Carnival and Coming to Know St. Vincent

-Laura Wesolowski, RPCV

Carnival Mas St. Vincent

I would like to say that after having returned for a year, that I have processed what it meant to me to be queer in the Eastern Caribbean, but I can’t. The times when I think back on being closeted for 2 years of my service come less often, but it’s still something I think of. I am not bitter about my decision to stay closeted to my community, in fact that was my decision from the get go. It was, and still is, my belief that my sexuality is not something for a community to decide on. It is my own, and I claim it as such.

The beginning of my service was very different from many others. The Eastern Caribbean post is compromised of 6 island nations, Antigua and Barbuda , Dominica , Grenada and Carriacou, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Kitts and Nevis. I found out the region and post before I found out about my assignment. After two weeks of training on St. Lucia, I received word that my posting was in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). The question of sexuality and possibilities of homophobic reactions of host country nationals came up very frequently in training discussions. The handful of LGBT trainees paled in number to the 70+ trainees in the group. We had all read about homophobia in Jamaica and throughout the region. Much of it was against MSMs (men who have sex with men) and gay-identified men, but there was very little written on the plight of lesbians, bisexuals, and WSWs (women who have sex with women). Either way, there was always an undertone of uncertainty.

I had no problem coming out to the other PCVs; in fact a few just came up and asked if I had a girlfriend. I even came out to some of the staff. But I dared not come out to my community. My first week out of home stay, the community was in an uproar over a young man who was a known MSM, and had died from complications of AIDS. No one would mention the way he died, just say it was pneumonia or “sickness.” They could not face the fact that HIV/AIDS was a part of their community. Though a life-long member of the community, few people outside his family attended his funeral, and quickly after was talk about his disgusting habits, and the country was corrupted by “those people and their actions.” It made me sad to know that my community would probably not accept my sexuality, and that they were unwilling to confront the epidemic in their midst.

As a single white female, I got asked many questions about my sex life and relationship status. Mostly men asked me, as people like me were considered a prize and goal, a status symbol that might help them come to America. I even got asked by one man if he could have my children! I tried to explain to him that I would have to have his children, and that just was not going to happen! I bypassed these questions by saying I was too young to be married, enjoying the single life, and really didn’t want kids.

But all of this never affected my relationship with my community and the people I have grown to call my family and friends. It was easy to see that culture was a pillar of Vincentian life. There was always a festival coming up, something to prepare for. Twice a year the country held a major festival. July was Vincy Mas (said maas), and Christmas time was the setting for 9 Mornings. These events showcased the culture of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the pride the people had. To best understand St. Vincent and Vincentians as a people I had to immerse myself in these celebrations of life.

A fellow PCV had connections to a Carnival Mas band, and asked if I wanted to join. This particular band, KFC SVG International Players (that’s right, Kentucky Fried Chicken was our sponsor), was the reigning Mas band and considered the best of the best. I began working with Players right before Easter. I traced, cut and glued my costume together through 4 months of cultural training. It was during those four months that I began to understand Vincy twang, the local dialect, the true meaning behind many of the popular songs, and what exactly I was there for. I never set out to play Mas on Carnival Tuesday, but I did. I never wore spandex in the 80s and 90s either (which I was very proud of, thank you), but because Players did, I did.

Mas started in the late morning/early afternoon, but I had to be there earlier to get myself and others dressed. I hiked 3 rides and walked the last mile into town, just so we could all look good. Looking good meant winning and we wanted to win. Once everyone was ready, I got dressed and ran through town like a banshee looking for my band. I found them in Carnival City. As I stood over my band, seeing a sea of florescent colors, beautiful costumes, and months of hard work, I understood why Vincentians placed so much emphasis on Mas. This was culture epitomized.

I was a part of the band the next year, and we won as well. SVG Players won for the fourth time in a row in 2009, and are the reigning Mas band in St Vincent and the Grenadines. By being a part of the band I learned more about what it means to be Vincy than any other time in my service. I never came out to the band, but I’m sure some of them knew. I realize now that they probably didn’t care; to them I was a friend and a Vincy.


