By Onz Chery
Gino Ambroise couldn’t hold that desire he had to get in a relationship with a family friend any longer. So, he told the man he liked him. With his disclosure, Ambroise, then 19, threw himself into a sea of severe abuse when the friend told his family.
Ambroise’s family didn’t eat at the same table with him for over a month and threatened to kick him out of the house. The worst was yet to come.
Twenty years later, in 2015, Ambroise was getting rocks thrown at him inside his room in Pétion-Ville. It was pitch black – as there was no electricity – and Ambroise suffers from polio, which limits his mobility. He felt the weight of a rock smash the right side of his face. Then, two men invaded the house and began beating him, while yelling a homophobic slur.
“I could’ve died,” Ambroise said. “We [LGBTQ people] don’t have value, we don’t have rights. They can mistreat us however they want, and nothing will happen to them, people will actually clap for them.”
“It doesn’t make sense for this to have happened to me, for this to happen to other people,” he added.
Ambroise became an LGBTQ activist after the attack. Like other advocates, he was fed up with not only the constant physical abuse of LGBTQ people, which is illegal in Haiti. They are regularly deprived of various human rights like education, room rental and employment.
In recent years, LGBTQ people have been battling for the equal rights they deserve. It seemed as if they made a giant step in July, when rumor broke out that President Jovenel Moïse had signed a law to legalize same-sex marriage in the penal code. Any marriage officiants who refuse to marry homosexuals would get fined.
While untrue, the rumor brought to light that the Haitian population strongly opposes LGBTQ practices because various religious groups protested against the penal code. And LGBTQ people became more prone to being victimized. Although Haiti doesn’t seem ready yet for the LGBTQ people to have the same privileges as everybody else, they’re fighting to be treated equally.
“I don’t believe it’s a question of ‘Are you ready or are you not ready?’ Ambroise said. “Well, that’s something people always say: ‘Haiti isn’t ready for these issues. Haiti isn’t prepared for these issues.’ It’s the same thing with racism, if Black people kept asking if the United States was ready for them to vote, to have freedom, that would’ve never happened.”
Dominique Saint-Vil, a 35-year-old transgender person, doesn’t believe in the penal code either. Saint-Vil said the religious protests will stir up more violence against the LGBTQ community.
“If there are people dying in my community, the churches played a huge role in that and they need to have a guilty conscience about it,” Saint-Vil said. “And I’m surprised because none of the pastors are standing up to tell the people to at least read the penal code. Read, then react. You can’t act upon lies that are pushing people to kill others.”
Saint-Vil is one of the most eminent LGBTQ activists in Haiti, and the Transgender Organization (OTRAH)’s general coordinator.
Some religious people do oppose the protests. For example, Fritznie ‘Femme a la Guitarre’ Joseph, a gospel singer and vivanjelis (living evangelist) advised her fellow religious people to get to know the LGBTQ community, pray for them, and do bible studies with them instead. Joseph said the protests are strengthening the LGBTQ community.
“If they can make you get up and fight against them, they already won,” she said. “Remember what happened in the United States, a powerful country based on Christianity, they killed gay people, fought against it, but the LGBTQ community grew and grew until [Barack] Obama gave them the free pass.”
Indeed, physical abuse is what turned Ambroise into an activist. The mistreatment is what started the LGBTQ groups in Haiti, Kouraj being the most popular one. Those groups encourage more LGBTQ people to come out in the open.
Kouraj’s founder Charlot Jeudy was found dead in his home on Nov. 25, 2019. His death wasn’t a setback for the LBGTQ community, it was a reminder of what they’re fighting for: justice.
“I think of Charlot very, very often,” Saint-Vil said, speaking softer. “I don’t know if what I’m going to say will touch people’s hearts, but it’s time to let us live. I don’t think what people do in their bedrooms with their partners affects the population. It doesn’t stop the country from functioning. I hope that one day people will understand that we’re people too.”
As impossible as it may sound, many LGBTQ people believe that the day when they will be able to work, go to school, rent a room, or even live without any headaches in Haiti will come – but not anytime soon.
“I can’t promise you that it will happen in the next five or 10 years,” one of the most prominent LGBTQ Haitian activists in the U.S., Jean Dolin, said. “But I know that one day – it may not even be in my lifetime, I’m only 26 years old – but one day, just like in every country waking up to human rights, I think Haiti will have no other choice but to wake up to it.”