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Queer Haitians Find a Refuge in Vodou

Beenish Ahmed
Photography by Meghan Dhaliwal

Feared and denigrated by members of other faiths, Haitian Vodou is a far cry from the zombie-raising cult of a thousand horror films -- and it's also the only welcoming place for many LGBT Haitians.

Photo: During her worship in her home in Port-au-Prince, Marjorie Lafontant is possessed by multiple loa, or Vodou spirits.

It's just past 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning when Stephenson Meus tips back a bottle of Barbancourt. The rum comes out early in the 30-year-old's congested Port-au-Prince neighborhood, but he doesn't drink nearly as much as he pours into the sunbaked earth. A houngan, or Vodou spiritual leader, Meus isn't talking soccer over dominoes with the men on his block. Instead, he dedicates his Saturday mornings to an hours-long worship session to honor the Vodou spirits he most reveres -- and to offer them swigs of their drink of choice.

Though Vodou is maligned by many in Haiti and beyond as a source of malevolent hexes, its practitioners say the faith provides them with everything from spiritual satisfaction to material wealth. For LGBT Vodouizants like Meus, Vodou also offers something few other religions deliver: unreserved acceptance. In fact, even some Vodou spirits are believed to be homosexual or transgender.

"We have spirits in the sky who like both men and women" as well as ones who are deux-manieres, or double-gendered, Meus says. "It's not considered a bad thing for them, so why would this be a bad thing for us?"

A sense of belonging has attracted many LGBT Haitians to Vodou, according to Meus, and made the peristil, temples where Vodou is practiced, into safe spaces.

"In the Vodou community, we can sing the way we want to," he says. "We can dance and behave the way they we want to. We feel comfortable in our own skin [when participating in Vodou practices]."

That's not the case across much of Haiti, where being LGBT all too often means getting kicked out of schools, fired from jobs, arrested by police, brutalized by acquaintances, or even murdered. Although the statistics are spare, Meus and other advocates -- who were among very few willing to speak openly about being LGBT -- say that it's unlikely that those suspected of being homosexual or transgender have not faced homophobic attacks.

Meus was headed to hiscousin's house when a group of men hurled insults and rocks at him. They taunted him as masisi, which means "queer" in Haitian Creole and is often used in a derogatory sense. One of the men, whom he knew from regular walks through the neighborhood, brandished a machete and cut Meus, then a teenager, across the chest.

Bleeding, he ran to a nearby police station and pleaded for help. The officer looked him up and down and said, according to Meus, "You should go to ask other gay people, because they will come to help you, not us."


Photo: Stephenson Meus in his apartment in Port-au-Prince.

Following the attack, he and some friends founded Kouraj, one of only a few LGBT advocacy organizations in the country. Meus learned about his rights, and, as a field representative for the organization, he works to inform other LGBT Haitians of theirs. Although Haiti is not one of the 76 countries where homosexuality is criminalized, its laws offer no protections for sexual orientation or gender identity.

While Vodou offers acceptance to LGBT practitioners, the religion can't claim broad social acceptance for itself. Although Haiti's first democratically elected president declared Vodou to be an official religion in 2003, the faith is still widely considered to be primitive and malevolent.

Many in Haiti see both Vodou and homosexuality as satanic. Evangelical preachers and government officials alike blamed both the Vodou and LGBT communities for causing the devastating 2010 earthquake that left up to 300,000 dead.

"Some people say that LGBT people are also Vodouizant because they are LGBT," Meus says. "They say that Vodou is a bad thing, and they also want to show that the LGBT community is also bad."

"A person who is Vodouizant and LGBT is marginalized twice," explains Ilionor Louis, a sociology professor at the State University of Haiti who has studied the country's LGBT population. Many Haitian Christians say that Vodouizants are the children of Satan and that they'll burn in hell if they don't accept Jesus Christ, he says. According to the strict interpretations of the Bible many in the country prefer, same-sex relationships are considered sinful.

"So someone who is Vodouizant and LGBT is considered a malediction," he says, using a word that means "destructive curse"; it's a term that came up a lot as I talked to people across the country about homosexuality and Vodou.

