(Updated July 2006)
(1) A Visit to an Exotic and Troubled Land
I think any story about Haiti—political, social, medical or gay—is forcefully dominated by the major player in Haitian daily life: the specter of poverty.
Some of the pictures in these four stories make this point quite visible. But wherever the squalor—Rio, Buenos Aires, Mexico City or Port au Prince—such humiliation of humanity throttles a visitor’s attention and distracts appreciation from other more refined aspects of a country.
My time in Haiti was limited to Port au Prince and a countryside bus ride to the south coast town of Jacmel. My purpose was to inquire about lesbigay life in Haiti. There is some, of course, but I felt this focus, this small frame, was overwhelmed by an enormous tattered tapestry of Haiti’s recent and distant past, a history of mysterious spirituality, cruel politics and widespread deprivation.
Haiti has a vibrant colorful soul unique in the Caribbean. But as a brief visitor to this half-island nation, I write from the impression I felt stepping into the bowels of the teeming congested Port au Prince.
I walked throughout the city by myself, from the grand cemetery to the bus station to the Marche en Fer (made of iron; also because of its red coloration) to the Presidential Mansion sidestepping open sewers and manholes, rural women squatting on the ground selling fruit, dented taxis, brilliant-colored mini-buses with religious names (“En Dieu nous Croyons”), boiling pots with fried bananas, bread stands…and of course pitiful rough-hewn beggars. The Lonely Planet guide says it well: “most people find it difficult to articulate their fascination with this dirty, poverty stricken country that is also intensely spiritual and has a compelling history.”
You can read the tortuous history yourself, but suffice it to say here this land was founded and ‘nurtured’ in the most horrifying way by so-called ‘civilized’ European countries—Spain, England and mostly France. It served as a brutal slave headquarters for kidnapped Africans, chained and shackled like wild animals, as they were mercilessly shipped in squalid conditions to the new world to be indentured for life.
Not much less brutally have Haitians been ruled by their own leaders. From military dictators staging bloody coups to corrupt presidents wielding deadly power (and looting the treasury) this mountainous country of peasant farmers has been betrayed from far and near. The illiteracy rate is high, inflation rate is sometimes in the double-digits, the racial tensions between blacks and mulattos are rarely eased, and it doesn’t help that the present and recurrent President, Aristide was brought to office in 2000 in a rigged election. However, a slight thaw in racial divisions might be suggested by Aristide’s marriage to a mulatto woman. Looking at his past, it’s a big step.
Grasadis and HIV in Haiti
Into this stew of politics, economic instability, religious Voudou Catholicism, spaghetti traffic jams, sweaty poverty, teeming street markets, and pot-holed streets there are constant warnings about the curse of more AIDS infections and death. In the December 2002 ‘Caribbean Today’ newspaper a story told about an UNAIDS report that said HIV infected adults in several Caribbean countries were surpassed only by the figures recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa. Further it said, “Haiti remains worst affected with an estimated national adult HIV prevalence of over 6% along, with the Bahamas, where prevalence is 3.5%.” However, in context with previous years, these figures represent a reduction in infection rates and the same report also praised efforts at treatment and education.
Enter GRASADIS, the only organization in Haiti to focus its work on HIV specifically to the gay population in Haiti. This might sound like a relatively easy task, dealing with a specific group, but there is not the remotest sense of a ‘gay community’ in Haiti. The social chaos among the impoverished classes (fueled by political manipulations and tensions), the impermanence of living quarters, the wanderings of homeless people, the absence of street-level organizations, the denial surrounding gay sex the furtive nature of contacts (among all classes, from privileged to poor)—all combine to make the task of HIV prevention a complicated task. And because it’s the only gay game in town, not surprisingly Grasadis also has become the de facto, albeit diecreet, advocate for gay rights in Haiti, with painfully slow results.
In stark contrast to the grimy congestion in the city center, I dined one evening with an Assistant Coordinator of Grasadis, ‘Scott’ high above the din in the terrace restaurant of the elegant Hotel Montana. (For discretionary reasons I have not used his real name.) Grasadis is a “research and action group against AIDS and sexual discrimination”. The General Coordinator of Grasadis was, unfortunately for me, in the USA giving radio interviews on behalf of Grasadis regarding homosexuality and HIV in Haiti.
