February 8, 2015 Leave a comment
– A Peace Corps Volunteer, Southeast Asia
Editor’s note: This is the second article this writer has contributed to our website. The first from last year http://lgbrpcv.org/2014/11/16/becoming-a-transman-and-into-the-peace-corps/ describes the process a transgender applicant goes through to be accepted by Peace Corps. We plan to host more articles as this volunteer proceeds through his Peace Corps career. For security reasons we have not named the volunteer or the specific country where he serves.
I am now in my first year of Peace Corps service living in my adopted community. Already, it would be possible for me to write pages upon pages of what I have learned and how kind and loving this community has been to me. It all has to do with the people; they are the center of my growth and learning here. From the Peace Corps Volunteers I met on Day One to the host family I have lived with to the people I work with- they are the ones who are impacting my daily life. As I have found my place in this community, they are the ones continually teaching me about the ever broadening definition of family and acceptance.
I live and work in a very small community. I am living with a host family and there are anywhere from 6-10 of us that reside in a comfy 3 room house. Our water is pumped from a well across the road and hauled into the house in buckets for daily use. We have electricity but it is not always dependable. We wash our laundry by hand; purchase and cook the food we eat together for three meals per day (no refrigerator); and clean with homemade brooms and rags made from old clothing.
Together we live in harmony and good company. My host family has become like a second family to me. They show me they care by constantly trying to get me to eat as much food as possible; by making sure I am comfortable in the room I sleep in; and by making sure that I never go anywhere on my own. Quick trip to the store to buy cell phone minutes? I am accompanied by anywhere from 2-5 children. Stop by the bakery for a quick snack? My older host sister will trail my walk on the motorcycle. They have introduced me to every extended family member who lives in our community and have gone out of their way to include me in family events. My younger host brother has shown me how to play some of the children’s games and the three young granddaughters who live across the street enthusiastically run towards me whenever I am on my way home from work. Despite the language and cultural barriers, we are still able to communicate mutual love, respect and caring. They have taken me in to their lives and have shown me what it means to be a part of a family in their culture- which has expanded my view and thought on what family means.
In my community, I work in Youth Development with some of the economically poorest of the population here. Here too, I have found family in the people I work with every day. In the Life Skills sessions I lead, the parents and youth have drawn me into their lives and have welcomed me with open hearts and generosity. We have many commonalities- from reading, to drawing, writing, swimming, cooking and a passion for teaching and learning. I am able to share with them experiences from my life and knowledge that the Peace Corps has taught me in order to communicate life skills that range from self confidence and how to be a good role model to English and Mathematics tutoring. In return, they have shown me that many struggles of youth transcend boundaries of culture. Many of the impoverished youth here are facing the same struggles as some youth in the United States: the struggle to stay in school versus working to provide money for their family; the struggle for a family to support them in higher education goals and the lack of available work and support systems. These youth and parents are also becoming part of my broader family every time they share with me their thoughts and hopes and every time they accept me and my presence in their community.
If there has been one aspect of myself I have been unable to share with my new host and work families it is my gender identity. In the past, when I have not been able to be open and honest with people about my gender identity, I have felt as though that one issue was a barrier to having a meaningful relationship with them. Serving in the Peace Corps has already taught me otherwise. I find that I have meaningful, fulfilling relationships with my host family, my co-workers and the families and youth that I work with despite not being open about every aspect of myself, my identify and my history. This has been a significant revelation to me and is one part of myself and my paradigm that I am continuing to reassess and contemplate.
Sexuality in my host culture is very different from the culture of the United States. Here, boys walk to school with their arms draped across each others’ shoulders; women and female youth walk hand and hand or arm in arm as they walk down the street. This act, which would be very out of place in most American neighborhoods, is an act of comfort and friendship here. There are also gay and lesbian people in my community, but once again, it is a very different culture. Many boys are openly identified by the adults and their peers in the community as gay at a very young age (usually based on their mannerisms and physical characteristics). It is accepted as a part of who they are and is not questioned in my community. Having said that, it is also not common to see gay youth or adults in relationships with other men, at least not in public.
Lesbian women in my community are not talked about. There are several women about whom I have heard hints of conversation like “she dresses like a boy” or some other subtle comment, but they are much less openly talked about compared to gay men. It is never directly mentioned that they are attracted to women.
It is a different dynamic as you go to larger cities or communities that have a college campus. Same gender pairings are becoming more common to see in public and it is more acceptable to live with the person you are in a relationship with, but this is not the case in my community yet. I have also heard no mention of transgender individuals, while I am certain that there are transgender people in my host country, I have not yet been able to find a community of local transgender individuals even in the closest, larger city.
This leads me to the family I have found among the other Peace Corps Volunteers. When I first got here, I knew I would have to find allies in some of my fellow volunteers if for no other reason than safety, security and the unlikely event of a medical emergency. I also knew that, if I was unable to be completely open with the people in my host community, I would have to find another outlet in my Peace Corps community. What I did not expect was the warmth, understanding and unconditional respect and love that I would receive in response. While I am not open with every single Peace Corps staff and volunteer, those who I have felt comfortable enough to disclose my gender identity to have been overwhelmingly supportive of me. Of course there have been questions and curiosities and many in-depth, gender-based conversations, but it has been out a genuine desire to understand and appreciate fully the extent of the person I am.
The medical and in-country staff have also been outstanding. Once again, and as I expected, there is a lot of teaching and education on my end. The medical and in-country staff have no experience working with transgender individuals, but they have a strong desire to learn and an even stronger characteristic of support, respect and conscientiousness that has been quite touching to experience. Without my Peace Corps family completing my understanding and experience of “found family”, my service here would be much more stressful and, at times, frightening. Knowing that I have the support of Peace Corps doctors, staff, and peers who will show up, without hesitation, to support and vouch for me should I find myself in need of such things, has allowed me to relax and enjoy the experience I am having instead of just trying to safely get through it.
Finding new definitions of family along with a wide expanse of people who provide me with different components of family (and who hopefully I do the same for in return), has been one of the most surprising aspects of my Peace Corps service so far. I expect that these new families of mine will continue to surprise and impress and teach me as I carry on throughout the next several years. I find that, while I was a bit nervous about the location I was placed in for Peace Corps service, it has turned out to be more than what I could have ever dreamed and has, so far, surpassed my expectations.
You can contact this volunteer at firstname.lastname@example.org