As Long as They Don't Shove
It Down Our Throats--
The Relegation of First Class Oloshas to Second Class Status
by Shloma Rosenberg
I spent my early childhood years in rural Michigan, being transplanted to Los Angeles at the age of nine, and from the first moment that I had an inkling of the existence of sexuality, I knew that I was Gay. I was out and proud from the get-go, never spending an instant in any closet. Thanks to a brilliant father who was just about as prejudice-free as a human being could hope to be, I had no sexuality-related problems at home.
School, however, was a different story. Owing to my lack of shame, I was beaten and tortured one day by most of the football team. It happened early in the school year and was witnessed by at least one faculty member. The school did not want to have to discipline their prized football team, so I was asked to leave high school before ever having really started. I firmly believed that public education was robbing me of my ability to think, so I conceded, but I refused to quit school without a diploma. The school made special arrangements for me to attempt to "test out" and graduate early, rather than merely granting me an equivalency certificate. I passed.
It was not long after this that I came to the Lukumi religion. Spirituality was of paramount importance for me and my quest brought me to the Orishas. After a seemingly endless journey, I finally found myself in the Ile, or house, of a Lesbian couple who eventually initiated me as a priest in the religion. After being involved in at least two houses headed by homophobes, I thought I had found paradise. I imagined myself to be forever safe from dealing with sexuality-based discrimination. I was wrong.
Being young, I had little experience with or ability to recognize Gay self-hate. As I grew older in my godmother’s house, I came to realize that even Gay people can have a low opinion of Gay people. My godmother held a sense of superiority over Gay men. We were allowed neither to use the restroom in her botánica nor to launder our clothes with those of her family. This may sound unbelievable, and it may be even more unbelievable that I put up with such treatment. All I can say is that because I lived almost two thousand miles from her, I really couldn't have had the day-to-day interaction with her that would have revealed these attitudes to me until well after I had entered the priesthood. I describe the situations that led to the dissolution of our relationship in more detail in the pages that follow. For now, suffice it to say that in order to preserve my sanity, I got the hell out of there.
Finding myself out in the cold, cruel world of the religion without my godmother to make all the arrangements for ceremonies and therefore filter out the more obvious homophobes, I began more and more often to run into various levels of discrimination. The Lukumi religion, as most know, has an overwhelming number of Gay Oloshas, priests or priestesses. It has been estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of all Oloshas are gay; among Oriates and other extremely well known, knowledgeable, competent, and/or prolific priests, the number is probably much higher. This being the case, most of the discrimination found within the Lukumi community is quite well disguised.
In this article I have documented a series of my experiences with homophobia among Orisha worshipers and attempted to analyze and understand the causes for this hatred and its effects on Gays in the religion as well as the Orisha community as a whole. Many of these events were very painful to relive, and many of my friends, elders, and colleagues may recognize themselves in my words. If you do, please don’t take offense. It was necessary for me to relate my personal experiences to write this piece. I do not include any of these events or situations to hurt anyone’s feelings or to make anyone look bad. I relate them as I perceived them and communicate my feelings about them as they are. This essay reveals my personhood more than that of any other individual. Please trust that both the original experiences and the process of retelling them hurts me more than it does you.
Shoving it Down Their Throats--Public Display of Faggotry
A wildly disproportionate number of Gay men and women are called on daily to perform some of the most important tasks of the religion. Gay Oloshas make the thrones for celebrations and initiations, they sew, they bead, they cook, they divine, they mount Orisha, they lead chants, and they initiate other priests at a phenomenal rate. The number of Gay Oloshas who specialize in the creative or aesthetic arts of the religion so far outweighs the number of straights as to be comical. Yet even with all this, there is a seldom-voiced undercurrent of opinion that holds Gays to be less than fully accepted within the religion. Praise of a diviner or Orisha mount is always qualified with criticism of his outrageous or flamboyant behaviour. The most competent of throne makers is whispered about because she acts "too much like a man." Behaviour that is outside the norm is frowned upon entirely. By "outside the norm," the critics usually mean "anything that reminds one that the individual is not heterosexual." It does not seem to occur to anyone that getting possessed, sacrificing animals, and just about anything that is required of an initiate is quite a bit more outside the norm than the snapping of a queen’s fingers or the failure of a woman to wear a skirt. This is but one example of a litany of double standards that exist within our religious tradition.
