Dear Friends: A Story from Ethiopia

By RPCV Ethiopia, 2012-2014

Dear Friends,

My second day in Ethiopia, our group of volunteers crammed into the basement of a hotel for what had been called a “Diversity Panel.” The doors were shut, he curtains pulled, and the session began.

I was nervous. I had done my research before stepping on the plane and knew your laws, sisters and brothers of Ethiopia. I knew about deportation and prison time—twelve to fifteen years—and, though I tried not to think of it, that there were other punishments for those unlucky enough to be caught by friends and family first. And I knew about Robel Hailu, Ethiopia’s first entry into the Mr. Gay World competition. He fled to South Africa and likely wouldn’t come back.

Two volunteers gave us background information on what “LGBTQ” means, struggles for Queer Volunteers, and ways straight Volunteers could be allies. Then the stories began; the leader of our Peer Support Network told us about an Ethiopian man whose friends took him to an alley and killed him. We learned of the Volunteer who outed another Gay Volunteer to an Ethiopian friend the next town over. Both were separated from the service and left the country. Finally, we learned that it wasn’t safe to come out to Ethiopian Peace Corps staff members; Our support could be compromised. Volunteers in other countries had put a Safe Zone training module together, but, so far, Peace Corps-Ethiopia’s staff had refused to implement it.

I looked around at my fellow group members and wondered if there was anyone like me. I began to feel very alone. But you know all about what it’s like to wake up every day in a world that isn’t yours. When the session ended, I went upstairs for our coffee break and bummed my first Nyala cigarette off of another Volunteer.

We learned to use code words for ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in public, because we never knew when someone at a cafe might be sitting at the next table over, listening to the foreigners chat to practice English for an upcoming university exam. There were others who might be listening as well; our phone conversations, emails, and blog posts weren’t private. The night of the Diversity Panel, I asked another new friend if she’d pose as my girlfriend just in case anyone asked. All we would need to do was take pictures together at conferences and trainings so I could keep up my alibi. She agreed.

Occasionally, we volunteers caught glimpses of some of you in our day-to-day interactions:

There was a woman living in another training site who dressed like a man. Neighbors simply shrugged and said, “That’s her way.”

There was another woman I saw at a hotel in my site. I’d gone there with my site mates and my neighbor, and I saw her short hair and jersey for the national football team. I asked my neighbor, “Did you see that woman in the football jersey?” She scanned the room quickly and said, “What woman?”

There was a man working at the hotel I met after attending a counseling session. He had bright white teeth and a trimmed mustache. He lightly touched my wrists from behind the hotel bar, admiring the bracelets I’d bought. And he watched my eyes, just half a moment too long, each time we ran into each other in the hallways.

I lied to Peace Corps Medical office staff and told them I was having trouble coping with this new culture. The counselor I saw was born in Ethiopia but was adopted as a child, moving to the United States. She’d come back to the capital to open a practice. I told her everything, how it felt to be queer in this country. I told her about lying to my friends, and then I described the touches. I was confused about the physical affection Ethiopian men show each other. She heard what I was describing and said, “I know Ethiopian men are more affectionate than American men, but what you’re describing isn’t… typical.”

There had been other light touches like those on my wrists in the hotel bar. A neighbor’s hands brushing against my stomach in passing, a friend’s extra long caresses on my shoulders and neck. A man spilled beer down my leg at a community celebration once and brushed it off, letting his fingers linger on my calf. And I recognized some of you the way I recognize my American brothers on the street: something loose in the gait, that half-moment pause in the eyes as if asking, “Are you one of us?”

 

Friends, I still think of you often. I still see you on Facebook sometimes, friends of Volunteers who still live in Ethiopia. I envy those straight friends and what they can know. Why is it that my straight friends have always been able to know my people? What must it be like not to risk that?

But, one story: My neighbor up north was about twenty-two years old. She was from the capital and spoke fluent American English with little accent. We spent many evenings with my site mates, mixing our cheap wine with Coke and Mirinda to lessen the bitterness. We were sure she knew about me; no one could watch as much American TV as she did and not know. One Sunday, she told me she’d made too much for lunch and invited me over. She handed me a plate of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. I looked at the food and asked, “How long have you known I’m gay?”

“You’re gay?” she asked, incredulous.

“Oh, honey,” I said.

“But what about your girlfriend?!”

“Oh, HONEY,” I repeated.
I came clean. I told her about the alibi girlfriend, the counseling session, the touches. Other than the counselor, this was the first time I had ever been completely honest with an Ethiopian. I was worried; I’d done what we were told never to do.

She thought for a moment and said, “You know, I’m kind of proud of myself. I always thought I’d be okay with people being gay, and now I know I am! Gay people are kind of like celebrities. You know they exist, but you never think you’ll meet one. Now, let’s go get a bottle of wine and talk all afternoon!”

