By Neish McLean and Daina Ruduša, OutRight Action International
The Caribbean region is a bit of an enigma when it comes to LGBTIQ equality. On the one hand, a majority of countries continue to criminalize same-sex relations through so-called “buggery laws” left over from Colonial times. On the other hand, a vibrant and active civil society is becoming ever more visible. While criminalization laws are rarely enforced, they provide legal cover for discrimination, harassment, and gender-based violence against LGBTIQ people, which are all too prominent. At the same time, it seems that societal acceptance of LGBTIQ people is on the rise.
But not in Haiti. Haiti is an outlier.
Haiti has never criminalized same-sex relations. Yet hostility towards LGBTIQ people is among the worst in the region, and violent attacks and even murder of LGBTIQ people have been increasing in recent years. Numerous activists have fled abroad due to death threats, while others, like Charlot Jeudy, have died under suspicious circumstances.
In Haiti a complex maze of circumstances collide to keep LGBTIQ people stuck between a hateful Church, inactive State, and unaccepting families.
Religion plays a strong role in Haitian culture. Up until the late 1980s Catholicism was recognized as the official religion by the constitution, and it, along with a strong Protestant Church, retains its central role today. For many Haitians, there is no separation of Church and State. A strong narrative from the Church is that LGBTIQ people are ‘demon possessed’. Religious leaders have been known to openly blame natural disasters, such as the devastating earthquake in 2010, on LGBTIQ people, leading to pervasively negative attitudes.
In a recent webinar discussion hosted by OutRight Action International with Yaisal Val, a Haitian trans activist, she shared that the dominant mindset is – “a gay person walks by and someone will say, that’s an omen, that’s seven years of bad luck, let’s go beat them up”. And the societal response will be – “good, that’s what they deserve”, while the police will refuse to investigate.
As an example, there has been no closure surrounding the suspicious circumstances of the death of prominent activist Charlot Jeudy, despite the high profile nature of the case, despite international pressure, despite the many death threats Charlot had received over the years.
Family pressure also plays a strong role in Haiti. Too often families force their LGBTIQ family members out of the home because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The pressure to conform in Haiti is severe, and makes it challenging for LGBTIQ people to speak out for change.
The fact that the Church and State have historically been so intertwined, compounded by decades of political instability, could explain the lack of political action now. President Jovenel Moïse took office by decree in January 2020, and had pledged to bring in constitutional and legislative reform. The decrees he has brought forward would see hate crime and hate speech criminalized, with explicit mention of grounds of sexual orientation, and ban discrimination based on sexual orientation too. But there is little to no support for them among society, or in political circles.
Moreover, the decrees also foresee legalizing abortion, so the proposed changes are not popular with the Church, which also claims that the decrees would legalize bestiality and incest. Religious organizations have been at the forefront of opposing the proposed changes, including through street protests, claiming that the decrees constitute “attacks by the government on the morality of Haitian society, on its customs and culture, while ignoring the real needs of the population.” This, in turn, has sparked outrage among the population.
LGBTIQ people have become a particular target in the campaigns against the decrees. Religious organizations have drummed up hate that the proposed changes would lead to same-sex marriage, “recruitment” of children, and a general degradation of society. While the decrees foresee nothing of the sort, most people don’t read the actual texts and rely on the interpretations of their religious leaders. The consequent outrage has come at a further cost to the already hated LGBTIQ community. Physical attacks, threats and confrontations have grown exponentially in recent months.
The proposed decrees provided a glimmer of hope for change, but have ended up placing LGBTIQ people between a rock and a hard place. They cannot speak out in favor of the proposed decrees which could bring in some legal protection without seeming to also support bestiality and incest – something religious leaders are already using to drum up more hate against the LGBTIQ community – and exposing themselves to further violence. While remaining silent means accepting the harsh reality they live in already.
As activists, remaining silent is not in our nature. Building on the revolutionary heritage that brought Haiti its freedom from colonization, LGBTIQ activists in Haiti continue to chart the course on the frontlines by advocating for a Haitain society that feels like home to them too. As a global LGBTIQ family, our role is to support the Haitian LGBTIQ movement by increasing our support in monitoring the religiously-based homophobia and transphobia, exposing harmful hate speech both inside and outside of Haiti against the LGBTIQ community, and directing resources to support advocacy efforts and the safeguarding of the lives of LGBTIQ people in Haiti. Everyone deserves a place to call home.
Neish McLean is the Caribbean Program Officer and Daina Ruduša is the Communications Manager at OutRight Action International.
Letters and op-eds are subject to light editing for clarity and to meet The Haitian Times editorial guidelines.