Snapshot: I am talking about the issue of gays in the religion with one of my straight friends, one whom I hold in very high regard. "The problem with Jose," he says, "is not that he is gay, it is his behaviour." I wince internally. I know what is coming. "He and his friend fawn over each other and call each other pet names, right in front of everyone." I think of the times I have seen him kiss or affectionately touch his wife. I think of the terms of endearment heard between heterosexual couples at an almost constant rate among Cubans. I am not sure precisely what kind of response he expects from me. Maybe it's "How dare they act like heterosexual couples."
That Gays "publicize" their sexuality is one of the most often heard complaints among heterosexual Oloshas. Priests, both straight and Gay, refer to the members of same-sex couples as one another’s "friend." The first time I made reference to my "boyfriend" in a room full of Oloshas, I thought I would have to scrape them up off the floor. That is not done. Any sexual or romantic element of a same-sex relationship, even when in the exclusive company of other Gays, must be entirely glossed over. The universally stated reason for this is that "what you do in the bedroom is your business." It is as if Gay people never leave the bedroom and have only a sexual basis to their relationships. Straight couples can be in love, can be boyfriends and girlfriends and husbands and wives, but Gay couples have to be Felix and Oscar, Laverne and Shirley, Ernie and Bert--just two people living together and sharing the bills.
Latinos in general and Cubans in particular are a remarkably affectionate people. Heterosexual men kiss and embrace each other, children are coddled and praised. There are constant manifestations of physical affection between friends and family. To fail to greet and bid adieu with un besito (a little kiss) is the ultimate social faux pas. This affection is a thousand times deeper and more visible between heterosexual couples. A husband and wife do not cross paths without a loving word or an affectionate touch. They have a massive cache of pet names with which they can remind each other of their undying love. None of this is viewed as advertisement of their sexuality. Yet Gay couples are expected to be sterile "friends," devoid of emotion and affection. Any breach of this unspoken rule is met with a flurry of hushed, judgmental gossip, in which other Oloshas are encouraged not to invite the offenders to their home in order to avoid scandal.
Calling one's partner "honey" or "mi vida" or whatever is something that heterosexuals do without thought and is never subject to criticism, in ceremony or out. For a Gay couple to do the same would be utterly scandalous. It is this double standard that I am addressing. I say this because invariably, when someone defends our right to exist without criticism, someone else pipes up that we are all exhibitionists who want everyone to watch us make out. Such insane comments come in a world where you can't walk down the street without seeing heterosexual displays enshrined in billboards, magazine covers, shop windows, movies, television, etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum. For Gays to ask for a fraction of the freedom that straight people have to express themselves is invariably interpreted as an invitation into our bedrooms. This paranoid delusion is born from the same sperm and egg as the idea held by White people that Good Times and Martin are "Black shows," whereas Family Ties and Empty Nest are never referred to as "White shows." Regardless of the fact that there are hundreds of television programs that feature entirely White casts, one or two all-Black casts is a sign that "they" are taking over. In any socioeconomic dichotomy, those in power tend to become extremely fearful when the disenfranchised "other" rears its head for equal (or even slightly-better-than-not-at-all) recognition.
Snapshot: The home of a heterosexual priestess. "No offense," she starts, "but my goddaughter doesn't want a gay ojigbona [Olosha assisting in an initiation]." She is having trouble finding an ojigbona. for her goddaughter, as all of the priests who are available and competent happen to be Gay men. I do not consider myself to be in the running, and neither does she, so I am not sure why she is telling me this. "I don't care what anybody does in their bedroom," she continues, "as long as they act normal." I am curious as to what "normal" is, but I don't ask. I am also kind of amused and tripped out at the sheer number of times she has told me who doesn't like Gays. She always begins with "No offense." As I sit, not responding, I look at this woman's face. I truly love her, and I believe she is the best possible friend to me that she is able to be, but I am wondering if she is even aware of what she is saying, of how little sense it makes, and of the effect it is having on me. She is saying she doesn't like men to act too "Gay," yet she laughs at the flamboyant antics of the queens who come to work the religion in her house. She adores many Gay men, as well as Lesbians, and I really believe that she is feeding me a party line that she does not really believe. People often make statements of their beliefs when they are outside of a given situation. Upon being thrust back into that situation, however, their heart rules over the constructs of their minds, and they show themselves to be the good people they are.