Scott was part of the enormous Haitian diaspora—Haitians driven by necessity to emigrate to foreign lands because of unstable or dangerous conditions at home. (It is said that Haiti has the largest diaspora population, by percentage, of any country in the world.) Scott was born to Haitian parents in Montreal and grew up with two cultures and three languages (English, French and Creole). He first came to Haiti as part of a project with the Canadian Ministry of Justice. While here he discovered his roots, relatives and a reason for staying. As a gay man he wanted to help do something about the AIDS crisis in Haiti.
Grasadis grew out of another HIV organization in Haiti called POZ (Promoters of an Objective of Zero AIDS) funded by USAID, Catholic Relief Services and the Japanese government. As we talked about the origins, purposes and funding of Grasadis it became clear (sort of) how many dozens—if not hundreds—of non-governmental (NGO) charitable, religious, educational, secular, UN and American and other government organizations operate in Haiti to keep health and humanitarian work alive.
(Indeed, a frequent cynical comment is that one third of Haiti’s economy come from NGOs, one third from diaspora donations and one third from the cocaine traffic.)
Since its creation as a distinct organization, in 1997, Grasadis has worked to educate MSM (men who have sex with men) about the risks and prevention techniques of HIV. Due to the high illiteracy rates (no print media) and the frequent absence of electricity in the urban areas of Haiti (no TV), most of the education has been through training in-the-street counselors and by radio messages and interviews. Radio (battery-operated) is the most common source of public information with more than two dozen radio stations in Port au Prince alone.
Despite the tenuous networks of sex workers and the hidden haunts of MSM, Grasadis has been able to mount a reasonably effective educational program to these high-risk people. Scott said that overt the past five years they had helped reduce the rate of infection in Haiti—in that population– from well above 5% five years ago to now below 5%.
It is worth noting that the AIDS scare of the late eighties and early nineties about Haiti being the hot bed and source of the American epidemic turned out to have been grossly misleading publicity disseminated by ill-informed American health officials. Closer to the epidemiological truth was that the virus was most likely to have been transmitted to Haiti from the USA. But by the time this misinformation was corrected Haiti’s tourism had taken a serious nosedive with an enormous loss of precious dollar revenue.
Not surprising in this black/mulatto Caribbean Latino culture, one of the complicating factors in dealing with the spread of the HIV virus is the prevalence of bisexuality here and in other nearby countries. A recent UNAIDS survey warned that bisexual behavior was the main reason for the increasing spread of HIV among women. “Men who have sex with men appear to feature prominently in the increasing feminization of the epidemic. Recent research has shown that a large proportion of men who have sex with men also have sex with women. HIV/AIDS programs focusing on men who have sex with men are vital; sexual identities are more fluid than often assumed. Prevention efforts need to be tailored to apparently widespread but hidden bisexual behavior in this region,” the report said.
Finding a Gay Community
As for the ‘gay community’ in Port au Prince, Scott claimed that recent gay history—since the 1960’s—had a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect to it. During the father-to-son son dictatorships of the Duvaliers, from 1957-86, the story is that despite brutal political and social repression of the general population there was a laissez-faire attitude toward gays. There were known official who served in numerous governmental positions and discreetly mingled with other socially privileged males. Baby Doc is rumored to have attended some of the men-only parties given by well-placed associates. But no one could be sure of their own safety. Many people still recall with reverence and sadness the person of Richard Brisson, a famous poet and ‘homme de theatre’ who was killed by Duvalier for unknown reasons.
Noel Coward, the famous and beloved Caribbean queen, had a buzzing home in Jamaica that hosted an endless stream of friends. On numerous occasions he and his lover Graham Payne and/or his circle of gay and gay-friendly stars, royalty and international acquaintances breezed into Haiti for a change of atmosphere and sights. Often they stayed at the famous gingerbread-style Olofsson Hotel (photo left) in Port au Prince (actually it’s in Petion Ville) with its sweeping view of the city. (I stayed at this glorious old relic for a night; it seemed held together with glue, history and charm, and little else. One of the rooms is named after Coward.) Apparently there were also favorite clubs for an evening of drinks, music and dancing if you were lucky enough to gain access to them.
Of course, for the poorer classes there were no such watering holes. With the dreaded secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, carrying out the whims of Papa Doc or Baby Doc Duvalier, anyone could be ‘disappeared’ at any time for no reason. There was a palpable paranoia among the masses and no one knew who might be reported or who could be trusted.
