basis due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Minimally, gay and trans Haitians are partly protected under the country’s constitution as stated in Article 35-2 that prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on, ‘sex, beliefs, opinions and marital status’.
With no queer enclaves in Port-au-Prince and other big cities throughout Haiti, many LGBTQ Haitians are left puzzled by what it really means for homosexuality to be legal in their country.
It’s also not clear if the situation has changed since the world community descended on Haiti with relief aid in response to the January 2010 earthquake. Remember how some American LGBT people in New Orleans were treated during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort in 2005. Will many of these same conservative faith-based relief agencies that remain in Haiti transfer their homophobic attitudes onto one of Haiti’s most vulnerable minorities?
However, as in all repressively homophobic cultures, LGBT people have always found ways to express and to live out their true authentic lives. In Haiti, how openly queer you are depends not only on your class, profession and skin complexion, but also your religious affiliation.
In a country that is predominately Roman Catholic, homosexuality is condemned. But among Haiti’s LGBT middle and profession classes they find ways to socialize out of the public ‘gaydar’ and with impunity.
For example, Petionville, an upscale suburb of Port-au-Prince of mostly American and European whites and multiracial Haitians, is where many LGBT people will informally gather for dinner parties, at restaurants and beaches.
The well-known four-star tourist hotel, the Hotel Montana in the hills of Petionville that was destroyed by the quake, is one of the hot spots. And these queers hold positions as government officials, business people, NGO and UN aid workers.
For the poorer classes of LGBT Haitians who live, work and socialize in the densely populated and improvised capitol city of Port-au-Prince, discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender expressions is commonplace.
But in the Des Hommes et Dieux documentary, when Blondine is at a Voodoo service he feels free.
Poorer classes of LGBTQ Haitians, like Blondine, do have at least two ways to openly express and celebrate who they are in Voodoo and in Rara festivals.
Rara Festival, a yearly event that begins following Carnival, belongs to the peasant and urban poor of Haiti. The Rara bands come out of Voodoo societies that have LGBTQ congregations where gay men are permitted to cross-dress with impunity.
In both Rara Festivals and Voodoo societies our LGBTQ Haitians are free to be authentically who they are.