Laura can be contacted at l.wesolowski@yahoo.com and you can learn more about Vincy Mas Carnival atwww.carnivalsvg.com

Advocacy in the Eastern Caribbean: GrenCHAP and its President

- Tom Jacobs, RPCV Eastern Caribbean, 2005-07

Because I was a new volunteer to the island, one of the senior volunteers provided a local contact. She had been working in the HIV/AIDS sector for more than a year and a half, and she described her contact as the “president” of gay Grenada.

“Is there a gay organization here?” I asked.

“No,” she clarified, “but if there were, Nigel would be president.”

Integrating whole-heartedly into Caribbean culture, it took me another ten months before I would meet Nigel, halfway through my Peace Corps stint. If there is one thing I regret about my PC experience, it is that I spent half of it not knowing Nigel. On the other hand, spending a year in Grenada without a connection to a local support system gave me the opportunity to experience the isolation that sexual minorities in a highly conservative and homophobic culture experience. By the time I met Nigel a year into my service, I had developed a greater appreciation for who he is and what he does.

During my last year of service, supporting Nigel’s endeavors became my secondary Peace Corps project. In that year, Nigel was able to gain official recognition through the Ministry of Health for GrenCHAP, Grenada’s chapter of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership, a network of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and CBOs (Community Based Organization) in the OECS (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) islands working with the most at risk populations in order to reduce the rate of HIV infection and increase respect for basic human rights and dignity. Along with Nigel, GrenCHAP has two other directors. However, Nigel was and continues to be the primary point person for the organization, thus fulfilling my colleague’s prediction: Nigel is now the official president of gay Grenada.

Working with Nigel during my last year of service, I had the opportunity to do various forms of outreach to Grenada’s underground MSM (men who have sex with men) population. One project consisted of a series of three weekend retreats for a small group of men. Another consisted of doing a “Voices” project in which I was allowed to conduct candid, intimate interviews with Grenadian MSM about all aspects of their lives. These projects helped to make that tiny isle a permanent fixture in my life.

I recently returned to Grenada and decided to turn the table on Nigel. This time, rather than being the orchestrator of inquiry, he became my subject.

Tom: How did you become the president of gay Grenada?

Nigel: (Laughs) By default, I guess. It began with HIV work. About 15 years ago I joined the Grenada AIDS Foundation, a non-profit organization which dealt with general HIV issues. I wanted to get involved in community activities and decided that I would join the fight against HIV/AIDS. A few years after I joined that organization, there was a regional meeting for “most-at-risk” populations which would have included MSM, sex workers, persons living with HIV, and other groups. I was chosen to represent Grenada at that meeting and it went from there.

Tom: What kind of work does the Grenada chapter of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership (GrenCHAP) do?

Nigel: We encourage people to get HIV testing. A couple years ago one of the guys said he went to the Ministry of Health to get an HIV test and the receptionist at the front desk said, “Why you coming to get tested for HIV? If yuh behavin’ yuhself, then yuh wouldn’t need to come and get a test!” He just turned back and left.

That said, there is a core group of health care providers who do understand the issues and are very professional in terms of testing for HIV and treating persons who are positive, and we can direct individuals to these professionals. Irresponsible behavior is not prevalent of all health care providers in Grenada.

A couple of us in GrenCHAP are also trained as VCT counselors, that’s Voluntary Counseling and Testing. We’re trained as counselors for persons who need counseling before the blood is drawn. We were trained under the Ministry of Health. We were constantly bringing up the MSM issue: “What if a lesbian or gay guy came to you? How would you react?” Or before we’d start actually doing a session out in the community to do testing, we’d remind them, “Don’t make any assumptions about anybody’s sexuality. Don’t assume that if a guy comes to you that it’s his girlfriend that he talking about. You have to talk in sort of gender neutral ways that, yeah, he might have a girlfriend, but he might be sleeping with men as well, or he might be a gay.” As advocates, it’s our responsibility to remind people about those issues as much as we can. We think people are becoming more understanding.

Some persons that we have encouraged to go get tested and have gone have said that they definitely see a difference now where they were very comfortable talking about their situation. The people we referred would have been talking in gender neutral terms saying, “my partner” as opposed to saying “he,” and then the counselors respond to that and use the same terminology, “your partner” instead of just assuming that the partner is of the opposite sex. We feel that some progress is being made there. Right now, more of our work is around human rights and advocacy work as opposed to strictly HIV, even though we do that as well. But because HIV is pretty much a mainstream issue now, everybody is on the HIV bandwagon; our niche has been focusing on the human rights issues of the most at-risk populations.