But despite the oppression, it was not unusual that among such disenfranchised people there was some acceptance of differences (e.g. variant sexual behavior); although not approved it was silently tolerated. Llife in the congested capital was very rough and tough and staying alive by any means was how it was done. (This same style of survival-by-any-means is still much in evidence in Haiti today. Everyone is looking to make a few pennies and will lie, or steal or sell anything of the slightest value—including sex if the price calls for it.)
However, after the ouster of Baby Doc in 1986 (he absconded to France taking a big chunk of the national treasury with him), the meager semblance of gay life was driven further underground as revengeful and morally conservative political forces overran the country with equal brutality toward their predecessors. The Duvalier graves and manisons were destroyed. The change in government was in name only as the corruption, public disregard and cocaine traffic continued uninterrupted. The gay hot spots disappeared.
In 1990s the current chaos of leaders, under Jean-Bertrand Aristede, was elected-overthrown-returned-stepped down-and elected again in a disputed vote in 2000; Aristede’s conservative attitudes (he is a former RC priest) have not encouraged Haiti’s LGBT population to feel comfortable or welcome. The only small good news from this administration is that the First Lady, Madame Mildred Aristide has directly expressed support for Grasadis’ work and is one of the honorary chairpersons, along with other other government officials. (Aristede was finally thrown out in February 2004 and deported.)
Gay ‘Life’ (Such as it is)
Violence against homosexuals because of their sexual orientation is rare here. Although far from being approved, there is not a vehemently macho hostility against gays in general. Homosexuality is not illegal here. As I mentioned before in regard to the spread of HIV to women, a large percent of men (and women?) swing both ways and this sexual fluidity is probably a tempering influence on attitudes. Although descended from French colonialism, Haiti’s culture has many features in common with its surrounding Hispanic neighbors. By day the men may posture as macho competitors but at night there is room for different kinds of pleasure.
Further, as you can read from another story included below about gay Haiti, the effect of Voudou on the general population is strong. Voudou does not discriminate against gay or lesbian people. Private sexuality has nothing to do with one’s spiritual beliefs or empowerment. Some Voudou priests are well known to be gay but no one would ever ‘out’ that person because it is irrelevant to proper worship. It would be like spreading the gossip that a certain priest is a vegetarian.
Currently the gay ‘community’ is still not a community in Port au Prince. It’s most notable presence essentially consists of the mostly white and Haitian mulatto few who work for various NGOs, UN organizations, Peace Corps or local government human resource agencies. The are also some well-off Haitian gay businessmen and women who have managed to prosper despise the instability of the country. And of course there are numerous government officials and diplomats who circulate through this crowd along with artists, painters and musicians.
These people often live in the ‘rich’ suburb of Petion Ville which lies in the greener and cooler hills above Port au Prince. (The few access roads up to Petion Ville are narrow and very congested with pedestrians and vehicles so the two mile ride can take an hour. In the early morning and mid afternoon thousands of young students further clog the roads as they walk or ride to and from school dressed in their variously colored uniforms looking scrubbed and fresh.)
The social calendar for the A-gays consists of friendship word-of-mouth networks collected into small groups for dinner parties or for informal gatherings at designated restaurants or beaches. (Nearby Lyscha Beach on the bay is popular on occasion.) As it happened, the same Hotel Montana (where I stayed for a night) was one of the watering holes for this set. Usually on Thursday evenings for dinner or afterwards on the upper terrace, Scott informed me. (A recent comment sent to me said the Thursday dinners no longer meet.)
Black Gays Downtown
Far separate from this group are the black poor classes born into and for the most part stuck in that deprived social strata. Skin-color racism is alive and well in Haiti (and in other Caribbean countries as well). Light is good, black is not. There is no gathering at restaurants for this group, as they couldn’t afford such an event. Rather they too have a loose network and use public spaces for hanging out with one another such as the central plaza Champs de Mars (named by the French, ironically, after the Greek god of war). Here they can visit friends or cruise strangers or the few tourists who might venture out from the safety of their hotels.
For a tourist’s point of view, I went out one evening after dark into the well-lighted Champs just to see what was there. A few dozen men and women, young and middle age milled about with one another; some sitting as couples, some in small pockets of friends, some singles, some food vendors selling snacks and drinks. I suppose any one of these folks might have been looking to hook-up but it was not obvious to me nor did I pursue it. There was no ‘heavy’ cruising but rather more curious looks since I was the only white person in the plaza.
