Homosexuality in Candomblé
by Iya Melissa
I remember once I was at a BBQ and some priests of varying Orixá religions were present. I was at a table with Iyalorixas and Babalawos, some were nursing a beer, others were smoking, still others were doing both. The environment was completely secular and the conversation had nothing to do with religion. At one point I voiced my opinion, and the Babalawo looked at me and asked, “Are you even initiated?” I was shocked at the question, because there we were in mixed company, in a non-religious space discussing very secular topics but my opinion was invalidated because I wasn’t initiated. He went on to say that I couldn’t possibly interact with him because he had over 20 years of initiation. I think I ultimately blocked out the rest of the exchange. I mean, really, do you think he checked the initiation status of a cashier before checking out at the supermarket before he decided whether they were worth talking to?I was mostly shocked because I had come to understand and believe that above everything else each person has Ori. Whether or not that person even knows what Ori means, whether they are worshiping Ori, have gone through rituals and ceremonies to keep their Ori in alignment, every person has Ori and that’s to be respected. In Candomblé Ketu we greet each other with Motumbá/Motumbaxé and even abiyans exchange blessings with one another because everyone has Ori and axé. Without axé we wouldn’t be alive.
When we say, “Motumbá,” and respond, “Motumbaxé, Motumbá,” it really is about honoring and praising the person you’re interacting with. It’s exchanging praise and axé with the Ori we’re interacting with. Everyone deserves respect, not just folks who are initiated or have an oye or a certain amount of years. Not just folks with a certain profession, or folks who can help us get something we want. Every single person is deserving of respect and feeling like their Ori is being honored. We all have that piece of the divine within us, working through us and exchanging axé all the time. That respect extends to all differences we may have, including differences in sexuality.
One of the questions that folks often ask me when they’re looking to take steps in Candomblé is whether homosexuality is accepted or condemned. It’s complicated and simple at the same time.
What does Candomblé say about being gay?
What do Orixá say about being gay?
They’re difficult questions to answer, because the fact of the matter is that they don’t say anything at all. Candomblé is a religion – like all of the other Yoruba based religions – that doesn’t have a bible. It doesn’t have a set of rules or commandments that apply to everyone. At the heart of Yoruba ethics we are taught to speak the truth, do good things and live life with gentle character. We are reminded not to judge, because that’s a task that belongs to Olodumare.
Our mythology teaches us lessons about things Orixá experienced while they were on earth. The Odu corpus is filled with verses that are often referred to during divination or to substantiate an argument. Baba/Iyalorixas use merindinlogun to divine, and the system is not as elaborate as divining with opele or ikin. Through divination we find out what someone might be experiencing and what they might need to bring balance to the seeker’s life. Divination identifies the kinds of things in life we should avoid and also makes suggestions about things we can do to keep ourselves in alignment with Ori and our destiny. Iya/Babalorixas in Candomblé do not read 256 combinations of the 16 principal Odu, but more and more people are studying these Odu and subsequently approach verses of Ifa as they would bible verses.
Inevitably, people come across verses of Ifa that seem to speak to homosexuality. It’s problematic, because even if those verses exist my belief (and feel free to disagree) is that it doesn’t matter.
An Odu can exist, it can have many lessons, but if that Odu never fell for me in any of my readings then it’s of no consequence that it exists. It’s the same thing as me looking at someone who has a particular ewo (grounded in Odu) and deciding that I am also going to avoid their taboo because I think it will be beneficial for me. It doesn’t work that way. That person has their ewo because what they’re avoiding could save their life. Avoiding whatever it is could be part of a larger life lesson that person has to learn over time. There are many reasons for taboos and there’s no one size fits all approach. So, just because an Odu exists, doesn’t mean it applies to everyone. Our Oris are unique and individual, and our destinies aren’t the same.
People come looking for validation, and it’s difficult because their point of reference is often a religion that has a written book. A book that has a list of rules that everyone must follow, and that’s very different from Candomblé. My do’s and don’ts come from my Odu, the Odu that fell for me when I was being initiated and that’s my bible. It’s not going to be the same as anyone else, not even people of the same Odu because guess what? Even though we may have the same Odu, we have different Oris!
When people come to Candomblé they want to know, “Is this a religion where I’m going to be accepted?” Honestly, and slightly unfortunately, the answer to this question has more to do with individual priests and how they run their Ilê Axé than it does the religion itself.
What’s a bigger deal than what Orixá or Candomblé have to say about homosexuality is the intolerance of individual people.
To me, that boils down to a profound understanding of what Ori is. The person who understands Ori and really worships Ori doesn’t have space in their heart for homophobia, racism, transphobia, sexism, or any behaviors that would exclude someone from being respected. In order to really, really be able to be in service to the Orixá – because that’s what we do as Iya/Babalorixas – to praise someone’s Ori, there’s no room for prejudice. As an Iyalorixa who has been entrusted by Oxum to share the tradition of Candomblé, to take care of people, to honor and serve and worship and praise Orixá, it is not my place to say I cannot take care of someone because of their sexuality (or race, or gender, or ability, or, or or…).
When people ask, “What does Candomblé say about homosexuality?” or “What does Candomblé teach about what it means to be gay…is it accepted?” it’s really a non-issue. My hope, my dream, my desire would be for folks who are looking for Orixá and seeking guidance within Candomblé are able to do so in welcoming environments that are free of prejudice (or are actively working through their prejudice) to create actual spaces of healing.
As priests we work in service to others in addition to serving Orixá. Like doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, etc, Iya/Babalorixas are entrusted with the task of taking care of others. Yes, we must know about all the Orixá, about Odu, songs, dances, foods, ebos, rituals, and much more. In addition, we must know how to be compassionate. We must know how to take care of people because it is within them that their Orixá resides. There’s no way you can justify mistreating the divine.