Coming Out and Safe Zone Training in The Gambia

-Marnie Florin, RPCV, 2008-2010

Author’s Comment:
Alongside this article should be everything you need to conduct the Safe Zone Training in your own country: a detailed lesson plan, the hand-out, a message from the country director, a vocabulary list, power point slides and much more. Even though some of the content is specific to The Gambia, it could easily be adapted for other countries.
Training Materials

Prior to arriving in The Gambia in November 2008, I had no idea that homosexuality was not only illegal there, but also punishable by death—the president made a public statement that he would behead any known homosexuals in the country. It was not a big issue for me as I was not “that gay” at the time. In fact, I did not even mention being gay in any of my Peace Corps interviews. As a result, I had no idea that lying about my sexuality for two years would be one of the hardest parts of my service. I also never could have imagined that, after spending two years in a conservative, Muslim country, I would go back to America gayer than ever.

Unlike a lot of my peers in Orange County, CA, I have very liberal, Jewish parents and have had the same gay hairdresser since age four, so I always knew gay people existed and vehemently believed that they deserved the same rights as everyone else. But, I never had one gay female or male friend, even after I left Orange County and attended college at Emory University in Atlanta. During my Peace Corps service, I befriended so many different kinds of people: environmentally aware hippies (I had never heard of Leave No Trace, nor had I ever met anyone that wore Chaco’s), androgynous boys and girls and, most importantly, lots of gays.

I have heard many of people say it and have said it a lot myself: You will never find a more open and accepting community than the PC Volunteer community. As conservative, scary and judgmental as the Gambian political climate is, that is how non-judgmental the Gambian PCVs are. I did not have a plan as to when or how I was going to come out to my fellow trainees, but everyone was so welcoming that despite my being unable to say, “I am gay,” a month earlier in America, I ended up doing just that during my first week in country.

After that initial “out,” I became more and more comfortable with my sexuality. I later learned that exposure to and acceptance into the gay community is an extremely important step for completing the Acceptance Phase of the coming-out process. While it felt great to be able to say, “I am gay,” the more comfortable I became with my sexuality, the more difficult it became to live a lie in my village. I was starting to develop really close friendships with several host-country nationals (HCNs) in my village and among the PC staff, and wanted more than anything to be honest with them about who I was (in fact, I think I would have extended a third year if I did not have to lie about being gay).

Unfortunately, I was always warned not to come out to HCNs in my village, as it could lead to my being removed from village, and possibly the country, if anything went wrong. But, after hearing from several PCVs that a younger, female Gambian PC staff member, whom I was close with, was an ally, I came out to her. She was incredibly helpful and definitely served as a great asset to us PCVs in trying to reach the other staff members. A little later, two volunteers carried out a Diversity Training with the language/cultural trainers (LCFs). The training did not focus too much on homosexuality, but during the session, one volunteer bravely came out to the LCFs. Not long after that, I came out to two more female, Gambian staff members.

Learning to embrace my sexuality, I began to develop a strong urge to work on gay issues in any capacity possible. During my second year, I became the head of PC Gambia’s LGBT Committee and joined the LGBT RPCV listserv. While on their website, I discovered material used in a Safe Zone Training in Guatemala. I pitched the idea of doing the training with PC Gambia staff, explaining that this is an American institution and as such, all staff members must adhere to American laws while working in their capacity as PC employees, including anti-discriminatory laws. Several members of our direct-hire staff (non-locals – Americans and other expatriates) were against it. They did not think that the Gambian staff was capable of accepting homosexuality in volunteers and they didn’t think we PCVs were capable of pulling the training off. The Gambian staff, go figure, was 100% supportive of the training and wanted all staff members (drivers, cleaners, etc. to be present). I could not have been more impressed. A compromise was finally reached and it was decided that the training staff and senior staff members would attend the training. Although I wanted more staff to go, I was extremely happy with the end result.

I and the other ten members of the LGBT Committee were given five hours to carry out the training. Using the initial training material and PowerPoint provided on this website as a foundation (THANK YOU PC Guatemala for the idea and all the materials!), I spent countless hours over several months creating an interactive curriculum appropriate to this country that included role-plays, skits, games, etc. Each committee member was then assigned one or more sections and spent a lot of time making sure his/her sections were the best they could be.

As a result of all our efforts, the training was a huge success. Given The Gambia’s views on homosexuality, much of the training’s content was sensitive and potentially divisive. Fortunately, all the staff members were extremely participatory: we facilitators were blown away by their insightful comments and open-mindedness. The staff’s concern for and desire to support volunteers was very evident, especially among the Gambian staff, whose own culture and religion largely shun homosexuality. I would like to share some highlights from the evaluations, which were completely anonymous:

  • Seventeen of the twenty staff participants indicated that their opinions on LGBQ# issues had “absolutely changed” from the start of the presentation. The other three participants had already identified themselves as allies before the training.

We asked participants before the training, and after it was finished, “What do you think of when you hear the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’?” Here are the pre- and post-training responses from two participants:

  • Pre: “Scared, embarrassed and confused.”

Post: “Fine happy knowledgeable.”

  • Pre: “Some one’s way of expressing their sexuality.”

Post: “Each human being has the right to express your sexuality in any way youchoose.”

The following are some of the answers to the question, “In what ways, if any, has your opinion changed?”:

  • “The people are made with different opinions which are to be respected.”
  • “More prepared and ready accept the homosexuality from now on.”
  • “I have a clear view of what homosexuality is, and how to prepare to support them.”
  • “LGBQ have right to exist.”
  • “That they exist and that they need to be supported”

Here are some responses to the last question, “Any other comments, concerns, or unanswered questions?”:

  • “Wonderful presentation and it has really broadened my concept about the gay community.”
  • “Every staff should respect the LGBQ and be friendly to them so as to have a comfortable stay in the country.”
  • “Every member of PC staff needs to go through this training, it is very helpful.”

These comments are part of a larger report on the training.

I would also like to add that I did eventually come out to one of my best friends in my village, an HCN. This did not happen until a few months before I completed my service. She and I were very close (she named her baby after me) and I could not stand lying to her anymore. It was killing me. I trusted my instinct that she would be ok with my being gay and she was 100%. I cannot tell you how amazing it felt to be honest with her. Then, about a month after being back in America, I told another one of my very close Gambian friends over Facebook chat. One of my few literate friends, he runs the internet café in the town near me. He wrote me back an email that said in huge letters, “Homosexuality is OK to me.” It made me cry. I am not saying you should tell every HCN about your sexuality, just be smart about it. Test the waters and trust your instinct, just as you probably did when you were first coming out to people in America.

I urge everyone to try and conduct this training and if you have any questions at all, please email me:marnie.florin@gmail.com.

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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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