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 Vodun.
Haitian Vodou 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 Vodou.
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, Vodou is a persecuted and misunderstood religion. The Catholic Church demonized Vodou during slavery, as well as Haiti’s political-ruling elite who feared its revolutionary potential.
As a monotheistic religion, Vodou 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 (LGBTQ) as well as gender-fluid, from being androgynous to dual-gendered. Gay males in Haitian Vodou embrace the divine protection of Erzulie Freda, the feminine spirit of love and sexuality. Gay males 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 of women. Labalèn is a gynandrous or intersexual spirit. And LaSirèn who is the Vodou analogue of Yemayá, a maternal spirit, is a revered transgender.
But let’s not be fooled. Openly gay Haitian men in Haiti are ostracized. For example, the 2002 documentary Des Hommes et Dieux (Of Men and Gods) by anthropologist Anne Lescot exposed the daily struggles of Haitian transwomen. 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.” But when Blondine is at a Vodou service, he feels free.
Gay men are also ostracized anywhere the Haitian Diaspora resides, including the queer-friendly state of Massachusetts. In 2008, a 22-year-old Haitian gay male 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 LGBTQ couples can adopt children or have custody of their own children.
LGBTQ Haitians don’t openly serve in the military. They don’t have an anti-hate crime bill that specifically addresses discrimination and harassment LGBTQ Haitians face due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Minimally, LGBTQ Haitians are protected under its Constitution as stated in Article 35-2 that prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on, ”sex, beliefs, opinions and marital status.” And the United Nation’s International Bill of Human Rights mainly protects LGBTQ Haitians. With no queer enclaves in Port-au-Prince and other big cities throughout Haiti, many LGBTQ Haitians are left puzzled by what it means that homosexuality is legal in their country.
How Haiti’s LGBTQ communities are being helped since the world community descended on Haiti with relief aid in response to the January 2010 earthquake? As one of Haiti’s most marginal groups, the question arises in response to how some American LGBTQ 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 Haiti’s LGBTQ citizens?
As in all repressively homophobic cultures, LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ 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 recently 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 LGBTQ Haitians who live, work and socialize in the densely populated and improvised capital city of Port-au-Prince, discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender expressions is commonplace. Poorer classes of LGBTQ Haitians, like Blondine, do have at least two ways to openly express and celebrate who they are, in Vodou and in Rara festivals.
Rara Festivals, a yearly festival that begins following Carnival, belong to the peasant and urban poor of Haiti. The Rara bands come out of Vodou societies that have LGBTQ congregations where gay men are permitted to cross-dress with impunity.
In both Rara Festivals and Vodou societies, our LGBTQ Haitians are free to be authentically who they are.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow.