Category: African Traditional Religion

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

While privately discussing the recent Palo and Homosexuality episode of Candelo’s Corner and the two posts here on Bones to Pick responding to it, Tata Walker brought up the fact that many paleros deal with the subject with a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule.   That struck a nerve for me.

Most of you probably remember hearing about a policy by that name implemented by the US Military from February 28, 1994 through September 20, 2011.   For me, the experience was a bit more personal.

I’m a bisexual male.  I’m currently 34, and I’ve known that I was bisexual for longer than I have had a word for it.  I can very clearly remember the first time I consciously recognized a crush on another boy – the first day of fifth grade.  I was 10 years old, I saw him from across the playground, and all I could think to myself was “Oh my god, he’s beautiful!”

It wouldn’t be for several more years, until I was thirteen, that I realized this represented something that made me different from other boys.  It was then that I read the Herald-Mage Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and recognized myself in her fictional “Shay’a’chern”, in particular the character Vanyel.  That would be how I thought of myself for a few more years, until I finally got on the internet in high school and found the real-world terminology to describe my sexual orientation.  And even then, it would not be until close to the end of my senior year of high school, when I was 18, that I came out to anyone as bisexual and finally began my first relationship with another man.  This was 1999.

During the summer of 1999, my father experienced heart failure and was hospitalized.  At that time it was also discovered that he was an uncontrolled diabetic with a foot infection, one which required most of his big toe be amputated immediately.  He was in the hospital for over a month, and on disability thereafter.  It was a rough time for my family, and I made what I thought was the best choice possible to help them at the time.  I enlisted in the US Army.

My recruiter must have had some pretty good gaydar, because he reassured me numerous times that nobody cared about sexual orientation anymore.  He referenced the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy several times.  Thing is?  Recruiters lie.

My basic training was slated to be at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (or, as we not-so-affectionately referred to it, Fort Lost-in-the-Woods, Misery) in November.  The very first day we arrived at Fort Leonard Wood we were told to sit down and watch some videos on the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  These videos painted a very different picture than what I had been told by my recruiter.  Rather than “don’t ask, don’t tell”, the real policy seemed to be “don’t ever get caught”.  The videos detailed extensively what the penalties for being caught would be.  Years in prison and a dishonorable discharge simply for kissing another man or holding his hand.  Even more prison time for actual sex.  And it was made very clear that this applied on base or off base, on duty or off duty, in or out of uniform, active or reserve.

Just dating my new boyfriend could get me put in prison.  That wasn’t what I had signed on for.

Thankfully, not long after that, a way out presented itself.  We were gathered together in an assembly and told that we all had one last chance, a “moment of truth”, to tell our commanding officer anything that we had not told our recruiters.  I took that opportunity, and was granted an entry level discharge for “homosexual admission”.  The actual process from that point on would take about a month, until early December.

Word spread fast.  Comments were frequent and derisive.  Marching cadences for my unit began including lines about meeting a “faggot” with my name.  More than once I had to defend myself from physical assault.

It was that last that really started to change things.  I’m 5′ even, and one of the people who assaulted me was one of the biggest guys in our unit.  Each of his punches literally knocked me to the floor, but I kept getting up again.  I had a black eye and a split lip the next day.  But so did he.  Neither of us reported the other.  The assaults stopped.  I’d earned some respect.

Not long after that, I tried something radical.  I agreed to answer any question put to me about my sexuality.  The questions that were asked made me realize just how sheltered a lot of my fellow recruits had been and how little they actually knew about gay or bisexual people.  I answered everything from who in the unit I thought was the most attractive man, to why I had “chosen” to be gay (it’s not a choice), to questions about “gerbiling” (I’d never heard of it and needed them to tell me what it was) which they’d assumed was a typical gay sex act.  No matter how ridiculous, I didn’t get offended.  I just answered them.  And people began to come around.

By the time my discharge went through, many of the people in my unit told me that I’d completely changed their views on gays.  Including the guys who had assaulted me.

See, that’s the thing about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies, and how it relates back to Palo.  These policies aren’t really about keeping gays and bisexuals out of the military, or out of Palo.  Gays and bisexuals were already in the military long before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was officially ended, and I guarantee they’re in more Palo houses than people know about or would admit to.  What these policies are really about is keeping their presence invisible.  Making it impossible to acknowledge or discuss their contributions.    Making it impossible for people to get to know people who are gay within the religion, see the quality of their workings for themselves, and have their preconceptions challenged.  Making it impossible for queer paleros to earn the respect of their peers.

