Haiti sees progress for LGBT rights

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Yaisah Val recently came out publicly as a transgender woman on YouTube, a potentially risky move in a country like Haiti, where LGBT residents face pervasive hostility in most spheres of public life.

Two proposed anti-LGBT laws are pending in Par­liament. The major churches are firm in their condemnation of homosexuality. Gay Haitians are frequent targets of attacks and harassment, and police are often unsympathetic to victims of anti-gay violence.

“We told my family beforehand,” Val said of her decision to come out. “And they said, ‘You’re going to be stoned.'”

Instead, Val said she’s developed a supportive fan base — many of them straight people and mothers who gratefully view her as a role model for their transgender daughters.

Her situation is indicative of the struggle for LGBT rights in Caribbean nations like Haiti, where incremental progress toward acceptance is seen as a major step in the face of deep-rooted cultural opposition to gays.

Val and other activists have been pushing for great­er equality and access to education and have been welcomed into some broader civil-society initiatives, in­cluding events supported by Haiti’s first lady.

They also realize it’s an uphill fight in a country with a strong anti-gay stigma — contributing to an HIV prevalence rate among gay men that’s nine times higher than for the adult population as a whole.

The SEROvie Foundation, an organization providing free HIV treatment and prevention services for LGBT Haitians, said many gay and bisexual men avoid seeking care because they fear mistreatment or disclosure of personal details. As a precaution against harassment, there’s no exterior sign identifying the foundation’s main clinic in Port-au-Prince.

The complex includes an emergency shelter in the rear courtyard where victims of anti-gay violence and harassment can stay for up to two weeks. It was busy last year, staffers said, when debate in the Senate over anti-gay laws triggered a spate of attacks.

Anti-gay bias is prevalent even among health care pro­viders, said Pape, who re­counted how one of his senior staff members complained about the flamboyant appearance of some gay men.

“I told him, ‘They can look the way they want. Our job is to provide care,'” Pape said.

“More and more young people … are getting engaged in our fight,” said Charlot Jeudy, president of Kouraj, Haiti’s leading LGBT-rights group.

Last year, Haiti’s Senate passed two bills targeting LGBT Haitians. One would formalize a ban on same-sex marriage and prohibit public demonstrations in favor of LGBT rights. The other would include gays among categories of people who could be denied a “certificate of good standing” — a document re­quired as part of many job app­lications.

Kouraj and other advocacy groups, as well as some foreign diplomats and international organizations, voiced opposition to both bills, which have not advanced in Parliament’s lower house.

Jeudy attributes much of the anti-LGBT animosity to the influence of Haiti’s Cath­olic and Protestant church­es.

Yaisah Val’s husband, Richecarde, experienced religious disapproval firsthand. When he told his father, a Protestant pastor, that he planned to marry a transgender woman, his father replied, “You know that’s the devil.”

Richecarde subsequently left the church, is estranged from his father and devotes himself to the cause of transgender rights.

Yaisah and Richecarde, are now seeking to raise funds to open a first-of-its-kind shelter for transgender Haitians that would help them pursue an education and get appropriate health care.

“Most people want to be activists behind the scenes,” Yaisah said. “If you really want to make change, you need to be out and about in public.