Transgender Day of Visibility

•March 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

(This blog has been quiet because I have been posting a lot over on my Tumblr. I will be rectifying this going forward.)

Today is the Transgender Day of Visibility, so here I am continuing to be trans. I have mixed feelings about days like this, but I also feel it’s important as a transgender priest in a minority religion to be open and upfront. As far as anyone can tell or knows, I am one of two transgender priests in Haitian vodou, period, and, again as far as anyone can tell or knows, the only trans man. There are some classifications in Haiti that denote gender expression as it is tied to sexuality, but as for transgender people…it seems like, right now, me and this other person are it.

There is a lot of talk about LGBTQ+ and, as of late, trans people specifically being involved in Diasporic or African continental religions. The hard fact is that temples and gathering places in these religions have always been a home for the folks who the majority society rejects. Peristyles in Haiti are full of folks who would be considered part of the LGBTQ+ community in other places (sexuality is different and complex in Haiti, and people consider things in ways that we often do not in the US and other US-like countries). Largely, sexuality and gender are non-issues in vodou–there are almost zero proscriptions around gender in vodou, and what are often conceived of as gendered proscriptions are really practicalities, ritual and otherwise, that reflect the groups of people most often affected by them.

If specific houses or lineages impose rules regarding gender/gender expression, that is entirely an individual determination–there is no liturgical basis to support those attitudes.

Specifically, there is no difference between houngans and manbos beyond the title. We all kanzo the same way, we all have the same ritual licenses, and we all do the same work. My bodily configuration and my gender has no bearing on what I am able to do as a priest. Further, despite unpleasant rumblings in some pockets of the larger community in Diaspora, I do not need to be re-baptized or re-made when I complete what my medical transition will be. A competent and knowledgeable priest knows this, and anyone who has been in the djevo of a competent and knowledgeable priest knows why.

Even bigger than all of that is the fact that the spirits don’t care about your gender and/or bodily configuration. They are spirits. They don’t have bodies. They are concerned with who we are, which can concern our bodies but does not rely solely on them. They care that our bodies work the best that they are able to, and that, if we are used as a chwal/horse for them to mount in possession, that we can physically do what they need. Spirits of whatever gender use whatever chwal makes sense to them, regardless of that chwal’s gender–I have seen feminine spirits mount men (of all sorts) and gender-nonconforming people, I have seen masculine spirits mount women (of all sorts) and gender non-conforming people, and I have watched spirits grab the head of whomever will be the best fit for them (really, the secret to possession in vodou right there..) and get to work.

It’s true that the concept of transgender and transsexual is very new for Haiti–it doesn’t really exist there, even though people keep confusing sexuality terms for terms denoting gender difference, and there is not (yet) a social ‘bucket’ for it. There is also no medical treatment available. As when anyone learns something that is literally completely foreign to them, there are growing pains but, at the end of the day, folks shrug it off and get to work. I had zero problems in Haiti with being trans–I expected to be read as female, which happened and I was fine with that since it was not meant as an insult (see above about people learning new things), folks had to get used to someone with what they saw as a female body wearing pants during ceremony, and there was a brief collective pause when I was baptized as a houngan, but the end result overall was a shrug and moving on. My mother had zero issues with my gender and how I was to be made, so no one else had any issues with my gender and how I was to be made.

So, if you are a trans person or a person who is gender non-conforming or otherwise does not fit in a neat gender box and you are interested in vodou, the religion welcomes you as you are. Vodou embraces us as whole people and gives us space to exist without insistence we be one thing or another at any given time. There is a beacon up here in Boston (where our US temple is) and it shines bright.

Come out, come out wherever you are…

Novena for the All Soul’s Day octave

•November 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day are important days in Haitian vodou–in Haiti, this is the beginning of fet Gede, the series of ceremonies for the Gede family of spirits. In our temple in Haiti, it is a two-day celebration. In the surrounding town and in much of Haiti, it is several weeks of processions and parades.