Dear friends, I ache for the time we couldn’t spend together. I wanted, so much, to know you, extending our solidarity and love to each other; our world has been treacherous and dark. But there are allies. They show themselves over time. I hope it’s true what the counselor told me:

“Right now in Ethiopia, it’s like the 1960s in America. The sexual revolution in America was so violent in the 1960s, but in time it calmed down.”

Peace Corps-Ethiopia was finally required by Headquarters in Washington, DC to administer Safe Zoning training to its staff. I had already returned to the United States by that point, but a Gay Volunteer, friend of mine, who was still there said the staff wished afterward that they didn’t know there were Queer Volunteers in Ethiopia. I still struggle to help my American friends understand my Peace Corps story. It was often heartbreaking and difficult; it was not what I expected. Some in the Peace Corps family are changing minds and hearts, and others are still waiting for the calm in the storm.

With love,
A friend.

If you would like to contact the author, please email lgbrpcv@lgbrpcv.org

A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday

A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday

Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum

Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum

Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa

Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa

WATCH: Peace Corps Response Volunters raise LGBT awareness in Jamaica

Reprinted with permission from Peace Corps Passport

Peace Corp Response Volunteers serve communities around the world engaging in specialty projects. Watch how these dedicated Volunteers work with Jamaicans on HIV/AIDS awareness and LGBT awareness.

“The work and the input that Peace Corps Response Volunteers has brought to Jamaica cannot be quantified realistically in dollars and cents but the impact that they’ve had on various NGOs is remarkable.” – Dane Lewis, J-FLAG (The Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays) Executive Director

The Boatman: An Indian Love Story

-John Burbidge (burbidge@centurytel.net), author.

Although I was not a member of the Peace Corps, I have a strong affinity for it since I have lived in the US for 27 years, am married to an American, and belonged to an organization whose work paralleled the Peace Corps in many ways.

The Boatman: An Indian Love Story is a memoir of the six years I spent working as a volunteer with an international NGO in India and my coming out as a gay man in that society. It describes my roller-coaster journey of sexual adventuring while living in a tightly knit community and playing a public relations role for the organization, and the delicate balancing act this called for.

The Boatman took 13 years to write and its publication in India in February last year was most timely. Shortly before I arrived in New Delhi for its launch, the Indian Supreme Court reinstated a law criminalizing homosexuality that had been repealed by the Delhi High Court four years before. One of the main justifications for this action was that the law only affected a minuscule portion of the population. In the words of one journalist, “The Boatman provides a much-needed reality check of that view.”

A new edition of the book with an afterword that places it in the context of the current Indian political situation has recently been released. It is available from Amazon.com as a print and e-book.

For RPCVs in the Seattle area, I will be doing a reading at the University Bookstore in the U District on September 18th at 7:00PM. I would love to meet you there. CLICK HERE for more information.

Details of all events are on the book’s Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/theboatmanjohnburbidge
More information about The Boatman is at http://www.theboatmanamemoir.com

The Boatman

Returning to Honduras

Elizabeth Fuhrman, RPCV

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 80’s, we didn’t have a lot of tools to capture and share our experiences.  No video camera or cell phone to record and upload images to the internet for family and friends.  All I had was a 35mm camera. It would only become apparent later that this system was pretty inadequate for capturing the real-feel of the biggest adventure of my back-then young adult life.  Just imagine, as volunteers in those days, we would have to hunt for film in the capital city or wait for a care package with film. I remember sending my film off to the cheapest company in America to get processed because we didn’t trust the quality of film processing “in country”. Even still, my negatives or slides would arrive with streaks or scratches, leaving me with spotty prints and memories.

Also, the people in my village rarely got the chance to view my “take” on things even though I tried to get double copies of pictures and gift these.  

Long story-short, over the years, the images of my two year stint in Honduras as a volunteer faded and disappeared under my subsequent life journeys.  So in 2006, when handheld video cameras evolved to the size and weight of what we have today, and I no longer had to worry about loading it with big cassettes, ha-ha, I said “adios” to my spouse for a few weeks and took this journey back to my village in Honduras.  My number one goal was to resurface that rich Peace Corps experience, and record it good and proper so I could relive it and share it with loved ones. And I can say that this journey turned out just as I dreamed; this video    “Que Le Vaya Bien”   is now my proof that it was amazing.  Never will I forget my Honduran village or friends now.

I’d like to add that once I finally posted my video on Youtube and shared it via Facebook with family members of Dona Iris, they started me daily.  The girl who is twelve in the video now has a three year old child.  I count on the tone in my voice (in the video) to convey my affections for the island and its people.  Gotta love how technology helps us not only rekindle friendships with our host country friends but also spark new relationships with the next generation.  I pray that the violence and corruption preventing travel between our two countries comes to an end with Godspeed because I hope to return.

Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps

The following is the introduction from Jim Kelly’s thesis on gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps, “Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps.”