We see this even in the episode of Candelo’s Corner I mentioned at the start of this essay.   While people mentioned knowing gay paleros, not one gay or bisexual palero nor the godparents of any gay or bisexual palero were present for that discussion.  Instead, the debate was between paleros whose houses exclude gays on one side and neopagans on the other.  Rendering actual queer paleros invisible all over again.

Palo & Homosexuality— Another View


The subject of gays in in the Cuban ramas of Palo is a touchy subject. Discussions merely mentioning the fact that thriving gay paleros exist is to incite the most vicious of arguments and bring out such ugliness that it’s no wonder to me that it’s usually buried way underground.

But the simple fact is that they do exist. They practice. They thrive. They do readings, build ngangas, counsel people, heal the sick and bring justice to those that do wrong. We cannot ignore this, even if we wanted.

The  fact that men are the ones that do the birthing of ngangas brings a duality of the spirit into the forefront. How does a man give birth if he is not inviting the Divine Femeine within him? If he is in fact, not becoming woman? It is practiced fact that in many households that women cannot even be present when a Tata is building an nganga. But again, an nganga is birthed from another. BIRTHED, not constructed. I have always questioned: Why is it that a woman does not build an nganga? If an nganga is in fact birthed, should a woman not build it as she builds the child within her? Have the man come and “plant the seed”. Help to create the life by combining the essential elements within the cauldron and let her do the construction of the nganga as she builds the child in her womb. A man does not build the child. His job is done when the seed is planted. The woman holds the child. It draws energy, nutrients, blood nourishment and every else that it needs through her. She is the one then who births it, who gives the child it’s first sacrifice, it’s first taste of blood. She is the gateway and it is she who opens those gates to the first pathway a child ever journeys, the birth canal. She is the first crossroads this child ever visits.

But I digress, this is about gays. But the fact of the matter is, that gays are in touch with their sacred feminine. They embrace it. They are sacred in countless pre-christian religions as those that can access all genders and paths. They can See as those who view life solely through a single gender cannot. They see all paths leading from the crossroads.

When I (and my husband with me) entered into Palo, many years ago, I was taught that gays were not allowed access to Palo. I was taught that any ceremonies or initiations done when a homosexual was present were considered invalid. All ngangas built in the presence of a homosexual were “built wrong” and needed to be rebuilt “right”. That ngangas would “stop working” if a homosexual was presented in front of them and that the ancestors of the house would be “angry and turn their backs”. I heard that “the ancestors hate homosexuals because they do not have children”. “They are imbalanced, and our religion is too much for them”. I also could not help but notice the endemic homophobic comments and jokes told by the many Tatas. It occurred to me then that it was not all due to spiritual matters, but I was not at the point that I was questioning the rules yet. Over the years and further exposure to the culture in which most of Palo is immersed, I began to see where much of this thought process was coming from. If one looks back into the history of Central America, one notices that most of it was settled by the Spanish (hence Spanish being the main language of Palo). The Spaniards brought with them their religion, which was primarily Roman Catholicism. And the Spaniards, unlike the British, encouraged the conversion of their slaves to their religion. Thusly, it is logical that the descendants of those slaves (and natives) would be strongly influenced by Catholic Dogma.

Now, let me say, that I am not writing this to be disrespectful to these Elders that brought me into the religion, initiated me and taught me. I am, however, aware of the concept of “respeto” and the roles of men and women in Latino culture. Palo might have come from the Congo, but for five hundred years, it has been in Cuba and that is where it has been shaped by the Spaniards that brought the slaves and converted them to Catholicism. Palo is a religion also shaped by the will to survive above all else. It has morphed itself into a form that can both be hidden and in plain sight. It can appear both harmless and terrifying. It had to, in order to survive. So the concepts and dogma of Catholicism became part of Palo and brought with it the disempowerment of both women and homosexuals. The Congolese who survived the journey of the Middle Passage brought with them what knowledge they had about their spirituality. The spiritual leaders were usually elderly and were either killed, left behind or perished before arrival in the New World, and the survivors did not have the extensive knowledge necessary to pass on. Over the centuries, it has become unrecognizably different from its Congolese origins as the Congolese have themselves. Christianity and Islam have become entrenched and the older pre-Christian system has been mostly either warped or forgotten.