A novena is a 9 day prayer cycle utilized in Catholicism as devotion to particular saints or causes. Novenas are very important in vodou to gain attention and favor from a spirits, and I decided I wanted do a novena for the dead because of how much Gede has done for me–Gede loves me A LOT and is very responsible for me getting to Haiti and getting into the djevo. There are pre-written novenas for the octave/All Soul’s Day plus eight days, but I didn’t like any of them, so I wrote my own. The prayers used are prayers commonly used in vodou, and there are pieces I wrote specifically (so please don’t strip my attribution). I tweak a few traditional things for my own preferences.

Our Father

Hail Mary x3

Glory Be

Oh My Jesus

Zo li mache (specific song/prayer that talks about the bones walking)

Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1-9

Recitation:

We all die. Our deaths begin as the first gasp of breath in our newly born lungs.

We all die. When our feet first touch the ground in uncertain steps, the earth calls to our bones; foretelling the day we return to dust.

We all die. The shroud is tied tightly, our bones are dry and thirsty, but we still live yet.

We all die.

Day 1: Prayers for the newly dead*

Day 2: Prayers for the unnamed dead

Day 3: Prayers for the forgotten dead

Day 4: Prayers for the martyred dead–victims of colonialism (Native and Indigenous groups who lost life and land at the hands of colonialists)

Day 5: Prayers for the martyred dead–victims of police and state-sanctioned violence–people of color murdered by police and militarized law enforcement

Day 6: Prayers for the martyred dead–victims of hate crimes associated with gender or sexuality (LGBTQ+ victims of violent crime)

Day 7: Prayers for ancestral dead

Day 8: Prayers for lineage dead

Day 9: Prayers to the Bawons and Gede for care of the dead anba dlo and for personal concerns and gratitude (I suggest praying to the divinities who govern the dead in your own tradition–don’t open a can of worms for yourself without longer term planning and thinking.

Eternal rest grant unto them, oh lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of the divine rise in power.

Amen

*Pray as you feel led, and speak specific names if you have them or so desire.

Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part Two

•October 1, 2016 • 1 Comment

Read part one here.

Kanzo is kind of like being boiled alive. Bat Gé is where you get thrown in the pot and, over three nights, the temperature of the water begins to heat up to a full rolling boil. By the time you get thrown into the djevo, the ‘pot’ is boiling so hard that it is shaking and bouncing and spitting water all over.

On the second night of Bat Gé, bubbles have formed in the pot and steam is coming off the water. It’s getting hot, and the ceremony reflects that. The air is heavy, hot, and wet with kiman and perfumes, there is not one second of silence or stillness, and the lwa come in the heads of their children with an almost unstoppable frenzy.

I am pretty hard to shake or impress these days–I have Seen Some Shit™ and am sort of used to the spiritual rollercoaster of divinities showing up, grabbing me by the proverbial ankles, and shaking me upside down. I, however, have never seen stuff like I saw in Haiti starting that night. It’s hard to explain, really, but vodou is different in Haiti. There is something about having your feet in the dirt–literally, temples do not have finished floors–that changes things. It’s not that vodou is somehow less real or authentic in a Haitian house in the US–it shouldn’t be–but the immense weight of being on the ground that was bloodsoaked and left smoking in the wake of the Haitian revolution and where ancestral spirits live in EVERYTHING makes things blow open in a whole other way.

The first lwa that came on the second night of Bat Gé was a lwa I had never heard of or seen in the US–a theme for much of my kanzo and practice going forward–and he came hard in a petite Haitian man. A priest told me, in our charades-like communication, that he was a very strong lwa. I watched him dance and noted how happy he was–big smiles for everyone, and it was clear that there was some sort of relief and release of tension in being able to be embodied. Eventually he asked for some cologne and the next thing I knew, he had dumped about half a bottle of Florida Water on his chwal’s/horse’s head…and lit the chwal’s head on fire. He danced for a minute with his head on fire and then he was gone, the fire extinguished, and the chwal perfectly fine beyond a slight smell of singed hair.

After he left, another lwa came who I had never heard of before and took the head of a tall, lanky Haitian man who danced like nothing I had ever seen before and then left. After he was there, they started coming faster and faster and people were falling out all over the place. It was surreal to watch–I was constantly jumping out of the way of a flailing lwa or a chwal who had been thrown to the ground and was rolling out of control until they could be corralled by a priest. Being on the ground in Haiti takes away any extra spiritual red tape the lwa have to contend with to be present, and especially for ceremonies with Bat Gé.

