On the margins of the margins : Transgender in Haiti - A conversation with Yaisah Val
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
There is a redundancy in what our Haitian society incorporates in their idea of liberation. Mostly, it encompasses this idea of equality that reeks of queer/transphobia. Where women are barely considered, queer folks are often not mentioned at all. Our “all” is still a rich cis-hetero man’s world. Purposely alienated, queer folks watch change be a weak variation of the status quo. In the midst of Haiti’s third world issues, most Haitians do not consider the oppression of a group thought so small - if not nonexistent - to be a pressing matter. While this violent disregard is happening, the transgender community suffers, kept out by bigotry's walls. If oppression has layers, and dimensions, then so does freedom. Is it not then clear that the collective progress of Haiti includes our transgender folks?
Earlier this year, Yaisah Val announced that she was transgender, in Haiti. While her reality, and experience are that of many others in our country, very seldom is the microphone passed to these individuals, if not to be the butt of a joke. At the center of many conversations, she used that platform - sometimes given with the wrong intentions, - to uplift her community, and proclaim their existence. With the help of her husband, she has started a Youtube channel [Transgender in Haiti], and an organization [ACIFVH - Actions Communautaire pour l'Integration des Femmes Vulnerables en Haiti] where they both speak on various issues, help with understanding trans identity, and push for the reform of institutions that are ultimately violent to our trans counterparts.
Allowing me to pick her brain, Yaisah was more than happy to answer a few questions as they pertain to her experience, identity, and work.
You explained in various interviews, that you’ve always known of your identity, that the sex – and then gender- assigned to you at birth was never one that fit. You’ve had the opportunity, to later express that misfit, and to affirm yourself as the woman that you have always been. Most are given words like, Masisi, Madivin (to group everyone that isn’t straight, cis-gendered, or performing their gender as expected), therefore limiting queerness in all it really encompasses. So, for a lot of queer kids, it’s a process, of jumping into various boxes, to ultimately find the one, or the ones that are home. Did you have that period of struggle, and search for your identity? And if so, what were additional obstacles that being Haitian added to that?
“I was born in the states, but I grew up in Haiti, and growing up in a male body and being a real girly little “boy”...was not an easy experience in macho Haiti. I mean, growing up I understood...I had the cognition that I was a girl, although I didn’t have the word or the vocabulary- and you know, I couldn’t explain to them why I was in this body, - but I just knew who I was, regardless of what this body said...I knew I was a girl. But like I said, I didn’t have the word for it, I didn’t have the vocabulary or the understanding I have (now) of what trans identity was, until my 30s. So yes, I faced all the talks, and all the name-calling, from masisi, to gason makonnen… [I was told] that it must be a spirit - an ancestral voodoo spirit or body that is taking control of my body, or my mind...that I was an abomination...a shame...And I had my father’s name, so that was hard, especially from the males in my family - the uncles, the cousins - it was worse (coming) from them; [they felt] a sense of shame, disgust...something that had to be hidden. - And growing up in class conscious Haiti, from a middle class family, an upper middle class family, where your name, your occupation, keeping up the status quo and appearance or life itself are very important, so being a queer child, being an effeminate - an overly effeminate little boy is a no-no...so [sighs]...I was policed for as long as I can remember, because my being, my very existence was a no-no, a source of discomfort...at dinner with family, I would raise eyebrows [chuckles]...I remember them trying to “correct” me, giving recipes,: “take him to karate, have him play basketball” or “don’t let him play with girls”. So I suffered a lot of depression. The only way I could assimilate or try to be masculine was by staying still, or falling asleep, not playing, not talking, not doing anything, because I would breathe and I would be corrected “boys don’t breathe that way”... “boys don’t walk that way” “boys don’t sit that way [...]”...so my solution early on, was to erase myself. I became the master of causing the very least attention to myself as possible.”
I always say that for queer people, in Haiti, the discussion always starts with a legitimization of their existence. As if, their expression, and existence isn’t enough, they continuously have to explain who they are. That can take a toll on the individual, and in some instances even lead to depression and other mental illnesses – as their CIS heterosexual counterparts never have to do the same. On the same token, change always starts with education...people must understand…so where do you find balance, where you can explain without it feeling dehumanizing... especially when you live in a society so adamant to invalidate you?
“You hit the ball right on the dot. Haiti, tends to simplify humanity...women are here to birth babies, and cook. Men are there to be strong and give you money. Everything is always explained through God, or the mystical, the devil, or spirits. That [simplification] is an overall prevalent attitude in our country. And queerness does not escape that. Mostly you’ll find people attribute everything related to queerness to demonic possession...if your [great] grandparents served certain spirits..[they’ll say] that you’re possessed by Erzulie if you’re “male-bodied’ and you’re queer, and if you’re queer and “female-bodied” [they’ll say] it’s Ogou. It’s not so much that you’re not human, but you’re not taken serious. Dehumanization, but in the sense that you’re not a full citizen in our society. So, yes education is the key, it’s important, [but it makes it easier when I’m] educating myself, redefining myself - not by their standards, but by my own understanding of self; the support of family, having people, does help - it makes a world of difference. “
To return to language, in a previous article, I tried to gather queer terms, to show that there is so much included in queerness, and that queer Haitian folks are not a monolith. I felt it was also necessary to make this known to (closeted) queer kids out there that may not yet know the spelling of their name. Language, notably Kreyol, is an ever-evolving thing, and there isn’t always a word for all queer identities, and that can feel invalidating, as it may keep those queer kids in that box. Do you have any ideas as far as how to construct a queer vocabulary, in Kreyol (so it’s accessible to the masses)? Would you say that shortage of queer words is an opportunity for folks to create them at their own liberty, as opposed to reclaiming (i.e, madivin, and masisi are reclaimed slurs)?