So the concept of pacts with ancestors being broken over the issue of initiating LGBTQ people due to them not being accepted by the ancestors of the house is just not true. The Ancestors don’t go back simply to the Middle Passage. They extend beyond until the beginning of life on the planet, to when the first primal being crawled out of Kalunga’s waters and breathed its first breath of air. With all of those thousands of generations, one cannot say that LGBTQ people did not exist, thrive, reproduce, pass on and then become elevated by their descendants and give their strength to the next generation.
Much of my Work is done with the Forgotten Dead, of which are Legion. I will be so bold to say that while we in Palo are supposed to be keepers of the Dead and the Ancestors, that we have also forgotten. We have forgotten to the point where we deny the very fact that these ancestors exist. When we forget, we do not elevate and so these Forgotten wander, voiceless, nameless, hungry. Is this not in itself a breaking of aa sacred oath? Do we not lessen our strength by denying them elevation? How dare we, as healers, as warriors, as Paleros pick and choose the pacts given to us by Nsambi to keep?
BUT…. Most Initiates do not ask their godparents these questions regarding the rules and tenets of the religion. It is disrespectful to question and could possibly even lead to punishment. This is what I was taught as well. But we were abandoned by our house. And by the Tata of the house that has since adopted us, we were told that we were from the house of Ill Wind. And indeed, all of us are named for a violent act of nature. But sometimes it takes a violent act of nature to cleanse and renew our beloved forest for regrowth and renewal.

Nsambi is above all. That the bakulu of the house are the deciders of who they want brought in. Out of the people brought to us, no matter what their sexuality, they have been brought to teach us, bestow us something or bless us. Some of these lessons, like those of the bakulu have been harsh, but all of them have been needed. How do we learn the things needed if we deny those Spirit has brought? As what many have said previously regarding the topic: “”How do we as flesh take it upon ourselves to flatly deny the gifts that Spirit is trying too give us?” Could that be what has been decreed? That Spirit brings a person that is needing initiation, that his ancestral line is supposed to be added to the house and that in denying that addition to the lineage is what weakens the Bakulu and ultimately has them turn their backs? Nature abhors a vacuum and will forever try to correct an imbalance. What if, instead of keeping Palo balanced and adhering to the bakulu’s wishes by not initiating LGBTQ, we are instead contributing to the imbalance by denying them their place in the natural, sacred order of things? By denying them acknowledgment as ancestors we are denying them elevation and by doing that weakening ourselves in a time when we need as much solidarity as a people and as a spiritual path as possible because Spirit knows this world is in desperate need of wisdom and healing.

I’m not asking for hundreds of years of hard won and preciously kept tradition to change overnight. I’m not demanding that houses initiate LGBTQ people. I am, however saying that they exist and that they are part of the natural order of the world that we have made oaths to protect and serve. I am saying that they have a place in the religion. I am saying they take and keep the same pacts and oaths to the Nkisi and to Nsambi as we all do. To deny this is to deny the past, to deny the Bakulu, to stand before your Muertos or Spirits or whatever you choose to call them and say “I deny you exist.”

It is long past time for us to light a candle and call these ancestors out of the water and welcome them to our table.

Nsala Malongo,
Yayi Nganga Tormenta Kalunguera

Palo and Homosexuality

Recently I listened to an episode of Candelo’s Corner entitled ‘Palo and Homosexuality‘.  I’ve been listening to the show for roughly the past two years.  It had been recommended to me by my yayi who found it a good resource for learning outside of the munanso.  This summer it’ll be a year since I’ve been initiated ngueyo.  But here’s a fun fact: I’m also transgendered and queer.  So, when I found out Candelo finally decided to tackle this thorny subject, I decided to take a listen and see what he has to say about it.

What I found interesting right off the bat was that, although Tata Candelo mentioned that there were other prominent gay paleros, he did not mention who these gay paleros were.  I can understand from a safety or a privacy standpoint, or perhaps not wanting to ‘call anyone out’.  Which, to me, beggars the question of what kind of environment people are cultivating, that to be “out” as queer in Palo is a bad or dangerous thing?  What I also found interesting was that there was not one Palero within the GLBTQA that called in to speak out and share their story.  The entire show was other heteronormative people discussing homosexuality in Palo.  Most of these people aside from the tatas speaking on the show had very little or no experience with Palo, their experience falling within the circles of neopaganism and wicca.  Neopaganism, wicca and satanism has no bearing on Palo, and can’t even be compared.  Where are the queer Palo voices, and why are they not speaking?

Of course you understand these are rhetorical questions, presented to the reading audience.  The answers seem obvious.  In this case, silence speaks louder the answer to said questions.  But silence isn’t going to work.  Silence also perpetuates bullshit.  I think it’s high time we cut out the bullshit and start the discourse.  Ultimately, I don’t care what you do in your munanso.  Your munanso, your spirits, your business.  But who are we to judge who is and isn’t to be initiated based on sexual orientation?  In another broadcast, Tata Candelo discusses how sexuality has absolutely no bearing within the ATRs.  He is, of course, entirely correct.  So, the question I would like to ask is, if sexuality and sexual matters have no place within the ATRs, why is it such an issue what someone’s sexual orientation is?  In fact there are quite a few issues, which I’ll break down nicely.  These I pulled both from my observations of co-religionists, from the radio show, and from discussing matters within my own munanso.