At some point, we sang for another lwa I didn’t recognize and he was almost immediately there, in the principal drummer. I found out later that he always possesses a drummer as a precursor to another lwa arriving, and a possessed drummer is something else. I watched Towo drum so hard that, if it had been his chwal drumming instead, he would have had broken hands–he beat the drum so hard that I thought his hands were going to be ripped off. He went faster and faster with only the whites of his chwal’s eyes showing and eventually asked for cigarettes–some lwa like to smoke. Someone put two cigarettes between his lips and he puffed on those for a moment while drumming like a madman. Then, as me and my sister watched over the absolute crowd of folks in front of the drum platform, he opened his mouth, rolled those lit cigarettes back onto his tongue, chewed them up, and swallowed them. I have seen lwa smoke cigarettes and cigars backward with the lit in end in their mouth, but I’ve never seen one eat them lit before. Another ‘only in Haiti’ moment. The chwal, of course, was fine.

Continue reading ‘Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part Two’

Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part One

•September 25, 2016 • 1 Comment

I landed in Haiti in the middle of a giant what-fuck-whirlwind. I got on the plane–when I got on the plane, after spending 24 hours in an airport–knowing that I would be returning homeless and jobless, and my only possessions being a few boxes in storage and whatever made it into my suitcases. And my spirits; I landed in Haiti with my only assets being my spirits, both in vodou and out.

While in the middle of my airport adventure, I chatted with my almost-official brothers and sisters. Mostly, I was completely losing my shit over everything, and rightfully so. Ogou lit the match, and I lit the fire to burn my life down so that I could follow him all the way into the djevo. One of my sisters said the most insightful thing–that my kanzo had already begun, and she was right. It had started months earlier, actually, when the lwa made it clear that I had to dismantle my life if I wanted to get to Haiti. Kanzo, in many ways, is a trial by fire and my feet were already getting hot months earlier.

The preparations for kanzo begin months ahead of time, too. I remember sitting with my Manmi is mid-April and having her explain part of how kanzo proceeds. Preparations in Haiti had already begun, with materials being collected, prayed over and worked, and carefully guarded. In fact, preparations has begun late since it had been raining so much–leaves and plants can’t be put up wet. The temple was being staffed 24/7 with children of my Manmi and trusted friends of the house to make sure everything stayed safe and ritually clean.

Kanzo is a dangerous time for those who are going into the djevo. There are many things that can harm the process, the materials, and those initiates. It’s a huge vulnerability, and extreme measures are taken to protect those about to go in. Before I went in, I was locked into the house at night, my food was carefully monitored, and people had eyes on me basically at all times. I found out later that priests had basically volunteered to keep me safe, since I was an outsider and didn’t know how to see all the things that could happen.

Part of keeping the initiates safe and making sure kanzo goes as smoothly as possible is literally going to war to protect the house and the to-be priests and hounsi.

To do that, the kanzo cycle proper begins with Bat Gé. Bat Gé literally translates to ‘beat war’ and it’s a three night ceremony of progressive spiritual heat, which leads to actual heat. As the ceremony progresses, it heats the temple (literal heat) and the coming process (spiritual heat). It’s a very Petwo ceremony, calling down the lwa that range from intense spirits who speak with their hands and leave you wondering if they’re angry to lwa that come down screaming, howling, charging, and putting the bodies of their horses into situations that would harm any regular person.

(Picture heavy after the jump)

Continue reading ‘Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part One’

225+10

•August 24, 2016 • 3 Comments

August 14th was the 225th anniversary of Bwa Kayiman, the initial meeting and ceremony among enslaved African that began the Haitian Revolution and ultimately created the first Black republic and Black ruled country in the world. It’s still on the books as the single largest and most successful slave revolt ever undertaken. In addition, Bwa Kayiman is an actual place you can visit in Haiti—it’s in the north, about an hour and a half south of Labadie. I haven’t been there (yet) but I imagine I’ll get there some day, as it’s a pretty big pilgrimage site.

Bwa Kayiman is really important, for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the most obvious.