Some Are More Equal than Others
Due to the inescapability of homosexuality among the Lukumi priesthood, it is nearly impossible for an inflexible homophobe to function. Gays are "tolerated" by nearly everyone, with the possible exception of some houses that are presided over by Babalawos. This tolerance, however, is fairly left-handed. The extraordinarily tired catch-phrases of what I like to call closet homophobia are rampant among heterosexual (and even some Gay) priests, phrases like "What they do in their bedroom is their own business, I just wish they would keep it to themselves" and "It's OK if you want to live that way, just don't drag the Orishas into it." "Alternative lifestyle" is one of my particular favourites. I want to know just what the hell an alternative lifestyle is. For my own part, I work, write, go to the movies, listen to music, have friends over and occasionally stub my toe. What on earth is so alternative about that? You will never hear an Olosha referring to anyone but Gays as living an alternative lifestyle, as if the gender of the people one prefers will throw one into a completely separate species.
Snapshot: A Gay priest and his life partner leave the house after an initiation. I am left in the sitting room with three priests, all straight. They start to discuss the couple's adopted son. "He is such a good boy, so responsible." They seem surprised. "Yes," another priest agrees, "but it is a shame what he will have to go through. It is selfish of Gay people to adopt." "Yes," says another, "they never think about the children." It dawns on them that I might think they are all a bunch of assholes, and the subject changes.
Here we find the age-old tradition of expecting Gays to lead lives corralled by the standards of heterosexual bigots. The logic on the part of homophobes is that children of Gay couples will be tortured by their peers. They believe, apparently, that children of heterosexuals are immune to or never fall victim to any sort of harassment. The fact of the matter is, as I can tell you from personal experience, that having heterosexual parents provides little or no buffer from the hateful acts of schoolchildren. In addition, it is a natural and blessed fact these days--as opposed to just five or ten years ago--that most young people don’t give a damn if their friends are being raised by pandas, let alone by a same-sex couple. Indeed, children are becoming more open-minded daily, leaving behind the prejudices held by their parents.
What is much more important and sinister is that the people who want to "save the children" from the woes of being tortured by their classmates for having Gay parents, or for being Gay themselves, don’t seem to be overly concerned about the children who are going to do the torturing. No mention is made of the fact that children need to be raised to leave other people alone. The actions of these Nazi children and their Nazi parents don’t seem to be of any consequence, yet Gay couples should be horsewhipped for wanting to raise children in a loving home, and Gay children should be forced to lead a hidden life. Tolerance education programs are met with a hail of protest. Parents do not want teachers telling their children that they should not hate, abuse, or attempt to ruin the lives of Gay people. To these parents, such an education program would serve to endorse the so-called Gay lifestyle and indoctrinate youth to join the ranks of the ever-growing Gay army. When children see their parents protest tolerance education, the message is clear: Tolerance is bad; intolerance and abuse are good. Gay kids should stay in the closet, and Gay parents should lose custody of their children. Bigots are catered to, while Gays are left out in the cold.
In the minds of people who think that sexuality can be programmed, Gays are infinitely more powerful than anyone else when it comes to indoctrination. Often encountered is the ill-conceived anxiety that children who are overly exposed to homosexuality will become Gay. I’ll never forget reading a passage relating to the Odu Ogbe’di, in an otherwise masterful work on dilogun (cowrie shell divination), that "the child who comes in this Odu should be kept away from homosexuals, as they may fall into this lifestyle." The ignorance that acts as foundation to this kind of theory is overwhelming. Case study after case study has indicated that children raised by same-sex couples are no more likely to "turn out" (ha!) Gay than anyone else. Indeed, some studies have even shown the opposite to be true. If sexual preference were hereditary, or even the result of environmental causes, one would think that the world would be virtually Gay-free. Considering the fact that the vast majority of Gay people in the world were raised by straight parents and, until recently, only a tiny percentage were exposed to other Gays (either in person or in the media) before they became aware of their sexuality, I doubt that hypothesis very much.