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I was born on June 29, 1947 in a country hospital in a tiny southern Minnesota farming town.  The complicated and dangerous delivery almost cost both my mother and I our lives.  For the first 15 years of my life, every Sunday after church the ugliest, kindest nurse in history would, without invitation, give me a huge hug and say, “How’s my miracle baby today?”  If someone tells you often enough that you’re special, you’ll come to believe it yourself.

However, I kept the most “special” thing about me fiercely protected from discovery.  As far back as I can remember I knew that I was different: I felt about boys the way boys were supposed to feel about girls.  I also instinctively knew I was in danger if my secret got out.  At great psychic cost, I protected that secret for 21 years.  I was a college senior when I said out loud for the first time to another human being that I was gay – my academic advisor.

I don’t regret growing up in a small town.  Many values I still hold were developed there – values that I believe ultimately led to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer..My parents belonged to just about every board and organization in town.  From them I learned the values of community service and civic engagement.  I learned what unremarkable people can accomplish when they work together and acknowledge their interdependence.  I experienced the power of generosity, and the empowering effect of respect for others.

The darker side of human nature in a small town is that those values really operate only within a sphere of sameness – by and for people who look alike and act alike.  My town was at the northern end of a migrant route of Mexican summer farm workers.  Over the years, a small permanent community established itself.  They were the “other,” and that’s how I learned about prejudice and the impact of marginalization.  It helped me realize that I was “in, but not of” that sphere of sameness.  I was also an “Other!”  Difference is dangerous!  Theirs’ was obvious, mine was hidden; but the impact on me was profound.  I had learned to empathize.

“Otherness” and the preoccupation to avoid discovery was the driving influence in my life for years to come.  Yet, as my world expanded in college during the late 60’s, I realized there were movements everywhere to restore peace, celebrate differences and work on behalf of justice.  In my senior year, a woman in my friendship group who had graduated the prior year was sending us letters about her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador.

I was mesmerized and felt called.  Peace Corps was still in its first decade and the ideals on which it was founded were inspiring.  I applied.  About half-way through that endless application, I crashed into this question: “Do you have homosexual tendencies?”  In that instant I remembered my PC friend in El Salvador remarking that after she applied, FBI agents ran routine background checks and interviewed people who knew her.

I checked the “no” box, fully aware I was lying.  Moreover, I was obligated to ask my academic advisor to collude with me in this lie if he got asked that question by the FBI.

For longer than Peace Corp’s first decade of existence, applicants aware of being gay or lesbian had to perjure themselves to the federal government to even be considered for this opportunity to serve others and represent the best America has to offer.

In 1969 I completed pre-service training and began my service in a rural village in El Salvador.  Almost 47 years later, I still view my Peace Corps service as one of the most transcendent experiences of my life.  Nevertheless, camouflaging my sexual orientation while in the Peace Corps caused me considerable psychological and emotional pain.  During my training and Volunteer service I never experienced permission from trainers, other Volunteers or Peace Corps staff to be open about who I was.  I believed the Peace Corps assumed all Volunteers were heterosexual.  The cross-cultural adaptation training we received about male and female roles and interpersonal relationships was directed at heterosexuals.  The men and women had separate training sessions about sexual mores, do’s and don’ts.  I clearly remember a trainer reciting to the men names of brothels that were on an unofficial “hygienically approved” list.

In spite of the cost of my silence, I succeeded.  I extended my service until 1972.  No one ever knew about my profound sense of alienation induced by fear that my “secret” would become known.  No one in Peace Corps ever knew that eventually I did discover the El Salvadoran gay subculture and was able to develop a wonderful friendship and support network.  Although never regretting being a PCV, I also never forgot how I felt during training and Volunteer service about the omission of attention to some of my most fundamental gay-related needs and concerns as they related to my ability to serve Salvadorans.

Quite serendipitously, about five years after leaving El Salvador, I became associated with Peace again, first as the Training Coordinator for Peace Corps Chile’s pre-service training center.  That experience led to a referral in 1981 to CHP International, an Oak Park, IL company which, under contract to the Peace Corps, staffed and operated pre-service training centers in countries of destination (eventually managing centers in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa).  I remained with CHP until my retirement 25 years later.

My work with CHP kept me in constant contact with our Peace Corps training centers, curriculum development projects, the evolution in Peace Corps’ training philosophy, Peace Corps staff, and with networks of serving and returned PCVs.  The anecdotal accounts of many gay and lesbian friends I made in the informal networks of Peace Corps staff and RPCVs made me wonder how much had really changed in the Peace Corps’ understanding as an institution of the special challenges that Volunteer service presents to gay and lesbian Volunteers.

Towards the end of my first decade with CHP, I decided to obtain an advanced degree in cross-cultural training – acutely aware that I’d already I’d been called to serve again by conducting and publishing this research.  As the thesis dedication says:

To the gays and lesbians who have served
as Peace Corps Volunteers
1961 – 1991
We have a voice now


Click Kelly, James B (1991) to read complete copy of Kelly’s thesis on our website.

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