We’re advocating for very basic things: don’t threaten to send people to prison just because they’re gay, kind of thing. Marriage is not on the radar. The whole Proposition 8 issue, because we get all our cable feed out of the US, that’s something everybody was talking about here: “These gay people want to marry. It’s not right for a man to marry another man!” – and you’re hearing this while you’re on the bus because we’re bombarded with anything that’s coming out of the US. In some ways, it’s damaged a lot of the work we’re trying to do here in the Caribbean because people don’t really understand. As soon as they hear anything gay-related in the Caribbean now they immediately think we’re talking about marriage, and that is not what the issue is. Sometimes the conversation is shut down even before we get a chance to say this is not the issue in the Caribbean. We’re talking about basic human rights, removing repressive laws from books. That has been a challenge for the work that is going on in the Caribbean, and it’s a huge challenge to keep the conversation on track.

Tom: Why do you refer to MSM and not ‘gay men’?

Nigel: Especially in Grenada, the reason I still use the term MSM (men who have sex with men) is because there are a lot of people in the community – well, I can’t even call it a community – because people are so closeted, there are many men who have sex with men who do not consider themselves gay. We don’t have any gay bars or gay hang out places. There’s hardly a community. It’s more a matter of guys who have their girlfriends or have their wives who sleep with men on the side. There’s this obligation to maintain your Caribbean machismo image that you’re a guy with lots of girls, or at least one girl fathering a few children gives bonus points. As far as most guys are concerned, anybody finding out that they’re gay is the worst thing possible so they will go as far as possible to hide that. Because of that, it’s very rare that people develop relationships with persons of the same sex. People might have steady “friends with benefits” kind of thing but it’s never really a relationship. It’s never regarded as a relationship.

Tom: Do you know anyone who’s been able to sustain a same-sex relationship?

Nigel: (Laughs) Yes, there have been a few couples around. But don’t expect that to show up on a national census anytime soon.

Tom: Jamaica has the reputation of being the most homophobic country in the western hemisphere and many people lump all of the Caribbean islands together. How does Grenada compare to Jamaica in terms of homophobia?

Nigel: Jamaica has a population of 2.5 million as compared to Grenada’s 100,000, so that is a huge difference; and Jamaica has something like the second highest level of homicides anywhere in the world. There were more than 1,500 murders in Jamaica in 2008. In Grenada, if one person gets killed, that’s big news. We’re proud of our relatively safe track record.

A lot of people hearing these reports of violence would be frightened to go to Jamaica because they figure that if I’m a gay person, the moment I set foot in Jamaica, someone’s going to shoot me. That’s really not the reality. I even thought that before I went to Jamaica myself a few years ago. When I went there, I was shocked at how openly a lot of gay Jamaicans seem to be, very effeminate guys boldly strutting down the streets. I didn’t even know there were gay clubs before I went. Jamaica does have gay clubs and gay things to do, as opposed to Grenada where we don’t. If you have 5% of 2.5 million people being gay then there’s quite a community, as opposed to just a small pocket of Grenadians.

What happens, in my belief, is that in a country where you have such a high level of violence and there is homophobia as well, then when they express their homophobia it’s very often in a violent form; and so, you have a lot of gay people being attacked and murdered. I believe violence is the bigger problem. In Grenada, and other small islands such as Grenada, I would even go so far as to say that we are more homophobic than the Jamaican society; however, we’re not violent. That’s why we don’t share the startling and unfortunate statistics as Jamaica. It’s more subtle. People will talk behind your back or people will call you a batty-man or a faggot or whatever it is when you’re walking down the street sometimes. But somebody wouldn’t pull a knife or shoot you for it in Grenada where they might do that in other places.

Tom: How can foreign activists best support the work you’re doing in Grenada, and more broadly, in the Caribbean?

Nigel: One of the things that we all have to remember is that whatever we do and whatever we say is not just constrained to our immediate environment but it has rippling effects across the work that everybody else is doing and trying to achieve. One example, there was a call for a boycott of Jamaica by a group of activists in California recently, and this boycott was called without any sort of dialogue with the activists in Jamaica or with a total disregard for what the activists in Jamaica really wanted to happen. These are persons not living in Jamaica but who feel that they have this impetus to make the world a better place, that they know what is better for everybody else and Jamaicans don’t know what to do for themselves.