Snapshot: Foolishly hoping for a rend in tradition, I sit in an AOL chat room and await an intelligent conversation. A very young and naive priest is pontificating. "I don't allow Gays in my Ile," says he, "not because I don't like them, but because my Ita says I can't." There is no Odu that restricts an individual from attending to the spiritual needs of others based on sexuality, but I am not going to step between this guy and the godfather who chumped him. Besides, he doesn't even have an Ile from which he can restrict Gays, or anyone else, for that matter. He mercilessly continues: "It is not a prejudice, it's Odu. I can't eat eggs, but I don't hate THEM either." It is interesting to me that human beings can be dismissed from one's life as easily as inanimate objects. We are now no better than food. An Aleyo pipes up. "My Ile is the same way, " she says confidently. She has found a co-conspirator in her acceptance of her elders' hatred. None of these people have anything against Gay people, they say. Apparently they have nothing against bigots either. Maybe I am being too hard on them. They are, after all, only listening to their elders. I pray for their strength of character, that they may find the intestinal fortitude to seek a priest who does not discriminate.
In a tradition that relies so heavily on the acquisition of knowledge from one's elders, it is easy for homophobia to spread to people who consider themselves open-minded liberals. Acceptance of the dismissal of certain segments of society from one's environment can be really easy when you are eager to learn and progress in the religion. Godparents tell their godchildren, "We don't let Gays in our house, but there are many houses that accept them," and explain it away as a taboo imposed by the Orishas. If, of course, one were to insert a different minority group in that sentence, such as Blacks, Jews, Whites, and so on, it is quite possible that all hell would break loose. Gay people, however, are more easily discounted, just as other groups have been in times past. The straight members of such houses can easily ignore such blatant prejudice. Out of sight, out of mind. Just like rich White people who ignore the plight of the poor and of people of color, straights consider themselves immune to the effects of homophobia. Often, it takes something like a brother beaten to death, a daughter fired from her job, or a son dying of AIDS to open their eyes.
Snapshot: The unthinkable has happened ... I am in a Babalawos house. Haha. I consider the irony as I sit for my godson's Ita of Awo Faka. I watch the young Babalawos who march around, chomping on ten-inch cigars and talking (outside of the presence of women, of course) about "pussy," and the giggling women getting patted on their asses in the kitchen. I wonder why nobody considers any of this a gross overstatement of sexuality. I listen to the Babalawos as they proclaim my godson to be the lost son of Orunmila returned home. "You have begun a road from which you cannot depart," one of the Babalawos says. "Ifa says you must make Ifa to fulfill your destiny." These Babalawos need to learn that not all Gay men carry purses and use tons of hairspray. If they overcame this hurdle of perception, they would realize that the average Joe sitting before them was Gayer than a picnic basket. Inside, I am screaming with laughter. For a change, I let them slide and don't announce his sexuality. It is not that I am feeling particularly kind and want to avoid embarrassing everyone; it is more that I don't have the stomach to watch the inevitable choking and backpedaling, the desperate attempts of a bunch of bigoted old men to save face and justify their prejudice.
It is an almost universally held belief in the Lukumi tradition that Gay men cannot be initiated to the cult of Ifa, that is, become Babalawos. There has not been an extensive protest, probably due to the fact that there are not droves of Gay men who care to become Babalawos. I am, of course, not a priest of Ifa, so I have absolutely no say in the matter whatsoever. This is no skin off my teeth. There is only one reason that I include mention of the cult of Ifa here. It is with remarkable frequency that proclamations such as the one just described take place. An unobvious Gay man sits in front of Ifa, and the attending Babalawos declare him to be "the Lost Son of Ifa" (although not always in so many words) who must immediately be initiated as a Babalawo himself. If the man's sexuality is revealed, any number of elaborate, clumsy methods are employed to correct the "mistake." Often the priests will say that the man is not really Gay and Orunmila is trying to correct his behaviour. Babalawos who do not act so efficiently under pressure will usually just change the subject. I am not sure if it is economics or actual Odu that causes this whole mess to happen. If it is economics, shame on the Babalawos for treating the religion like a business. If it is Odu, shame on them for presuming to go against the word of Ifa and renege on the deal once the truth comes out.
