Let's Not Forget About LGBT Haitians

Sunday’s New York Times editorial on Haiti’s refugee camps, rightly focuses on one of the most critical issues facing the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still living in Haiti’s decrepit tent settlements: rape. The editorial encourages policymakers to do something about the terrible conditions—a lack of streetlights and not enough police protection—that lead to relentless rapes of women; women who can’t even go to the bathroom at night without real fears of brutal violence.

One thing the editorial doesn’t address is the impact the earthquake has had on other marginalized groups—including the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

LGBT people were among the most vulnerable people even before the disaster. Gay, lesbian and transgender Haitians have long lived in secrecy and in the constant shadow of violence. But now that so many live in tents, without protective walls sheltering them from assault, LGBT people are more vulnerable than ever, have been refused food aid, and face a hailstorm of abuse. If Haitian women are struggling to find advocates in the international community, you can imagine that LGBT people have even fewer.

Last week at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in Washington, 15 Haitian grassroots organizations were, for the first time, given a platform to advocate for greater inclusion in the reconstruction process. (AJWS helped organize the event.)

One of AJWS’s grantees that spoke at the hearing last week was SEROvie—one of just a few Haitian organizations offering services to LGBT people. SEROvie suffered more than its share of losses in the earthquake—the deaths of 14 staff and the total destruction of its offices—yet the organization has somehow continued to do its work, offering services to LGBT Haitians and advocating for greater support from the international community.

In partnership with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), SEROvie recently published a paper about the impact of the earthquake on LGBTI communities.

The paper includes accounts of LGBT people being refused food aid and experiencing police brutality. Here’s one person’s chilling account from the day the earthquake hit:

When the January 2010 earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Paul Emil Ernst, Director of the AIDS service organization Action Civique Contre le VIH (ACCV), and other organization volunteers were planning a birthday party for Toni, a fellow staff member at the ACCV office on Castro Street in Port-au-Prince. As the walls of the office caved in around them, Ernst witnessed the horrific death of some of his closest friends. Moments later, as he struggled to extricate himself from the rubble with the help of office security personnel, he heard cheers coming from neighbors gathering outside: “Meci Jesus, prezidan an pedo ki mouri.” (“Thank you Jesus, the president of the pedophiles is dead.”) and “Mo an masisi!” (“Death to the masisi [gay man]!”).

Despite serious injuries, Ernst and the other survivors quickly fled, fearing for their lives. They were forced to leave behind the bodies of three friends who died in the collapse—Toni, Jerri, and Doudou. For several days, their bodies remained unclaimed; their families so utterly rejected them for being openly gay.

In the weeks following the earthquake, many MSM [men who have sex with men] heard sermons on the radio and in churches, as well as talk in the streets that blamed the masisi and other “sinners” for incurring the wrath of God and causing the earthquake. One gay man named Micke reported to IGLHRC and SEROvie that an MSM friend was beaten by an angry crowd whose members verbally abused him and accused him of being responsible for the earthquake.

This is the kind of hatred that perpetuates violence—whether it’s against women or LGBT people or other minorities around the world. Media attention can’t solve this problem, but it can certainly call attention to it.