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

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.

Peace Corps Program, Not Jordanian Hospitality, Temporarily Suspended

– Sarah Bender, RPCV

I tend to enjoy watching people’s eyes grow wide when I share with them I served in the Peace Corps in Jordan (not every lesbian’s top choice for a stint abroad). Their surprise always grows when I then express my extreme gratitude for my placement, as I met my now fiancé during Pre-Service Training.

The “temporary closing” of Jordan’s program was devastating to Steph and me. Peace Corps has had a profound effect on both of our lives (in addition to introducing us). In the four years since our COS (Completion of Service0, not a day passes in which I do not remember some aspect of my service, or use a skill I was able to develop while living in Jordan. I am the definition of a “proud RPCV:” my fiancé and I have marched with Peace Corps in local PRIDE celebrations, attended recruiting events, and I even have a 24×36 Peace Corps poster hanging in my office. In reflecting on the program, my experience there, and the temporary suspension, I think of the Peace Corps Jordan staff members who are left in the lurch, of my Jordanian friends and family whose lives do not get a “temporary suspension” from the uncertainty of daily life, and of my increasing desire to book a trip home to Jordan.

Stephanie and I have wanted to return to Jordan since about the moment we set foot back on American soil. We both developed extremely close relationships with families in our communities, and had close friends who live in the capital. We had not yet set up our life together in the U.S., but had done so in Jordan – why would we not want to return? Over the years that followed our COS, however, we struggled with reconciling our desire to visit with our growing discomfort around potentially having to re-closet ourselves. Steph and my relationship continued to progress unbeknownst to our Jordanian families, as we found ourselves ducking and deflecting questions from our counterparts – sometimes forsaking calls altogether so as to avoid the white lies and non-truths we felt (with panic) threatened the authenticity of connections to our friends and family abroad. To our conflicted disappointment, four years have passed without our promised visit.

In the months since our engagement, however, we have begun to discover that perhaps our fears had been misplaced. Since we first began our service, both of our social media sites have been on “privacy lockdown,” so that any photos showing our same-sex love, or other potentially “culturally inappropriate” behavior would not impede our ability to integrate into our communities. After COS, as we settled into our new life together in the States, we were ever so cautious about photos, news articles, or anything posted on to social media that would “out” us. Several years later, however, as we were celebrating our engagement, we boldly decided to share our news with everyone – privacy settings aside.

Several days after our announcement, Steph and I received a message from her community counterpart and good friend in Jordan. Looking at the inbox, without opening the message, we were immediately engulfed in anxiety and regret for sharing our news so publicly. As we read the message with trepidation an intentional day or two later, though, our worries eased with every line. The message was congratulatory, loving, and supportive of our relationship. For all our anguish, we realized that the human-to-human connections we made in Jordan surpassed even the most striking of cultural differences, a testament to the power and integrity of what the Peace Corps eschews.

I am confident that my fiancé and I will return to Jordan (perhaps for a second wedding celebration?) and just as confident that Peace Corps will return as well. I had long hoped that Jordan would be one of the pioneer countries placing same-sex couples, and I still see that in the program’s future. The suspension of the program is disappointing for many reasons, one of which being that Americans serving in Jordan have the unique experience of being able to come home and share positive stories of hospitality from a region so frequently and incorrectly viewed as violent and terror-ridden in our society. For now, I can only call upon all of my fellow RPCVs from Jordan to continue to share these stories – more frequently and honestly than we had before.

Sarah Bender can be contacted at sarah.bender42@gmail.com

Serving as the First: A Same-Sex Couple Perspective

By Jessica and Khayla

My partner and I knew that we always wanted to join Peace Corps. Like all those who have come before us, it was a dream. We didn’t want to become another person in their aging years proclaiming “I should have… I would have…. I could have…” So we did. Knowing we couldn’t serve together we tried in our interviews to at least get placed on the same continent. As we received our invitations our hearts broke. Africa and South America. It doesn’t get much farther. With one of our staging dates coming 6 months before the other, we were going to be apart for 32 months. Thirty two. Even now the number is hard to grasp. But this was our dream, how could we not take the leap? So I went off to staging first, and that was the first time I truly felt my heart break. It wasn’t for another 16 months that my heart would be whole, when thanks to the wonderful staff of Peace Corps and Peace Corps Ecuador that I was able to put my pieces back together.  I am incredibly grateful and proud to be a part of one of the last couples that will ever have to feel the pain of being separated.  The pain that comes only because I fell in love with someone who checks the same box as me on forms. Female. It’s a huge and scary leap that Peace Corps is taking into the new age, but if you spend 10 minutes with my partner and I, and see our relentless love and gratitude to be serving together, you’ll know it’s the right choice.

Jessica and Khayla share their success story as a same-sex couple in the Peace Corps.

Jessica and Khayla share their success story as a same-sex couple in the Peace Corps.

