Judeo-Christian religious traditions have always had an adversarial relationship with the Queer Community. Historically, anyone found to be gay or otherwise “deviant” was at the very least ostracized or, at worst, put to death by being burned at the stake.
Even today, queer folks are often at odds with conventional Judeo-Christian churches, and synagogues. Islamic traditions haven’t been exactly welcoming, either. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that many LGBTQ people choose to explore other, lesser known, more esoteric faiths.
One of those faiths is the practice of Santéria.
Santéria is an ancient system of spiritual thought and ritual born on the West coast of Africa, carried across the dreaded Middle Passage to the New World in the hearts of slaves and combined with certain practices of Catholicism and indigenous folk magic to become what it is today.
To better understand what Santéria is and is not, I decided to ask an actual practitioner–the spiritually sumptuous Nandi, and I’m truly humbled by such a beautiful lady.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Nandi La Sophia. I am a queer/trans Santera. I am also an artist, musician, actor and published author and playwright. I am the creator of chocha milagros, a small business making pussy pillows. You can find me on etsy.
Is there a large Santéria community in San Francisco?
As far as I have experienced in my years in and out of the Bay Area, there is a large community of Santeria practitioners throughout the Bay.
What brought you to the faith?
Once upon a time, in 1994, I walked into a friend’s house who had some really cute, unofficial altars set up for the Orishas, complete with some elekes (ceremonial/initiate necklaces) she’d made for them. I was fascinated and so started reading anything I could get my hands on.
How are queer initiates regarded in the religion?
Queer politics and social climates are difficult to gauge in some ilés (our “houses”). Some are steeped with misogynist and dogmatic patriarchal mindsets while others like mine, are highly open and accepting, loving ceremonial spaces. We have many transgender and queer priests. Practically every member of my house falls somewhere in the LGBTQ spectrum.
Some houses believe that queer/trans and gender nonconforming people have no place at the table of priests; they believe that something is fundamentally wrong with us that can be fixed. I have never met people like these and I hope never to. Their beliefs are sad, ignorant, and extremely harmful to adherents of Lucumi/Santéria. In my experience though, most houses are accepting.
Is there acceptance for queer folks, and especially trans folks, becoming initiated as Priestesses and Priests? Is this more regional? Meaning, is it more or less accepted in say, Cuba or Puerto Rico, or even New York City, versus the West Coast of the US?
I can’t speak to regional beliefs as I don’t have any friends in those places and have not been in ritual space in any of those places. I think that Lucumi is generally regarded as a religion for all, or at least that’s my hope considering the immense trove of wisdom and insight to the human condition that the Yoruba people have bestowed upon us all and it’s not as if queer people are new to humanity!
Santéria is predominantly an African-Latino religion. Nowadays, many white people, both queer and straight, are strongly attracted to Afro-Diasporic traditions, and Santeria has become very popular. What do you say to comments about cultural appropriation? Do you think race or culture of origin matter here, or do you believe that this is between worshipper and Spirit?
It’s difficult to explain my feelings about cultural appropriation and whiteness in this religion in a pithy way, but let me attempt to because it’s very important.
When a person is interested in the religion, they first need a godparent/guide. The Orisha that the godparent is initiated to must accept the person through a simple divination before any more steps can be taken. Sometimes a person just isn’t meant for this religion and the answer will be a simple “no”. Sometimes they may be told they need to be a priest for whatever reason. They may be told they need to take the first steps to initiation; receiving their Elekes. Maybe that’s as far as a person goes. The point is this: The Orishas have the last word. If the Orishas want me as their child, that’s it. I’m theirs. I don’t feel that any human being’s opinion of me is relevant.
Any human who feels that I don’t belong in this religion based on my gender identity, sexual orientation or ethnicity, is wrong. Plain and simple.
There’s a long history of queer folks being regarded and revered as holy people which goes way back to ancient times and was common to many cultures. Is this sensibility honored in Santéria today?
To my knowledge, there are no passages or culture built up around the identity of queer people as such. There are certain Orishas who are said to be either patron saints to queer people, or to be queer themselves, but that is highly disputed and not something that I’d ever commit to practice. Every person has their own highly individual relationship to their Orishas, so far be it from me to define what that is.
Have you always felt welcomed into the faith, or have people become more inclusive over time? Are queer worshippers treated equally?
The first ilé I was in was a house of Ifá, which is a branch of Yoruba philosophy which is generally regarded as more studious and closer to the original practices of the Yoruba people, which to me seems clear since it is widely practiced in Nigeria today and Lucumi emerged from Cuba as a result of the Middle Passage/Slaves. Clearly there is a lot to touch on here and I do not wish to pay a disservice to this history, however, for the sake of this interview, I would rather keep it simple. In that Ifá house, I did not feel very welcome at all. A year of practice with these people and none of them regarded me in a very friendly way. I was just kind of background to them, I think.
What do you feel that Santéria bring to the queer community and queer individuals?
I think that Lucumi brings a lot to the queer people initiated into it’s secrets. I personally don’t think that this is a religion for all people; as it is difficult work to do in every possible way. I am constantly challenged to face every ugly part of myself and break it down; break myself down to become more solid, more compact and a more efficient version of myself that has no room for useless negativity.
This religion brings a sense of family to me. I came from an abusive household wherein there was no room for me. I work with dozens of people who embraced me quickly and sincerely made room for me, both in ways I needed and in ways I never asked for.
I am constantly touched by the sincerity and generosity in the people I am blessed to share ceremonial work space with. I think that this religion can instill a solid sense of identity to LGBTQ folks. I do not mean that we don’t already have a solid sense of self or are in conflict in any way. I simply mean that this religion gives purpose and strength to fortify what’s already there. In terms of the queer community as a whole, I’m not sure what this religion and us queer priests bring to it at large beyond a display of openness and faith and the possibilities that exist outside of Judeo-Christian norms. I don’t feel very plugged into queer community personally, so I can’t speak to that.
Any advice for new seekers?
My advice to new seekers is to FIND A GODPARENT. Period! Find out if there are any public events in your area and go to them. If you want in this religion, know that your work will be lifelong. Your ceremonial work will be exhausting and also fulfilling. The work carries weight and import. If you can’t be bothered to scrub a toilet, don’t bother! If you have dogmatic views around our practices of animal sacrifice, don’t bother. There’s no way around them and no reason to create a reality where there is.
My advice is also to buy a lot of white clothes. You’ll need them.