The searing delight of hot sauce-laced gumbo, Creole cottages painted up like drag queens, triumphant trombone riffs spilling from open doorways -- there’s nowhere like New Orleans. Now, for gay couples seeking a unique stage for their commitment ceremony, the city’s rich cultural tapestry offers one of its most mysterious threads: voodoo.
Although tourism and TV have spun zombie hexes into a cartoonish portrayal of a belief system, when stripped to its genuine roots, “voodoo is actually one of the most welcoming religions for gays, lesbians, and transgender people,” says Harrison Setzler, an artist from Greer, S.C., who has firsthand experience. On a visit to New Orleans, he was told by a mambo -- an initiated female voodoo priest -- that people don’t have to repress who they are, that God’s life force is seen in everything. Long an explorer of multiple spiritual paths, when Setzler decided to tie the knot, that allure of inclusiveness sealed the deal, even if his partner, Neil Morris, remained skeptical: “Are we going to kill a chicken?” he asked.
The answer would satisfy the most fanatical PETA members. Voodoo as it’s practiced in New Orleans involves no animal sacrifice and has an almost vegan quality, with fruits and veggies offered up to the spirits instead. Practiced for thousands of years in Africa, the religion followed the slave trade to America and has been fortified by waves of Haitian immigrants. And just as in Haiti, voodoo has evolved in its Crescent City home, taking on aspects of local culture as well as many elements of the area’s predominantly Catholic faith.
In April 2007, Setzler and Morris dressed all in white, a sacred color believed to bring the energy of the creator to the couple, and followed a conga drum rhythm to an altar beneath a fragrant sweet olive tree. The Reverend Severina Singh, the priestess who co-conducted the ceremony with the Reverend Kenneth Kafoed, an out gay man, blew cigar smoke toward an icon on the altar and deftly sprayed a mouthful of rum across its expanse. Tobacco and rum, among the few luxury items that were available to slaves, are considered powerful offerings.
“Icons may be photos of the bridal couple’s ancestors or of sacred objects that are imbued with the forces that we are going to make offerings to,” Singh says of the altar, the entry point to communing with the spirits.
The couple also receives a series of individually tailored blessings that might include sacred items like shells, sticks, bone whisks, and crutches -- or more memorably, the blessing of the temple snake followed by a machete dance.
“The snake is a part of Marie Laveau’s tradition,” notes Singh, referencing New Orleans’s most legendary voodoo practitioner. “It’s considered the vehicle for the force of transformation.” The machete dance is used to cut away negativity and forces that might impede the couple on their way through life. Particularly appropriate to a gay ceremony is the way in which male and female dancers, each wielding a machete, weave around and pair off in different combinations, playing with gender.
Chango, the spirit of male sexuality, is also invoked. With a twinkle in his eye as he touches a basket of offerings to the head, hands, and knees of each lover, Reverend Kenneth whispers the benefits the spirit provides other parts of their anatomy. “In terms of elements, he’s a raging fire,” he smiles. “When he appears, everyone becomes erotically enthralled.”
With a final cleansing blessing by a white dove, its flapping wings blowing negative energy out to nature, the couple jumps over a broom to seal their bond.
The union blessed and the spirits appeased, it’s time for this tradition to give way to another equally rooted in New Orleans culture -- the after-party! We can only imagine that Chango will be in attendance.