"As far as language, Haiti has always been unique and isolated because of Kreyol. You have to understand, a lot of language, [academic] words we used are not translatable into kreyol. But you can explain the concept. Recently I met Met Fey Vet. His whole thing is about going back to nature. He was saying that trans identity has always existed, it’s accepted in the northern part of Haiti, and they call it “fanmot”.
Also when you have to explain things like gender, sex gender expression, it can be challenging because you don’t have the word, you can just explain the concept. Sometimes the trick is, to try explain the terminology."
You’ve launched a project, Transgender in Haiti shelter, where you plan to house people of the community, and help educate them, and give them the tools to navigate our transphobic society . Could you tell us more about the project, what is needed, and where it currently is as far as status, and where you intend to take it?
"Transgender Haiti Shelter came about when I realized that there was an actual trans population in Haiti. Which totally blew my mind, because when we think of Haiti, we see poverty, political unrest, natural disasters, etc. And within the Haitian mindset, everything queer, LGBT, is foreign, blan (which means white). This a country where the cis hetero population has to suffer, [because] they don’t have the resources. So it makes it worse for the trans population, because you’re outside those already nonexistent resources. That was the reason why my husband and I decided to have a shelter. There are no shelter for women, for people - for anyone of any sorts, in Haiti. So having a shelter, for [trans] women, was a novelty idea...As I said trans people are one of the most vulnerable people in Haiti, we’re on the marge of the margins. If the population is suffering, we’re dead - if they have a cold, we have pneumonia. A lot of trans women are out in the streets, out to fend for themselves, they resort to undercover prostitution...they’re [then] more vulnerable to HIV, lack of education...you name it, and it’s not even documented, not even known. Sometimes when they go to clinics, people will refuse to treat them. For example, a lot of our girls go to the clinic to get tested, and they’ll be told “I don’t want to test you, you’re an abomination”.
I wish we could get the funding, the money...but when we launched our GoFundMe, it was on a day that there was political unrest, and the country went crazy. A lot of people wouldl say, “there’s a lot of hungry children, why focus on trans people?”
Well why not? Who will focus on them? I would hope that someone would understand their plight. Because if everyone is [already] vulnerable, we’re extra vulnerable. "
We all know, the United States has a somewhat visible LGBTQIA community, with a flag, and people constantly trying to make space for queerness in their society. As a different people with a different culture, and different needs, do you feel that their work translates well in Haiti? For instance, I’ve seen in your interviews, the reporters/journalists, writers etc, use words such as “tr*ansexual”, term that has long been outdated in the U.S, and offensive when used by cisgendered people. Yet, it is a less complex term, that most Haitians can grasp. It becomes harder for them to understand and accept, when it’s called transgender, because it somewhat detaches gender from sex etc. Terms like non-binary, femme (that aren’t women), and more terms that involve a deeper understanding of gender /sexuality theory, are never really included in the conversation. Do you feel we need to establish our own community, with our own markers and understanding, using their advancements as not a reference but perhaps an extension?
“Language is a reflection of culture, of where a group of people are at. We’re a country, where it’s so taboo, and we’re so repressed as far as sexuality - even hetero, cis gender expression is repressed. A man and a woman displaying any kind of affection, in public is frowned upon...so can you imagine queer expressions of sexuality, or affection? So yes, I say tr*nsexual, because that’s what they can understand. Gender identity, and orientation are confused, so it is still hard for Haitians to understand that gender and sex can be two separate things - so we’re starting from scratch.“
Though there is progress being made by the conversations started with her work, there is still a lot of violence directed towards people like her. Many of the people apart of her organization suffer from displacement - where landlords kick them out for no other offense than being transgender - ; medical violence - the refusal of treatment by transphobic doctors, or the ignorance which causes them to not find treatment in Haiti.
“A Lot of people are wondering why we came out after so long. Well, the reason why is because for a long time, I’d found the acceptance and [the] opportunities, and thought I was not on the same boat as these others girls who were in the streets, who are sex workers….which is not at all true, because regardless of your degrees, and background and educational opportunities, once people perceive you as trans, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.”
In defense of Haiti, we often want to scream that we aren’t as transphobic, or queerphobic as perceived, when in fact, the numbers that prove otherwise are simply never reported. There are murders fueled by our overall hate and ignorance on trans-identity in Haiti. These tragic deaths never make it beyond the police stations when they are reported, as police officers often part-take in the abuse (casual transphobia, hazing, and rough handling) and suppression of transgender Haitian folks as well.
It begins with the thoughts we harbor and entertain; it continues with the institutions we support, and it ends with violence on trans identity. For that reason, speaking out is a necessary tool for change. Our complacency in ignorance is costing the livelihood of many of our most vulnerable citizens.
Simple tolerance does not suffice, when actions against their livelihood are taken on the daily. Tolerance, and not genuine concern, or willingness to help, creates the bystanders that are just as guilty. Our advancements as a people, only goes as far as the most marginalized individual is allowed to go.
Here are some videos about Yaisah Val and her husband, speaking on gender identity, sexual identity, and trans exclusion in Haitian society.
About gender identity and sex
Trans Exclusion in Haitian Society
Transgender Haiti Shelter
Photos of Yaisah Val
Interviewed and written by Daisha Dorsainvil