Though Haiti has long held the ignominious rank of poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and its presidential elections have been delayed for months because of voting irregularities, LGBTs are regularly scapegoated for the nation's problems. One Pentecostal pastor says Haiti will not be rid of poverty and instability until it is free of Vodou, a religion he thinks "encourages" homosexuality. "The church plays an absolutely fundamental role in inciting violence and creating a hostile climate toward LGBT people," Louis says.

Since Haitian society is overwhelmingly patriarchal, Louis says that though both gay men and women suffer from violence, "women are victimized more." One result is that lesbians tend to be either closeted or secretive -- so much so that the sociologist says he had trouble finding lesbian women to include in focus groups he put together to better understand the issues LGBT Haitians face.

As the head of the country's first lesbian advocacy organization, Marjorie Lafontant, 50, agrees.

"Women have to fight for their rights here," she says. "Can you imagine [the challenges faced by] a lesbian organization that's fighting to win our rights?"

FACSDIS, the acronym in French for Women in Action Against Sexual Discrimination, has faced stigmatization even within the advocacy community. One of her colleagues said no one spoke to her or sat beside her at a human rights conference after they learned she was there representing FACSDIS.

"Women who are butch are violated and attacked just to 'show them' that they aren't men. If you're a woman, then you're supposed to dress as a woman, or if you're a man, then dress as a man. It's very dangerous if you don't."

The only place women will readily identify as lesbian is in peristil, or Vodou temples.

"This is a Vodou ceremony," Lafontant says, pointing to a photo she's pulled up on her computer in her office. A coworker leans over her shoulder as she clicks ahead to the next image, which shows her holding a megaphone up to her mouth.

"And this is how we find the homosexuals at the Vodou ceremony," she says with a wry laugh. "I announce [to those at the peristil] that I'm from FACSDIS and I'm there to find women who are lesbian to create a group to teach them about their rights."

While churches, mosques, and temples are often the last holdouts against fostering community inclusive of same-sex couples and gender-nonconforming people in the United States, the Vodou community is so affirming of homosexuality that outreach work for LGBT organizations is often conducted within its houses of worship.

The size of the town or region doesn't matter, Lafontant explains: "All peristil are very tolerant of LGBT people. There's no religion like it in the world. Vodou is the only religion that accepts people as they are."

That affirmation has helped many LGBT Haitians feel more at peace with their identities in a brutally homophobic context.

"A lot of lesbians, and gay men too, feel a lot better when they're involved in Vodou communities," Lafontant says.

Practicing a religion that accepts her as she is has been a freeing experience for Lafontant. She gave up Catholicism to practice Vodou exclusively six years ago, and she practices it regularly.

At her home in Port-au-Prince, she rolls pieces of raw, untreated cotton between her palms.

"It has to be natural," she says. "Vodou is about nature."

She slips off her sandals to create a connection with the earth -- even if it's just a symbolic one through the tiles of her second-floor bedroom. Lafontant picks a flowery perfume from her vanity and gives it several puffs before she ties a satin scarf over her head. It is royal blue, a color that represents Erzulie Dantour, the Vodou spirit she hopes to invoke.

One of Lafontant's housemates had requested that she get in touch with the spirits in order to peer into her future. The cotton, the perfume, and the scarf are all parts of an elaborate ritual that serves as an invitation to Erzulie to possess Lafontant.

A friend plays a Vodou devotional song from his phone, and Lafontant begins to chant and sway along to a song as heavy on synthesizers as it is on age-old Vodou riddims.


Photo: Stephenson Meus lights candle on a Vodou altar.

Her head sways side to side as she chants, and then a shrill cry breaks from Lafontant's throat. It doesn't seem to come from the composed, soft-spoken woman. It's more like the sound of something trying to break out of her body. Lafontant gasps for air, she seems to choke, and then she begins to murmur to her housemate, a young woman named Lovely.

After a few minutes, Lafontant's body slumps over, and she appears to be in pain, crying and whimpering "Comforte-moi" in a low, gravely moan.

