Pride month may be technically over now that it’s July, but in honor of Pride this year, I’m finally gonna tackle a topic that I’ve shied away from for quite some time – the difficulties that come with being LGBTQ+ and practicing Africana traditions. I identify as queer and nonbinary, and I’m also a Lucumi aborisha, a rootworker, and a Palo Kimbisa practitioner. There’s a lot of challenges for non-cis and/or non-straight practitioners of Africana traditions… there are definitely many aspects of the traditions I practice that I find more inclusive than Western ones, and other areas where I really, really struggle sometimes. I haven’t written about my experiences with this much before or advice on how to handle it because I wasn’t sure what to say that could help.
The fact is that many black communities around the world including many African cultures have prejudice issues related to LGBTQ+ identities and peoples. So homophobia, transphobia, and other prejudices in black spiritual and religious communities are very widespread and very difficult to face alongside everything else. And whatever advice or solutions that work for me in my particular situation with my identities wouldn’t necessarily be helpful for others. In many ways, I am also struggling with these things myself and so this topic is also difficult to talk about for me in that way as well.
I have been asked to and would love to write a well-researched article about the gender neutral / gender fluid Orishas and Yoruba concepts of gender… but as I realized after receiving my elekes, learning about the Orishas is something you must do with your ile and godparents. Every ile views the genders, characteristics, nature, and stories of the Orishas in their own way. Unless one day I become a godparent, it’s not my place to teach those things to anyone. The way my ile views Olokun, Obatala, Oshumare, and Olodumare is not the same (or necessarily even gender neutral / gender fluid as how other iles may understand them. Learning about the Orishas is not only a journey, it is a collection of wisdom and knowledge that can only expand through initiations. I wish I could share with you what I’ve learned as a queer enby on that journey, but even if I could it would not make your own journey. That can only happen when you navigate and experience it yourself.
I could jump into a discussion about the various specific practices and beliefs in Orisha traditions that relate to gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of one’s identity – but again, these vary a lot by ile. There’s no way for me to represent every tradition or belief (or the many perspectives on either) that could help to pin down and solve the issues related to them all. Ultimately, it depends on the Orisha tradition, the ile, and your godparents too. I could say, “Do your research thoroughly before joining an ile and before selecting godparents to make sure you find accepting ones”, but of course, it’s already extremely difficult for most of us to find an ile and godparents at all. So it feels like that advice isn’t very practical or insightful.
Instead of advice, what I want to offer is some hope for us. First, the hope that you’re not alone in this and never will be. When you feel the homophobia, transphobia, or lack of acceptance in any other way for being LGBTQ+, remember that there are many of us facing it. We can seek each other out, we can listen to each other, support each other. There’s the hope that your presence in these traditions matters. It matters so much, especially for all of us who face these challenges. As there are more and more of us being open with each other about who we are in these communities, so then we can better find and support each other.
We have the hope that some of us will eventually become the LGBTQ+ godparents who are able to welcome others into the traditions. The hope that there will be more out and well-respected gay babalawos, nonbinary olorishas, asexual aborishas, transgender iyanifas, and beyond… so that anyone can be and will be initiated as they are meant to be in harmony and alignment with their identities. The hope that these elders will one day expose and peel back as much as possible the influences of colonialism that have brought so many prejudices into our traditions.
I also believe in the powerful hope with all my heart and soul that the Orishas love every single one of us. That they love us and want us to have true happiness and fulfillment in our lives no matter who we love (or not), who we sleep with (or not), who we marry (or not), what gender (or lack thereof) we identify as. And I take comfort in the hope of the Yoruba belief that we all are born with different destinies, and that we played a role in shaping what that destiny would be before we were born into this lifetime.
Obatala may have made many “mistakes” when humanity was created, but I’ll never believe that anyone’s gender or sexual orientation was one of them. Many destinies, and so then many identities, because whoever you are, you are valid, and you were meant to be you.
In a broader sense beyond the Orisha traditions, these are my hopes for every Africana tradition and every black spiritual community. May we all find the hopes that help us to keep growing and receiving the healing we need from our traditions despite the challenges. May my many hopes for us, our Africana LGBTQ+ community all around the world, bring you hope on your journey as it does for mine. I’m always happy to listen if you ever want to talk about these challenges, so we can support each other along the way. Ashe.