GLBT and Vodou

I have a couple of books in front of me. The first is Shannon Turlington's Complete Idiot's Guide to Voodoo, and the other is Randy P. Conner's Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas.

In Turlington's book, there's a passage about GLBT people in Vodou:

Homosexuality still carries stigma in Haiti. Haitians tend to look at homosexuals as objects of amusement, as if homosexuals have had "practical jokes" played on them. Despite this attitude, homosexuals are not prevented from participating in Vodou or from becoming initiated. Homosexuals can even become oungans and mambos and lead their own temples.

In fact, Vodou represents almost the only form of spiritual expression that openly homosexual Haitians can practice since they are not welcome in the Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches. For that reason, there is a higher percentage of homosexuals at Vodou ceremonies and in the priesthood than in the general population. Some ounfos in Port-au-Prince are composed entirely of gay men or women.

This is the kind of straight-forward, fact-based description that appears in a lot Vodou web sites. For example, my spiritual brother, Houngan Hector says much the same thing:

Often, I am asked how homosexuals are treated within the Vodou tradition, unlike other Afro-Carribean traditions, Vodou does not make an issue about homosexuality. Homosexuals are not treated any different during Vodou ceremonies, and are not excluded from becoming Houngans and Mambos Asogwe. All ranks are open to homosexuals and all ceremonies are open to homosexuals, as long as one has the rank.

There are all gay and lesbian peristyles in Haiti, where being homosexual is a must to become a member. There are also crossdressers that participate in Vodou ceremonies.

And here's a blurb from the VodouSpirit FAQ:

Gay men and women can and do serve in the Vodou religion in all capacities at all grades and ranks. There is absolutely no taboo against this of any kind! There are even whole hounfò (temples) in Haiti run and supported by Gay men &/or women. As a cultural issue in Haiti, homosexuality is given little attention. As far as the Vodou religion itself is concerned, it is a non-issue all together.

To her credit, I believe the first person to really post web pages about perceptions of GLBT people in Vodou is Mambo Racine. Other practitioners who have posted web sites have pretty much followed her lead, repeating the same basic points and adopting much the same tone.

But these descriptions of GLBT people in Vodou seem, to me, to be a bit... empty of something. I just don't feel persuaded that these summaries of GLBT experience in Vodou really capture all that could be said on the topic.

Fortunately, Randy Conner has a great deal more to say on the topic. And one important thing that he writes is this:

It has been thrilling to encounter so many respected spiritual leaders who embody sexual and/or gender complexity -- especially when, despite advances, many Christian, Jewish, and other spiritual traditions (not to mention Islamic traditions which are presently much more prevalent in West Africa and elsewhere among person of African heritage than are indiginous African and African-diasporic traditions) continue to prohibit women and queer persons from becoming spiritual leaders. Unfortunately, as I have observed previously, although many practitioners and spiritual households acknowledge, accept, respect, and follow queer members, a significant amount of homophobia and -- perhaps especially -- transgender-phobia remains within these spiritual communities. [Conner 2004:310] (emphasis added)

At this point, I want to make clear a few things. The first and most important thing to state is that I'm not completely able to talk about this topic completely in the abstract. I'm pretty out as a transwoman, and I am a Vodou practitioner. As a result, this topic is very much a part of my life, and I feel irresistably moved to talk about it more in-depth than some others might.

When I write, I tend to try to draw from many sources. I quotes articles and books that express, in terms I enjoy, certain points that need be made. That can come across as very academic or distant. But it's not academic or distant for me. For me, this topic is very near, and it is very personal.

I've been writing about my trans-ness on the web since 1996. As I write these words, now, that's ten years. I certainly wasn't the first to venture into that territory. A couple of years ago, I was on a panel at a conference talking about the representation of trans people in science fiction. I, and three other trans people concluded that there really was a paucity of trans characters in science fiction. We all wanted some really clueful writer to do a remarkable job of portraying people like us.

And, in many ways, that's what I'm looking for on the various Vodou websites that I visit. I'm looking for a really good, in-depth analysis of queer (and especially trans) experiences in Vodou, done by someone who really gets it. Done by someone who can claim authority. And I am a little frustrated that it doesn't exist.

A friend of mine made the point, back at that conference I was talking about, that 30 years earlier, women were getting together on panels in conferences to lament the absence of good representations of women in science fiction. And the conclusion that they made was that they had to go out and write those things. They could not expect "someone, out there" to do the work and do it right. They had to take the job on themselves.

That wisdom stands out in my mind, right now, with a meaningful clarity.

I am not ashamed to admit the limits of my qualifications, here. I feel quite qualified to talk about trans issues, but as for Vodou, well, I have to acknowledge my limited experience. I've only been studying Vodou for about six years. An initiate only for four. There is so much that I still have to experience. And I am very aware of some of the cultural appropriation issues that emerge when white, Westernized people try to set themselves up as authorities of Haitian religion.

But, for me, the journey to the core of Vodou is about learning respect and empowerment. So I choose to feel empowered to speak, in my own voice, about GLBT issues in Vodou. I have a lifetime of experience with being queer, and a few years of experience with Vodou. I think that my words on this topic can stand on par with, say, other Westerners who have 15 years experience with Vodou and no experience with queer issues.

I said, earlier, that I had more than one point that I wanted to be upfront about. Here's the other major point: I chose to leave the Sosyete in which I was initiated because of the kind of transphobia that Conner talks about. I'm not the only person who has left that particular Sosyete. In fact, we are large in number. I am still in touch with many of those siblings, and I respect and admire them.

The decision to leave one's spiritual family is not an easy decision to make. It is difficult and painful. And some of the people who have chosen to leave have created a network of websites, and mailing lists that are very angry and which attack the Sosyete. This kind of bitterness can seem like sour grapes or something. For my part, I don't think it is just sour grapes. I think that they have legitimate concerns.