It is also interesting to note that there is no shortage of Gay Babalawos. I personally know of several Ifa priests who were initiated as young boys and grew up to be Gay. In addition, there are many initiated as adults who come to realize their sexuality after the fact or who just plain lie and get initiated without giving their elders the scoop on their preference. Although I would not presume to pry into the mysteries of Ifa, I wonder why Orunmila lets this happen if the taboo against the initiation of Gay men is actually a valid metaphysical law and not (dare I say it?) a trumped-up facade to keep a homophobic Boy's Club free of sissies.
HIV and AIDS have taken a terrible toll on the Lukumi community. The U.S. government was slow enough in educating the general public about the disease's transmission and prevention, but among people of color and non-English speaking people, its negligence was beyond belief. In Cuba the situation was even worse. Over the past fifteen years we have lost some of our most revered and knowledgeable elders.
The attitude towards people with HIV infection and AIDS in the Lukumi community is much the same as it is elsewhere in the world. Care and compassion but are most often flavoured with a sideways glance, a tinge of judgment. People who are sick or dying, or who have died, are spoken about with the cluck of the tongue that says, "They asked for it."
Snapshot: I am sitting with my godmother in her botánica. A gray, emaciated Iyawo comes in to buy a chunk of cascarilla (powdered egg shells). He is kind but looks weary and sad. He leaves. My godmother turns to me: "Can you believe that Iyawo’s padrino initiated him when he is so full of AIDS?" She sees my puzzled look. "Well, how could anybody take someone’s money when they are doomed?" A lump rises in my throat but I say nothing. I am not sure why I am silent. Respect? I doubt it. My respect for her Orisha is deep and eternal, but the sad fact is that respect for her as a person flew out the window a long time ago with the increasing frequency of statements like the one she had just made. This was another in a series of horrifying exchanges in which my godmother expressed her opinion of people with AIDS (and Gay men in general) as the condemned reapers of their own just desserts, as people who should just forget about everything and wait to die. Once again, money appears to be her sole concern. It is the beginning of the end.
Snapshot: My best friend of fourteen years, Grace, is in the hospital. She has two CD4 cells. I am at my godmother's house, and it is evening. After having put it off most of the night, I pad on bare feet from the guest room to her bedroom and knock on the door. "Come in, Love." She is watching "Hunter." "Madrina, I want to give Grace Olokun. I read for her and that is what Elegba said to do." She shakes her head with pity. "You know you can’t help her, she is already condemned." I pad back to the guest room with tears in my eyes. It is the end.
Snapshot: My house. The usual laughter and good-natured joking that takes place when we are performing ceremonies is conspicuous by its absence. We are giving Olokun to Grace, who now has no CD4 cells at all. She is laying on my bed, unable to stand, sit, or speak. We present the sacrificial animals to her prone form. I carry the plates from the basket to the bed and back again, unable to maintain orthodoxy in this situation. Grace, who is always so full of life, so comical and irreverent, is skeletal, looking like one of the Jews stacked shoulder-high at Auschwitz in the wake of the Nazis’ abandonment of their posts. Nobody can smile, although we are forcing it as best we can. Smiles feed the Orisha called Hope. My godchildren have been helping me take care of her. An army of Florence Nightingales, mostly made up of straight people who have spent a great deal of their lives protected by picket fences, have rolled up their sleeves and held the hands of a terribly ill transsexual whose bloody noses and vomit could spell the early end of their lives. They are wisely careful but would never for a moment hesitate to dry her tears. They are good, sweet people, and I am blessed to know them.
