Being Gay and HIV-Positive in Haiti (Video)

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>PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti -- On days when he is especially depressed, Noel Paul stands behind the worn chain-link fence at the airport to watch the planes come in.


"I know when the flight from New York arrives, and I just stare at the people coming from New York," he says. "There are times that I have such nostalgia for New York, so that's what I do sometimes."

Paul, 29, would be living in New York himself now, instead of under a battered white tarp in a Haitian schoolyard, were it not for two things -- he is homosexual, and he's HIV positive.

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Video shot by Andre Lambertson and edited by Leese Katsnelson. Translations by Shu-Fy Pongnon.

When Paul was 19, he moved to Queens, New York to live with his aunt, and to attend school. But he cut class, choosing instead to spend much of his time cruising for partners in Subway station bathrooms, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Christopher Street in the West Village, and Cunningham Park in Queens. He hadn't had the personal freedom to explore his sexuality in Haiti, where homosexuality is pervasively considered a sin, and estimates that he had sexual encounters with hundreds of men in the almost three years he was living in New York.

"When I came to the United States it was like paradise. I just let go and got really debauched," he says. "Sometimes I used condoms, sometimes I didn't."

Paul's aunt eventually discovered that he was gay when she found some nude pictures he had taken of himself, hidden under his bed. He says that she and her family then did voodoo on him, to force him to return to Haiti against his will. He took a flight from JFK to Miami, then on to Port au Prince -- he says, under a spell.

Whether his aunt's incantations actually affected him in the way he describes, or he interprets things this way now to rationalize more complex motivations, he has been living with his mother here in Haiti ever since. His aunt, who is his father's sister and does not have a close relationship with his mother, did not tell his mother that he was gay. Paul cannot tell her either, because he says that she would disown him. Currently, he has no job and no way to support himself. So he suffers through the questions -- his family wonders when he is going to marry, why he doesn't have children -- and comments about how God destroyed Port au Prince because it is full of homosexuals and other transgressors.

"In my home, they always say that Jesus will be back soon, so gay people have to change their life, because [the earthquake] was caused by homosexuality," he says. "They think it's the same thing that happened in Sodom and Gomorrah."

The earthquake left long cracks in the small, blue house Paul shared with his mother and sister, so they now live under a tarp with eight other people. The space is neat, but open to the elements. They each have a twin-sized cot, covered in matching blankets. Paul has placed a patio umbrella, with panels of green, yellow, blue, and red, over his bed, for extra protection against the rain.

In the three years since he discovered he was HIV positive, Paul has had to take antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) twice a day. It was at first a challenge keeping his illness hidden from his family and others living in the schoolyard, because there was nowhere to store the boxes of medicine. Recognizing that it would be difficult for people living in the tent cities to hide their HIV status from others, some of the aid organizations operating in Port au Prince now dispense ARVs in clear plastic bags. But people still ask Paul why he has to down several pills -- two in the morning, three at night -- like clockwork.

He has always felt tormented that he was, as he says, sent back to Haiti and denied the opportunity to better himself. The earthquake has made that anguish many times worse. When the torrential rains beat down at night, water drips through the tears in the tarp and the holes in his umbrella, soaking him. He needs to take his ARVs with food, but the organizations that distributed free food in the early days after the earthquake have long since stopped doing so.

"In New York, when you wake up in the morning, you go to the refrigerator and you find a lot of food. Over here, you wake up and you can't even find a spoon of rice to put in your mouth," he says.

Paul sometimes gets food from his mother, who sells lunch by the roadside in downtown Port au Prince. He also goes to several clinics that offer food along with ARVs, collecting rice and beans that he can then eat himself, or sell to make some money.

He still dreams of returning to New York. Though he goes to support meetings at SEROvie, an organization that serves Haiti's gay and transgendered community, Paul feels stifled as a gay man living in Haiti and says he needs to be in New York to fully be himself. But with his HIV status, emigrating to New York is next to impossible. Paul has not spoken to his aunt or any of his father's family who live in the New York area since they sent him back, so there is no one to support his application for a visa.

Like many other Haitians, Paul does not see a future for himself in this broken-down city. But the rubble, the poverty, the lack of food and shelter are especially difficult for him to bear, he says, because he has been to a place that he describes over and over as paradise -- making it all the more apparent to him that he is now living in what he sees as hell.

"The United States is a beautiful county, where you can realize your dreams, where you can go to school, you got a lot of food, you can have a job. It's like a paradise on earth," he says. "If I had wings, I would fly to the United States. I would fly to New York."

This reporting project was supported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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Lisa Armstrong is a journalist who covers humanitarian issues around the world. She has written for The Washington Post, National Geographic, Parade, USA Weekend, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

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