In celebrating Black History Month is year, I want to lift up our West African ancestral religious contributions. One of them for me as a lesbian, is the contribution of Vodou.
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 Vodou.
What most people do not know is that its spiritual tenets allow room for the acceptance of all people, of all sexual orientations and gender expressions.
Today's popular culture misconstrues Vodou with racist images of zombies rising from graves, jungle drums, orgiastic ceremonies ritualizing malevolent powers of black magic, and cannibalism. In reality, Haitian Vodou 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, and it is unclear whether LGBTQ couples can adopt children or have custody of their own children. LGBTQ Haitians do not openly serve in the military, and the nation does not have anti-hate crime legislation that specifically addresses the discrimination and harassment of LGBTQ Haitians.
LGBTQ Haitians have some constitutional protection, such as Article 35-2 that prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on, "sex, beliefs, opinions and marital status." Also, 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.
Regardless, LGBTQ Haitians have always found ways to express and their true authentic lives, although how openly queer you can be depends not only on your class, profession and skin complexion, but also your religious affiliation. The country is predominately Roman Catholic, so 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.
Take Petionville for example: this upscale Port-au-Prince suburb of mostly American and European whites and multiracial Haitians is where many LGBTQ people will informally gather for dinner parties, at restaurants and at beaches. The well-known 4-star tourist hotel in the hills of Petionville, the Hotel Montana was one of the hot spots (although it was recently destroyed by the quake). Additionally, 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 cities, such as the capitol city of Port-au-Prince, discrimination on the basis of 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. 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."
In some populations, the ancestral religious belief that behavior is guided by a spirit (loa) allows gay Haitian males the divine protection of Erzulie Freda, the feminine spirit of love. As a feminine sprit, gay males are allowed to imitate and worship her. 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, Vodou believes in one God, but also in many spirits called "lwas" that have both dark and light sides. The spirits "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.
While it is true that Vodou evolved in New Orleans at the same time it was taking shape in Haiti, New Orleans', known as "the Vodou capital of the U.S.," was not suppressed and allowed to flourish between both its black and white citizens.
Haitian Vodou, however, was not.
Hiding itself behind the trappings of Catholicism, Vodou in Haiti was unofficial and largely practiced in secret until recently.
Many people ask, why Vodou as a religion?
Vodou 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. Poorer classes of LGBTQ Haitians have at least two ways to openly express and celebrate who they are-in Vodou 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 Vodou societies that have gay congregations where gay men are permitted to cross-dress with impunity.