Once the boycott went public, that caused a lot of problems for the work that the activists were doing in Jamaica. They were talking not only of a boycott of Jamaica, but also of Jamaican products and they singled out Red Stripe Beer. Red Stripe Beer was actually in dialogue with the activists in Jamaica and they were very sensitive to the issues and were not at all involved with the dancehall artistes who were promoting homophobia. So here was a responsible and sensitive corporate entity in Jamaica, and at the same time the foreign activists were calling for the boycott saying don’t support Red Stripe Beer. It really does more harm than good.

Calling for a boycott of a country that depends on tourism is going to make life worse for everybody, especially the persons who already have life difficult, i.e., the persons who are the most at risk. Yes, it’s all well and good to want to help, but you have to have some sort of respect, some sort of regard for the work that is happening in these countries that you want to affect some sort of change in. For advocates or agencies interested in doing work in regions around the world, dialogue with existing agencies in those parts of the world is critical.

You cannot decide what is going to happen on the other side of the world and expect it to roll out smoothly. You would not know the realities of what is going on in this other part of the world better than the persons who are actually working with those communities. There has to be some sort of conversation and you need to listen.

Tom: Would you be willing to serve in that role?

Nigel: In Grenada, yes, by default, since I’m told I’m the president of gay Grenada. The dialogue has to start somewhere. If I’m not the best person to talk to, we would direct you to whoever is.

Tom: You’re connected to the other islands?

Nigel: Yes. We’re one Caribbean. We all have very different local nuances, but at the same time, a lot of the same basic issues that we are dealing with right now are common across the Caribbean. The legal issue, for instance, that was inherited when we were all under British rule. Most of us are now independent states. We’re no longer under British rule, but the laws are still here. And it’s best if we advocate for change as a region.

Tom: Do you plan to continue as the President of GrenCHAP for much longer?

Nigel: Somebody has to do it. I will continue to do it for as long as I can; however, I really wish that other persons would be willing to speak openly. For me, it’s been baby steps along the way. I remember a few years ago, a reporter came up to me with a television camera and mic; I froze like a deer in the head lights and didn’t know what to say or do. Months later, and after much prodding, I agreed to do a radio interview. And then I wondered, “Am I going to do television? No, I’m not going to do television! Okay, now I’m on television.” Nobody threw any bottles at me after I did that so maybe I can do a little bit more. That’s how it’s been going for the past couple of years.

I can understand why many people are afraid to be visible, but everyone needs to start at some point, and hopefully realize along the way that it’s not as difficult as it seems at first. But, at the same time, you never know. I may just have been lucky so far. I can’t guarantee that somebody else following the same trail would have the same experience that I have had. I’ve been very fortunate. There have been threats toward me, but none of those have come to fruition.

Tom: What kind of threats?

Nigel: People saying that they’re going to hold me and beat me up, or whatever it is. The threats haven’t happened often, but other persons have heard those threats and that has prevented them from joining or being involved in our organization because they feel that the same thing might happen to them or that I am aligned with something that is dangerous.

Tom: Do you feel that it’s dangerous?

Nigel: It’s not something that I actively worry about. If I’m walking down the street, it’s not something that I think about, but at the same time, if it were to happen, I wouldn’t be surprised. I just need to have my head on like any other person who’s involved in any sort of advocacy.

Tom: Why do you do this?

Nigel: Good question. I’ve tried to figure that out myself. I think I just want to impact some sort of positive change, generally speaking. A long time ago when I wanted to choose how I am going to do this, through what sort of means, then we ended up in the HIV, MSM, human rights issues. I think that if I am effective in my role, if the organization is effective in its role, then we will be making the lives of a lot of people a lot better. I’ve seen that change start to happen. Marginalized populations start off at a stage of questioning and paranoia. Then there’s this long journey where you go along until you eventually are comfortable with yourself and you can function as a “normal” person. And I think if we can speed up that process as much as possible so that people can start living their lives and be comfortable sooner than later, then that would have a big impact on peoples’ lives. Ultimately, we want people to have a better life.


Interviewer Tom Jacobs can be contacted at jacobs_5@yahoo.com.

You Can Take the Boy Out of the Caribbean…,

-Tom Jacobs, RPCV, Eastern Caribbean

Common location is a powerful connection.

