Has Cher Come Out with Anything New?

- by Heidi Lehmann, RPCV Ghana

I’m currently in the waning months of a two and a half year term as a Forestry volunteer in the West African country of Ghana . I laughed, I cried, I planted plenty of trees and I thought about Cher … a lot. At home everyone knew of my total infatuation with CHer. Here, among sixty plus strangers who I had to co-exist peacefully with for the next two years, my once vocal admiration was muted.

In the silence I listened for just one sentence about gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps. Thank CHer for keen hearing or that one sentence would have slipped by me! Silence is for church, silence is for meditating, silence is for sitting across from old Aunt Betty because she refuses to wear her hearing aid and can’t hear you anyway. Silence is NOT for two of the most emotional years of your life. Thus I approached the Peace Corps with a request to create an atmosphere conducive to discourse on gay and lesbian issues, which in turn would allow the needs of gay and lesbian volunteers to be met by PC staff, Ghanaian trainers and other PCVs. I proposed this be accomplished in the following way.

First, a session dealing with sexual orientation as a component of diversity was designed. This would bring the issue of sexual orientation as a volunteer concern to the attention of the Peace Corps staff, Ghanaian trainers and other PCVs. Then this session facilitated by me would be incorporated into PST ’94. Next, to provide incoming PCTs with a very general idea of the attitudes toward homosexuality they might encounter in-country, a questionnaire was put together. The questionnaire, entitled Perceptions Toward Homosexuality, was distributed to both the

Ghanaian trainers and the Ghanaian Peace Corps staff. 42 out of the 44 trainers and 3 out of the 16 staff responded. Last, the actual session with me as the facilitator was presented at PST ’94. That was the day I started to reconsider and think that maybe silence wasn’t so bad. After all it had the reputation for being golden.

Why again did I feel the need to open my mouth? Talking one on one with my APCD about the fact that I was queer as a three dollar bill was one thing. Getting up in front of 25+ strangers and talking about it was a different ball game. I was scared and I was nervous. Let me say that in another way. I was really scared and I was really nervous. There I was in front of a room full of strangers and a handful of volunteers I had known for a year. The song, “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!” crept into my head. I took a deep breath … and I was talking about sex.

I felt the session was incredibly successful in that it opened up discourse on sexual orientation. The audience was extremely interested in the results of the questionnaire. Basically, the results indicated that the respondees perceived homosexuality as unacceptable behavior. 59% said they would feel uncomfortable about discussing it and 30% said they would refuse to discuss it entirely. This reflects the general climate in the country concerning the issue. Only two Ghanaian trainers didn’t return the questionnaire. After my session, there was no difference in my interaction with the Ghanaians. This year I have handed out a slightly different questionnaire and have been involved in the entire training process.

While it is apparent that my Ghanaian colleagues don’t approve of homosexuality, I see it as a somewhat passive disapproval. For example, in my town there is a man who works at a “chop” bar. This is considered to be women’s work. It struck me as odd that a man was doing it. After some time I started to ask questions about him. The people were amazingly forthcoming with information. He was a man “who doesn’t prefer women.” People were sure that I knew what they meant. I was momentarily startled by this and thought that maybe “gaydar” transverses continents. Actually they were “sure” we had those in America. I cheerfully responded, “sure do.”

This is not to say I would feel comfortable proclaiming my sexuality to the people in my town. But in contrast to a fellow volunteer who served in the West Indies, I have been fortunate enough to discuss homosexuality with some host country nationals without feeling any danger.

In terms of volunteer to volunteer support the response has been extremely positive. The decision to approach Peace Corps Ghana about doing a session was not an easy one. But I think it made an incredible difference in how I was able to enjoy my two plus years here. Now, when new volunteers arrive or when anyone returns from a visit home, the first thing I ask is, “Has CHer come out with anything new … anything?”

Heidi Lehmann has returned home. If you would like to contact Heidi please do so at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

About LGBT RPCV
We are an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and others who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends. Founded in Washington D.C. in 1991, we have several hundred members throughout the country and around the world who have served in Peace Corps since its beginning in 1961. We're made up of a national steering committee, together with regional chapters. We are an active affiliate member of the National Peace Corps Association.

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