BwaKayimanAndreNormil

Andre Normil

1. It was the powder keg moment that began the TWELVE YEAR Haitian revolution. The story goes that, at the time, there were roughly 50,000 whites on the island as a whole (it was not yet divided, really, into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and close to 500,000 enslaved Africans. History says that there were French who saw it coming, but colonialism is colonialism and no one wanted to touch the idea that enslaving people was a bad fucking practice that should be undone. Profits would be lost, territory surrendered, and the world could potentially end. So, no one in power did anything.

The enslaved Africans, though, had well and truly Had Enough, and probably for quite awhile. Word was put out that there was to be a gathering in the north to plan a revolt, and people showed up. Popular history said that it was led by Dutty Boukman and Cécile Fatiman, named as the houngan and manbo respectively that led the ceremony, but I think that’s misleading and I’ll tell you why in a minute. Regardless of who ran stuff, it happened. If the accounts recorded are correct, a Haitian pig was slaughtered and some lwa stepped forward for the first time—namely Ezili Danto (or, more accurately, Ezili Je Wouj/Ezili Red Eyes, Danto’s furious and bloody sister) and many of the Ogou only known in the New World. They extracted promises from the enslaved Africans present, and in return promised aid and strength for the fight to come.

The enslaved Africans said yes, the lwa said yes, and by morning the north of Haiti had started to burn. In about a week, the entire northern coast and upper third of the island was controlled. Within a year, half the island belonged to the Africans who said ‘no more’. This lasted for twelve years. A TWELVE YEAR revolution where enslaved Africans never gave up and never backed down. I don’t know about you, but there are very few things in my life that have been unending and constant for twelve years. I don’t think I have ever done anything for twelve years.

History notes the eventual success, where the French were ejected and very few white folks allowed to remain on the island, and the first nation established as a result of a successful slave rebellion. This is still celebrated today on January 1, the official day when victory was declared, and Haitians and adherents of vodou mark it sometimes with ceremony, but almost always with soup joumou, a special food linked with celebration and victory.

Bois-Caiman_24-x-36_1250 Solange Jolicoeur

Solange Jolicoeur

2. It was the moment that solidified what vodou was and made it undeniably Haitian. This is where I think it is incorrect to label Boukman and Fatiman hougan and manbo in Haitian vodou. Prior to the revolution, there were a ton of different religious practices on the island based around where the enslaved Africans were from. There wasn’t, however, a uniform practice or a common religious ‘language’ spoken. Bwa Kayiman changed that and basically set down the roots for what vodou is today. When we talk about different nasyons/nations of lwa—Rada, Petwo, Kongo, Ibo, Djouba, Nago, Wangol, Makaya, and on—we are really talking about lwa who largely came from specific regions in Africa, or Haiti. What Bwa Kayiman did was bring all that together and find a common way to speak a ceremonial ‘language’ across individual groups, families, and lineages. If I go to another sosyete that uses the asson, I have a basic understanding of what will go on and how to participate as a priest there. Even though it is a separate lineage from asson, if I walk into a peristyle that is in the tchatcha lineage, I will even understand a little bit there, too, since we also use the tchatcha in asson houses. Basically, it pulled all of these spirits and practices together and made something that could be spoken anywhere. This didn’t happen over night, of course—it took time and practice—but it was the beginning.

Further, it rooted the spirits in Haiti and made them undeniably Haitian as well. A lot of the liturgy in vodou acknowledges that we have left Africa and can never go back. In vodou, Africa has become l’Afrique Ginen, a sort of paradise-like other place where the lwa reside. We long for l’Afrique Ginen, but we are where we are and so we do what we can here. That rooting in Haiti is what says Ogou is not the same as Ogun in Orisa worship. They have the same or similar roots, but Ogou is undeniably Haitian and is very much the screaming, howling, blood-drinking voice of the Haitian revolution. It is why Ogou Shango and Sango from Yorubaland are not the same. It’s why lwa are not interchangeable with Orisa—even though many Orisa reside in our Nago rite. It’s like a permanent cultural translation that changed the spirits in a particular way. In vodou today, you can see the African influence in a variety of places, but it has been translated through a Haitian lens.