I was talking to a kid and found out he was from Grenada. “Eh, eh! Yuh from Grenada? What yuh surname?” He told me. “Yuh not from Grenada. Ah know ever surname in Grenada and dat not Grenadian.” He explained his father is from St. Vincent, where his surname originates; his mother is from Grenada. He tells me his mother’s maiden name. “Oh ho! Yuh from Mt. Airy!”

When he recovered from the shock of this strange white guy in New York City connecting his mother’s family name with a tiny village on a small Caribbean island, we engaged in a lively conversation reminiscing about Grand Anse Beach, the Grand Etang reserve, breadfruit, mango, bus rides, and where you can get the best oildown in Brooklyn.

Connection is critical to the work I am now doing. I have exactly 30 days to make a connection, convince a kid I am working in his best interests, and help him find a life off the streets. For approximately one-third of my kids, I rely heavily on my experience in the Caribbean to make that connection. I never would have guessed that my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the Eastern Caribbean would provide me with the knowledge to serve more effectively as a Covenant House Faith Community volunteer in New York City.

Upon the close of my service at the end of August 2007 and before returning to my career as a teacher, I wanted to do something with less responsibility but just as much impact, something as bold and brilliant as Peace Corps, but within the context of US culture. I, also, did not want to be burdened by the details of daily living, such things as housing, insurance, transportation expenses, and the like. Good luck finding something like that, right? Unfortunately, I would not describe the program I found as “lucky.” It is the largest agency in the Americas providing direct services to the most unlucky population among us, discarded children.

Covenant House was founded in New York City in 1972 by a Franciscan priest challenged by a student to practice what he preached. Moving into the raunchiest part of Manhattan, Father Bruce Ritter discovered a population of discarded and exploited children. His initial effort resulted in an organization that provides emergency services and shelter to homeless youth in 21 cities throughout six countries. Faith Community is a program within Covenant House that invites qualified adults to live in community while volunteering full-time at one of the sites in New York City, Atlantic City, or Fort Lauderdale. Four months after COSing, I was living with four other Faith Community volunteers in New York City serving as a Resident Advisor (RA) for the older males crisis unit. Similar to Peace Corps, Covenant House is committed to serving in the capacity needed by local populations; therefore, the programs in the 21 different sites vary. Covenant House in New York is one of the largest of the 21 agencies providing 30-day crisis shelters for older males (18-21 years), older females, minors (younger than 18 years), and mothers with children, transitional living programs for older males, older females, and mothers with children, as well as drop-in and regional training centers in the outer boroughs of New York City. A Faith Community volunteer agrees to serve wherever and in whatever capacity needed. While it was not my first choice, it was my fortune to be placed in the older males crisis unit.

The focus of our 30-day crisis shelter is to find someplace better for the young men to be. Family reunification is our first choice, though rarely a feasible option as the youth typically have excellent reasons why they would be better off outside of the family home. The most frequent placement is into a transitional living program, one of which is also operated by Covenant House. But unlike the crisis shelter that has an open-door policy, transitional living programs usually have stringent criteria for admission, the least of which being valid identification, and employment is preferred. A qualified and highly educated adult would be pressed to obtain all forms of identification (Did you know that you cannot get any form of identification if you do not have any form of identification?) and a job within a 30-day time frame. Yet, this is our goal for our kids. As an RA, I am responsible for everything from meeting the basic needs of our clients (e.g., clean linens, snacks, medications) to advocating for their admission into more stable housing. It would not be so daunting a task if our census were not as high as 60, 65, sometimes 70 plus youth.

Approximately fifteen staff members are responsible for the shelter 24/7, and even though we are split into three teams responsible for the case management of approximately 20 clients each, when it really matters, every staff is responsible for every client, which gives me the opportunity to serve where I am most capable. While there is no single factor responsible for the homelessness of the majority of our kids, there are factors shared by large minorities of our population. We are better service providers when we, as service providers, are able to understand the youths’ perspectives from one or more of these factors. For example, it probably, sadly, comes as no surprise to learn that a significant percentage, perhaps as high as 20-25%, of our clients are gay, bisexual, or transgender, and that many of these are homeless because of their families and communities lack of acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identify. My effectiveness as a service provider increases in regard to this population simply because I share their perspective as a sexual minority. No surprise, right? What did surprise me is that because of my Peace Corps experience, I am able to connect with another significantly large minority, perhaps as high as 30-35%, of our population because they are from the Caribbean.