The most remarkable happening was around the central stage of the small amphitheater where a dozen or more young people were reading and writing. These were students doing their homework under the lights of the park; throughout much of Port au Prince there is no electricity after six PM so these kids come here for a couple of hours to do their work.
Sort of between these two stratas of gay life are the boyfriends and escorts of some of the upper-dwelling gays. These are occasionally guys from down the hill, with darker skin, younger and very likely less educated—but making up for all that by their fine facial features and appealing body shapes. These companions are not called ‘taxi boys’ or ‘rent boys’ but rather they are given the euphemism of ‘business men’ and, according to Scott, these guys are often quite pushy and dominant in private.
This led both Scott and I to speculate that at least some of them are in fact not fully gay but swing that way for the benefits—as long as they get to perform the ‘guy’ role in bed; perhaps another bit of evidence to account for the easy bisexuality of Latino-cultured men.
As for the transvestites in Port au Prince, Scott described their lot as quite dismal. “They are the most discriminated against group of all.” There are some trannies involved in various Voudou groups where they are more accepted. They can also be seen in the Marche en Fer were they sell merchandise commonly associated with cooking or cosmetics. Few Haitian people are comfortable around them and there is virtually no group that offers to work on their behalf or to help educate people about them.
Education for all
Scott said the Champs de Mars is one of the main venues for his HIV counselors to make contact with some of the gay guys. Speaking the local language of Creole helps make the intervention easier. The advisors give out literature which describes in words and pictures different sexual activities—gay and straight–and their risk levels. There are also pictures showing the correct use and disposal of condoms. Grasadis’s phone number is printed on the back of the brochure for further information.
Not surprisingly, Haitian ambivalence about homosexuality inhibits most LGB people from coming out to their families. Scott joked about all the ‘not gay’ gays in the middle-upper class gay community in Port au Prince and Petionville. He said if a person did come out to their family, the first (and probably last) reaction would be to deny it. There is after all the family status and reputation to uphold among their peers and one should not embarrass oneself in public. Being shunned is very hurtful and humiliating. So it’s better to ignore a family member’s sexual oddness and go on with the show.
To combat this resistant attitude and the ignorance that underlies it, Grasadis writes articles for the major newspaper ‘Le Nouvelliste’ discussing various aspects of homosexuality. Reading such material in private seems a better way to reach the literate classes rather than public forums where few would want to be seen. A recent story discussed how many Haitian men are gay abroad and straight (and married) at home. It was also aimed at getting people to be more careful and to be mindful of health risks.
Scott further thought that the attitude of the Catholic church was not as harsh as in the States or Canada and was actually more open to human varieties.
I asked what effect the extensive poverty had on the gay population here. His immediate reply was that there was no government-funded public health care for HIV infected people anywhere in Haiti. (There are some private NGO supported sources but not nearly enough.) There are no ambulance service, no research studies, no free medication and not enough hospital beds. “This is not a good place to be sick; if you have money you fly to the States for your treatment.”
So what’s it like to be lesbigay in Haiti? As usual, it depends on whom you ask. For the privileged few on the hill, being gay is discreetly comfortable within a social class of like-minded peers. Where there is money there is comfort and choice. Where there is groomed behavior that doesn’t arouse suspicion or gossip there are friends for dinners and events.
For the ‘business men’ affiliated with this crowd life can also be easy, but they walk a fine line of approval. A misstep that evokes jealousy or anger can end the good life overnight—and since there is not a broad spectrum of gay life, that is, no broad middle class of LGBTs to ‘fall back’ on, the drop from the Haitian gay elite can be precipitous down to the grimy streets below living in a hovel and scamming for handouts or working in a low paying factory.
For the folks who are already there—black, poor, semi-literate, low skilled and gay or bi– and have never known anything but a hard life there is little reason to hope that anything will change. Haiti’s history of indifferent and mean-spirited governors has not left any decent legacy of human rights. The state can’t even provide electricity or the simplest of public health care—let alone such remote ‘luxuries’ as gay rights.
