Jeudy is the president of the Haitian organization KOURAJ, meaning “courage” in Creole.
May 17, International Day Against Homophobia, is important because more than 60 countries around the world commemorate this day, which is to raise awareness about homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and the possibilities for a world without discrimination. For Haitians engaged in the struggle, we are claiming the day, too, to remind people that we’re here, what we want, and that we’re suffering.
Homophobia affects our entire society. That’s why we have the slogan, “Homosexuality hurts no one; homophobia hurts everyone.” Homophobia is what stresses people out. Homophobia is what pushes people to violence.
In 1992, homosexuality was taken off the list of mental illnesses, which was critical. Now it is homophobia that must be considered as a mental illness.
A little boy who feels effeminate is more likely to drop out of school as a result of harassment. I know boys who were beaten by schoolmates because they were effeminate. I know boys who were expelled from school because they were effeminate. These children then become the bane of society. I know people who have been disowned by their families. There are violent rap artists whose song lyrics promote hatred towards us. Recently, in the town of Jacmel, two youth were viciously beaten, told they were ruining the area because they were masisi [meaning “gay” as both value-neutral and as hate speech].
When people are shunned because of their sexuality, KOURAJ exists as a support group. We can’t provide them with income or social housing; we aren’t the state. We can’t take them in. But we can put pressure on discriminators, we can start discussions, we can advocate for changes in public opinion. All of this is part of our fight for the rights of the M community, something new that we’re naming ourselves. The M community is comprised of masisi [gay], madivin [lesbian], makòmè [transgender], and miks [bisexual].
Certain aspects of sexuality are taboo in Haiti, and they need to be discussed. It’s necessary for people to understand that we can have sexual differences, but that that doesn’t stop us from evolving together as a society. Only when people have changed their perceptions and preconceptions can we build solidarity.
We’re working with legal experts to draft an anti-homophobia, anti-discrimination law. We’re also petitioning the state to sign and ratify the Yogyakarta Principles and the UN declaration for the Universal Decriminalization of Homosexuality. There are conventions to which Haiti is already signatory, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and our own constitution says that the state is obligated to guarantee everyone’s protection without distinction.
We are also working with two institutions, the International Lawyers’ Office [BAI] and Defenders of the Oppressed [DOP], who can provide legal assistance in cases of homophobic violence. The challenge is that victims often don’t want to press charges or pursue a claim publicly. Victims worry that if they go to court, they’ll attract negative press. We need to change the system.
I am a man that will always be with another man, and I want to be able to do that in my own country. I knew that to do this in Haiti would be a challenge, but I threw myself into the struggle anyway. And it is a struggle. I could move to North America and live freely with a man. Sorry, but no. Haiti is my home.
If there is to be a movement for the rights of M persons in Haiti, Haitians must be behind it. We recognize that we cannot take on the identity of the international LGBT movement. We take note and are encouraged by the successes of this movement around the world, but from a sociological standpoint, Haitian culture is different and our movement must reflect that.
For example, the societal definition of masisi is ‘acting as the female partner in a homosexual relationship.’ You can have muscular, manly M persons, but for Haitians, they cannot be called masisi.
The word masisi has always been an insult. It makes people uncomfortable for us to use it, but in Haitian Creole, there is no other way for me to describe what I am. The upper class uses French and English terms, but Haiti has a large non-bourgeois population, and our message must be directed at those people who are actively discriminating against us. If we claim the word masisi to reflect who we are instead of how discriminators see us, they can’t go on verbally abusing the M community.
All seven of the KOURAJ executive committee members are out. We’re out on behalf of the organization’s 70 other members, so that they can see themselves in us. We can’t shy away from confronting homophobia, wrestling with it publicly, because somewhere someone might be struggling in silence.
We take every opportunity to sit with people and explain our mission, but we know it will take time. Haiti’s traditional human rights organizations are unwilling to defend us. Universities and institutions of higher learning don’t touch this question, although we encourage them to. Members of the press have historically been reticent to bring incidents of homophobia to light for fear of being associated with us. Politicians are the same, although we regularly invite them to participate in our activities.
Since 1986 and the return of so-called democracy in Haiti, the government has done little to advance human rights. President Martelly has contributed to the problem, financing groups with anti-M hate music to participate in Carnival, etc. When Madame [Michelle] Pierre-Louis was nominated for prime minister in 2009, other politicians stated that as a madivin, she wasn’t a citizen, was incompetent, and couldn’t serve her country. Being an M person is viewed as a political liability.
We’re beginning to see positive signs of change, though. When community members walk in the streets and someone calls them a masisi as an insult, others will often chime in to defend them. We’re also getting more calls for assistance, which proves that people do believe that we are able to help with their problems. In the past, M persons have sometimes been refused medical treatment, but that’s also changing.
The press is slowly beginning to seek KOURAJ out to offer comment, which means they recognize us as an authority on this subject. They’re beginning to realize that they can’t deal with it in ignorance as they have in the past.
I can’t measure the impact KOURAJ is having in terms of figures and numbers, but it still holds a world of importance. We’ve made all of our resources available to this group. We’ve taken our own money and lent it to masisi who needed it. We’ve invited them to eat together, had discussions, and enjoyed each other’s friendship. That’s community, solidarity. To no longer be alone isn’t something we can measure, and it feels good to know that we are providing a network for the M community.
We are not acting in the hopes of future recognition. We’re acting for change now, and I’m certain it’s happening. We’re Haitians through and through, and want society to see us as we see ourselves.
Alexis Erkert is the Another Haiti is Possible Coordinator for Other Worlds. She has worked in advocacy and with Haitian social movements since 2008. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti here.
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