First, let’s touch on the challenges that come as a same-sex couple serving abroad. With regards to being out at site, my partner and I have made the decision to not tell any host country nationals about our relationship. The decision was a personal one, and ultimately was made to maintain our safety in country.  I work with three wonderful women, whom I’ve witnessed talking positively about homosexuals in Ecuador, but I still have reservations about telling them because of the gossipy nature here. I don’t think my coworkers would ever maliciously tell anyone about our relationship, but everyone I’ve met separately in Loja seems to know each other in one way or another. So, one small piece of gossip could become a universal truth in less than a week. We each go to the other person’s organization/school to help when we have the day off from our prospective jobs (Health and TEFL are our respective programs) and each of our colleagues loves the other. Any time either has an after-hours event or social gathering, they make sure we are bringing our lovely roommate and friend. Keeping this secret is absolutely a challenge; finding new reasons for why I don’t want an Ecua-boyfriend, dodging blind-dates from host family members, and above all having to watch as men make passes in cafes or bars at my partner and not being able to tell them that not only is she taken, but that she’s with me!, can be trying.

Another challenge is not being treated the same as married couples, with staff and other Ecuadorians. When my partner and I are booked for a hostel room in the capital city for medical purposes, the hostel staff is just doing their job when assigning another female Volunteer to our room or requesting that we move into a room with another female Volunteer, because that is their standard procedure.  But if we were a heterosexual couple, no one would ever be added to the room. We wouldn’t have to worry about acting “normal” in front of strangers, or explaining when we slip up and call the other one “honey”. This can be helped by the Peace Corps staff by keeping the couple in mind and making sure the hostel puts them in a double room. I know it’s an extra step, but being treated as a normal married couple will gain the unyielding respect of your future same-sex couples. When we encountered this situation for ourselves, Peace Corps Ecuador handled it quickly and professionally, something we appreciated and a feeling of support that we will never forget. Additionally, if a same-sex couple puts in a reimbursement for the cheapest double room they could find on their way to mid-service, when they could have spent less if they had stayed in a dorm room with strangers, be kind and accept the receipt.

Again, it’s the little things that will make your couple feel safe and welcomed.

Although we have to watch what we say and how we act around our landlord, one of the advantages of living in Ecuador as a same-sex female couple is that everyone who knows we live together is overwhelmingly supportive and genuinely relieved that we have each other for company. This is definitely a cultural advantage for us. However, that’s not to say that male couples would be subject to suspicion. Because we are foreigners in a new country and culture we would recommend more than anything that a same sex-couple be aware of their site’s views on homosexuality when making decisions about how to act and what information is shared with host country nationals.

Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, other challenges that we’ve faced have originated with other PCVs. Again nothing that has happened was done maliciously, but because they aren’t constantly thinking about their sexuality or trying keeping their relationship private. For example, sometimes we will invite another volunteer over for dinner and they show up at our door with an Ecuadorian we’ve never met. At this point we have to run and shut two doors (one to our actual bedroom, and one to the room we tell others is my room, which sorry to digress, but same-sex couples will most likely need to rent two-bedroom homes if they want to invite host country nationals over and maintain their relationship privacy) and hide anything around the apartment that may hint that we are a couple, like an anniversary banner I once had hung up in the kitchen. PCVs don’t immediately see why it would be important to mention they are bringing someone over whom we don’t know, because it’s not something they’ve ever had to think about. They also may forget themselves and make passing comments about our relationship around others, creating a stressful moment as we wait to see if the other guest didn’t hear, or if we need to explain ourselves/think of a quick lie. In another situation my partner was outed to one of her colleagues by another Volunteer. This placed her in a difficult situation, not knowing what her counterpart would think, say or do with this newfound information. Thankfully everything turned out okay; my partner’s Program Manager was incredibly supportive, met with her and her counterpart (who ended up being both understanding of the delicacy of the situation and accepting of our relationship) and to this day we haven’t had any problems. That being said, most Peace Corps posts have begun preparing LGBTQ couple specific training for the office staff, but it’s important to remember sensitivity, respect and outing training for Volunteers as well. Despite having listed the above challenges, we want to mention that more than anything they’re just things to think about. Things to be aware of to help anticipate and prevent any potential bumps in the road.

The good! Let’s talk about the good! My partner and I are ecstatic to be serving together, and all of the volunteers close to us are happy to have us here as well. About twice a month we host small dinners at our apartment for the local PCVs, we take a poll and cook whatever people are craving. I love to cook and my partner loves to bake. I wouldn’t say we are the best chefs in the world, but you certainly won’t hear any complaints from the Loja area volunteers! We also adopted a kitten a few months ago named Milo (pronounced Meelow, the Spanish way!)  He’s adorable and always the hit of the party when we host group dinners. Additionally, my partner and I have taken on a secondary project teaching two classes a week at the Universidad Nacional de Loja. Each class is three hours long, and we are teaching students who are studying to become Ecuador’s future English teachers. They are so driven and dedicated; it’s an honor to be a part of their education. All in all, my partner and I couldn’t be happier. We are living a dream we never imagined could or would ever become a reality. The opportunity to live and serve together as Peace Corps Volunteers is absolutely incredible! We feel complete and happy and beyond appreciative. But at the end of the day, we’re still Volunteers, the same as any other couple serving in any country; we just have to put a little more thought into our actions when we are out in public. The majority of our interactions with PC staff are the same as with any other volunteer; VRFs, questions for program managers, calling medical when ill, etc. We go to work, interact with our communities, plan projects, engage in mutual cultural exchanges, and truly love being a part of Peace Corps. We recognize that introducing same-sex couples to Peace Corps is scary.

But it’s also unbelievably exciting. If you have any specific questions or concerns please let us know. We are more than happy, if not eager, to engage in a dialogue about our experiences and insights.

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