A Gay Haitian-American Writes about his Life and Haiti: Personal Comments
Many Haitians have the misconceptions that Homosexuals choose that lifestyle. This is untrue. Why will I choose a life that is hated by many, a life that I will be ashamed of, a life where some say there is no prospect of happiness. I will never have the joy to have a wedding where I can proclaim my love to everybody. I will never say this is my wife, my child or and of the attributes that only applied to marital life. I am educated and not a bad looking man and a good job and it kills me sometimes when I meet well valuable ladies I am not attracted to them. It’s hard to I sit with my friends or parents when they are lashing about gay people and I am there sitting sadly thinking of the fear of them finding that out about me.
My parents do not know about my lifestyle and hopefully they will never know. I know that they love me however they will never understand. I am not asking for anyone’s approval to be gay because I had no say over that; all I am asking is sometimes for straight people to just be considerate in their comments in public and with friends because you never know. I know some people reply to me with all kind of verse from the Bible. I know these already: I am a Christian and read the Bible many times looking for answers ‘why me’. I do not have the answer to that. Not all gay people are promiscuous or things like that. Like in all races and societies, we are a ‘different’ group of people. Some gay people are more decent and considerate human beings than some straight people.
I have stopped looking for answers and questioning my sexuality, Now instead I focus on how can I be a better person, someone that can help and that society can count on. I know Haitian gay friends that would give anything so they could change but trust me we cannot change it. I look at my homosexuality as my cross to bear, something for me to work on. Instead of asking God ‘why me’ and pray for a change overnight I pray to thank him for the health that he gave me, the family that he gave that loves me, He did not create me handicapped so I will make the best of my life by working to improve myself and to improve the life of the people around me.
Recent Gay Life in Haiti (as I know it)
Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier was a physician (the source of his nickname, “Papa Doc”) who worked in the Haitian government beginning in the mid-1940s. With the army’s support, he was elected to the presidency in 1957. In 1964 he declared himself president for life and indeed, stayed president until his death in 1971, when his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, succeeded him. Papa Doc was an expert in voodoo who ruled Haiti with brute force and terror. His force of Tontons Macoutes acted as real-life death squads who routinely executed his opponents.
I have no knowledge gay treatment during Papa Doc’s time, although I think no one was killed simply because of his sexual orientation. There was one incident where he killed 2 guys who were gays; they were officers at the palace and very good friends of Baby Doc and they became sexually involved with him. When Papa found out he killed both of them. I do not think he killed them because they were gays but because they molested his son and the the idea of his son might have a lover to tell him what to do–this could weaken his authority later. By the way, the same harsh treatment were also given to all Papa Doc’s four daughters’ boyfriends.
Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier was only nineteen when he became Haiti’s second president/dictator for life in 1971 after the death of his father. Baby Doc also maintained power by relying on the feared secret police. His regime was marked by corruption, oppression, and torture and reportedly he embezzled at least $120 million in oil, flour, and tobacco taxes. In 1986, a popular uprising forced Duvalier out. He fled to France, where he still lives. In 1999 Duvalier said he wanted to regain power in Haiti but his bid for president in September 2000 failed. Meanwhile, a group of Haitian exiles in France lodged a complaint against Duvalier in 1999, alleging “crimes against humanity.” But unfortunately current French law only addresses crimes against humanity committed by the Axis powers in World War II. Despite the longtime protection it has given Duvalier, France has never granted him refugee status. Today, he is reportedly ill and impoverished (but this report is not reliable).
From what I have heard from some of my friends Haiti used to be a very popular gay country during the late mid 1970’s – 80’s. I guess the financial situation of the country made Haitian men very vulnerable (i.e. willing to be gay for pay). That was probably one of the reasons why in the early 1980’s Haiti was one of the countries with the highest cases of AIDS.
The face of gay in Haiti has change from bad to worse. During the reign of Baby Doc his dictatorial ways forced people to be afraid of others. But he did seem to be tolerant of gays. This situation helped gays to flourish and every major sector of the country had gays who had some authority. I heard a story where someone called one of the officials a “massissi” (same as ‘fag)’. The massissi made the accuser paid dearly for it.
After Baby Doc’s expulsion, his friends and officials also had to leave the country. The rise of the new popular group such as Lavalas (anti-Duvalier political organization) only preached a negative message against gays, Today they have no fear of others nor respect, so they feel it is acceptable to harass them. This is today’s life with the current government. Maybe there is no dictator now but for gays life is not good.
