Haiti's fight for gay rights
As LGBT community becomes more visible, anti-gay violence rises, too
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The courtyard, tucked off a quiet road here and ringed by mango trees heavy with immature green fruit, was bedecked with a rainbow of balloons. One proclaimed “Happy Valentines Day!” though it was May. Another advertised specials at the fast-food chain Red Robin, while a third was imprinted with the Whole Foods logo. There is no Red Robin or Whole Foods in Haiti, but the energy in the courtyard of SEROvie, Haiti’s best-known LGBT health organization, had the flavor of an American gay-pride parade.
Beats blared from speakers as Ralph (who requested that his real name be withheld) slunk onto the makeshift concrete catwalk, a space cleared between mismatched chairs crammed mostly with flirting 20-somethings in bright party outfits. Statuesque in sparkly black stilettos and a red velour unitard, Ralph twirled, jutted his hips and flipped the tresses of his long black wig.
“You better work, bitch!” he mouthed, as onlookers laughed, squealed, took selfies and applauded wildly.
For all the raucous festivities bubbling over the high walls of the compound, the day had started on a somber note. It was the International Day Against Homophobia; before delineating the catwalk, organizers had arranged chairs in rows under an awning, where a smaller crowd had listened that morning to speakers discuss the state of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Haiti.
“Lesbian and gay people are beaten in the street, on the way to school. They are discriminated against by health professionals, abandoned by their families,” said Dave Stephen, operations director at SEROvie. “They hide themselves, even though it’s not criminal.”
Haiti’s LGBT community, which has long existed in relative secrecy, has faced greater criticism since the deadly earthquake that struck the island nation in 2010. From the pulpit and on the radio, evangelists, some inspired by American sponsors and mentors, have blamed the earthquake on the sins of the country’s gay population. Gay Haitians living in tent camps after the disaster reported “corrective” rape and increased harassment as a result of the greater exposure of displacement and flimsy shelters.
And last year, more than 1,000 people participated in a march against homosexuality in Port-au-Prince organized by a new anti-gay “coalition of moral and religious organizations.” The protest was blamed for an escalation in violence against gay people: Forty-seven attacks were reported in the week surrounding the event, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Some say a new gay-rights organization Kouraj (“courage” in Haitian Creole), and its brash demands for rights, helped to prompt the backlash.
Now, the fight over gay rights in Haiti has become one that’s largely over visibility. The question of how closeted gays should be is the subject of internal struggles for many gay Haitians, the root of infighting among advocates and part of a broader societal struggle over what behavior is to be permitted in public.
“What we call masisi [Creole for ‘homosexual’] — it’s recently we allow this in public; before it was private,” said pastor Gerard Forges, an organizer of the anti-gay march last year. He said the march was in protest of public displays of homosexuality, not homosexuality itself. Forges emphasized that there are gays in his 7,600-member Pentecostal congregation. To him, it is not the people themselves who are the problem, but their actions. “We have homosexuals in church; we sit with them; we say, ‘God loves you, we love you, but we don’t like what you do.’”
Forges’ family lives between Port-au-Prince and Georgia. He holds a divinity degree from Jacksonville University in Florida and is pursuing a doctorate from Oral Roberts University. He said his organization does not have international funding but that American missionaries visit. “In the U.S. they can’t make public opinion on this subject. There are pastors that agree with me, but they can’t do anything this public. They encourage me, tell me to keep my stance.”
As the afternoon wore down, Ralph stripped to his underwear, boy shorts that said “jump my bones” with a dancing skeleton printed on the rear. They were the only sign of flamboyance remaining, hidden beneath his slacks, after he had changed out of his heels into street clothes. He peeled off the acrylic nails he had attached hours before.
“Of course we have to pull them off here! I can’t walk out with those,” he said. “We can’t unveil our lives. We have to live in secret.”
In contrast to his jubilant manner at the party, Ralph spends most of his life closeted. His double life is demoralizing, he said, but necessary. Last year, after an effeminate gay friend came to visit Ralph at home, neighbors saw him dropping his friend off at the bus stop and attacked Ralph on his way back, he said. He ended up bloody and ragged.
“I went to file a complaint, but the police never considered the case,” said Ralph. “The police said if you’re gay they have reason to beat you.”
Deuby, dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and bright blue pants, did not perform at the event. He wandered through the crowd, chatting with friends and watching the performances. His demure expression that day contrasted sharply with his defiant and sexy shimmying in the Carnival music videos he performs in and proudly plays on his cell phone.
In addition to his dance career, Deuby, who identifies as gay, is also a houngan: a Voodoo priest. Though he does not have his own peristyle (a Voodoo temple), he is a regular at the numerous Voodoo dances in Carrefour, the lively Port-au-Prince suburb where he lives.
While the debate over gay rights is deeply dogmatic, moralistic and religious in tone, most of the attacks come from members of the Christian community and evangelicals in particular. On the other hand, many gays feel comfortable expressing themselves in Voodoo, the religion that grew from the intermingling and evolution of beliefs from diverse African slaves imported to Haiti along with French Catholicism. It now is practiced by the majority of the population.
“People feel in their skin in Voodoo,” explained Hernes Bisserette, a houngan at the Mapou courtyard peristyle in Carrefour. “Voodoo is a religion that is open to everyone. It’s the culture of our country.”
Bisserette’s peristyle is tucked off another rocky road, this one packed with vendors hawking mangoes and hot peppers. Inside the cool courtyard, the underground community gathered and surfaced. Lesbian couples leaned on each other, perfectly coiffed men flirted and laughed and middle-aged mothers in white dresses and blue scarves danced in the center of the ceremony.
“All gays in Haiti love Voodoo. We can get together, joke. We don’t have any other space,” asserted Geraldo George, another attendee.