Going even one step further down the line, Bwa Kayiman is what made the enslaved Africans Haitian. In the same way that Africa is spiritually out of reach, the enslaved Africans who became Haitian came to the realization that they would never be able to go back to Africa and that it was lost to them. The island now had to be home and so they had to be something different. As a non-Haitian, I think this is why Haitian cultural identity is so strong now—there is this deep investment in being who you are no matter where you are because Haiti is the roots that grow the tree. Even in the Diaspora, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Haitian self-identify themselves as Black—they are Haitian first and Black is a designation that the US government gives them.

Nicole-Jean-Louis-Bwa-Kayiman-Haiti-1791

Nicole Jean-Louis

3. As it solidified what vodou was and was to be, it instilled revolution as a core part of vodou. Vodou is a living history of Haiti—our liturgy speaks about what happened over and over, and it brings it to the present, where Haiti is still suffering at the hands of colonialism and Haitians in Diaspora must fight white supremacy and colorism at every turn. Revolution is the drum beat underneath everything—the lwa come down screaming and crying and fighting because their children still suffer and there is still so much to do to assure the future. Vodou is a continual process of seeking balance by upsetting the table that has been set for you, and this is the legacy of Bwa Kayiman and the Haitian revolution. We all have to survive somehow, and it’s bloody out there.

This is one reason why vodou is a hard and uncomfortable religion—the bar was set with enslaved people deciding that they were tired of being abused and exploited, and so they made war. That’s the expectation—we will go to war for what we need and what is important to us, and there will be pain and suffering and casualties along the way even with the assistance and protection of our lwa. Vodou is not for the comfortable or for those who are extensively privileged. It is a religion of self-empowerment—you must get up and fight, because revolution does not happen on the proverbial couch or come with a 401K and tax refunds. When you build a foundation on revolution, the fight is in every song, every dance, every prayer, and every offering.

Ernst-Prophete-Bois-Caiman1

Ernst Prophete

4. Bwa Kayiman made vodou an undeniably political religion. This has been on my mind a lot lately, especially with the latest vomit all over the blogosphere about politics and minority religions. It sounds like a joke sometimes when it is said, but vodou really is the original Black Lives Matter movement. It places high value on those who suffer at the hands of life circumstances because of who they are, and it provides the tools to aim towards a leveling of the field…if you put in the work.

This isn’t a unique characteristic of vodou—politics are present in all world religions, and all world religions have gone to war at some point, whether it’s to protect the faith, protect the people, or simply because the divinities are engaged in pissing matches with each other and someone gets stabbed—but what seems to be unique is the embracing of the political as a natural part of the practice. The lwa are unapologetically political in nature—they have strong and decisive feelings about the world at large and know how to move in it.

Having politics be entwined with religious practice is what seems to trip up outsiders who are interested in vodou. It surprised me a bit when I first showed up, but my religion has always been political—as someone who Western society continually tries to make illegal, I can’t afford not to have my religious practice support how I move in the world. What happens most often with outsiders coming in—and it is what is happening now as people try to build movements out of separate non-cohesive practices by applying cultural concepts to a non-existent worldview—is that there is this desire to put vodou/religion in a box and take it out when necessary. This is not how it works, nor is it maintainable. The essence of Bwa Kayiman as the spark of revolution is ‘if you’re in, you’re in. If you’re out, you’re all the way out’—vodou and religion in general are infections, in the best of ways. Vodou permeates everything, all the time. There is no halfway. You can’t keep vodou/religion in a box. To try and say that politics do not belong in religion is to deny the fights that the ancestors—blood or lineage—engaged in to keep the religion alive, to deny the autonomy of the spirits and divinities to have a deep investment in how the world works and how we move in it, and to engage in the Western privilege and long-standing modern church practice of keeping religion on a shelf and out of the world. It is the whitest of white people problems, and I just can’t understand it at all.

And, since vodou is a culturally based religion made up of primarily dark-skinned folks, you have to be good with all that entails. There is no room for your racism and unexamined white privilege. There is no room for your ethnocentrism and shock and/or revulsion when ways of living are very different than what you are used to. There is no room for your offense when people will not speak English for you, or when the color of your skin is a factor in how you are treated. If you can’t lift up the lives of those who suffer and get out of your own way to do so, your time in vodou will be very, very hard.