Gays in Haiti
I left Haiti when I was a teen. Since Haiti never had any pedophilia law, I had lovers way older than I was. It was mostly underground.My lover was from the upper class therefore we enjoyed going to great parties in some of the finest homes. The first time I went to a party I arrived in front of a huge white mansion. There were all the latest models of cars in the driveway. The decor of the house was very post modern that matched very well with the style of the home. A group of men were around and they were very friendly, speaking French, English and some spoke Spanish and Italian to show off their wealth of culture. It was amazing for me to meet all those different people who were good looking and well educated. Most of them were the best in the country on whatever they do. Many of the men present were members of international organizations stationed in Haiti for the time.
I guess the first introduction of gay term in Haiti was during the American Occupation in 1915, this is why the common term to call gays are Massissi(mah-see-see). This is from English term MY HE SHE, that was the way people use to call their lovers. In their little mind they think that American had introduced homosexuality to haitian. Little do they know that men were having sex with all their cousins, uncles, friends and everyone around.
Being gay in Haiti is very tough even tougher than in America. A well known Journalist, made the mistake of associating with the wrong guys and now his name is known around the country as the ‘Gay Guy’. In America you might say ‘who cares’, but in a small little country where everyone knows everyone it is hard to function while everyone focuses only on your sexual orientation.
A few years ago a gay couple were burned alive at their house simply because they were gay. Since they were well off, they were accused of being members of the old oppressive party. But burning of gays is very rare in Haiti. However there is no law to protect anyone who is open. The laws have no respect for human right anyway. Respect for gays is even worse. Some few people do live as couples but no one can tell because almost no one knows. They usually introduce themselves as cousins or family so they go undetected.
As far as lesbianism is concerned, it is considered the same as the males–vices of the upper class. But since women are allowed to be closer to each other such as going to the bathroom or combing each other’s hair, many lesbian relationships go undetected. However if one is a butch in a chauvinistic society as Haiti her life will be hell.
The voodoo religion is very open to gays, off course they enjoy dancing and the colorful clothes that they have to wear. The Catholic church was always against gays but as we all know most priests are usually repressed gay themselves. Most priest were known to have lovers and most of them were either French or Canadian, Haiti represented a heaven for them. No one will even know how many unreported molestation that went in those institutions. Protestants have the same view as Americans, most of the supports for protestant churches came from America anyway. Therefore we can expect the same views as the Southern Baptist churches.” Gays will burn in Hell”.
Haitian are weird when it comes to voodoo, because of the French occupation and the shame it bought to the people that practice voodoo, you will be shocked to know that most people who practice voodoo will never come out and tell you about it. They will claim they are Catholic but the practice of voodoo ceremony is still frown upon by many. Many people practice it on a part time basis, like the same way you go to a psychiatrist or counselor; they just go there to go take care of some business. Most of those people will never admit their relationship on the open. This is why people are homophobic in Haiti. Only a few people practice voodoo on the open and fully.
Voodoo is practiced, in varying degrees, by almost 80% of the country. But even people who do not practice it will attribute bad luck or bad events to voodoo spells if something happens to them. The practice is well known among Catholics.
Unfortunately I have never been to a voodoo ceremony. While growing up I used to have them across the street from me. Baby Doc used to attend them at the neighbor’s house. I desperately wanted to go but I was too young and also felt ashamed of going. And because voodoo is not so harsh with discrimination, the ceremonies were popular gay meeting places, I guess you might have called them their ‘gay bars’.
The recent AIDS crisis in Haiti has caused western tourists to stay away. As a result, the financial situation is very hard and it may happen that a guy will sleep with you–if not for money but at least some kind of favor such as a gift. Off course there is some full prostitution but I do not know much about them.
USAID and other international organizations introduced condoms and try to force the sexual education at very early age. The also helped some of the rural locals to educate themselves and help distribute condoms. But in a country were a voodoo spell is the cause of every ache and illness, many people died of HIV undiagnosed.
A commentary about homosexuality and its interface with the prevailing spiritual practice of Voudou (from http://members.aol.com/roots125/gayclergy.html):
In Vodou, homosexuals are not barred from any religious activity. They may participate in religious services, and even become initiates and clergy people. It is true that there is some stigma associated with homosexuality in Haiti, but it does not take the form of the virulent hatred evident in Jamaica, for example, where homosexual individuals may be the victims of mob killings.
