There is a saying that statistics speak for themselves. Yet a statistic cannot convey the fear or anguish that comes with an act of violence.
Erin Durban-Albrecht has been conducting research in Haiti trying to understand how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) document attacks and abuse on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersexual (LGBTQI) individuals. The assistant professor of cultural anthropology and women’s and gender studies at Illinois State University hopes to use that information to help international aid organizations better understand the problem of homophobia in the Caribbean nation.
“Haiti’s a hard place. It has been systematically undermined in lots of different ways,” said Durban-Albrecht, who began studying the nation as an undergraduate. “It’s difficult in a place where people are starving, without adequate health care, to think about social problems like homophobia. But I’m working to show the connections.”
Over several weeks in the winter of 2015 and the summer of 2016, Durban-Albrecht worked with three Haitian organizations that focus on human rights or sexual health. Each day was spent documenting the process of people reporting homophobic attacks or harassment to the organizations. “I looked at their interactions, how they gathered background about an incident, the process to decide whether to report it to the police, and the involvement of lawyers and courts,” said Durban-Albrecht.
The main goal of the extensive ethnographic research is to help international organizations get a clear picture of offences happening in Haiti. “For a long time, there wasn’t a standard documentation process. Some would collect anecdotal evidence, but international organizations could not make those stories translate into help,” said Durban-Albrecht. “For me, it’s about understanding the process of abstraction—how do people turn these events, these material events of people’s everyday lives, into different forms of representation like statistics. For activists, what works in making a change?”
Part of Durban-Albrecht’s research also delves into the dynamics between Haitians and U.S.-based international organizations geared toward helping with human rights. “Unless they are working in Haiti, there is danger of assistance coming across as a different kind of missionary work,” said Durban-Albrecht.
“There has to be a clear, cultural, and historical understanding of the country.” The assistant professor has also studied the rise of religiously influenced homophobia that arrived in Haiti with Catholic and Protestant missionaries.
This history helps organizations and activists understand individual incidents of homophobia in terms of broader social changes. According to Durban-Albrecht, the trend toward open harassment of the LGBTQI population in Haiti tends to spike around tragic events, like the earthquake in 2010 or the recent hurricane. “There is an antagonism that rises when people want to find answers, and they may turn to each other and say, ‘We are being punished by God,’ or ‘This is because of our sins,’” said Durban-Albrecht. “It used to be that people who were ‘discrete’ would be left alone. But since I started this work in 2008, people are being subject more and more to homophobia on a daily basis whether or not they practice discretion about their intimate lives.”
Durban-Albrecht’s dissertation, Postcolonial Homophobia: United States Imperialism in Haiti and the Transnational Circulation of Antigay Sexual Politics, won the National Women’s Studies Association-University of Illinois Press First Book Prize in 2015, and will soon be published as a book. The overall goal of the project is to provide an analysis for interactions between those Haitians who oppose LGBTQI rights and those advocating for them. Durban-Albrecht emphasized, “It’s important for me to help people understand how the history of Haiti impacts the lives of everyday people through homophobia. We also need to support Haitians who are doing the difficult work of documenting these abuses and trying to make the world a better place.”