Peace Corps Service and Finding a Partner in Honduras
October 20, 2012 Leave a comment
– Erica Brien and Camila Fiero, RPCVs
Being openly gay as a Peace Corps Volunteer was, for me, impossible. I lived in a community of 300-people in the mountains of Comayagua, Honduras. Upon my arrival, I spent days visiting the homes and getting to know the families that lived in them. I was given incredible amounts of coffee, what amounted to loaves of sweet-bread, hundreds of tortillas and plenty of beans. When I left these homes to head back to my host-family’s home, I was given freshly-laid eggs to take with me. As time went on, I spent the majority of my days in my small town simply getting to know these people. They opened up to me. We talked about so many things. I remember having discussions about the meaning of life, the truth of an inevitable death, the importance of family, love and the many existences of god. We obviously talked about the state of the community, the hopes people had for the future. We would talk about the world and where it is headed. Families would invite me over to make bread or tamales, depending on the time of year. Through all of this, I can truly say that I grew close to many of my community members. However, nonetheless, there was one thing that I knew we could never talk about, one thing they could never know: my sexuality.
The people in my community took religion very seriously. All families belonged to either the Catholic Church or the Evangelical Church, and being gay was a horrible sin. There was one openly gay man of 24 years, who I will call Tio, who at times I would verbally defend when I heard other people criticize him. I’d say simple things like, “It’s okay that he is gay. It doesn’t make him a bad person.” After defending him, I would be asked by various community members to step aside to have private conversations. They would tell me, “Erica, I heard that you defended Tio, but love is between a man and a woman. You can not defend this boy for committing such a sin.”
After a trip home for the summer, I returned to my community with a new hair-cut. It was short. The Evangelical pastor, a woman who invited me frequently to her house for dinner with the family, told me she would have to pray for my soul because I went against God’s will; women are supposed to have long hair. These incidents made me realize the impossibility of being completely honest within my community. No matter how welcoming and friendly the people of my community were, no matter how fond of me they had grown to be, if I told them that I was a lesbian, I truly believe that my work would have ended right there. No one would have wanted to work with me. People would have closed up. I had to pretend I was straight. As a straight person, people accepted me. I was able to work with their kids. I was able to build great relationships, and I will say that in the end, it was worth it. For me, it was worth it to be in the closet for two years. It was worth it to sacrifice a certain part of me in order to truly make the most of a meaningful experience. However, to be able to say that I could have had the same experience as an openly gay person within a culture that does not understand the truth of human-sexuality would be naïve and a lie.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was never explicitly told to lie about my sexual orientation. Instead, I was asked to understand the culture and community I was trying to become a part of. It was more difficult than I had anticipated. Although I am from the Mid-West and have very traditional parents, I had spent the last four years at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts and had finally learned to be proud of my sexual orientation. Thus, Honduran culture, for me, was especially difficult as it is steeped through and through in machismo and intense patriarchy. At the same time, the generosity and amiability of the people almost make up for it. About six to seven months into my service I had to be site changed from my mountain community of 300 people to a larger “rural city” community further south. A community partner had displayed some bizarre behavior that made me feel outed within the community. Thus, I felt I had to leave because the rumor mill would stop short anyone who was at one time willing to work with me. I also felt unsafe. I remember that night before I was set to leave, and I was fighting visions of people busting through my front door with the idea of “corrective rape.” I don’t personally know of any of these cases happening in Honduras, instead, people would just get killed.
In my new community I felt extremely cautious. I was constantly analyzing myself. Eventually, I got settled in and made a few close friends. I worked with a local Honduran environmental NGO and worked with other volunteers on environment classes, HIV/AIDS classes, and improved stoves projects. However, I never told any Hondurans about my orientation. Miraculously, Erica and I started dating, and I say miraculously because we never considered dating one another until it happened. We were both in the Protected Areas Management Group, which has since been cancelled and lumped together with the Business Program. Sadly, there are no current programs that have a specific goal of addressing issues such as loss of biodiversity and environmental education. We were about one year into our sites when I would go visit Erica and she would come visit me, taking turns doing the 8-hour bus ride. We both feel that we looked somewhat innocent since close friendships between females are not unheard of or frowned upon. Yet, we had no time to confirm or disprove our notions because we were evacuated about seven to eight months before our official completion of service.
The day before I left I came out to my closest friend in my community. She said she already knew and knew within the first month of meeting me! I was surprised and sad that I missed out on a deeper more honest relationship with her because I was afraid. Yet, the real tragedies are the thousands of individuals that are beaten, murdered, and subjugated because of who they love. Honduras has seen an increase in violent hate crimes, although reporting is spotty on the subject. Also, with a friend, we re-started the LGBTQ support group for volunteers in Honduras and were starting to make connections with Honduran “clubs” or support groups. Yet, that too was cut short. There has been straight forward reporting on exactly why the program was cut short: Peace Corps could no longer guarantee our safety due to the ever-escalating drug war. We have since called back to friends in Honduras who have said the situation has only gotten worse, violence is spreading and rural communities are cut off from the larger cities because the roads are too dangerous.
In the end, I think your service is what you make of it. I am proud and happy with my time spent in Honduras. However, I would caution that one shouldn’t expect to be out and shouldn’t expect understanding.
It is hard to say if people in my community ever grew suspicious of the relationship I had with Camila. She came to visit me at my site more consistently than any other volunteer. And while we tried very hard not to seem suspicious within my small-community, there were times when I questioned certain comments made by my community members. Was it all in my head? Maybe. Maybe not. I remember taking Camila to my host family’s house where my host mother gave us coffee and tried to convince me to date the family’s cousin who recently came from out of town. My host-mother would describe how nice of a man he was, and how he is different than most men. Camila would play along, saying things like, “wow, he sounds like a catch” as she would throw me a mischievous smile. Camila even took a picture of this man and me standing together outside of my host family’s home. They thought it was essential to our future together. When Camila and I would return back to my house, hiding behind the privacy of closed doors, we would talk about the same questions that today we still ponder, such as how much does “respect” and being “culturally” sensitive turn into tolerating intolerance? What is our role as queer Peace Corps Volunteers and allies in educating around sensitive subjects such as sexual orientation? How are we to facilitate change if we, ourselves, are doing our very best to uphold cultural norms? These are the questions we would like to leave with you.
You can contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org and Camila at email@example.com.