"I feel really fatigued," she says when she emerges from the possession. "I want to eat. I want to sleep. I feel like I went somewhere really, really far away."

"They know me there, so we can get in," says Johnny, a 27-year-old gay Vodouizant who asks that his real name be withheld to protect his identity. He squeezes through rows of cars in a road that seems to never have quite been completed. Behind a gate that looks like all the others in this posh part of Port-au-Prince is a dizzying rush of twirling lights and kompa dance beats.

Groups of people -- mostly men -- stand around sipping beers and swaying to the music. A couple are making out fervently in the corner, and Johnny rolls his eyes.

He works for SEROvie, an LGBT health care organization, and never leaves the house without lube and condoms.

There's almost nowhere for gay men to get intimate. Violence and ostracism are always possibilities, and hotels won't allow them to check in together, and so they hook up wherever they can -- often without protection, according to Johnny. But things weren't always so bad.

After SEROvie called for marriage equality on the International Day Against Homophobia in 2013, LGBT people all over the country felt the backlash. Conservative religious leaders and politicians fanned the flames, and those suspected of being gay were beaten in public. Vigilantes issued death threats against Johnny and his colleagues, and their offices were ransacked. Despite its being targeted, Johnny says the building became a makeshift shelter, housing more than 40 LGBT people who had come under attack and didn't feel safe returning to their homes.

Johnny and many other LGBT Haitians saw those protests as a turning point.

Before, they could spend time in a park in the city's center.

"We went there to talk, to dance, and to [hook up] because we can't go home with [each other]," he says. "It was the place where we could stay and talk about our situation, but now we can't go there. If I go there, I'll get attacked."

After the club, Johnny and his friends stop by a particularly raucous Vodou ceremony where the drinks are free and the dancing, which is considered a form of worship, is wild.

The peristil has more of a sweaty club feel than the club we'd been at moments earlier. Movement swirls around a central pillar that's an integral part of all peristil, and in two small back rooms, icons of various spirits -- and their alcoholic spirits of choice -- are kept.

At one point, a seemingly possessed Vodouizant pours a bit of rum on the dirt floor of the tent-like main room, setting it alight as an offering before swinging his machete around in a trance. When we leave around 1:00 a.m., men and women are still downing drinks, slipping into possessions and then dancing them off with fervent steps.

After a long night out, Johnny goes home alone. Even though his mother knows he's gay, Johnny says he can't bring men home. His mother is a conservative Christian -- and she thinks he is too. Even though he's a houngan, he doesn't practice Vodou at home.

"If I say, 'Look mom, I'm a priest of Vodou,' she will say, 'Oh no, no, no, no, no. I will pray for you to change because I don't want you to be into Vodou,' " he says.

Johnny says he was born into the church and went with his mother every Sunday, until questions about his feminine demeanor got to be too much. "They would always say, 'Why do you walk like that? Why do you talk like that?' " he says.

In the Vodou community, no one asks him to change his mannerisms or suggests that his sexual orientation is a sin. Some do, however, think that homosexuality is "caused" by spiritual forces. If a man is possessed by a female spirit, for instance, he might begin to flirt with other men. Others believe that gay men are the spiritual children of Erzulie. But whatever reasons they ascribe to sexual orientation, Vodouizants don't see homosexuality as a sin, even if others in the country claim the religion gives people an excuse to live out same-sex attraction.

In the end, Vodou provides many LGBT Haitians with the only public place that they can be completely out. Many walk back into the closet the second they walk out the doors of a peristil.

Although it was Johnny's organization that inadvertently sparked some of the most violent attacks on LGBT people, he believes that the increased awareness of rights and community-level organization that SEROvie, FACSDIS, and Kouraj have achieved in the years since then will keep such violence at bay. But that doesn't mean that he'll let his guard down.

Even if he can't be totally open about his sexual orientation, Johnny is proud to have helped lay a foundation in the long march toward equality for Haiti's LGBT people.

This story was produced with support from the InternationalReporting Project.

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Beenish Ahmed