Masisi means “faggot” in Haitian Creole.
But the founders of the Caribbean nation’s first openly political gay rights organization, Kouraj, are reclaiming it and using it with abandon in naming and speaking about themselves and their community.
It is the central word in the mission they have set out for themselves: The Masisi Manifesto.
The first couple of lines of the manifesto read, “We were born masisi. We will always be masisi.” It ends by evoking the slave-led revolution, more than 200 years ago, that culminated in Haiti declaring itself a free republic, the first independent nation in Latin America, under rebellion leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
“Yesterday we were Black, today we are Masisi, tomorrow we will be Human Beings,” the statement concludes.
For the president of Kouraj, Jeudy Charlot, the organization’s creation is revolutionary in itself and already a victory. “To be homosexual in Haiti requires courage,” Charlot told Xtra via email (through translator Don Wilson). “The biggest obstacle for homosexual people is that they are not accepted, and they cannot accept themselves,” he says. Kouraj, which means courage, represents an awakening of sorts, he adds. “It represents a sign that some homosexuals have become engaged, have reacted, have acted,” he says on the group’s website. “We do not yet have numbers, but this will change. Kouraj is the spark, the possibility that there is an alternative to enduring suffering; it is the means that we masisi have chosen to finally change Haiti.”
While Haiti does not criminalize homosexuality, there are no laws specifically guaranteeing the country’s masisi protection from discrimination. Charlot says there is talk about anti-discrimination legislation, but it remains at the level of lip service — for now.
“Whatever you do is in secret,” Charlot says, noting it was a long struggle to have his own family accept him. “I do not want to leave this country because I do not want youth who are born homosexual or transgender to have a more difficult life than others solely due to something they did not choose,” he states on the Kouraj website.
“Gays and lesbians always hope to go live in another country if their families become aware of their situation. Families can reject them, and here in our poor country, there is not enough work,” Charlot points out. “This is what creates the dependence on the part of gay and lesbians.”
It also doesn’t help that the churches are “always reminding us what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah in their sermons,” Charlot says. “They advise Christians to avoid sitting with us because we are Satan’s representatives. These are the churches that often have missionaries from the United States that say they are bringing ‘Good News,'” Charlot observes. “They have this whole discourse on hell for us because we don’t accept that it is God who can save us.” Following the devastating January 2010 earthquake, Haiti’s masisi were accused of causing the disaster, “divine punishment for their mortal sins,” the Kouraj website notes.
The presence of human rights organizations is not a source of relief either, he adds, because they do not speak up on behalf of gay Haitians. “They do not provide any intervention on the rights of the LGBT community. Those organizations are hypocritical, which is why we created Kouraj.”
The police are dismissive in the face of reports about homophobic harassment or violence. “Bringing a complaint to the police will result in them saying they do not deal with such cases, or they may simply ignore you,” he says.
Charlot says Kouraj’s immediate work is focused in part on an information campaign aimed at finding out whether gays and lesbians understand what homophobia is, how it manifests and its consequences for gay Haitians. “We are travelling around the larger cities in the country so that we can recruit representatives for Kouraj in these cities to understand the degree of homophobia,” Charlot elaborates. “We need political and financial assistance because we need to move around when we are pleading a case, when we need to help another gay person who is victimized by violence.”
The group is also working on a book of testimonials that will feature the experiences of gay Haitians to create more societal awareness about the systemic discrimination they face. Charlot is hoping that the book, whose estimated publication price tag is $10,000 (US), will be ready in time for Livres en Folie, a large cultural event held in June.
Also high on the organization’s priority list is funding to establish a headquarters. Kouraj’s membership now gathers on the down-low in people’s homes for meetings and parties. One friend’s home, often used as a congregation spot, is referred to as a house of sodomy by his neighbours.
“We cannot just meet anywhere due to the possibility of violence against us,” Charlot says. “We need to have a space of our own.”