In celebrating Black History Month this year I want our West African ancestral religious contributions to also be lifted up. One of them for me, as a lesbian, is the contribution of Voodoo. Why? Because of its spiritual tenets of acceptance of all people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions.
As one of the religions brought to the New World by the African Diaspora, there is no religion that frightens and fascinates the world over as Voodoo. Misconstrued by racist images of zombies rising from graves, jungle drums, orgiastic ceremonies ritualizing malevolent powers of black magic and engaging in cannibalism, and by today's popular culture images courtesy of Hollywood and New Orleans' tourism industries, Voodoo is a persecuted religion.
But Haitian Voodoo is an ancestral folk religion whose tenets have always been queer-friendly.
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 anti-hate crime bill that specifically addresses discrimination and harassment LGBTQ Haitians face on the basis 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.
However, 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, in 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 4-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, however, who live, work and socialize in one of the densely populated and improvised city like the capitol city of Port-au-Prince, discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender expressions is commonplace.
For example, the 2002 documentary Des Hommes et Dieux (Of Men and Gods), by anthropologist Anne Lescot, exposed the daily struggles of Haitian transwomen, one of whom 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 with the ancestral religious belief that behavior is guided by a spirit (loa), gay males in Haitian Voodoo are under the divine protection of Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love. And as a feminine sprit, gay males are allowed to imitate and worship her. And lesbians (madivins) are considered to be under the patronage of Erzulie Dantor, a fierce protector of women and children experiencing domestic violence. Erzulie Dantor is bisexual, but she prefers the company women.
As a monotheistic religion, Voodoo believes in one God, but many spirits called "lwas" that have both dark and light sides. The lwas are the varied expressions of God in the world, and these spirits oversee all human activities by forming connections between the material world people live in and the spiritual world they derive from.
Two different forms of Voodoo exist. While it is true that Voodoo evolved in New Orleans at the same time it was taking shape in Haiti, New Orleans' Voodoo, known as the Voodoo capital of the U.S., was not suppressed and allowed to flourish between both its black and white citizens.
Haiti's, however, was not. And, hiding itself behind the trappings of Catholicism, Voodoo in Haiti was unofficial and largely practiced in secret until recently.
Why Voodoo as a religion many people ask?
Voodoo enables Haitians to connect and preserve their West African heritage, to link to their ancestral spirits who affect everyday events of their lives, and to bond with their local communities.
And poorer classes of LGBTQ Haitians have at least two ways to openly express and celebrate who they are: in Voodoo and in Rara festivals.
At Rara Festivals, a yearly festival that begins following Carnival belongs to the peasant and urban poor of Haiti. The Rara bands come out of Voodoo societies that have gay congregations where gay men are permitted to cross-dress with impunity.