Part of My Life on Hold in the Eastern Caribbean
May 15, 2007 Leave a comment
– a Peace Corps Volunteer
In 2004, I led a comfortable life in a beautiful town near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The fact that it was home to the religious right made it easier to pursue my interests in GLBT activism. I had the privilege of proudly waving the colors of the queer nation on the grounds of Focus on the Family and New Life Church. I stood in silent solidarity with the students of local high schools while the Fred Phelps clan displayed their venomous bigotry in protest of Gay Straight Alliances. I witnessed the mass same-sex wedding performed by the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches during Pride.
Why would I give all that up to move into the most oppressive closet I have ever known and call it home for two years? Because some Returned Peace Corps Volunteer felt the need to write an article. His name is Dick Lipez. The article was published in a local GLBT newspaper and summarized reasons why gays and lesbians should serve in the Peace Corps. The article originated in the LGB RPCV newsletter, and can be found on the LGB RPCV website, http://lgbrpcv.wordpress.com/1999/08/09/gays-lesbians-and-the-peace-corps-should-i-or-shouldnt-i/
Lipez made several compelling arguments for serving in the Peace Corps. The ones that particularly struck me were, “Gay people should and do join the Peace Corps for the same reasons straight people should and do,” and “You’ll come back with coping skills you never dreamed you had, and with renewed commitment to the cause of human rights.” I had dreamt of going to Africa with the Peace Corps when I was in high school. By 2004, the main reasons I had not considered Peace Corps service were due to my commitments to GLBT activism. In short, I wouldn’t let myself join Peace Corps because I was gay and there were other things I felt I should be doing. Lipez took the logic out of that argument. Secondly, if I did join Peace Corps and Lipez was correct about developing skills, then I should return as a more effective activist for those deeply-cared-about activities that were stopping me in the first place. I started the application process.
Now, I’m four months from my Close of Service. Has it been worth it? Absolutely! Would I do it again? Not on your life! At least, not immediately. Why, you ask? Because some of it has been hell and I’m tired of roasting. It has been worthwhile, but the experience has challenged me to painfully grow in ways I didn’t know possible. Guess Lipez was right in that regard. If I were to give a detailed account of all I have experienced here, all I have learned, all the people I have met and how they have shaped my understanding of myself and my world, you would have to cuddle up in front of a blazing fire over a long snowy weekend to truly appreciate it. Instead, for now, here’s the abridged version you can read on your coffee break.
I was sent to a small island in the Eastern Caribbean where an interfaith service is one in which there are Protestants and Catholics. You do not necessarily have to be a Christian, but you should at least acknowledge that Jesus is God. Is homosexuality a sin? Come on! I mean, is the world flat? Wait, no, I mean, is the world round? Either way, the answer is yes. Homosexuality? Definitely a sin. Within the first week of arriving at my home stay, my host mother shared with me her perceptions of those sinful, shameless homosexuals that came through on a cruise ship. Amazingly, Brokeback Mountain played for a whole two nights before it was pulled due to religious and government intervention.
While gay bashings are not frequent, they do happen, but most usually by acquaintances or family members. A local friend told me that when his brother found out, they got into a fight. Naively thinking this meant a verbal argument, I asked what happened. His response? “He kicked my ass.” A few men have told me they have received beatings from family members in the attempt to correct them. From the larger societal perspective, the existence of gay men and lesbians is mostly denied. “Those people don’t exist here!”
In fact, the concept of gay or lesbian does not exist here. It is much easier to experience this fact than explain it. Since I have been here, the way I understand myself has changed. In my previous life, I lived and interacted with a degree of integrity and authenticity; whereas here, I have learned to be misleading, concealing, and vague in personal and professional relationships. This has led to a slight decrease in my self-respect. Fortunately I had a lot to begin with, and I plan to regain what I have lost.
The experience of being a non-entity is even reflected in the local terminology for homosexuality. While the term “gay” is recognized here, it does not have the same connotation. In the States, at least in my experience, the identification as gay was liberating, emboldening, and empowering. When I declared “I’m gay” I was revealing a significant aspect of how I relate to others without shame or embarrassment. I was stating my future hopes and dreams; the importance I place on honesty in my relationships, the relationships I hope to build that would endure throughout my lifetime. I do not feel I have that opportunity as an MSM.
MSM is the term used for the gay male population in developing countries where there is no identifiable homosexual community. It is not an identification so much as it is a description of an activity, Men who have Sex with Men. Frankly, I’m not a “men” and I don’t define myself by having “sex with men.” Being gay, to me, is not defined by sex. Being an MSM is. It’s limiting, demeaning and oppressive.
That’s the nasty of it. But I still believe the experience has been worthwhile despite the fact that I have had to put a significant aspect of my life on hold and perfect the practice of deception. Aside from issues of sexual orientation, it has been a privilege to work on developing and implementing educational initiatives in a developing country, my primary project. In the past year and a half, I have had the opportunity of creating vital support systems for students and teachers – not something that I would have been able to do so dramatically back in the States.
But even in regard to sexuality and, specifically, the local MSM population, I have been fortunate to become involved, experience the nuances of the culture, and support individuals attempting to make life better, and all with Peace Corps support. One of the greatest opportunities I had was assisting a local Non-Government Organization sponsor a workshop held over three weekends for MSM on HIV/AIDS and safer sexual practices. Fifteen men participated representing a wide age range and an equally diverse connection to the MSM population. Though I had spent several years in gay activism back in the States, I felt like I was witnessing a scene from another planet or another era.
During the first weekend, the men were reticent. By the second weekend, they began to trust each other and the format of the workshop. By the third weekend, there were tears that there would not be a fourth weekend. The information was basic. But it was not the information that mattered. For many of the men, maybe for all of them, it was the first time they had had the opportunity to discuss their sexuality in a group setting and discover they were not alone, that their experiences were not unique, and that in sharing a burden, solidarity and hope emerge. According to the organizers, it was the first such event to happen in the country’s history. I was there. ‘Nuff said.’
I would not describe my Peace Corps experience as fun. It has been beautiful, and in many instances, the beauty has been laced with intense pain. But through the process, I have discovered resources I never knew I had and have developed an inner strength I know I never wanted. I have met phenomenal people who have redefined resilience. I now know that the level of acceptance of diverse sexual orientations and gender expressions that exist in the States is not as bad as it could be even though it is not as good as I would like it to be, but that it can slide backwards as easily as it can advance. I have also learned that I have a voice and a say in the matter.
Yeah, this experience has been worth it. Thanks, Mr. Lipez. I look forward to seeing you back in the States as a fellow RPCV.
We often have current PCVs write anonymously. Individual safety and security in a homophobic environment is the obvious reason. You can contact this volunteer by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org We will forward your messages to him.