Grace’s recovery was a miracle. Elegba and Olokun (her tutelary Orisha) brought her back from the very brink of death. She lived another three years, with almost no down time, three full and happy years spent mostly with me and my godchildren, who came to love her like family, here in Michigan. Her peaceful end came a month or so ago. Our tears are just starting to dry, and we know her to be present in all things and at all times.
My relationship with my godmother, sadly, did not survive. I could not be restricted from doing everything in my power to help each and every one of my godchildren in every way I could, and she was not prepared to accept that. Perhaps in the future we will mend our broken ties. We are both strong and stubborn people, though, and I fear that reconciliation is, at this time, nowhere in sight.
It is a horrible thing that we in the Lukumi religion have come to look at a disease and at death as shame and defeat. An Olosha dies of cancer, and it is a time of sadness; an Olosha dies of AIDS, and it is a time of speculation as to whether the death was deserved retribution. What we must remember is that everyone lives and everyone dies. Death is inevitable, so if death is a defeat, then the entirety of life, everyone's life, is useless. The members of our faith have become scared rabbits who take the events of a person's life or the circumstances of their death as signs from heaven as to God's opinion of that person. We are not Christian, and judgment must not be part of our game. We need to pull our collective head out of the sand and stop acting like televangelists making proclamations of people's worth. We also must remind ourselves that we all, every one of us, are in the same boat. As I have said elsewhere, in our religion the attitude is that if it happens to someone else, they asked for it, but if it happens to us, someone or something did it to us. It is an insult to our ancestors and to our divinities that we should assume such a stance.
What is important here is not whether an individual will recover from AIDS as a result of religious work. What is important is that no person should be denied full participation in their faith due to the status of their health. An Olosha would never think twice about performing ceremonies for a victim of cancer or heart disease, but mention AIDS and suddenly everyone sits on their hands. Obviously, this has a great deal to do with the social sanctions against the groups of people who are commonly afflicted with HIV infection, but it also has to do with the desire to avoid possible "failure." Oloshas have come to view themselves and each other as magicians rather than clergy. For many, results are the bottom line. We have forgotten that our religion exists to bring peace and evolution, not magical solution.
Snapshot: I belong to an online mailing list for Orisha worshipers. For the first time since the beginning of my membership, the subject of sexuality has come up. I post aggressively against the homophobes on the board. I am on the phone with the moderator of the list, who is high-fiving me long distance for my posts. Then one of the moderator's heroes, a woman who calls herself Yeye Ola Oshun, begins posting rabid letters of hatred—incoherent and venomous--culminating in a letter threatening to curse me with AIDS ("I would LOVE to get into your blood and dance my secret dance"). I am heartbroken that Stephanie, the moderator of the list, would post such a thing. She tells me, "Even though I don't agree with her, I do admire the strength with which she holds her convictions." The fact is that she is desperate to be the African-American separatists' favourite white girl. Racism is just as ugly when someone treats a horrid person well because of the colour of their skin. I feel sorry for her and sorrier for the world. Ola Oshun is a Nazi, and Stephanie is a Nazi sympathizer. I am reminded of the Germans who never took a stand against Hitler because they were not a member of one of the persecuted groups. To stand idly by and look the other way during a holocaust must rot the soul. A week after one of these outbursts, everyone would forget the seething hatred and ugly character that Ola Oshun had shown. They would scramble and scrape, hoping to gather the one droplet of wisdom that will set them free, all the time feeling secure that because they weren't gay, they had nothing to worry about. I unsubscribe from the list. In a phone conversation some time later, Stephanie tries to remind me of how much Ola Oshun upset me. I don't bother trying to clarify that it had been Stephanie's betrayal, cowardice, and endorsement-by-silence of hatemongers that had upset me.
