“LGBT Activism in Haiti through SEROvie”
Steve Laguerre - Interview with with Angelique V. Nixon
Port Au Prince, Haiti - July 2011
I had the great opportunity to speak with Haitian activist Steve Laguerre about his work with the first community-based organization in Haiti – SEROvie – working with sexual minorities since 1999. We met up in Port-Au-Prince while I was there doing grassroots work for another project (Ayiti Resurrect). Steve made time to meet with me (amidst his very busy schedule) to talk about SEROvie and his perspectives on LGBT activism in Haiti before and after the earthquake. Our conversation was robust and lasted for well over the hour we had scheduled. We sat outside in a friend’s yard, and I recorded the interview. Sadly, the audio recording was not a great quality and there was way too much background noise, which has prevented us from publishing the audio.
I begin with a description of SEROvie from their facebook group page to offer an overview of SEROvie and their services in both English and French. The interview began with Steve sharing a shorter description, but for a more complete description I quote directly here:
What is SEROvie and what services does the organization provide?
Health and well-being / Santé et bien-être. SEROvie is the only community-based, locally grounded organization in Haiti working with sexual minorities. SEROvie est l'unique organisation en Haïti travaillant avec les minorités sexuelles.
Mission: Provide prevention and support services for sexual minorities (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and sex workers in the face of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. / Mettre sur pied un programme de prévention et d’encadrement pour les minorités sexuelles (personnes lesbiennes, gays, bisexuelles et transgenres (LGBT) et travailleurs(ses) du sexe) face à l’épidémie VIH/SIDA.
Description: The Foundation SEROvie is a Haitian community based organization working in the field of psychosocial support for MSM who infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. SEROvie provides HIV/AIDS prevention through peer educators and behavior change trainings; as well as vocational trainings for young Haitian sexual minorities. SEROvie is member of the network: The Haitian platform of the associations of people living with HIV (PLWH); which collaborates with several other similar structures in the Caribbean such as the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC).
La fondation SEROvie est un organisme communautaire haitien ouvrant dans l'encadrement psychosocial des HARSAHs infectes et affectes par le VIH et le SIDA, la formation pour le changement de comportement, la formation professionnelle des plus jeunes issus des minorites sexuelles haitienne. La fondation SEROvie est membre d'un reseau : la plate-forme Haitienne des associtions de PVVIH et de plusieurs autres structures de ce genre au niveau de la caraibe tel que CVC.
At present, SEROvie works in five (5) geographical regions in Haiti and reaches more 3500 beneficiaries. The services offered consist of:
1- Focus groups discussing the needs of beneficiaries.
2-Vocational trainings in cooking and pastry making, plumbing, small business sector (crafts), dance, office administration, computer graphics and driving.
3-Distribution of daily food rations among more than 150 MSM
4-Distribution of hygiene kits to more than 3000 MSM
5-Training in pre and post test counseling for HIV/AIDS
6-Distribution of condoms and lubricant in the MSM
7-Trainings for opinion leaders on the situation of the MSM
8- Radio show emissions on the situation of sexual minorities (LGBT) in Haiti.
9-Studies on sexual behavior of MSM
La fondation SEROvie intervient pour le present moment, dans cinq (5) depatements geographiques du pays et touche plus de trois mille cinq cents (3500) de beneficiares. Les Services offerts sont generalement:
1- la realisation de focus group sur les besoins des beneficiares.
2- La formation en cuisine patisserie, plomberie, artisanat, danse, Informatique bureautique, Infographie, conduite d'automobile.
3- Distribution de ration alimentaire seche a plus de 150 HARSAHs
4- Distribution de kits d'hygiene a plus de 3000 HARSAHs
5- Formation en counseiling lie au VIH/SIDA
6- Distribution de condom et de lubrifiant aux HARSAHs
7- Formation des leaders d'opinions sur la situation des HARSAHs.
8- Realisation d'emissions radiophoniques sur la situtaion des minorites sexuelles haitiennes.
9- Realisation d'etudes sur les comportements sexuels des HARSAHs.
