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social sciences

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Santería and Vodou  
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Oshumaré, associated with natural cycles and depicted as a rainbow serpent linking two worlds, is considered in Cuba the protector of pajaritos (literally, "little birds"), a term for gay men.

Ochossi and Osanyin are two male orishas, the former associated with animals and the latter with plants and healing. In some legends, they are lovers; in others Osanyin rapes Ochossi.

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Oyá is a warrior woman associated with storms, revolution, and death.

Santería devotees seek advice for personal problems from practitioners trained in a form of divination called Ifa. The pattern resulting from several throws of a set of shells or nuts denotes a specific story from a voluminous body of orisha legends that serve as exemplars or suggestions for a prescribed course of action. Some traditionalists forbid women or gay men to interpret Ifa, or to play the ritual bata drums.


Parallel developments in the French-Creole history of Haiti gave rise to Vodou. Scholars use that spelling as well as "Vodoun" to distinguish their concepts from lurid movie enactments of "voodoo," although the religion's practitioners also use the latter term.

Vodou's spirit beings are called loa or lwa and can be traced to the beliefs of the Fon people of the former kingdom of Dahomey (now Togo and Benin). They number in the hundreds and include many analogues of the orishas.

Historians Conner and Sparks have parsed the gender-fluid aspects of dozens of loa. A few of these are the following.

Erzulie, the popular female loa of love and sexuality, is associated with beauty and the arts. She is often seen as a patron of gay men; when companioned with the gynandrous (or intersexual) loa Labalèn she is iconic for lesbians. One of her aspects, Erzulie Dantò, is a fierce champion of the oppressed and often takes women lovers.

Labalèn is a gynandrous loa who is often depicted as a whale. She is closely associated with LaSirèn with whom she takes a or lesbian role.

LaSirèn is often considered the Vodou analogue of Yemayá but can also be one of the aspects of Erzulie. She is a maternal loa who presides over the sea and engages in pansexual relationships.

Legba (also Elegba or Papa La Bas) is guardian of the crossroads who acts as intermediary between the living and the dead. Legba facilitates communication between all realms and has male and female aspects.

Some other androgynous or dual-gender loa are: Ayizan, loa of initiation, nurturance, healing, and teaching; Mawu-Lisa, patron of artists and craftspeople; Nanan-bouclou, loa of herbal medicine; and Bawon Oua Oua, Bawan Samedi, and Gede Nibo, members of a family of loa associated with death and funeral rites who are also linked with all forms of sexuality.

A male priest of Vodou is called a houngan, a female one a manbo. Conner and Sparks cite many accounts of gay men and lesbians openly serving in these roles. Lescot and Maglorie's documentary Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Men and Gods) uses interviews with gay men to examine how Vodou offers them an arena for acceptance in Haiti as well as a response to AIDS.

Certain Haitian Vodou practices--such as using human or animal remains in potions and ritual or inducing the zombie phenomenon, which causes victims to appear dead so that they can later be resuscitated for exploitation--underlie its macabre reputation and are understandably problematic for outsiders. However, they should be viewed in light of Haiti's especially violent history of slavery, poverty, and despotism in which powerless individuals could assert their will only through the ritual manipulation of reality.

Adventurer-anthropologist Wade Davis investigated the pharmacology of zombie death and explored its role in the enforcement of a grim social code. Modern practitioners consider these practices to have been products of their times and marginal to core Vodou beliefs.

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Moshe Morad, examining the participation of homosexual men in Cuban Santería, quotes one informant's assertion that effeminate maricones are particularly adept at dancing and performing the elaborate rituals designed to please the spirits. He reports that afeminados and travestís (cross-dressers) were always tolerated in Santería communities for this reason, even during phases of government-sanctioned .

One of the foremost writers on Santería was Cuban lesbian anthropologist Lydia Cabrera, author of El Monte, considered a classic on the subject. She noted many homosexual, lesbian, and androgynous aspects of the tradition. She died in exile in the U.S. in 1991.

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