Said Bisserette: “In Catholicism it’s hidden, but in Voodoo people stand and say, ‘Yes, I’m homosexual.’ It’s not Voodoo that makes people homosexual; it’s that there’s nothing hidden. Everyone is a person. They do what they want.”
That month, there were nearly nightly dances for Kouzen Zaka, one of the lwa — the divinities in the Voodoo pantheon — associated with farmers and hard work.
Bisserette, who also identifies as gay, has deep-set dark eyes, sharp features and a tattoo stenciled on his thin right upper arm that says, “I love you.” Many members of the gay community, including Deuby, came to the ceremony for Kouzen Zaka. “They heat the dance. They’re very attractive. They dance beautifully,” Bisserette said.
A dancer to the core, Deuby acts out his statements as he talks. He said he protects himself from attacks by hiding and acting more masculine. “When I walk I … ,” and he trailed off, flexing his biceps and frowning, but “when they aren’t there…” He trailed off and smiled flirtatiously.
Deuby was among the 47 attacked following the anti-homosexuality march. He knew about the event, but didn’t expect it to turn violent, so he went to visit friends that day who ran makeshift sidewalk salons near the central market in downtown Port-au-Prince, not far from the central plaza where the march took place. But after the march, gangs roamed the streets, attacking gays, their businesses and bystanders. Deuby was hit in the head with a rock, he said.
He feels safe in the Voodoo dances, but even these are not immune from anti-gay hostilities. Another dance he attended in May was disrupted, he said, by “vagabonds” who beat his friends before they were chased away.
Activists say the attacks were the most concentrated in recent years. Steeve Laguerre, executive director of SEROvie, which runs a clinic, said the organization treated 60 to 70 people who were injured in the attacks.
He assigned primary blame for the march not only on its organizers, but also on Kouraj. “There were many errors that were committed that provoked the situation,” Laguerre said, pointing to Kouraj’s abrasive style and poorly managed relations with the press and the authorities. “Because of these mistakes, the LGBT situation worsened.”
Laguerre grew up in Canada, though his family is Haitian. He came to work in Haiti for international charities and, shocked at the situation of gays in the country, he decided to stay. In 1999, he formed SEROvie. From the beginning, his activism was intentionally understated, focusing more on services than freedom of expression. “I knew how to push the doors without shocking,” he said.
After working to combat HIV/AIDS, he added economic development programs at SEROvie, with etiquette classes and tailoring. “With SEROvie we’ve always fought with our beneficiaries to say, ‘If you want your neighbors, the community, the government to take you seriously, then you need to educate yourself, to come with a discourse that’s intelligent.’ ”
Kouraj, on the other hand “is seen as black, poor and coming from the slums,” Laguerre said. Along with the rest of Haitian society, the gay community here is starkly divided between rich and poor. “There are plenty of gay-friendly places in Port-au-Prince, in Petionville, like Presse Cafe,” Laguerre said, gesturing around the retro French-inspired restaurant where he sat. He rubbed his hands with sanitizer, avoiding his ostentatious watch and ring, before biting into his salad and baguette.
“There are many wealthy gays in Haiti who have no problems,” Ralph from the drag show explained. But on the other hand, he continued, “If you have no degree, if you have no money, they treat you like you are nothing.”
Places where gay people can move freely are often accessible only to well-off Haitians, people who often also have passports and visas. Says Amber Lynn Munger-Pierre, a consultant for the human-rights group American Jewish World Service, “They can go out and be out in Miami.”
In contrast to Laguerre’s don’t-rock-the-boat attitude, Kouraj is more grass-roots and aggressive. Munger-Pierre described the group’s philosophy as “I’m not just going to be gay in certain places; I’m going to be gay where I am.” Kouraj held a press conference for the International Day Against Homophobia in 2013; the pushback against the organization’s demands then fanned the fire of the anti-gay movement.
Kouraj was founded the previous year with the help of a young French and American couple; a young Haitian activist, Charlot Jeudy, serves as its president. At the time, the foreign founders spoke of ambitious plans to foster “role models” in the LGBT community, make television and media appearances, plaster the capital with pictures of victims of homophobic attacks and open a bar that would finance the group’s activism and serve as a safe social space for gay people.
Two years later, the self-described “social enterprise” for “Haiti’s first LGBT bar and cultural center, Yanvalou, had raised $20,975 through a successful Kickstarter campaign. The bar is now a hot spot in the tiny downtown Port-au-Prince elite bar scene. But it is no longer attached to Kouraj. It was sold four months after its opening, and its French and American founders moved abroad.
Stephenson Meus, a founding member of Kouraj, said he felt betrayed in part by the failure of the partnership and the lack of funding, but also because he put himself in the public eye for the cause. “My mom knew I’m gay, but I never thought I would have the courage to go on a site, sell my face for a gay activity like that.” He worries about the Kickstarter video, which is still online.
In November 2013, Kouraj’s office was attacked. This year, the group scaled back its activities and moved into a modest office in a different neighborhood.
Still, Munger-Pierre of AJWS sees overarching progress in Haiti’s gay movement. “Every LGBT person in this country is undoubtedly discriminated against and have faced risks,” she said. But now, people are at least talking about those experiences. And Haitian human-rights groups, which used to distance themselves from LGBT issues, embrace the cause, she said.
But amid the fits and starts in the struggle for gay rights, many gay Haitians still simply want to leave their country. Ralph has a diploma in industrial maintenance and is training to be a community health worker. But he has struggled to find a job. He desperately wants a visa to study pharmacy or law in France or the United States.
Bisserette, the Voodoo hougan, takes a longer-term, more philosophical approach: “Even if they don’t like us, we’re still here. It’s in the world. It’s something that comes from God. It’s not a choice people make.”