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Brutal Aftershocks: The Persecution of LGBT Haitians After the Earthquake

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Imagine -- if you will, for a moment, hard as it may be -- that you are under a collapsed building, fighting for your life. Think of the chaos, the pain and suffering, the confusion, the yearning to get out from under the heaps, the visceral need to break free. To survive. Imagine that you can hear the muffled voices of neighbors and rescue teams. Their voices are a balm, a relief, a sign from above that the immediate ordeal is ending.

As those people on the outside approach you, their words become clearer. You are nothing but ears now, a single sense honed in, dreaming of deliverance. "Thank you, Jesus," you hear, and you concur. But the next words that come into focus do not brief relief or freedom or hope: "The president of the pedophiles is dead." Another voice, cheered on by others: "Death to the masisi!" Death to the faggots.

When, after several hours, you manage to wend your way out of the rubble, you flee to avoid persecution. You leave the bodies of your friends behind -- masisi like you -- and their bodies remain in the debris for three days, their families afraid to claim them -- or uninterested in doing so.

Some Haitians didn't merely imagine such horrific scenes in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake; they actually lived them. These realities are documented in a report published last year by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), an international advocacy organization, and SEROvie, the only Haitian organization using a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights framework to provide HIV-related services for sexual minorities. According to the report, LGBT people in Haiti faced specific forms of discrimination after the earthquake. The manifestations of this discrimination emanated from a variety of sources, including members of the Haitian population, representatives of the Haitian police, and the policies of the international relief agencies that were -- and are still -- trying to help the victims of the earthquake. Even if the earthquake occurred over two years ago, we continue to learn about new facets of modern history's largest urban disaster, which killed over 220,000 people and displaced over 1.5 million.

Several LGBT people were left to die in the rubble after houses and buildings collapsed, explains Reginald Dupont, a manager at SEROvie. Even those LGBT people who survived faced spontaneous blame and persecution; radio sermons, church talks, word of mouth, and general discussions in the street targeted LGBT people as "sinners" who had called the earthquake upon the country by angering God. "After [LGBT people] were taken out of the debris, they had to get out of the immediate area as soon as possible so as not to attract anger," explains Dupont.

The scapegoating and persecution took several forms documented in the report, including physical violence against LGBT people in the camps where displaced people were living (and where half a million people continue to live), and sexual violence, including so-called "corrective rape." Corrective rape is a phenomenon that has garnered significant media attention in South Africa, among other countries; it is a crime in which rapists attempt to justify their acts by purporting to "correct" their victims' same-sex identities and acts.

IGLHRC and SEROvie also documented the arrest of 40 women for "woman on woman activities in tents" in one camp for displaced people, according to the first Haitian television station to air a story about the arrests. In interviews, the Port-au-Prince police commissioner explained that the women would be charged with "indecency and immorality," perhaps because Haitian law does not specifically criminalize same-sex activity. The women were released after two days in detention, but the police commissioner signaled his intent to expand such operations to other areas.

In addition to such direct attacks, LGBT people also faced subtler forms of exclusion from international agencies, whose response to the earthquake was unprecedented in scale. Most of the food aid made available to earthquake survivors, for example, was distributed primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to "female heads of household." Although this distribution strategy -- employed by many United Nations agencies, the U.S. government, and others -- is rooted in decades of disaster relief efforts and the well-established fact that women distribute rations to their families more equitably than men, the strategy does unfortunately often exclude single-sex households. One Haitian man living in a household with no women, for example, was so desperate for food that he dressed as a woman to receive aid at a distribution site. When he was discovered to be a man, other men waiting near the distribution line beat him until he fled. Some lesbian and bisexual women indicated that the chaos and insecurity of food distributions kept them away as they did not have husbands or male relatives to accompany and physically protect them.

Some stories of hope and solidarity emerged from the wreckage. According to Dupont, some lesbian-headed families shared their food rations with male-only households who had been unable to procure food themselves. The IGLHRC and SEROvie study also represented the "first formal documentation of human rights violations against LGBT people," explains Cary Alan Johnson, the executive director of IGLHRC. Johnson adds that the Haitian government was "not hostile" when his own organization and SEROvie presented their report's findings, a process that also represented a first for Haiti's sexual minorities.

Despite losing its community meeting space and 14 members to the earthquake, SEROvie has forged ahead. Nonetheless, SEROvie's Dupont notes that LGBT people "will be the last people [the government] will think about," urging that international humanitarian agencies ensure that their assistance be distributed equitably and in an inclusive manner. Johnson concurs: "Disasters are going to happen. Gay people fare worse, and gay people recover the slowest. We are completely invisible and forgotten."

Over two years later, Haiti's earthquake continues to weigh heavily on hundreds of thousands of Haitian people. It also continues to offer learning for improving humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations. If the international community opens itself to such learning and makes a conscious effort to improve, perhaps the next time a natural disaster strikes, LGBT people will neither be abandoned to perish in the rubble nor persecuted in the terrible aftermath.