So, today—225 years and 10 days after Ogou and Ezili Je Wouj came down screaming and soaked the ground with blood—I think about the revolution and how Bwa Kayiman lives every day in those who serve the lwa. I think about how kanzo is an indelible tie to that blood-soaked ground. I think about stamping my feet on the ground that my spiritual ancestors set on fire, and I think about the ancestors who fought to oppress those they would keep subjugation. I think about the revolution that was my kanzo, and how Ogou lit everything on fire around me to allow a new life to take root. I think about how it’s not over for me and for all my Haitian brothers and sisters. I think about their every day fight in Haiti and in the US, and I think about how it will never be over for them or for me. Mostly, though, I think about how revolution is an act of love—for my lwa, for my brothers and sisters in the religion, and for me—and what it means to be loved in such a rooted, bloody way. I wish that it was easy to translate what that really means into words, but, like vodou, it is something that happens to and with you.

If you’re in, you’re in.

I Miss Haiti: A Tiny Photoset

•August 13, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I looked through the very few photos I took in Haiti (I was busy…) and suddenly realized how much I miss being there. I miss the people, the drums, the early mornings, and even the Haitian Parent Loudspeaker (ask me about the Haitian Parent Loudspeaker).

So, have a few photos:

1

I had started taking photos of some of the gorgeous new art in the new Petwo peristyle/temple, and some of the kids saw the camera. Haitian kids LOVE having their picture taken, love looking at the photos you take, and love telling you who to take photos of next. In this photo is Shu-Shu, the sassiest five year old ever, Tyema, the most grown ten year old ever, Kiki, my godmother’s son, and a sweet girl who loved having her picture taken but who was too shy to tell me her name.

2

Shu-Shu, sassiest five year old ever. She was the only kid brave/sassy enough to walk in the blan’s (post-kanzo) room and play, at first. We played catch with an empty water bottle until I was tired of being a jungle gym.

3

Pictures were also needed in front of every saint in each temple. In front of Gran Bwa, we have my tiny-but-exuberant entourage, plus Zing-Zing, cutest toddler ever (and she knew it).

4

Lakou Manbo Maude. Outside of the main compound, with a family crypt, some houses in the back, and just out of frame to the left, The Tree which is the seat of Manbo Maude’s ancestral spirits and Very Important. This picture was one pf few times I was allowed to set foot outside the main compound unaccompanied. Might have been the only time, actually.

Funny Thing.

•August 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

There has been this interesting phenomenon since I have gotten back from Haiti. To be truthful, there has been a LOT of interesting phenomenon, but this one makes me tilt my head and squint a little bit.

Apparently, me going into the djevo and coming out the other side means I am no longer a polytheist and have no connections to any other divinities and the other parts of my spiritual practice have been chucked in the garbage.

This is a huge assumption to make (and we know what we say about assumptions) and it’s a terribly incorrect one. My other spirits and my gods did not sign off and crawl into a hole, and I did not give them all the grand middle finger. Some of them showed up before kanzo to remind me of my obligations (looking at you, Kemetics) and some showed up for me while I was in the djevo, since I brought all my non-vodou spirits and gods with me as the whole human being that I am.

It’s true that things are quiet with many of my other divinities, but that is largely because I am spiritually quarantined right now and also because I just did a month of having me head spiritually blown open and I need a damn nap. The lwa do not give one damn that I have outside commitments, contracts, relationships, and responsibilities, provided I hold up my end of our bargain. They are endlessly pragmatic and modern, so I do not get shut in box and locked up.

I find it super interesting that it’s not vodouizan that are getting twisted over this, it’s pagans and polytheists. Largely, pagans and polytheists generally rip off a whole lot of shit from vodou and other Diasporic and Traditional religions, but fail to have any understanding of how it works out in the world. Your beliefs and divinities may be exclusive and vaguely monotheistic in bent, but mine are not (despite being a priest in a monotheistic religion). Because I do not buy in to the latest round of Polytheist Charades does not mean my core religious beliefs have changed.