It has been a year or so since Ola Oshun's snarling posts and Stephanie's yellow-bellied prostration at her feet. My merciless sweetheart, who still belongs to the list and has a stomach strong enough to take it for the joke that it is, keeps me updated as to the mailing list shenanigans. Gay boys compose cooing letters of praise to Ola Oshun for her posts. She never responds if she knows they are Gay, but they suck up to her like she is the teat of all nourishment. I have learned more about this pathetic creature since leaving the list. It seems she is stranded in Tennessee, where she is queen without a kingdom in her invented tradition of Anago, a nationalist rip-off of the Lukumi tradition (they do spiritual masses, for God's sake...could you get any more European?). The only place she is taken seriously as an elder is on the Internet. I have mentioned her name to elders from Nigeria (Wande Abimbola rolled his eyes) and from the United States and was answered by clucking tongues, shaking heads, and the dismissive waving of hands. This was heartening. I was worried that my elders in the religion could take seriously a woman who tried to proclaim that people were transmitting AIDS via initiation.
For her part, Stephanie has declared a moratorium on posts regarding sexuality. She still sends out quite a few homophobic posts from Neo-Yoruba Orisha worshipers but then offers apologies for allowing them to "slip through" and states that the subject is again closed.
Much of the out-and-out anti-Gay hatred comes from the Neo-Yoruba/Nationalist sector of Orisha religion. It is their fantasy that homosexuality did not exist in Africa prior to colonization by Europeans. Interestingly, many of them use decidedly Biblical terms, such as "sodomy" and "against God," in their arguments. I have examined this issue at length in my article, "The Africa Question; Did They or Didn't They?"
The last manifestation of anti-Gay sentiment that I will address is perhaps the most painful. Self-hate exists in every group that is victim to discrimination. We see the results of this internalized hatred in every corner of our world, the harvest of self-destruction born from seeds sown by societal condemnation: drug addiction and gangbanging in the inner city, eating disorders and tolerance of abusive husbands among women, alcoholism and domestic violence on Native American reservations, and reckless promiscuity and addiction among Gay men and Lesbian women.
In cultures and groups of people who have not had a history of progressive thought and discussion of homosexuality, the level of self-hate is much more obvious. Among Latino Gays, I have witnessed the heartbreaking acceptance of second-class status by some of the most brilliant and knowledgeable Oloshas in existence.
Snapshot: One of my friends is talking about his life prior to initiation. "I pass a mean Congo spirit," he says. He is not kidding; his spirit is the stuff of legend. "But I didn't get rayado in Palo [Palo is a Kongo cult that forbids the initiation of Gays] before I was initiated 'cause that's not right." I ask him if he really believes there is a spiritual reason for the taboo. "Oh yes," he answers, "Palo is a man's cult... it is a very masculine thing." I want to drop it, but I second-guess myself and go for it: "But there are some pretty masculine Gay men, and besides, women are initiated to Palo." He doesn't know what to say. I can see that it hurts him to be without an answer, so I change the subject.
Many Gays accept without question the taboos that restrict them from various spiritual practices. To challenge them, I think, would be a threat to their faith--perhaps not their faith in God, the Orishas, or the Dead, but probably their faith in their elders and other priests. This also prevents open-minded heterosexuals from questioning the same taboos. It is even easier for them to ignore such things.
Snapshot: A well-known online "priestess" launches a sudden vicious attack against Gays, particularly Gay men. She is notorious for being a bit off the beam and for going nuts on various segments of the Orisha community, but this tirade is new. Those who don't know her well are surprised, as she has regularly posted messages of lavish praise to Gay priests, myself included. Those who know her a little better are not so shocked. Many fully expected it, having been privy to a little of her personal history: When she underwent her questionable initiation, at the hands of a Gay man of very dubious credentials, she was told that she was no longer allowed to be a Lesbian. Indeed, she had been an extremely active member of the Gay community. She unwittingly accepted the counsel of her elders and abandoned her sexuality, quickly finding a man to fill the void. Eventually, she came to know that most everything that her supposed godfather had done for her was fraudulent, yet she still clung tightly to her newfound heterosexuality, perhaps not wanting to admit the massive proportions of that particular error. Now she has finally snapped, and she's lashing out with slobbering fury at any and all who are in the vicinity. She calls Gay men "filthy" and "spreaders of plague" and manages to wipe out most every friendship she has made. She has new elders now who are showing her the light about homosexuality and the mandatory subservient role for Whites (she's White) in the religion. As it usually does, her vulnerability rears its terrified little head from time to time. She confronts my godson Kevyn in a chat room, shrieking, "WHY CAN YOU BE GAY AND I CAN'T???" The truth always comes out. If it didn't piss me off so much I might really feel sorry for her.
