Alone on an Island
August 15, 2001
-a Youth Worker PCV, Eastern Caribbean, August 2001
Coming into the Peace Corps, I had no worries that I would find people like me among fellow volunteers, people who shared my ideals and philosophies of the world. Peace Corps is supposed to be a bunch of bleeding-heart hippies, right? Instead I was surprised to find that not only was I the lone gay person, but that the majority of my coworkers were rather conservative-minded, even the youngest ones just out of college.
I began to get an inkling about the situation while still in training. During one of many personal safety sessions, the trainers (all PCVs from the previous class) led a discussion on the hazards and benefits of dating during service. Each of the trainers related a personal story about his or her own experience in fraternizing with local people. When one woman finished her story about a man she had dated, I had to ask how common homosexual relationships were. She immediately answered that she knew a few gay people but that they would never consider coming out. The other volunteers added that non-hetero relationships were not only rare, but also dangerous. I was told it would threaten a person’s position in their community and that gay people were considered outcasts due to the religious nature of the island culture.
I had expected this kind of attitude from the local people, but what took me by surprise was the response from the other volunteers. Half of training was spent talking about setting up a support system among your coworkers and I began to feel more and more alone. Everyone spent the lunch hour talking about girlfriends and boyfriends left behind. When asked if I was in a relationship (I’ve dated the same woman for more than a year) the conversation would become quiet and awkward. On one occasion, near the end of training, a Peace Corps trainee sidled up to me at an party and said, I’ve been watching you all week and gave me that look. The next day, she made sure to tell me about her boyfriend back home.
As the weeks and months passed, I grew closer to some of the volunteers. However, the issue of my sexuality continued to be an awkward, uncomfortable subject with the other volunteers. In the beginning, I was faced with actual disbelief from others about my being gay.
One volunteer told me of a conversation he had had with two other male volunteers. He said that they didn’t believe I was a lesbian, but thought I did have something going on with a volunteer (male) who had trained us.
It was so hard being away from my girlfriend and I had no one to confide in, no one who I could talk to without them casting nervous glances to the floor and shooting anxious smiles and nods in my direction every three seconds. The only person I could talk to was my girlfriend in San Francisco, and without a phone or reliable access to email, that wasn’t as frequent as either of us needed.
I’ve been here for a year or so now and it’s just in the past few months that the other volunteers are at the point where they sometimes inquire about my girlfriend and are able to offer some kind of support. Still, there are times when I wonder what they really think. At one gathering of PCVs and some local people, a local man was telling a volunteer about all the derogatory names they have for gay men. At each example she would crack up and make comments like, “That’s a funny one, and what else? Tell me another one.” I was in the kitchen just a few feet away in her direct view when I heard her say, “What about lesbians? Do you have any names for lesbians?” Either I had been in the closet so much that she had forgot that I was a lesbian or she just didn’t care. Either way, it upset me. So what did I do? I left the room, and wondered what had happened to the outspoken person I used to be.
A few weeks ago, my girlfriend came to the island to visit, and we had a blissful time. Its been like drinking from an oasis. At the same time, however, I felt the need to show some small sign of affection toward her around the other volunteers to prove that we really are a couple. They repeatedly refer to her as my “friend” and while they have been polite, it is clear that they are uncomfortable with the idea of us and unsure of how to relate to us together.
It is a strange thing to be out among your friends and family and then have to go back in the closet. I regret but understand the need to disguise who I am among the local people. What is harder for me to fathom is why a group of young people, Peace Corps volunteers, normally tolerant and open-minded, dedicated to making the world a better place, and coming from one of the freest nations on earth, are so uneasy with who I am.
I’ve left behind everyone I’ve known several times before for new jobs, but this time I feel isolated in a way that I never have before. It’s a jolting feeling to realize you are the ONLY homo you know in five countries – male or female. Recently, the LGB RPCV newsletter was sitting on the table in the Volunteer Lounge in the Peace Corps office. I picked it up to read it and quickly thought that I should make a copy to take home in case someone else wanted to read it. Then I remembered I was the only one who would have any interest in it, or even the courage to pick it up. It struck me again at that point how deeply alone I felt.
I’m invested in my projects and I enjoy living here most days. I’ve created special friendships with the people of my village, especially the children. I even enjoy being around the other volunteers. I know I have made some life-long friendships. But because of the loneliness that I feel, I’ve been tempted to end my service early.
While I would feel like a quitter for leaving, it seems like this could be the only way to be true to myself and preserve my sanity. It’s as though I have to hide myself away almost all the time – not a happy feeling. Equally important, it isn’t fair to my relationship with my girlfriend. She loves and needs me, and I’m thousands of miles away with people who will never be able to accept me as I am. We’re both making an awesome sacrifice, and I wonder sometimes if it’s really worth it.
Editors note: To protect the security of the author, we have not included her name. To contact her, e-mail the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll put you in touch.