From Canvassing to Closets: Life as a Lesbian in Jordan
June 9, 2012 2 Comments
– A Recent RPCV
Editor’s note: The author is unnamed because she still retains relationships in her country of service which could be compromised if her full identity were revealed.
“If you do not do conservative, Peace Corps Jordan is not for you.” This sentence was highlighted, capitalized, and in bold in our welcome letter from Peace Corps staff in Jordan. Listed in the paragraphs that followed were a variety of personal identifiers and characteristics that volunteers headed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan might have to either tone down, or hide all together. Amongst them, any sexual orientation or identity differing from heterosexual, or ‘straight.’ It was clear that PC staff wanted to make sure no one showed up at Pre-Service Training expecting to live two years in Jordan openly as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Armed with the knowledge that only two years after coming out of the closet, I would be heading right back in and locking the door behind me, I did my best to contact anyone who knew anything about being gay in Jordan and in the Peace Corps. After weeks of emailing, phone calls, and blog reading, I had come to only a few general conclusions: you cannot underestimate the challenge of going back into the closet (just because you’ve done it once before doesn’t mean it’s any easier now); I will be constantly approached by Jordanians about finding a husband; and that while some PC countries have LGBT support groups, Jordan does not. My research did not provide me with much comfort.
As I sit here writing this now, almost six months after my close of service, what I realize about the knowledge I had gathered prior to my departure is that however vague, it is pretty accurate. It is very difficult to describe the difficulty of going back into the closet, so the easiest thing to do is sum it up by telling people there is no way to prepare yourself. I did get questioned about my future husband on a daily basis, and there was no Peace Corps support group for volunteers who are LGBT in place when I arrived. Despite the confirmation of my fears, I want to make one thing very clear: while serving as a lesbian in Jordan was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, completing my service was simultaneously one of the most rewarding.
Contrary to common belief, homosexuality has been decriminalized in Jordan. Its legal status, however, does not relieve the strict social and religious beliefs marking it as extremely taboo. Violent hate crimes have been known to occur, and arrests of individuals who are suspected of or are known as being LGBT are sometimes made under the pretense of another violation. These types of assaults on identity however, are typically kept within the confines of the capital or bigger cities where certain bars are known to be gay friendly or underground “gay” parties are not an infrequent occurrence. While life in the villages and small towns where Peace Corps volunteers live can be seemingly less hostile, it is only because the gay communities are much smaller or even non-existent.
As a female volunteer in Jordan, social life is generally absent of sex and anything related to it. Marriage and family life is very frequently discussed, but sex education does not occur in schools or at home. Having heard horror stories from gay male volunteers about having to explicitly describe (fake) sexual encounters with females, I am grateful for the conservative nature of most of Jordanian females. The issue that came up most often for me in daily life was the constant talk of marriage. One of the first questions a Jordanian will ask you is if you are married, and why not? Even now, Skyping with my family and friends back in Jordan, it is still the number one topic. When I tell them I would like to visit, their response is always, “not alone! You better bring your husband! When are you getting married anyway?”
Despite the difficulties, serving as a lesbian in Jordan has some very unique positives, that many would not necessarily expect. One of the more conservative aspects of Jordanian culture is gender segregation. Men and women who are not blood relatives or married do not socialize together, sit on public transportation together, or interact in any public or private settings (with the exception of university classes). Because of this, heterosexual Peace Corps Jordan volunteers interested in dating each other were faced with quite a dilemma. If you lived in a village ten minutes down the road from your boyfriend or girlfriend, you might have to travel over an hour to the next biggest city or to the capital in order to see each other. Luckily for any LGBT volunteers, this was not the case. My girlfriend and I could visit each other several times a week, under the pretense of being close friends of course. In fact, our respective host families enjoyed our visits so much that they started suggesting we just live together. It is my personal opinion that if PC were to start placing same-sex married couples, Jordan would be the perfect place for them to serve. It is not only normal for two people of the same sex to spend all their time together, but expected, thanks to their unique tradition of gender segregation.
Another huge plus of being a gay volunteer in Jordan is that the biggest PRIDE festival in the world takes place in Jordan’s next-door neighbor. Jordan’s Peace Corps volunteers visit Tel Aviv in June every year to celebrate diversity during their PRIDE weekend. Having the ability to get away for a weekend and not only be yourself, but celebrate your identity can be a huge boost of energy and confidence, and a reminder that serving in Jordan is about a lot more than having to hide your sexual identity.
The ability to be open about my sexuality amongst the Peace Corps community while in Jordan was a huge factor in my ability to overcome the associated challenges. When I entered PST in 2009, there was no concrete support system for volunteers who were LGBT, but by the time of my close of service, not only were we implementing annual Safe Zone Trainings to American and Jordanian staff, we published a resource manual for volunteers, trainees and staff on the unique issues that LGBT volunteers face. I saw a lot of good change happen, and can now proudly and confidently tell anyone who is LGBT and interested in Peace Corps Jordan that there is a support system in place specifically geared toward our experiences.
Support from Peace Corps and the fact that Tel Aviv PRIDE is only a few hours away is key in helping LGBT volunteers through their service. This does not mean, however, that serving in Jordan as a lesbian is a piece of cake. Like I was told before I began my service, there is no way to adequately prepare yourself for the emotional stress of hiding your sexuality, whether it be the first time or again after years of enjoying an honest and open lifestyle. Personally, I took a big jump, from canvassing the streets of New York City with the Human Rights Campaign – announcing my sexual orientation to strangers on a daily basis – to sitting with Jordanian friends designing my future husband. Not only do you feel a little ridiculous lying constantly, but there is also a definite barrier between you and the people you are trying so desperately to create meaningful relationships with. These are things that no system of support or ability to visit your significant other freely can diminish. They do not simply go away after you finish your service, either.
We are a lucky generation of Peace Corps Volunteers – blessed with technology and Internet, keeping in touch with Jordanian friends and family is as simple as logging onto Skype. Maintaining relationships after your Peace Corps service is finished means maintaining the lies you told as well. The decision to accept an invitation to serve in Jordan not only has to come with the understanding that during your service you will remain closeted, but most likely after your service is complete as well. For me, the relationships that I developed in Jordan were just as, if not more, important than the projects I designed and participated in. The stress of having to continue hiding what is becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life from people I now consider family does not lessen after close of service. Yes, I signed up for two years of Peace Corps, but I also seemed to have signed up for a lifetime of hiding my identity from a portion of the people I love and care about.
There are plenty of pros and cons to serving as a lesbian in Jordan. The same goes for gay male volunteers, though due to cultural norms and expectations of men, their experiences can be very different. No two experiences are the same, but for me the pros outweighed the long list of cons. I learned about other aspects of myself apart from my sexual orientation. I also learned how important my lesbian identity is to me. I have a better understanding of what it takes to form true friendships, and how dishonesty can bring them down. I had my first two wonderful experiences at a PRIDE event, and now whole-heartedly appreciate the ability to celebrate diversity on a daily basis. Finally, of course, thanks to Jordan, and against all odds, I fell in love.
I frequently get asked if I regret going to Jordan, or if I would tell people who are LGBT to decline an invitation to serve there. No, and no, I always answer. Like I told myself a million times throughout my service – I am not the first gay volunteer to go to Jordan, and I will certainly not be the last.
This writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org