When Fritner Henry was growing up he always knew that he had a style to life that was different from everyone else but he never knew how to define himself or where he fit in. As he grew into his teenage years and began understanding more about the world, he began to realize that he was gay, even though he didn’t have a word for it yet. All that he knew was that it was a lifestyle that wasn’t respected or accepted in his society and so he began to search for a place where he would be accepted and understood. It was in Haitian folk dance that he found his tribe. Through dance he was able to express the more feminine side to his spirit more freely around other individuals that each had a unique style to carrying themselves as well. However, living as an openly gay man was still looked down upon and criticized even in the dance community. Even though that is where many queer Haitians gravitated, they were still consistently discriminated against for not conforming to gender norms.
It was after participating in a seminar held by a group called Konesans Fanmi on sexual education and sexual health that he began to brainstorm about how to form his own group that would utilize the folk arts of dance and music that he loved so much to defend and lift up the LGBTQ community of Haitians that he had come to consider his family. It was shortly after that seminar that Fritzner met Flo McGarrell at an event at the Alliance Francaise. Flo was the director of FOSAJ at the time, and introduced Fritner to the concept of transgender identity for the first time and the two of them became quick friends. Fritzner shared with Flo his dream of building a folk dance troupe that would use the folk arts expressly to combat discrimination and stigmatization within Haitian society and with Flo’s support they founded Gran Lakou. Gran Lakou was started as a place where everyone would feel welcomed and affirmed, especially those who felt marginalized by the other popular dance troupes of the area. From the start, Fritzner recruited the talent of singer, Yonel Charles, and together they set out to use their passion for dance and music in a way that would challenge gender stereotypes and decolonize ingrained perspectives on sexuality.
Before the earthquake of 2010, Gran Lakou had grown into an organization that not only created a safe space for many young Haitians to express themselves through dance, but also worked within the community to organize their own workshops and conferences centered around advocating for the rights of LGBTQ Haitians and also promoting healthy sexual practices for all Haitians regardless of orientation. Through this work they began to garner respect within society because others came to see them first and foremost as artists and activists before judging their personal lifestyles. In the earthquake, however, Gran Lakou suffered a great loss when their primary cheerleader, fundraiser, and network builder, Flo, died in the disaster. Through their grief, Gran Lakou continued on, but struggled to grow without Flo’s strength and support to bolster them. They lost all of the international contacts that once partnered with their work and Fritzner’s wish is that all of the people that had been friends of Gran Lakou’s by virtue of Flo would know that Gran Lakou is still alive and still dancing and still fighting the good fight for justice and equality in Haiti. He hopes that they find a way to get reconnected.
Today, Gran Lakou enjoys a revitalized relationship with Sant d’A Jakmel as one of our resident dance troupes and is able to collaborate with our full membership of artists on a number of events. Locally, Fritzner says that he can see a change in mentality evolve towards LGBTQ persons and more and more Haitians are opening up. Where several years back he can recount instances of direct violence towards himself and friends of his for simply living their lives, now he says he can walk down the streets in Jacmel at anytime and always feel safe and proud to be himself. Through their seminars, they’ve even been able to build relationships with the local police forces and cultivate a partnership where LGBTQ Jacmeliennes are now knowingly protected where they once were targeted. He hopes that someday all gay and lesbian Haitians may know that same freedom as other parts of the country continue to live in hate towards their queer brothers and sisters. He, for his part, is definitely doing all he can to bring that change about and we at SAJ are proud to stand beside him and all of Gran Lakou as they do. “Every time that we speak out publicly or put on a public dance performance, it’s giving people a chance to change their minds and it’s moving the light of progress forward.”
You can watch videos of Gran Lakou performing on our YouTube page. If you would like to support the work of Gran Lakou to help facilitate more training opportunities and advocacy projects or to support their needs for their dance performances, please make a donation through The Jacmel Arts Center today! And if you are in Jacmel on Friday June 22nd, make sure to catch Gran Lakou performing at our Boukan Sen Jen Grand Event at 8pm on our newly remodeled backyard stage!