In Haiti, a Social Enterprise Launches to Support Grassroots LGBT Activism
Alongside the surge in international attention since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there has been a sustained criticism of the way outside interventions have operated in the most destitute country in the Western hemisphere. One start-up organization, KOURAJ, is trying to break from the pattern, pioneering an innovative approach to development that functions in a bottom-up, self-sustaining manner, through the creation of a social enterprise that will ultimately provide financial autonomy.
KOURAJ consists of a group of activists and leaders in Haiti’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community who are focused on empowering themselves by overturning common conceptions of LGBT people as marginalized, vulnerable, and infected persons. Their first project, for which they are currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, is a bar/cultural center that will be provide a space for Haitian artists to share their talents, while providing a space where Haitian ‘masisi,’ as LGBT are referred to, feel comfortable. Below, an American named Nick Stratton, who helped create KOURAJ, explains why the project is not only urgently needed in Haiti, but also an exciting model for grassroots, sustainable, community-based development.
Dowser: What led you to become involved in this work in Haiti?
Stratton: My work in Haiti began in Boston during college, where I was highly involved in the Haitian-American community, both on campus and in the city. Having spoken French fluently already, I started learning Haitian Creole before graduating in order to facilitate the move to Haiti. I finally made the move to Haiti with my partner of nearly two years, Vincent, who gave me the courage and support to live here. We did not come to Haiti to defend LGBT rights. Only after several months of getting to know the ‘masisi’ [LGBT] community in Haiti through simply hanging out with them did we realize the urgency and necessity of such a project. In that sense, friends got us involved in this work.
Why was it so urgent, at this moment in Haiti’s history? It’s a country with many problems; why focus on this one?
We realized Haiti was ready for this type of project when we went to the beach in Jacmel. Nine masisi, including Vincent and I, walked onto the public beach one day in Jacmel. Immediately, all 150 pairs of eyes fell on us as we wriggled through the crowd. All of sudden, wild screams and chants arose from all sides, ‘Masisi! Get out of the water! Leave the beach!’ And this was no group of young hooligans; I spotted an elderly lady, a mother and her little child, all in unison chanting ‘Masisi! Masisi!’ Already, we were the only white people on the beach and had attracted a lot of attention; now we were the only masisi, too. I was scared to death. Our friends reassured us and calmly pointed out this was completely ‘normal.’ And then something happened that I never could have imagined. The masisi with us started playing with the crowd. They shook their [butts] in front of over one hundred swimmers; they posed and walked the cat walk down the beach; they even shouted back at everyone, ‘Me, masisi? Then I guess I will be seeing you later tonight…’
‘Courage,’ was the only word that we could say. This day at the beach was the beginning of KOURAJ, which means ‘courage’ in Haitian Creole. We knew from that moment on, that no matter how hard the struggle would be, Haiti is ready for an LGBT rights-based movement, and that Haitian masisi are ready to lead the way.
What, to your knowledge, is the situation like for LGBT in Haiti?
For me, the most surprising aspect of the ‘LGBT community’ in Haiti is that it doesn’t really exist, even though a strong LGBT culture does. Intimate networks of masisi exist in circles of friends, but unity and mobilization are still only aspirations here. Given the challenging ‘masisi’ life of isolation, secrecy, and fear of being cast out of the family, it is difficult to think beyond survival and wanting to simply be accepted. Difficult, but not impossible. Those few courageous individuals who do imagine a community beyond themselves are fighting for recognition and mutual respect in Haitian society. Haiti has beautiful drag queens, beautiful artists and musicians, beautiful dancers, and a beautiful LGBT culture. Unfortunately, all of this is overlooked by official, institutional ideas about masisi as simply ‘vulnerable’ or ‘marginalized groups’ infected with HIV/AIDS. In this sense, official discourse reduces gays in Haiti down to sick, poor, and vulnerable people. Societal rhetoric defines masisi as someone who rapes Haitian boys or who is a pedophile. Religious rhetoric dictates that masisi are mortal sinners and abominations to society. Violence against masisi is commonly justified because homosexuality is still considered a choice and not a characteristic acquired at birth.
These public definitions have cornered masisi into a very degrading situation; unsurprisingly, many members of the LGBT community have emotional and psychological problems. Creating an alternative discourse on masisi is the first step towards change, hence why KOURAJ has made a mass public communications campaign its primary objective.
How is KOURAJ providing resources and support for the masisi community?