The gays will fall in love with the ngangas!
I’m starting out with this one first, because it is, by far, the most ridiculous.  The idea behind this being that, since the ngangas throw off so strongly such masculine and macho energy, the homosexual will fall in love with the nganga.  This, to me, is a nonissue.  What about the feminine gendered ngangas?  They do exist, and they aren’t to be trifled with.  There isn’t an issue with tatas falling in love with female ngangas, is there? Also, why is this not an issue for women within the
religion falling in love with ngangas?  Is it because of an
assumption that women are seen as objects with no sexual assertiveness
of their own, or is it because men are more hypersexual and thusly
unable to control themselves?  Both assumptions are equally problematic.  But then again, to me the issue boils down to this: If you have someone (anyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation) getting as randy as a damn horse over ngangas or other spirits and spirit-vessels (let alone the serious sexual misconduct that can occur between heterosexuals in munansos), then this is a serious issue with the person independent of any sort of orientation whatsoever.  This person should have been weeded out in the beginning, NOT for being a homosexual, but for having some sort of sexual and/or impulse control disorder, in which case said person should be seeking professional therapy instead of initiation! 

Why is sexuality being brought up AT ALL, if sex has no place within the ATRs?  But moving right along.

Gay people aren’t part of the balanced lifecycle/Homosexuality is unnatural/etc
This statement also makes absolutely no sense.  Same-sex interactions exist everywhere.  They are found in nature in numerous animal species.  To the people who subscribe to this sort of thing: do these people mean to say that Nsambi makes mistakes?  What made these people the final arbiters on what the natural lifecycle is or what it should be?  Much of this line of thinking falls into the whole reproduction argument, which I will be addressing in a later section.  But to pronounce that someone or something is “unnatural” just because it threatens your sense of manhood only betrays a severe ignorance and lack of comprehension on how the natural world actually works.

It’s Tradition!  It’s always been this way/The Ancestors were never gay, etc.
How do you know that there were never any queer ancestors?  To assume that there weren’t is the highest form of arrogance and presumptuousness.  Basic logic and facts point to yes–there were many queer dead, just as there are many queer people living now.  Abrahamic faiths, colonialism and slavery are really damn good at completely fucking up entire cultural dynamics and spiritual systems.  Do these people who perpetuate this line of thinking dare to be the final arbiter of ancestral will?  Or so they only pick and choose who they will speak for, because their supposed manhood would obviously be too threatened?  It all goes back to the whole idea of sorting the wheat from the chaff, of sorting what is in fact true messages from the Bakulu, and what is meatsuit nonsense–personal opinions and politics and insecurities.  There are some that may say that’s exactly what I’m doing, and so be it.  But their argument would be entirely irrelevent.  By completely ignoring or denying the existence of queer ancestors, what right would they have to judge me?  That those who are queer are so “unnatural” that they can’t leave ancestors?  An argument that stands on very shakey ground when you consider that even basic human familial ties transcend genetic relations and breeding.

This all then brings me to my final argument…

Fertility and Reproduction: Homosexuals cannot create life, birth, and etc
There is quite a big difference between “birthing” in a ritual sense and birthing in a literal one.  People in same-sex partnerships can and do have children, this has been happening throughout recorded history and beyond.  There is a very prominent double-standard at play that persons who are sterile due to medical reasons are still welcome to seek initiation into Palo.  In many munansos, a woman isn’t allowed to receive an nganga until she reaches menopause.  So clearly, medical ability to produce children has no bearing in initiation status.  It only seems to become an issue when LGBTQ persons are involved.  However, if sexuality has no place within the ATRs, then who someone is attracted to (or not attracted to), and what the structure of anatomy a person has, should have absolutely no bearing upon birthing in the context of ceremony.  Sexuality and attraction should have no bearing and no place in ceremony.  Full stop.

Let me make this clear: This isn’t about trying to soothe hurt feelings, or putting on kid gloves or powdering asses.  This isn’t about being ‘politically correct’.  I’m not here to strike down tradition or go against the grain.  But what is ‘tradition’ needs to evolve.  I don’t give a fuck what you do in your house.  What you do with your spirits and your people is your business, and I’m not about to jab my nose in your business.  So hey, don’t jab your nose in mine.  Gay and queer Paleros DO exist.  Whether or not you feel they are or aren’t legitimate is entirely irrelevant.  The final arbiters are the Nkisi, Spirits, and Bakulu.  They have final stay on who goes and who stays.  Regardless of your feelings, this isn’t going to go away.  Let actions and let the manifestations speak for themselves.  And I would like very much to thank Tata Candelo for having the coconuts to bring this topic up and get people talking about this.  Dialogue is important, and ultimately the only way for traditions and human bonds to strengthen is through the vehicle of dialogue, which hopefully will give way to understanding in time.  For those of you who read this far, thanks and Nsala Malecu.