Especally among the poorer classes, where lack of living space and privacy makes sexual orientation obvious, the feeling is rather that Mother Nature has somehow played a sort of “practical joke” on the person.
Homosexual men are considered almost by definition to be under the patronage of Erzulie Freda, the lwa of love and luxury. She is most feminine and coquettish, providing an opportunity for stereotypical homosexual behavior to be exhibited in a sacred context.
Homosexual women are considered very often to be under the patronage of Erzulie Dantor, who, while heterosexual in the sense that she has a child, is a fierce and strong female image. Many people think of Dantor herself as a lesbian woman, but she is also the wife of both Ti-Jean Petro and Simbi Makaya, two very important lwa.
Because open homosexuals are rigorously excluded from Protestant congregations, and frowned upon in Catholic services, almost the only avenue for spiritual expression for homsexuals in Haiti is Vodou. There is, therefore, a higher percentage of homosexuals at Vodou ceremonies, and in the priesthood, than in the general population.
At a few peristyles in Port-au-Prince, composed entirely of gay men, or of gay women, homosexuality is virtually an entrance requirement. I know one Mambo, a lesbian, who has several lovers among her female hounsis. They band together economically, doing small marketing and other activities to assure their mutual survival.
I had another experience, of a young man, a folkloric dancer who was a friend of mine, who asked me to be his marinn kanzo, or godmother. (This is different from an initiating Mambo, who is called maman asson, mother of the asson, the ceremonial rattle emblematic of priesthood.) I visited the young man in seclusion in the djevo, the secret inner chamber of the peristyle where initiates are secluded – and was promptly forced to abandon him as a godchild, as he was wearing the prescribed clothes of the opposite sex! Incorrect procedure, rather than homosexuality per se, forced me to take this action.
It is worth remembering that at a Vodou ceremony, any person may be possessed by any lwa, regardless of the sex of the lwa or the person. Homosexual men, especially initiates, are frequently possessed by female lwa including Erzulie Freda. I remember one six-foot-two Houngan who was the mount for a lwa named Sainte Therese! The Mambo I mentioned above had a very martial Ogoun in her head, and his presence at ceremonies was absolutely thrilling.
The dancing of homosexual men in particular is often much admired, as they combine the muscular strength of men with the voluptuousness of women. Some overenthusiastic homosexual Houngans have actually been known to carry dresses with them when they visit at other Houngans’ ceremonies, so that their lwa will be properly clothed if they should appear.
Houngans and Mambos have particular passwords, and specific gestures performed with the asson. Homosexual Houngans and Mambos have additional gestures which permit them to recognize one another.
The presence of homosexuals in a congregation is considered morally neutral – the important criterion is that the correct ceremonial procedures are followed in any aspect of the Vodou service.
(4) (Non-Gay story) Encumbering the vast majority of native Haitians are the staggering poverty and impoverished living conditions which make life a daily struggle:
Haiti hopes that six months from now it will have recovered millions of dollars embezzled by the former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and secreted in Swiss banks. It may also launch a prosecution against him in France, where he lives in exile. But it is not the plundered funds that most preoccupy the leader of the poorest country in the Americas.
President René Préval – a dapper agronomist with a ready smile – is more alarmed by the sums his impoverished country must disgorge to repay loans from foreign banks. The fact that 40% of Haiti’s debt was incurred under Duvalier family misrule, when loans were regularly skimmed by regime cronies, reinforces the country’s resentment. Last week in a state reception room, where the sound of traffic grinding through the sweltering slums of Port-au-Prince almost drowned conversation, he signed a petition calling on international creditors to annul the country’s swelling $1.2bn (£800m) debt.
For a Caribbean nation whose independence was achieved through the only successful slave revolt in history, the current campaign by the London-based organisation Jubilee 2000 to break the shackles of developing world indebtness has a strong political resonance. Haiti has already signalled its difficulty in meeting interest payments to the World Bank. It is not among the countries to receive debt cancellation under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. “They say our debt is not high enough for relief,” says President Préval. “But it’s one of the reasons for the problems of this country. We need cancellation.”
Outside the bleached, white splendour of the palace, chickens amble across the presidential lawn. Haiti is a country of desperate incongruities. In teeming shantytowns, the most basic services do not exist. In the district of Christ-Roi, the body of a middle-aged man lay on a rutted track, face up with a broad gash to the head. People walked past. Amid such poverty, the need for aid and investment is undisputed, but in its absence millions of Haitians want simply to escape. “We want to do things for the community,” said James Joussaint, director of a development association.
