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 its practitioners are. Perhaps to the disbelief of many, it's Vodun. Haitian Vodou, a descendant of Vodun, is a folk religion whose tenets have always been queer-friendly, accepting people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions. Vodun is just one of the African religions that were exported throughout the African diaspora and merged with Christianity to give rise to new syncretic religions across the New World, but there is no such religion that frightens and fascinates the world over as much as Vodou.
Vodou is a persecuted and widely misunderstood religion, largely thanks to racist images of zombies rising from the grave, jungle drums, cannibalism and orgiastic ceremonies ritualizing malevolent powers and black magic, stereotypes often perpetuated by Hollywood and the New Orleans tourism industry. The Catholic Church demonized Vodou during the time of slavery, and it was also vilified by Haiti's political ruling elite, who feared its revolutionary potential.
As a monotheistic religion, Vodou holds that there is one God, but adherents also believe that individual behavior is guided by spirits called "loas" (or "lwas"), which have their origins in the belief traditions of the people of the former African kingdom of Dahomey, now Togo and Benin. Many of these spirits are what we'd consider lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender-fluid, androgynous or 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 intersex) spirit. And LaSirèn, who is the Vodou analogue of Yemayá, a maternal spirit, is a revered transgender spirit.
But let's not fool ourselves. Openly gay men are ostracized in Haiti, and anthropologist Anne Lescot's 2002 documentary Des hommes et des dieux (Of Men and Gods) exposed the daily struggles of Haitian trans women. One of the women featured in the film, Blondine, 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, she feels free.) Gay men are also ostracized across the Haitian diaspora, included in the queer-friendly state of Massachusetts, where a 22-year-old gay Haitian man committed suicide because of his sexual orientation in 2008.
Ironically, homosexuality has been legal in Haiti since 1986, but few protections and provisions come with that status. For example, neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions are 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 hate crimes laws that specifically addresses discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, which is a daily reality for them. At the very least, LGBTQ Haitians are protected under Article 35-2 of the country's constitution, which 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. But with no queer enclaves in Port-au-Prince or other big cities, many LGBTQ Haitians are left puzzled by what it the legal status of homosexuality really means in their country.
Moreover, we should ask how LGBTQ Haitians, one of the country's most marginalized groups, have been helped since the world community descended on Haiti with relief aid in response to the January 2010 earthquake. The question is especially pertinent given how some LGBTQ Americans were treated in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort in 2005. Will the conservative, faith-based relief agencies that remain in Haiti brandish their homophobic attitudes against the country's LGBTQ citizens?
In all repressively homophobic cultures, LGBTQ people have found ways to express themselves and live out their true, authentic lives. In Haiti, how openly queer you can be depends not only on your class, profession and skin complexion but on your religious affiliation. In a country that is predominately Roman Catholic, homosexuality is widely condemned, but LGBTQ Haitians of the middle and professional classes find ways to socialize with impunity, out of the public's gaze. For example, in Petionville, an upscale suburb of Port-au-Prince whose residents are mostly American and European whites and multiracial Haitians, many LGBTQ people informally gather at dinner parties, restaurants and beaches. The Hôtel Montana, a well-known four-star hotel in the hills of Petionville that was destroyed by the quake, was one of the hot spots. And these queers hold positions as government officials, businesspeople and NGO and UN aid workers.
For the poorer classes of LGBTQ Haitians who live, work and socialize in the densely populated and impoverished capital city of Port-au-Prince, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is commonplace, but they do have at least two outlets for openly expressing and celebrating who they are: Vodou and Rara festivals. Rara festivals are yearly celebrations that begin following Carnival. 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 brothers and sisters in Haiti are free to be authentically who they are.