Originally posted on:

On Not Answering the Call

by Madre La Osa

(Now, a disclaimer: If you are crowned or in these traditions, I am in no way shape or diminishing your standing or your Orisha, and come to you with the utmost respect, these are my observances, after over twenty years as an aleyo)

It was either the tail end of 2001 or the beginning of 2002, but I was about 20 or 21 years of age and walking into my first igbodu to have my first ever consultation with a babalawo. Now, I was not by any means alone, because I was with the other three members of my then ile, and everything I had heard or read beforehand has prepared me for a “deep and truly profound personal experience.” We all took our places on the mat, and I held my breath as he threw the opuele. He sat up straight and after literally half a second of looking at the opuele he threw, he looked at us all, in one big sweeping glance and announced, “You ALL must receive elekes, warriors, your one hand of Ifa, Ocha, Ibeyi, and Olokun, and you must do it fast!”

That sounded like (and to this day over ten years later) still is an enormous amount of money, time, energy and ashe, however that is not what cooled my enthusiasm like ice on a swollen knee. It was looking at all of his present godchildren and seeing at least thirty people, all crowned; the three iyawos in the corner; and the two people in the living room chatting excitedly about their own impending Ocha ceremony in less than a week.

After about another year or so, I had to sever ties with that ile, and had moved on looking for a new one, and I happened upon an Ifa house. The members themselves were fantastic (and I still to this day keep in touch and consider them to be my spiritual brothers and sisters), however after the first consult with the head priest, it was once again made clear that I had been called to priesthood. This time around, I had in fact received my elekes and my warriors, unfortunately however, the head priest decided to close down the ile at short notice, and took my warriors away claiming that Eshu told her that I had more money in my pocket at the time of my receiving them, so they were never truly paid for in full, and I should have given the money when I had it. (I was $50 short, but still bought all the supplies, items, and animals. I still paid $400 cash for my warriors. The “extra” money in my pocket was for my gas and tolls on the way home.)

So, about six years later, I got into another ile, and was once again told that I needed to be crowned at nineteen or twenty years of age, so it needed to (once again) happen as soon as possible. I got to know the head priest, her husband, and kids over the course of about two years. She seemed really sincere and it seemed that I was her only godchild, so when she made the suggestion for me to move out to LA, live in her ile, and learn first hand from her and her godfather who happens to be a VERY well known priest and drummer, I jumped at the opportunity. I took my savings of a couple grand, consolidated my belongings and jumped on a plane within three days of being invited. Within eight months and after running completely through my money, she and another devotee she had living there (who had the trust fund money readily available for his $35,000 initiation) chased me out with threats, knives, and broken glass because I had outlived my usefulness, but that full tale is a story for a different day.

See a pattern?

All of them claimed that I was to be crowned for it was DESTINED. . .as it was for every. Body. Else.

So now I ask: Where are the crown-less?

Where are those who are destined to be uncrowned devotees? Where are the custodians and helpers? The ones whose destiny is not to wear a crown but to be the hands, legs, heart, soul and backbones of these iles in these traditions? The ones whose love of the God, the Orisha, Eggun, and Egbe is enough for them. They are not called for beads, warriors, or anything else but are still thoroughly embraced by the love of their spirits, God, their ancestors, and their godsiblings.

I have yet to find yet a one in my travels.

Granted, I know that I may find a house that has them, and I myself am a proud Palo Kimbisa devotee and priest, however I know one thing:

I am still called in some way shape or form. It feels as if one would have a reminder from an unknown yet beloved spouse in the back of their head to stop at the store and get milk before you come home from work, but you keep forgetting. For years. And the reminder is getting louder every day.

It’s just that every ile I have seen, visited, danced with, worked in has all had EVERYONE called for a crown, especially if they have money, but that’s not what a crown is for, and for that reason, I have remained a “professional aleyo”. I am being the change I would like to see in these traditions, by not chasing after the beads, not counting pennies for something I know that without severe financial help I will never attain. However, I will dig the dirt, pluck the chickens, entertain the children, crack the coconuts and sing the songs until I am out of breath.

Because I am the Change, and you can’t answer your spiritual calling without Change.

Be blessed, thanks for reading.

© 2021 Bones to Pick

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