“But people want to go abroad for economic reasons, for better health, better education, more security, so their children don’t have to work …” His voice trailed off, implying an endless list. At home, education is seen as one escape route; private primary schools have sprung up all over. Hubert Milhomme, headmaster of Ecole El-Shaddai in Arcachon, looks on as his 18-month-old son, Hubens, plays on the floor and jokes that one day the boy will be a doctor. But even this pillar of the community is dispirited: “The government pays nothing toward the school. Not even for a piece of chalk. There’s rarely any electricity. It gets diverted to the wealthy people in Petionville. Down here we suffer from tuberculosis and malaria.” He, too, talks wistfully of a life in the US.
The traditional way out has been over the border to cut sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, which at one stage last year was sending back 600 migrants a day. The traffic in boat people heading for Miami is reviving – a clear indication of declining living standards. Four hundred Haitians were found on a Bahamas beach in January after their ship ran aground. More than 1,000 Haitians have been sent back already this year, according to the US coastguard. Thousands more may have made it to Florida – or drowned. Last month 10 Haitian policemen disguised as missionaries hijacked a local ferry. The catamaran, and its 121 pasengers, was found adrift in American waters after the fuel ran out. “We didn’t steal the boat,” explained one policeman, “we stole the destination”.
Colette Lespinasse runs a group for returned refugees. “Sometime the fishing boats are too full, there’s not enough to drink and they have to throw overboard those who become ill,” she says. “One woman tried the journey four times. She had a young baby who died. She was so full of despair, she committed suicide by jumping into the sea.” Attempts by the outside world to relieve the hunger and suffering have been undermined by previous, corrupt regimes, leaving today’s inheritance of mounting debt. Camille Charlmers – who was an adviser to President Préval’s predecessor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and now runs a development organisation – deplores the country’s annual repayments of $45m. Jean-Claude Duvalier, he maintains “took $900m with him when he left [in 1986] – that’s almost the whole debt”.
Trade liberalisation has also done little so far for Haiti. Instability and poor government have discouraged western investment, and cheap US rice imports have been accused of undercutting small farms in the Artibonite valley – the country’s traditional rice bowl. There are historical prece dents for granting relief for what is known as “odious debt”. In 1970 Indonesia was rewarded with significant cancellations after General Suharto overthrew Sukarno. Debt repayments strike such a chord in Haiti because, after the slave uprising of 1791, France demanded “compensation” in return for granting independence. It took 100 years to pay off 550m gold Francs. “Haiti was a financial colony for a century after independence,” says President Préval, sitting beneath portraits of Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jaques Dessalines, the leaders of the slave insurrection.
“That is why Haiti is poor and has borrowed so much money. Within six months we are hoping to liberate some of Duvalier’s funds,” he adds. “We are also looking at taking legal action in France against him” for human rights offences.
A year of broken promises:
A year ago today in Cologne, the world’s seven richest countries, the G7, promised to write off $100bn of the $260bn owed to the west by the most indebted states
The G7 promised that 25 of the 40 countries identified by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as the worst affected would receive help by the end of this year – provided lenders were satisfied that the borrowers had policies to ensure use of the funds to reduce poverty Britain’s chancellor, Gordon Brown, promised that 11 would get through the programme’s hurdles by Easter.
By mid-June, five countries have received reductions in debt payments and only one, Uganda, is anywhere near having its debts cancelled. The World Bank still hopes to get up to 20 countries through by the end of the year, but debt campaigners think it will struggle to push 15 through o So far, the west has cancelled $11.9bn worth of debt – most of it under agreements predating Cologne.
The only extra debt relief since the west promised “deeper, speedier” debt relief last year has been an extra $629m for Uganda.
Though Britain and most of its G7 partners have promised to cancel 100% of the debt owed to them individually (most of the money is owed to the World Bank and the IMF), Britain is the only one to do so.
The other G7 countries are waiting until countries fulfil all the onerous requirements of the overall debt relief programme before getting out their chequebooks.
The Guardian, London, UK
Saturday June 17, 2000 (little has changed since then)
Haiti in life and debt struggle: Impoverished island forced to keep up its loan payments–Debt relief: special report
By Owen Bowcott in Port-au-Prince and Charlotte Denny