The Nuance of Identity: Haitian, American, Black

The tale of the American immigrant parent is well-known. Parents relocate to the United States to secure a better future for their children. Although “better” is a term that can be defined in many different ways, it is clear first-generation Haitian-American Jean-Phillipe Regis’s parents worked diligently to ensure that for their three children.

Both of Regis’s parents arrived in the United States as teens, with few members of their nuclear families and little more than a floor to sleep on. The pair eventually met and married in New York. Jean-Phillipe acknowledges his family’s immigrant story may be familiar to many, but is grateful, saying “hopes of a greater variety of opportunities for their family: that’s really the essence of what they were looking for and they worked really hard to provide that for myself and my siblings.”

 

A Multifaceted Identity

Although the thirty-one-year-old activist was born in Freeport, New York and has not visited the Caribbean nation since the first grade, Jean-Phillipe still manages to find ways to connect with his Haitian roots. Regis admits that while neither he nor his siblings speak French or Creole, Haitian music and food serve as a treasured way of relating to their heritage. He even makes a yearly trip to Miami, Florida for his birthday to immerse himself in the large Haitian community there and visit his favorite Haitian restaurant, Tap Tap. J.P. also credits Haitian art with having a positive impact on his life, describing it as “very distinct and very vivid, beautiful.”

As a first-generation Haitian-American, J.P. loves his Haitian background, but also recognizes his identity is multifaceted. Haitian. American. Black. Jean-Phillipe describes his cultural identity as “nuanced in my experience.” He goes on to say, “I think as I move through the world, my Black identity is most prominent in the way that most institutions and people perceive me. And the way a lot of my socio-economic circumstances have gone seem to align most closely with the Black experience. However, on a personal level, I would say that my Haitian background has honestly colored a lot of my identity in terms of […] when I look at my childhood and my development […] it’s Haitian.” He adds, however, that “to a lot of my Haitian peers, they would probably say American.”

At times, Jean-Phillipe’s Haitian-American identity has created challenges for him. His Haitian peers generally view him as American because he cannot speak their language of origin. The District of Columbia resident also recognizes distinct cultural differences from the Black American community, explaining, “When I go to my Black friends and say ‘oh, you know, yeah, I’m Black just like you’ and they talk about some of the old school music or classic soul food, and that’s really not any part of my life, you know? Growing up I didn’t hear Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin or anything like that. You know, I heard Haitian music or gospel. And I didn’t eat any classic soul foods; I ate rice and plantains.”

Advocacy Career and LGBTQ Rights

As J.P. navigated the complicated idiosyncrasies of his national identity, he also found himself grappling with his sexual orientation within the context of his Haitian pride. At the age of twenty-five, Jean-Phillipe came out to his core family members as gay. This decision was a bold move “largely because many Haitians tend to be very religious, very conservative, and as such tend to struggle with supporting and affirming people who identify as LGBTQ” Regis elaborates. Though his family does not speak of this part of his identity, J.P. found support within the large Black LGBTQ community in D.C. and at local Pride events. Eventually, J.P. landed a job with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) civil rights organization. As a former student of political management and advocacy politics, human rights equality work seemed like a natural trajectory.

Though Regis is grateful for the civil liberties granted him by his US citizenship, the hardships of LGBTQ individuals in Haiti are not lost on him. He notes that the research he has conducted on the current state of LGBTQ inequality in Haiti is indeed dire. His recent research showed “there are very few social spaces or safe spaces for LGBTQ people to sort of gather. There are very few public demonstrations of pride. In fact, [in 2017] the senate in Haiti passed a law that not only banned same-sex marriage but […] also […] it’s illegal to even just support homosexuality.” J.P. has great concern for the LGBTQ community in Haiti and across the African diaspora, but activism in Haiti carries both a heavy burden of safety and authenticity concerns that currently serve as distinct barriers to more active engagement for him in that country.

Through his work Jean-Phillipe will continue to affect positive change in the LGBTQ community. His dedication to his position at the HRC finds him working to protect rights of LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents, as well as LGBTQ youth in foster care.

When sifting through the various parts of his identity, Jean-Phillipe finds that each piece informs the way he approaches his work. While his LGBTQ identity may be an obvious influence, his Haitian heritage also has a large impact on his career. As a first generation Haitian-American, he acknowledges, “There is absolutely a certain expectation and certain, I guess, framing of your development as a child to ensure that when you enter the workforce, you are achieving in a very highly productive manner.”

Mental Wellness as Part of the American Dream

Conversely, J.P. notes there are times when his cultural connection can present challenges in his daily life. In addition to the less-than-receptive attitude towards homosexuality, mental health challenges are also sometimes met with stigma in Haitian households, “similar to many other minority and marginalized populations […] It’s very absent from the narrative. It’s very much a focus on strength and survival and oftentimes any discussion of mental health issues is seen as a sign of weakness. There’s a lot of stigma and a lot of erasure of mental health issues generally in Haitian culture from what I’ve seen.” However, Regis counts his own experience as a catalyst for additional advocacy work he does and says, “Eventually, as I found treatment options and have found ways to navigate those challenges, it has now influenced my mental health advocacy work, specifically for minority populations because of my experience growing up as a Haitian kid.”

No matter what Jean-Phillipe does in life, the constant that remains is that he is a Haitian man. When asked what brings him the most pride, he beams,

“I do feel exceptionally proud when I see fellow Haitians succeeding and proudly representing the country. That’s something that sort of always fills my heart… When I’m able to see that. And when I meet other Haitian-Americans on my professional journey and we’re able to connect and also still be proud of where we come from. That’s really important.”

He also muses that some quintessentially Haitian things about him include his name, and phrases and sounds he uses when he speaks. “Although I don’t speak the language, I think that kind of encourages me even more in some ways to try and use the few phrases that I do know as often as possible. I’m regularly trying to find ways to infuse that in my regular language as well as different sounds that you more regularly hear in Haitian culture. There are certain sounds that you make with your mouth that you generally or primarily hear from Haitian people. Those are some of the things that always stick out to me. When I do them, I’m like ‘Whoa — that was Haitian!’”

There is no doubt in Jean-Phillipe’s mind that he is Haitian, through and through. Yes, being a Haitian-American queer man can be an existence filled with conflict, but J.P. is very proud of his Haitian heritage and tries to do his best to “be as vocal with that pride as [he] can.” Regis describes his journey to reconciliation, explaining, “While many Haitians struggle with accepting the LGBTQ community, that does not stop my pride for my country and the joy that I have for being raised as a Haitian-American.”

His great appreciation for his Haitian-American youth and his empathy for LGBTQ children and adolescents currently in the American foster care system are constant inspirations for the important work he does for the Human Rights Campaign. His latest project, All Children – All Families, focuses on removing barriers for LGBTQ-headed foster/adoptive families, and improving practices with LGBTQ youth in foster care.

Of course, life for this proud Haitian isn’t all work and no play. When seeking comfort in his culture, you can find him listening to one Haitian musician, Sweet Micky. Jean-Phillipe  recalls this artist fondly: “that’s my mom’s favorite and similar to many other cultures, you grow up dancing with your mom a lot of times at parties.” When asked about his favorite food, he says his favorite foods are Haitian patties and lumbee  “which is essentially conch, but it’s called lumbee in Haiti, and it’s a delicacy in Haiti. And it’s absolutely amazing.”

Although Jean-Phillipe Regis’ relationship to his Haitian-American identity may be intricate and complex, his love for his culture and heritage is simple. He loves his people and is committed to maintaining a vibrant and robust relationship through the art, music, and food of Haiti.

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