But as I said: Vodou teaches respect. What's more, as part of my initiation process, I took oaths not to disrespect my house or the people in it. I take those oaths very seriously. There are many things that I have often wanted to say -- things that I feel should be said because I believe in speaking truth to power -- but could not find the words to say within the bounds of respect.

I am committed to my oaths, and I choose to speak about my initiatory mother as respectfully as I can even though I do not feel particularly respected by her.


Se Lwa K Fè M Sa


My initiatory mother holds some beliefs about the nature of trans-ness that, while not uncommon, are, I believe, small-minded. She has been known to say, among other things, that trans women are not women because at the end of the day their genes still identify them as genetically XY, and therefore they are men.

She has also been known to say that because trans women are genetically XY, any surgical procedures such as, for example, sex reassignment surgery, are wrong-minded. The analogy she frequently uses is that it's akin to planting a radio receiver into the head of someone who hears voices.

I have to confess that I find her position on this unfortunate, and in some ways rather revealing.

To some extent, I understand how her outlook developed. My initiatory mother studied biology and genetics in university before moving to Haiti. When one devotes a considerable amount of one's life to the study of a discipline, it's not hart to understand that that discipline can become the filter through which you see the world. It's like the proverbial hammer that serves to make everything look like a nail. There's a quotation that I'm fond of:

We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are.

-- Anais Nin

And, in my view, it's just that simple. My initiatory mother cannot help but see the world through a filter of genes. Genes are, in her mind, more significant than so many other things.

Here's the thing, though. I actually think that Vodou has some elements that help a practitioner to understand trans experience. Consider possession, for example. Métraux, in Voodoo in Haiti, says:

We shall deal first with the phenomenon of possession, or trance, which has a fundamental role in the framework of Voodoo.

The explanation of mystic trance given by disciples of Voodoo is simple: a loa moves into the head of an individual having first driven out 'the good big angel' (gros bon anje) -- one of the two souls that everyone carries in himself. This eviction of the soul is responsible for tremblings and convulsions which characterize the opening stages of trance. Once the good angel has gone the person possessed experiences a feeling of total emptiness as though he were fainting. His head whirls, the calves of his legs tremble; he now becomes not only the vessel but also the instrument of the [loa]. From now on, it is the [loa]'s personality and not his own which is expressed in his bearing and words. The play of his features, his gestures and even the tone of his voice all reflect the temperament and character of the [loa] who has descended upon him. [p.120]

What does this have to do with being trans? At face value, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with trans-ness. But I am irresistably moved to ask this question: when a practitioner is possessed by the lwa, how does the practitioner's genes change?

I think it pretty obvious that the genes probably don't change at all. Or maybe there's some little, subtle change that we don't yet know how to perceive. But I doubt it. I suspect that possession takes place entirely in some sphere of spiritual consciousness.

Speaking only for myself, if I were confronted by someone who said "look, your genes remain the same during possession and therefore, possession is fake!" I would feel compelled to shrug my shoulders and say, "well, you just don't understand Vodou, then, do you?" What's more, I'd probably find myself a little bit judgemental about somebody who felt that genes eclipse so much else about people's lives.

My view has always been this: my genes mean a whole lot less in my life than what I feel and who I am. In Vodou, the physical body is a real part of us, but Vodou also clearly understands that there's a notion of identity -- a sense of self -- that defines who we are. It is this identity that gets displaced during possession. But to really understand that it gets displaced during the possession process, you must recognize that it exists, and that it really does define who we are. Because suddenly, in a very real way, the "who we are" can be replaced, and a more powerful "who" can take over our bodies. This is one of the most important concepts in Vodou.

When a practitioner is possessed by, say, Papa Gede, we say that the person who is before you is Gede. Not the practitioner. Not Gede-in-the-body-of-a-certain-practitioner. The person in ceremony is Gede. Karen McCarthy Brown describes one such encounter with a Gede:

Gede drew himself up, erect and proud, pulled down his black top hat with both hands, and stuck out his lower lip in an exaggerated pout. [...]

Halfway out the door, Gede wheeled around and planted his walking stick firmly on the floor. Spreading his legs to make the other two points of a tripod, Gede began to roll his hips in the lascivious dance step Haitians call the gouyad. [Brown 91:pp.356-357]

In this particular encounter, the Gede was possessing Mambo Alourdes (a.k.a. Mama Lola), the Vodou priestess that was the focus of Brown's book. And yet, notice the pronouns that Brown uses. Alourdes' Gede is a 'he', regardless of what genes Mambo Alourdes possesses. It's also interesting that Gede has gender; he brings his gender with him when he possesses Alourdes, even though he is a disembodied spirit and has no genes of his own.

If a disembodied sprit can have a gendered sense of self, is it really that inconceivable that a trans person's gendered sense of self might be real?

I recognize that to make my point I have been forced, somewhat, to describe Vodou practice in somewhat westernized, theoretical ways. By drawing attention to the concepts, I am trying to explain why I feel that the trans notion of identity is compatible with the Vodou notion of identity.

What's more, Vodouwizan are quite comfortable with recognizing that the identity that resides in the spirit is more important than the body that is before them. And as a result, it surprises me that my initiatory mother, knowing all that she knows about spirits and bodies, doesn't see that. For her, genes still seem to take precedence.

And it's at this point that I am tempted to make an observation. I am tempted, but I will choose not to. Because what I want to say -- the conclusion that sits inescapably in front of me, not just because of her attitude toward trans people, but because of all that I have seen and observed in my initiatory mother -- cannot be said within the bounds of respect.



Copyright © 2006 by B.C. Holmes.  Last updated April 21st, 2006.

Back to the essays page.