Why you should care
Because there’s something to learn from a religion that’s figured out how to handle the “gay question.”
When Marjorie Lafontant wants to reach the LGBT community, she grabs a megaphone and heads to a peristyle, a Voodoo temple. The leader of Haiti’s first lesbian rights organization starts her outreach efforts with the Voodoo world because, in her view, peristyles are the last safe spaces left in her home country of Haiti.
We’re sitting in Lafontant’s offices in a quiet residential neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. From outside, you’d never know the name of the group that lies within — Women in Action Against Sexual Discrimination, or FACSDIS. That’s intentional. As in much of the Caribbean, homophobia reigns in Haiti, due, in part, to especially strict interpretations of Christianity and stringent beliefs in gender conformity. Although Haiti did not inherit the draconian antisodomy laws that some of its neighbors were gifted from colonial rulers, the country never established protections for LGBT people, either. In recent years, homophobia has become an increasingly powerful force.
At the same time, an increasing number of LGBT folks have found 50-year-old Lafontant, and with her, rediscovered Voodoo — rethinking, relearning what the old religion teaches about gender fluidity. Using Voodoo communities as her networking base, Lafontant offers lesbian human rights trainings, legal aid for those who have been discriminated against and health care services that lesbians have been denied. “She’s like a mother to the LGBT community,” said Cheley Moreau, Lafontant’s colleague at FACSDIS. “She’s a true leader.”
Hostilities toward non-straight people worsened in the wake of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, which several major religious and political leaders blamed on the queer population. That same year, Lafontant left her job at the Ministry of Social Affairs to found FACSDIS, the first lesbian rights organization in the country. Her motivation came from their treatment in makeshift camps that lined the capital city: “When we went to get food, they said we caused the earthquake,” Lafontant recalled, her calm demeanor cracking at the memory. “They told us to get out of line, and said they wouldn’t give food to lesbian women or gay men.”
Voodoo “is treated about the same as homosexuality.”
Lafontant herself has been relatively blessed. She recounts being “totally shocked” that her family didn’t throw her out when she came out in college; she attributes their open-mindedness to time spent abroad. Though she says she’s lost friends and even a job because of her sexual orientation, she knows others who have lost much more. One woman who regularly attended support meetings at FACSDIS was killed because of her sexual orientation, someone later admitted, FACSDIS picked up the case, and the guilty man was sentenced to 25 years behind bars, although he was released just a couple of years later.
But the battle wages on, sometimes through unconventional means. Raised in a Catholic household, Lafontant was exposed to Voodoo as a child, though she only went public with her affinity for the religion after coming out, choosing it over a faith that considered her sexuality a sin. She says it’s helped her beyond her own identity too: “When I started to practice Voodoo,” she says, pulling back a piece of her long, dreadlocked hair, “I also learned to be more tolerant and accept others.” Lafontant’s move to use Voodoo as a liberating force cuts back to its roots: The tradition honors the spirits of Haitians’ West African ancestors and is believed to have helped win independence against colonial oppressors in the world’s only successful slave revolt.
Within Voodoo, same-sex attraction is considered natural for both people and spirits. “An acceptance of the truth of gender-bending and the fluidity of gender and bodies” has always been an inherent part of Voodoo, according to Katherine Smith, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. Attraction, possession — the human and the divine all mingle in the Voodoo tradition, she said. A male spirit, for example, can possess a woman and make her temporarily attracted to other women.
And yet, this spiritual notion has not yet permeated the public consciousness of Haitians, which is part of the reason Lafontant doesn’t officially associate her work with the tradition. It just adds another layer of complication in some ways: “[Voodoo] is treated about the same as homosexuality,” a kind of closeted tradition. Shari Turitz of the American Jewish World Service, which supports LGBT rights work in Haiti, calls Voodoo a largely silent tradition, not often discussed in public but practiced by an estimated 95 percent of the country in private. Voodoo, she says, “is itself discriminated against,” largely because of how vehemently it was decried by occupying forces — and still is by many Christian missionaries.
Despite Lafontant’s efforts, angry mobs continue to protest Haiti’s nascent fight for equal rights. Last month, government officials shut down an LGBT film festival that FACSDIS was helping to organize, calling it a “great danger” to Haitian families. Protesters appeared on the doorstep of Lafontant’s home. She recalls as many as 50 men carrying knives, machetes and guns. She ventured out to confront the protesters herself with a knife-wielding young man before calling the police to intervene.
Through it all, the spirits provide comfort. It’s early on a Saturday morning when Lafontant sprays a flowery perfume and blasts the songs preferred by her patron spirit. It takes some chanting to coax the spirit down, but when she arrives, Lafontant transforms. Her authoritative posture and sure tone abate into cackles and coos. She bats her heavy-lidded eyes and reaches a ringed hand out to her housemate’s shoulders and hair. “Ridden” by a Voodoo spirit, Lafontant whispers something into her housemate’s ear — a forecast for her life. As she stretches out the aches that set into her muscles while possessed, Lafontant offers a prayer that all will end well.