After discussing the services that SEROvie provides for what Steve calls the beneficiaries, the “members” and “non-members”, of SEROvie (meaning anyone who participates in the programming and/or seeks out the services of SEROvie), we discussed their partners and working with government:
“We have lots of partners locally and internationally. We are supported by the Ministry of Health, by the Bureau of the First Lady. Politically, we are well situated let’s say, regarding legislation. While there is this silence about homosexuality in Haiti, there’s nothing that mentions it’s illegal. But there is a total lack of information about sexual rights in our laws. That’s why it’s been easy for us to intervene and do work in Haiti.”
Tell us a bit more about the history of this work.
“The first organization started in 1995, but it was focused on research and we changed the name to reflect what the community wanted – and this became SEROvie. It became a foundation way later for legal purposes. And we focused on providing services for the community around HIV/AIDS.”
Are there any services targeted for Lesbian, Bisexual and/or Transgender people, or do you mostly focus on HIV/AIDS?
“Our services are primary interventions for men who have sex with men. We have nine networks across Haiti. But last year, we started a new initiative to directly involve women. And about 17 women here in Port-Au-Prince came to us and wanted our support to create their own organization. We can now call ourselves a real LGBT organization. We also serve the trans community. There are not a lot, about four now who use our services. We do provide services with health and networks in the Dominican Republic for trans people. With the women’s organization, it’s very new and so I don’t have a lot of information, but we are working with them for development. And they are learning from us.”
“I’ve been on the ground since 1995 and we’ve made lots of mistakes so we are trying to provide these women with information on how to avoid situations that we had. Even though when we started we had a lot of support and were welcomed by the national structures and even covered by the national press, on the radio for a week. The animosity was not there, but the community was curious about our organization and wanted to know exactly what it was. But some thought we created this institution to convert young men, like it was a disease. But then after a while, people saw that it was not that but a learning institution, created to take care of gay men who were HIV positive. Now of course now we are doing much more -- we have a house, a transit house with a cyber café, bedrooms, offices, library, conference room. And we are even hosting meetings with the Ministry of Health. And they are calling on us for every aspect of LGBT – discussions and trainings. We are contacted all the time to run trainings and meetings overseas with government officials for knowledge about LGBT community. We have worked hard to gain that position in the country. And we keep on keeping. It’s difficult with the economic situation in Haiti, which does not allow the government or our beneficiaries to support us. So we are looking outside for help from America, Canada, Europe, France particularly, to see how we can survive. And hope one day we find more ways to sustain our institution. Basically now it’s funding from overseas that keeps us going.”
Tell us more about the challenges and also successes you have experienced as an organization.
“Our main challenge is the sustainability of our interventions. We created this big network and demand for our services within the country. We have these nine networks through organizations across the country, all connected through SEROvie. One of my worries is that one day one of our donors will not be able to continue to support us and this will affect our ability to continue the services across our networks. We are going through this now with one of our biggest donors – Global Fund. We are not sure if they will be able to fund us again this year. And this will definitely affect our ability to provide services. We are seriously looking for funds and hoping that the situation with Global Fund will resolve itself.”
What about some of the successes, things you‘ve been able to do for the community over the past 10 to 15 years?
“Yes 15 years now! I don’t have the numbers in my head. But we’ve sent more than 100 boys back to school taking care of their school fees with grants. We’ve sensitized over 20,000 persons (concerning LGBT issues). Like I said earlier, we are called by the Ministry of Health to provide technical assistance at the local level in different departments. With institutions coming to Haiti who are doing some work on LGBT issues, they contact SEROvie. The papers now are providing more information about LGBT issues and health for the LGBT community. We are also supporting the arts. Some of our beneficiaries are artists and we support them a lot by providing some grants. These are successes for us.”
“One thing we don’t do, something that’s a challenge, and maybe you have a suggestion - we don’t have any documentation of all this. We report all these things to our donors, but we don’t have a library of all of our successes. Some of our beneficiaries who are artists give us beautiful paintings, artwork and books, and its there as part of our institution. But we need some kind of way to build the memory of the institution. You know if I am gone tomorrow, so much of the knowledge would be gone.”
