Queer Volunteer? What to Expect in Morocco

- A Current Peace Corps Volunteer

Hi, I’m gay and just got invited to serve in Peace Corps Morocco.  What should I expect, in terms of harassment, homophobia, support networks, etc?

I’ll start with the obvious, just to get it out of the way: everyone’s service is different. How you experience Morocco depends on a thousand factors, of which your sexuality is only one. That said; it’s hard to be queer here.

Take a typical conversation. After the Salaamu alaikum and a few ritualized greeting phrases, any stranger you meet is going to want to categorize you according to the most important value system here: family. “Do you have children?  Are your parents still alive?  How many brothers and sisters do you have? Are you married?” Oh, who am I kidding; they’ll start with “Are you married?”

And when I say “No,” they immediately come back with, “But you want to get married, right?” And then my chest catches and I think of how painful a political issue this is, and how I wept last Election Day after hearing about Proposition 8 winning in California. But I smile, and think resolutely about the few states in which it is legal, and say, “If God wills it, I hope so!” Just another day in the life of a closeted queer Peace Corps Volunteer.

To be fair, we’re not the only PCVs who have to hide ourselves from our friends and neighbors. Anyone who drinks, smokes, engages in premarital sex, doesn’t believe in God (or worse, is Jewish) has to choose between honesty and community. If you tell the truth, you risk losing a friend or colleague; having them spread the news of what you’ve said, and losing more friends and colleagues; destroying that all-important integration and acceptance.

Morocco is a Muslim country. While individual levels of devotion vary widely, everyone is at least nominally Muslim, and as such, many feel compelled to condemn homosexuality. In the few, roundabout conversations I’ve had with Moroccans on the issue (I’ve never come out to a Moroccan, so the conversations have to be roundabout) their position feels reflexive, completely unexamined. I hope that means that it’s subject to change, but I’ve never dared push against it.

It’s especially hard to know how to talk to Peace Corps staff. They’ve been trained in American diversity, and all claim to have had gay PCV friends, but I’m sympathetic to their lifetime of indoctrinated homophobia, and don’t want to force them to overcome something just to keep talking to me.

When I’ve had these conversations though, my Moroccan friends invariably cite the story of Loth from the Qur’an (virtually identical to the story of Lot in Genesis) and tell me about a gay wedding that was celebrated a few years ago between a man and his drag queen bride. Both bride and groom were promptly arrested and imprisoned, sentenced to multi-year terms (of which they only served a few months).

Nobody had cared about the two men living together. Indeed, in this culture that draws no distinction between “alone” and “lonely,” it would have been far more bizarre for either of them to live alone. Furthermore, Moroccans cherish the distinction between public and private. What happens in your home is your own concern, but what happens on the street is subject to public opinion. The two men could have lived together for years without incident, if they hadn’t tried to stage a public wedding, but once they did, once they moved from the private sphere to the public, the law intervened. Because homosexuality is against the law here.

Further complicating matters is that there’s no real concept of homosexuality as an identity. Many, many men could say, “Of course I’m not gay! I will marry and have many children! So what if I happen to enjoy having sex with my friends? This is simply young men playing around together. Boys will be boys, you know. But no, I’m not gay!  Don’t be ridiculous.” This prevalent attitude that there’s no connection between sexual activity and sexual identity is why AIDS workers usually use the term “MSMs” instead of “gay men.” Men who have Sex with Men are defined by their actions alone.

On the other hand, Morocco has a culture of same-sex physical affection that makes it easier for a gay couple to walk on a street in Marrakesh than in Chicago. In every city, town and village that I’ve visited, I have seen people engaging in activity that reminds me of Provincetown. I’ve seen people holding hands, sitting on each other’s laps, walking around with their arms around each other, hugging, kissing on the cheeks. It’s always with someone of the same gender. Cross-gender affection is very rarely seen here, and is considered inappropriate and shameful to display in public. When I was new in-country, I kept thinking, “Oh, what a cute gay couple!” and having to stop, check myself, and realize that no, the two men I was looking at would identify as straight (though they may well be heading off to have sex with each other).

In that way, we actually have an easier time than our straight PCV friends. They have to remember not to publicly display their affection with their significant others, whereas we can snuggle in public and nobody cares. We can have lovers spend the night without anyone batting an eyelash, whereas cross-gender sleepovers could have massive negative repercussions, especially for female Volunteers.

OK, but what about sexual harassment?

Assuming you stay closeted (which, let’s be frank, we all do within our communities, though a few friends in bigger cities have come out to a careful handful of Moroccan friends), you probably won’t receive any. Not for being gay, anyway. If you’re female, you’ll receive harassment from men, and this can be quite a shock for women unused to sexual attention from the males. In the States, I routinely waved off flirtation and harassment by breezily announcing that I don’t date men. Here, I can’t do that, and was forced to find a whole new series of tools for dealing with harassment. One of my favorites; I wear a ring on my left hand, and tell strange men that I’m married. I’ll be honest about my singleton status with strange women, and with members of my community, but it’s handy for deflecting attention quickly and painlessly when traveling.

And now for the good news: Yes, we do have a Peace Corps support and advocacy group. It’s been known as GLIM (Gays and Lesbians in Morocco) for a few years, but at our last meeting, we renamed ourselves. Among other things, most of our membership identifies as bisexual, and once we tried to fit in a B, we wanted to add Ts and Qs, and it just got crazy. So we ended up with Pride. We have a yahoo group and Facebook group. Email glimorocco@gmail.com (yeah, we haven’t updated the email address yet) for details.

GLIM/Pride meets two to four times a year, and our meetings typically include some formal sit-down time where we have serious conversations, as well as some hanging out time where we just relax in our own miniature Provincetown. Our group waxes and wanes in size; we’re pretty big at the moment, plus we’re all out within the PCV community, so we’ve started to talk about taking on a more public role within PC/Morocco, maybe offering trainings for staff, maybe meeting with new PC trainees.

Have members of GLIM/Pride hooked up?

Are you kidding? According to our Medical Office, 90% of PCVs are sexually active. Yes, that includes members of Pride. Just given the numbers, it’s usually easier for bisexual PCVs to find partners outside of the Pride family (i.e. straighties), but yes, we date and hook up about as frequently as straight PCVs. Does this take place at our meetings? I’ll never tell. What happens at Pride stays at Pride.

When you make the decision to join Peace Corps, you know you’re signing on for a lot of hardship. There’s a reason it was called for so long “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”  Most of the difficulty has nothing to do with your sexuality, but yes, some of it will. For female PCVs of any sexual orientation, dealing with sexual harassment can be the single most challenging aspects of service. For straight male PCVs, adapting to the culture of male-male public cuddling can be hard. And don’t get me started on what happens in the hammams, the public bathhouses.

Just remember that most developing countries are much, much less tolerant than the US, and life there isn’t a cakewalk yet, is it? So yes, expect that being a queer PCV will challenge you in many ways, often painful ones. But reach out to your fellow PCVs, straight or not. We’re all pretty doggoned liberal and tolerant or we wouldn’t have joined, right? And if your country doesn’t have a group like Pride, start one.

And welcome to Peace Corps!  Marhaba bikum!

The author remains anonymous until she completes her Peace Corps service for reasons explained in her article. She can be contacted by email 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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