Laughing and Learning in Dominica
February 15, 2007 Leave a comment
– Hanna Dorn, RPCV, 2004-2006
During my last year in the liberal arts playpen of Oberlin College, a drag queen friend tested positive for HIV. He had survived war-time adolescence in the Third World only to have his life change forever from one night with a nice American college student. That Thanksgiving, as we ate soul food and danced meringue, my friend decided to redirect his life towards HIV/AIDS advocacy. I missed my young, exuberant drag queen, but his newfound strength and gravity were inspiring.
Feeling the need to do something about HIV/AIDS, I signed up for the Peace Corps. A friend in PC Peru gleefully reported that lesbians abounded in her training group, understanding that I would need to make concessions in my lifestyle. I left for the West Indies in January of 2004.
On arriving, the other trainees and I were asked to play that delightful get-to-know-you game where you’re commanded to raise your hand “if you come from a large family, if you like David Hasselhoff, if you’re ugly,” etc. I was perversely looking forward to the moment when I was going to have to shoot up my hand and shout, “I’m a big, fat gaylord!” but we weren’t asked that.
Anxious to get a feel for these people who didn’t look at all like the hippies I was used to, I tested the waters with a public rant about George W. and his “gigantic load of war-mongering hooey.” Sixty-some faces looked back at me silently and I concluded that perhaps it was best to keep quiet about my differences for the time being. A few days later, a male trainee came out to the group. His bravery helped me to come out to my colleagues as I got to know them. I discovered that though he and I were the only queer trainees, the majority of staff and volunteers were perfectly supportive (at times clumsy, but supportive).
I was assigned to work on Dominica, a tiny, fiercely beautiful island. As any volunteer will tell you, it is a peculiar sensation to stand with your suitcase and watch the only familiar face you know disappear after you have been dropped off in your village. In that moment, you know everything must change and you feel wonderful and terrible and very small. It was dusk as I watched the Director drive away down the mountain into a monstrous orange and fuchsia sky.
My host family showed me to a private room, a Peace Corps requirement for safety. With the entire family squeezed into the other room, I felt like a chump. My host mom had also relocated the family TV, complete with pirated cable, to my room. For a while, it became a secret lifeline to Americana. I would nostalgically watch “The Simpsons” to recharge after days spent schmoozing and feeling like a ninny who didn’t know how to do anything. One night, I stumbled upon the “L-Word” and must have forgotten to keep the volume down. When I returned from work the next afternoon, the TV was simply gone. “It broke,” my host mom said flatly. I found this dubious, but recognized it as a convenient time to wean myself.
I quickly became friends with another young woman in the village and rumors began to fly that we were lesbians. Villagers found it suspicious that I did not have a boyfriend and theorized that I was a homosexual/scared virgin/nun/racist. My friend was untroubled. “Bef is a word we use here that means nasty gossip,” she said. “It comes from the French boeuf. See the connection?” “Uh, no,” I had to answer. “Bef means beef,” she said wearily. “When you are careless and let your cow loose in the village, it’s going to eat up everything and cause damage. Words are the same way. They have been saying I was a malnomme (lesbian) since I didn’t make (have) a child by 16. I’m supposed to care, but I just don’t anymore. People will forget in a while.”
I admired her assurance, but couldn’t help noticing that my village music students were disappearing. A handful of pubescent girls, convinced that my opera training could transform them into American Idol material, begged for voice lessons. For several months, they had been coming by my home to sing. About the time of the gay rumor, mysterious illnesses and excuses began keeping the girls from coming to lessons. Unclear if the girls had simply lost interest or if bef was responsible, I asked a father why his daughters no longer sang with me.
“You don’t seem very friendly with men,” he growled. “What?” I said, confused. “I would love to teach boys in the village, but no one’s shown any interest yet.” “Just stay away from my girls,” the father said, taking a step toward me. “They don’t need you and your American ways.” Up until this point in my life, as a feminine, white-looking lady in America, I had been pretty much exempt from discrimination. It hurt to realize that villagers might consider me a threat to their children, but given the social climate, I should not have been surprised.
Homosexuality began to surface as a hot-button topic in the Caribbean with the formation of gay cruises in the late ‘90s. In Dominica, the government was eager to promote tourism, but many people opposed allowing gay cruise tours to visit the island. A local singer had released a song for Carnival called “Iron Underpants” which advised local men to craft chastity belts and not drop the soap if “The Gays” came to town. The buzz was reflective of a society that didn’t hate gays with the violence of Jamaica, but viewed us as a disappointing, amusing anomaly. Gay Dominicans were spoken of with a kind of patronizing affection. “Ah! There goes the village gay.” They were tolerated as long as they conformed to public perception of what gays should be.
I became friends with a gay couple in the village that had been together for many years. In addition to raising a niece and caring for an aging mother, they were advocates for persons living with HIV. From the start, we did our best to take care of each other. When their health was good, they invited me over for lunch and when their health was not, I cooked for them. One good day, when we were all pleasantly full of fresh fish and dasheen, one man revealed that a member of the clergy made a pass at him. “Cripes, that must have been awkward,” I said. “Yes, when I turned him down, he told me I would burn in hell. I wish he wasn’t right.” “Wha-huh?” I gasped. “I don’t want to go to hell,” he said quietly, “but we can’t control this. So we’re going to fry.” His partner held his hand.
I flew to visit my family in the South and brought my village buddy with me. I was excited to show her my world. We ducked into a club one night that was filled with what appeared to be well-groomed men with mad hip-hop skills. My friend marveled at the dancing before she turned to me and clutched my arm. “These are not men!” she hissed. “No, these would be lesbians. Do you want to leave?” She looked conflicted. For the record, she is not even an ounce gay. “Let’s stay,” she said. “This is interesting and they’re good dancers.” I felt really proud of her right then and wished the village could see us.
A few days later, I came back to the village from my visit home and was loved again. By the time I finished in 2006, I had made my peace with Dominica. Was the island homophobic? Wi (yes). But bearable and mostly enjoyable? Wi wi! Even better, I hear that queer volunteer support groups are springing up all over the Peace Corps world. And current and “retired” volunteers like us have this newsletter with which to relive our glory days.
My family tells me regularly that the experience made me a more easy-going, lovable person. My long-suffering mother is particularly relieved that I rarely feel the need to shriek, “It’s because I’m gay, isn’t it? Your daughter is a dyke!” at her in the supermarket. But much as I used to compulsively assert gayness, I now find myself blurting out long-winded Peace Corps stories.
You can contact Hanna Dorn at firstname.lastname@example.org.