Actually the Caribbean IRN can help you with that! We are building a Digital Archive through Digital Library of the Caribbean. And we are working with other organizations across the Caribbean who do work on sexual minorities to digitize their materials. (We discussed more in detail about possibilities for the archive and how it would be good to preserve their materials. We are still in the progress of working this out, and we hope to present their collection soon.)
“And so for our successes, we have done well with addressing the needs of the community – working hard to provide services. It’s a fight but we are in it.”
Thank you for sharing this with us. As you know and we discussed over email, this interview will be included in our collection on Theorizing Homophobia(s) in the Caribbean. One of our goals is to represent the spectrum and diversity of the Caribbean and how homophobia works in different parts of the region. Can you tell us about homophobia in Haiti and how it works here? How are you able to talk about it and educate or sensitize the public?
“When I’m outside of Haiti, I see that Haiti is not really a homophobic country. There are some situations with bullying… But when you go deep down and look at the roots that caused a situation, there is always something personal story behind it, and nothing linked with the sexuality of the person. And you know there is religion, and it’s really the Catholic and the Protestant churches are the ones creating homophobic situations, compared to the Vodou religion where sexuality is completely different and understood as more fluid. You won’t find the stigma, this homophobic situation, in the Vodou religion. It’s in the Christian churches you see the description in the Bible being promoted as relationships must be between a man and a woman. It’s creating this entire chaotic situation we are in now.”
“Right after the earthquake, one of their comments (from the Christian churches) was that this happened to us because of the gay and lesbians in Haiti and that we weren’t praying enough and because of their sins. And the Vodou religion also shared blame for the earthquake. And part of our intervention also in the networks I mentioned is to also sensitize these religious leaders about LGBT issues. But we cannot arrive and start talking about LGBT issues before we start talking about HIV/AIDS issues, and then we switch to human rights issues before we arrive at LGBT issues. They are willing to listen, but they are not so willing to change their position because it’s written in the Bible. But our job is to keep on talking to them and informing them and inviting them to meetings, trainings, and gatherings so they know about our work on the island.”
There is similar work going on across the region. For example, CAISO in Trinidad is doing some really good work around promoting acceptance in public discourse and also in laws.
“And you know we’ve been focused on public health. It’s in two publics we are working with for the past six years – the religious sector and the public health sector. We provide stigma and discrimination trainings for health care workers. And within that training we have a module on sexualities and diversity. If I arrived and said we were having a LGBT session or information no one would come. So we have to have a bigger theme for us to be able to talk about these issues. We were also dealing with stigma against HIV/AIDS. This is how it was at first when we started the work, but now we have grown and can begin with talking about LGBT issues and concerns. We started with providing services to HIV-positive men, but only 20% of our beneficiaries are positive. And we grew to include more members of the community.”
And how do people identify?
“We have people who identify in all kinds of ways – men who have sex with men, transsexual, bisexual, gay men, lesbian, trans, questioning. But the majority of our beneficiaries are men, and now we do have the small group of women too.”
It’s good to know that the women are now organizing.
“Yes, people have asked me a lot where are the women! And some of the women will identify as feminists, lots are involved in the feminist movements and organizations, but don’t want to come out as lesbian. But we know they are lesbian.”
Do you think this is changing now with the new women’s organization?
“I don’t know. Lesbianism in Haiti is perceived differently. I’m not saying it’s well perceived… Keep in mind we are in this situation where men have the power. For many, they don’t understand why men would sex with each other or have a relationship. But with women who are with women, it’s okay, they are just playing. It seems like a pleasure for men to look at. And so they can stay more hidden than gay men.”
This is similar to other places where lesbians are not seen as a threat to masculinity unless some one is butch or gender non-conforming, then she may be a threat. We were just in Curacao and talked to Dudley at the Pink House and he said something similar about lesbians there. He said that they have an “easier time” than gay men because they are less visible. And two women can live together in ways that two men can’t.
“Yes it’s similar here with some men living together having to say they are cousins or some relation so no one wonders why they are living together. These boys are creating an environment that the community would like to see in order to stay in their neighborhood. At the end, people will know. But it’s just that no one talks about it.”
