Just three years ago, Yaisah Val couldn’t have predicted that she would be a mother to so many.
The name of the shelter, located in Port-au-Prince, means “home for trans Haitians.”
Her residents, many of whom have been displaced from their homes or rejected by their families, cook meals together and bicker over clothes. It’s a place where young trans women can experiment with wigs and dresses and nail art; where trans men can get binders for their chest to make them feel more like themselves.
These “small victories” are a big deal to young people who have been cast out by their families and communities, Val said. “To watch them live these new experiences is the best thing.”
Haitians have weathered multiple crises over the past two years. Years of political turmoil and accusations of corruption crescendoed last month with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Lack of testing and vaccines have made it hard to battle the coronavirus pandemic — or even know the true scale of the problem. Gang violence is on the rise. And on Aug. 14, the island nation was rocked by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, followed days later by a tropical storm.
Amid brewing tensions and strife, Val said some groups have found a scapegoat in queer and trans Haitians, who have been the targets of increased hostility. And in a nation where resources and aid are stretched thin, trans Haitians are often excluded from such lifelines, despite experiencing greater instability, she said.
“We’re not even in the conversation,” Val said. “We’re at the very bottom of the barrel.”
The shelter fills a void for trans Haitians that simply can’t be found anywhere else, said Daïsha Dorsainvil; a supporter of the shelter who is organizing its latest GoFundMe campaign.
Aid “will not trickle down to us,” Dorsainvil said. “We have to take that into our own hands."
Val never planned to be an advocate or public figure. Until she was 45, she had “passed” as a middle-class, Haitian American cis woman. But that changed when she attended a conference in 2018. Val recalled a government official claiming that Haiti did not have a problem with trans people simply because “that does not exist in Haiti.”
“That’s the first time I got up and said, ‘My name is Yaisah Val. I’m Haitian, and I’m a transgender woman.’ ”
News of her coming out rippled around the country; she began doing TV and radio appearances, and young trans people began reaching out to her, seeking advice. Many didn’t know how to self-identify until she came out, Val said. Others got in touch with her seeking refuge. She couldn’t turn them away.
Val converted a part of her home into a shelter, fitting in several bunk beds to help house the trans people who came to her. It wasn’t long before she ran out of space.
“They just kept pouring in,” she said. Eventually, she moved her family to the top floor of her home, converting the downstairs into a shelter.
Since the earthquake, the number of people reaching out to Val has only increased. For many of them, Kay Trans Ayiti is their only option.
While Haiti has a robust culture of mutual aid — and has received nearly $13 billion in foreign aid since the 2010 earthquake — it’s rare for that to trickle down to transgender people, said Dorsainvil, especially when religious institutions are helming aid or relief efforts.
Dorsainvil believes this exclusion holds all Haitians back: “The only way we’re going to move forward is if we start from the most marginalized.”
Residents of Kay Trans Ayiti range from 17 to 29 years old, and can live at the shelter free of cost for a year. They get counseling, and before the pandemic, Val brought in teachers who would lead English courses and computer lessons. Kay Trans Ayiti also provides empowerment workshops for residents, as well as food and medication. A security officer comes in at night to ensure the residents are safe, Val said.
“It’s like a big trans camp,” Val said. “It’s amazing to see them grow and change and discover themselves.”
Because they’re so stigmatized, trans Haitians have little institutional support when they are thrown out on the street or are victims of physical and sexual attacks. Val said she has been laughed at and disregarded by police when she has attempted to report assaults or rapes against trans people.
It’s not unusual for medical professionals to discriminate against transgender patients or be ignorant about their needs, Val added. It can be humiliating and traumatizing for trans men to seek care from a gynecologist, for example.
A major part of Val’s advocacy has been to educate the country’s “gatekeepers.” She goes to police stations, government officials, judges, doctors and nurses, attempting to educate them about the needs of trans Haitians. She explains to them the difference between sexual identity and gender identity. Val has even talked down strangers who threaten and harass her online, successfully challenging them to reconsider their views.
But the anti-trans rhetoric and attacks have escalated in recent months, Val said. The shelter was attacked. A radio caller threatened Val directly when she appeared on a show.
What’s true for Haiti is true for much of the Caribbean, according to a 2020 UNAIDS report.
Transgender people living in the region are “far less likely to be supported by family, complete their secondary education and be employed.”
They are also more likely to be homeless, engage in sex work and face “extreme violence.”
Kay Trans Ayiti is looking to raise $30,000 to help cover the costs of food, water and medication for shelter residents.
But political instability, worsened by the back-to-back natural disasters, has made it difficult to plan for the future, she said.
“The idea of [the shelter] is, after 12 months, you’re going to get on your feet. But how do you get on your feet in Haiti?” Val said.
The work has taken a toll on her.
“I have to be in teaching mode all the time or on guard, and that’s toxic in itself,” she said. “A big piece of my private life, my sanity, is gone.”
But she said it is rewarding when young trans people reach out to thank her. They tell her, “I know who am now.”
Val hopes the support she gives those who come through her shelter opens up the possibilities of who they could be and what they could have.
“I was able to be a wife, a mom, a professional — have a life — because I have support,” she said. “Look at what love and support can do.”