Handling Host Country Homophobia
November 3, 2005
– RPCV Kenya
I know very few gay or lesbian people in this country who haven’t experienced some form of homophobia. It could be something as little as overhearing a homophobic comment between classmates or listening to a homophobic reference in church. These little things add up and make us wonder what people would think of us if they knew we were gay. Due to these small but common messages, each of us has experienced uncertainty and fear when coming out to our peers, parents, and friends here in America. Why did we put ourselves through the anxiety of coming out?
In my life here in America, my coming out experience at 19 was filled with a fear of the unknown at first. But “living a lie” did not sit at all well with me. This is a free country and I thought that I should be able to live and be comfortable as myself. If someone had a problem with that, that was too bad for them because everyone else would be on my side. After about a year, I was fully out and I haven’t looked back. That is until I moved to Kenya with the Peace Corps a few years later.
I was prepared to live in another culture. While there I expected to follow the customs of my new host country as much as I could. With that in mind, I had no problems behaving like any other gay Kenyan would behave. That was to be in the closet. Was I living a lie? Absolutely! This time however, I was very comfortable with it. The reason for this was that almost everyone in Kenya lives some sort of a lie! Just like any country with strict rules, people are forced to lie so much that it becomes a normal thing to do and is almost acceptable to the point of being expected. Kenyans lie about not having money to lend; they lie about not having girlfriends on the side; they lie about why they have not called you the past few weeks. Lies are basically accepted if the result is avoiding conflict and if no one gets hurt. Even if you are caught in a lie, it’s okay! Just keep going on with the lie and it will be dropped. The whole concept is actually quite hilarious, but that was my experience in Kenya.
Realizing that I would be in the closet does not mean that I had to be a miserable, bitter individual hating the homophobic world in which I lived. Instead, I found many ways to be a closeted activist.
Here’s my experience and advice to LGBT volunteers. In a country where all the gay people are closeted, you may want to start with finding other gay people first. Once you do that, you then find a safe spot for them to get together to meet each other. That way you can form a secret group where people can be themselves and start to build a gay community. The people participating will feel very happy to meet others like themselves, talk and learn from each other. It can be a very empowering experience for the people involved. One friend of mine who lived in Mongolia did just that and a new group of Mongolian gay guys took over from there. In Kenya that had already begun when I got there. I just found that small group and we all helped to add members and expand the network.
Another way to make progress is among your fellow volunteers. If you don’t already have a “diversity support network” among volunteers, find the most gay-tolerant Peace Corps staff person and ask her or him if you could start something similar with other volunteers. I did just that after two gay volunteers left Kenya because they thought they had no support. Soon after starting the diversity support network, many gay and lesbian volunteers became more empowered and had people with whom they connect and share useful information. I’m not aware of any LGBT volunteers in Kenya who have left their service early since. The diversity support team can even suggest to the Peace Corps staff areas of a country that are more hospitable to LGBT volunteers, information that the staff probably doesn’t have.
Living in a homophobic host country (Kenya) was a great experience. Our coming out in the United States enlightens those around us, but getting people to come out to themselves in a homophobic country lays the groundwork for an entire revolution of change. In adjusting to your host country’s culture, you will adjust the culture of your host country. That is the dynamic spirit of the Peace Corps that I signed up for, and it far exceeded all of my expectations.