The ideal for many masisi is to leave Haiti to live ‘the good life’ of gays abroad in Martinique, in Guadeloupe, in Miami, or in New York. KOURAJ’s primary motivation for the bar is to create ‘the good life’ for LGBT persons right here in Haiti, such that masisi can aspire to live and work in their country with dignity, pride, and self-respect.
What resources do LGBT people have to support them, if anything?
Only three initiatives serving the LGBT community (and some not even explicitly LGBT) exist in Haiti: a psychosocial health organization called SEROvie that works with sexual minorities infected with HIV/AIDS, a health services organization for HIV/AIDS victims called POZ (not officially LGBT), and a lesbian organization FASCDIS with whom KOURAJ works.
KOURAJ sought to fill the empty space of LGBT advocacy using a rights-based framework and empowerment. We have worked closely with these organizations, and were disappointed in the processes and results they produced. All of them are 100% dependent on foreign money, mainly from USAID, the CDC, or other foreign NGOs and universities. They are focused on health, not on rights. KOURAJ leaders reject every one of these frameworks. Future LGBT organizations must realize that at the core of mental health disorders, rising rates of HIV infection, prostitution, and unemployment in the LGBT community is sexual orientation–and gender-based violence, discrimination, and stigmatization. LGBT groups must stop using self-defeating and dehumanizing language that describe the community as weak, vulnerable, victims, and marginalized. KOURAJ believes we masisi are powerful, capable leaders and role models for not just the LGBT community, but for all of Haitian society.
How did you develop the vision for KOURAJ’s bar/cultural center?
The vision for the ‘Yanvalou’ [the bar/cultural center] [occurred] in response to two questions we asked ourselves: one, how can a rights-based political movement in the Haitian LGBT community secure long-term financial stability and sustainability that will ensure its continuity throughout the cyclical whims of international donors? And two, how can the LGBT community rest assured the decision-making process will remain rooted in the community despite its solid working relationships with large, powerful international NGOs? We knew we had to answer these questions if we were to take seriously the autonomy, sustainability, and capacity of the vibrant Haitian LGBT community to finally assert its rights.
How will the bar/cultural center [Yanvalou] benefit Haiti’s population more generally?
We are working hard to make the Yanvalou a cultural hub of Port-au-Prince. Only four or five [performance] stages exist in this vibrant capital city for a population of 2.5 million Haitians [and they are expensive and difficult to get to from the capital city.] Film nights & festivals, the public art space, concerts, preventive health resources, and conferences will all be available free of charge in a location accessible to public transportation in lower Port-au-Prince.
Most importantly, the Yanvalou will become the first place in the entire country where the general population can encounter the LGBT world in a healthy environment. Masisi will be customers like everyone else, and they will participate in cultural events like everyone else. Finally, the general population will see for itself a strong, capable, creative, and proud LGBT community, and not within the context of HIV/AIDS, prostitution, or marginalization. This space will provide a humanizing, empowering step forward in changing public discourse in the struggle for human rights.
What strategies are you using to make your Kickstarter campaign successful?
Since we are creating a business, we reached out LGBT-friendly businesses in the US, starting with sponsors of NYC and Boston Pride Week. This strategy was not very successful, because most businesses are focused on local community development. It is very difficult to portray in a one-page letter why the Haitian LGBT community is relevant for businesses in Boston and New York City.
Recently, we hosted a masisi masked ball with food, drinks, a DJ, manifestos, and a drag queen show so LGBT people could celebrate Carnaval; the event was a huge success. Over 200 people attended in spite of the rain, and many Haitians gave small donations within their spending means after the event. Several guests commented that KOURAJ’s home base was “the best dance floor in all of Port-au-Prince, ‘the “best party they had ever been to,’ and the ‘first time masisi have ever been able to express themselves in security during Carnaval.’
The most effective strategy has been to reach out personally to individual friends and family in the States. Kickstarter funding can succeed using many strategies, including having a few rich donors or many small donors. We feel the second strategy is more legitimate for a community-based project like KOURAJ/the Yanvalou. In other words, if we can get 200 people to contribute $100 each, we have reached our goal. If we can get 800 people to contribute $25 each, we have reached our goal. We are confident we can find this many people who would like to see Haiti break from the development model of dependency on foreign NGOs, and who want to engage in the global struggle for LGBT rights & equality.
Interview has been edited and condensed.