In the Bahamas, it’s similar too where there is a lot of silence and it’s a more of a problem if you are public or open about your sexuality.
“Yes, there are so many similarities across the Caribbean. And then in the British Caribbean there are the buggery laws – Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, Bahamas...”
Yes, although in the Bahamas we have essentially decriminalized homosexuality, but there is still social stigma. And so in Haiti, there are no laws against homosexuality right?
“That’s right. There is no law that mentions anything about sexuality. In our constitution, technically it says that everyone is created equal and that the state should provide services to make sure that all people are treated equally. And so we use that as part of our call to the state to provide more services for everyone.”
Do you find that in terms of class there are differences in how people deal with sexuality? Thinking about how people of different classes deal with homophobia especially?
“Oh yes, for each class, they have their own ways of dealing with being gay or lesbian or dealing with sexuality. Between the classes, there are differences in how people have relationships and how people treat each other. This of course comes from our history. But you know it’s really the rising middle class where there are more problems and stigma created around sexuality. The middle class who have joined the Christian churches and are concerned about their status and follow their religion very strongly. There is a lot of family pressure. This is where you see more problems. It’s not the poor and working class people who are overly concerned with sexuality. They are more concerned with figuring out how to live and eat everyday. The class dynamics are complex here in Haiti.”
Yes, they are particularly complex here – and certainly across the region too. But even more so here… Let’s go back to after the earthquake. I know that your organization lost a number of members. And that your community center was damaged as well. Please talk about this and how you all are.
“We lost 14 members. We lost the center. And we have to start all over. And one thing that has helped us is that our services were disbursed through our nine networks and our ways of intervening was not impacted that much. Yes our building and materials. It took us about a week and half to continue our services to our communities just a week after the earthquake. You know it was just the western part of the country affected by the earthquake, and so our networks across the country kept going. In each region, we have a zone manager and peer educators. And they were able to check in with our beneficiaries to see what they needed. We had the support of two organizations that responded quickly to our demands, and we focused on basic needs – food, water, toothbrushes, hygiene kits and so on. We heard from different organizations who wanted to help us and some didn’t come through, but some did. This was disappointing and some organizations and funders wouldn’t even talk to us. I wish they would have just called and said something.”
But you were able to find a new building for the community center?
“Yes four months later we found another building – not as big as the one we had before, but big enough to offer all of our services.”
A year and a half later, besides from looking for funding, what are some of other needs you have as an organization for the LGBT community?
“The way we responded through our networks was really quick. And we need to really continue this work and make sure we can train and prepare for emergencies. And some members of our community still need shelter, work, and food.”
Did you see that article by the United Nations Human Rights Commission that raised the concern about LGBT Haitians suffering more, not receiving relief aid or assistance?
“Yes this is true. Some of our beneficiaries talked about this – that you had to be a woman to get access to the food. So for gay men they didn’t get access to the food because they were men without women. And some of the men who went on the food lines, especially the ones who were more effeminate, were being bullied and ask to leave the line by other men who were standing and waiting for the women to get the food.”
That was such a messed up system – the assumptions being that every woman has a man and she is going to feed the man, that there aren’t single men, and that everyone is straight. The food aid distribution was another disaster.
“The food aid distribution was not done properly at all. And the fact that they didn’t take into consideration the local institutions that have been here forever. They didn’t contact the local institutions. And you have all these different people from all over the world trying to help and have their moment, but they have no local contacts or help, who could have managed it way better and made sure they everyone got food. They had these bizarre procedures by giving the food aid only to women was one of the difficult issues we dealt with. And so we started doing our own distribution to our beneficiaries and members of our community, but not only LGBT members but everyone! This was the most frustrating that they didn’t take into consideration at all the locals and local organization. We were just put aside. And now eight months later, these organizations are coming to us, the local organizations, for help.”
Exactly, now they have to come to you! Well Steve! It’s been a pleasure and an honor to meet with you and talk with you. Thank you so much for taking this time to talk to me and share so much with me. Mesi Anpil!