I know of several people in the religion who have been "cured" of their Gayness. I know a Babalawo who "went straight" in order to make Ifa. Now he cruises Flagler in search of male prostitutes on his way home from work. The woman mentioned in the snapshot above pours her energy into seek-and-destroy confrontations in which she bellows her way to validity, meanwhile crying on every available shoulder that nothing seems to go right in her life...nothing, she will tell you, except her marriage. It is of life-or-death importance that she assure everyone that it is the only perfect element of her life.
I do not doubt that Gay people can suppress their romantic and sexual feelings for their entire life and not be totally miserable. It is no more difficult than believing one can divorce themselves from their humanity enough to be a Rush Limbaugh or a Bob Dole. I'm sure they convince themselves that they are happy, too. Luckily for most of these people, it is not unusual to go through life unfulfilled in any area, let alone romantic love. The world is set up for loneliness, for denial, and for the replacement of fulfillment with any number of addictions. It depresses me that it is so hard to be Gay, that the world makes it so hard, that there so many have to live life amputated from their emotions. The world seems to be hell-bent on creating situations in which Gay people must hide from their own feelings. Often they discover themselves when it is too late to claim their freedom without undue consequences. Gay men and women enter into doomed heterosexual marriages daily rather than face a world that hates them. Society's bigots create these situations in order to have an evil at which to point a finger when their self-fulfilling prophecies come to light. They can damn the woman who comes out of the closet at forty-five to her husband and children or the man who leaves his wife for his male lover. They can proclaim homosexuality to be the dastardly wrecker of homes that they have forced it to be. No amount of hindsight will tell them that if the world welcomed Gay people, none of this would happen.
I have written this article, as well as the other articles in this section, to share with my Gay brothers and sisters in the religion for our strength and for our understanding. I write neither to defend us nor to change anyone's mind. I do not believe that Gays or Gayness need defense, and neither do I believe that the mind-set of others should bear on our destiny. We have always existed and we always will, world without end. We need not bow down to the oppression of bigots, and we need not be defined by anyone but ourselves. Our dignity, our happiness, and our fulfillment will come from our work, and we can neither let ourselves be segregated nor relegated to any position by anyone. We must claim our heritage and our place, just like everyone else in this world, because nobody is going to hand it to us.
I am thrilled to be Gay. There was never an instant in my life when I would have changed. If I were not Gay, I would not have had the experiences that led me to this religion, I would not have lived the life that made me the priest that I am, and I would not have learned the lessons that made me able to facilitate the spiritual growth of others starting at the age of twenty-one. This could be the reason that Gay and gender-variant people have held positions of spiritual importance in almost every ancient culture, including those of Africa, North and South America, and Asia.
The happiness of the people with whom I share my life is of extreme importance to me. To see a friend, family member, or godchild in love, in like, or in a good job, for that matter, thrills me. I demand no less from others. Gay people are forever being accused of shoving our sexuality down the throats of others only because we want to express those things that make us happy to our friends and family. We are considered horrible for not being eager to act like paper dolls that have no emotions, no experiences, and no lives. When my mother told me through her teary eyes and sniffling that she "accepted" my sexuality, I had to tell her that acceptance was not good enough. I do not have room in my life for people who hold something so dear to me as my romantic relationships at arm's length, as if they were some odious element of my personality that must never be mentioned and could only, at best, be tolerated in order to keep me around. It is a waste of time and a waste of precious humanity to expect others to perform as bound and gagged robots in order that convoluted sensibilities remain inviolate. Oscar Wilde said, "One who finds ugliness in a thing of beauty is corrupt without being charming, and that is a fault." Ashé O. To express joy at the start of a new relationship, or sadness at the end of an old one, to speak of one's partner and of shared hopes and dreams is not to shove anything down anyone's throat; it is to connect with others at the most basic common denominator of human existence--love.