No one has been able to adequately explain to me why so many of Covenant House kids in New York come from the Caribbean. From living in Grenada, I knew that approximately one-sixth of Grenadian citizens now reside in Brooklyn and that Brooklyn more generally is home to a large population of West Indians. But I have experienced a greater sense of responsibility for their welfare simply because of my connection with their homes of origin.

I vividly recall being warned by my Peace Corps recruiter that “readjusting to US culture after your Peace Corps service will be the most difficult part of the experience.” The memory was so potent that my eventual reintegration became my chief concern during my service. At this time, I have found little truth in the warning. The first four months following my return were the most restful and enjoyable aspect of the experience, primarily because I set that time aside to rest and reconnect with friends and family throughout the US.

One of the highlights during that time occurred on a weekend meditation retreat when I was given fourteen conscious hours to think about nothing other than my posture and breathing. Of course the mind resists a vacuum and after sorting through the distractions, I had the opportunity to acknowledge and be with my grief. It was the first time that the finality of leaving my tiny island home in the Caribbean became real. I remembered white beaches and rugged mountains, crystal clear waters and dazzling sunsets, but mostly, I remembered faces, kind words and gestures, challenges encountered and obstacles conquered. And despite the fact that I had sweat in that ungodly heat and humidity, bled to feed thousands of cursed mosquitoes, often felt isolated, alienated, and utterly alone, and had spent a good deal of my precious time cursing my circumstances, I was able to conclude that it had all, indeed, been entirely worthwhile.

Having attained enlightenment, I proceeded with the second phase of my reintegration, re-engagement, and a stint at Covenant House. The best thing a Peace Corps volunteer can do to ease the transition back home is to make plans that include a specified time to rest, reflect and reconnect, and eventually, a specific time and way to re-engage. Fortunately, my re-engagement took me right back to the Caribbean. I don’t grieve my lost home so much anymore.

If you are interested in the Covenant House Faith Community program, I would love the opportunity to answer any questions. I can be contacted at jacobs_5@yahoo.com

You can learn more about Covenant House on their website:http://www.covenanthouse.org/inv_faithcommunity.html

Part of My Life on Hold in the Eastern Caribbean

- a Peace Corps Volunteer

In 2004, I led a comfortable life in a beautiful town near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The fact that it was home to the religious right made it easier to pursue my interests in GLBT activism. I had the privilege of proudly waving the colors of the queer nation on the grounds of Focus on the Family and New Life Church. I stood in silent solidarity with the students of local high schools while the Fred Phelps clan displayed their venomous bigotry in protest of Gay Straight Alliances. I witnessed the mass same-sex wedding performed by the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches during Pride.

Why would I give all that up to move into the most oppressive closet I have ever known and call it home for two years? Because some Returned Peace Corps Volunteer felt the need to write an article. His name is Dick Lipez. The article was published in a local GLBT newspaper and summarized reasons why gays and lesbians should serve in the Peace Corps. The article originated in the LGB RPCV newsletter, and can be found on the LGB RPCV website, http://lgbrpcv.wordpress.com/1999/08/09/gays-lesbians-and-the-peace-corps-should-i-or-shouldnt-i/

Lipez made several compelling arguments for serving in the Peace Corps. The ones that particularly struck me were, “Gay people should and do join the Peace Corps for the same reasons straight people should and do,” and “You’ll come back with coping skills you never dreamed you had, and with renewed commitment to the cause of human rights.” I had dreamt of going to Africa with the Peace Corps when I was in high school. By 2004, the main reasons I had not considered Peace Corps service were due to my commitments to GLBT activism. In short, I wouldn’t let myself join Peace Corps because I was gay and there were other things I felt I should be doing. Lipez took the logic out of that argument. Secondly, if I did join Peace Corps and Lipez was correct about developing skills, then I should return as a more effective activist for those deeply-cared-about activities that were stopping me in the first place. I started the application process.

Now, I’m four months from my Close of Service. Has it been worth it? Absolutely! Would I do it again? Not on your life! At least, not immediately. Why, you ask? Because some of it has been hell and I’m tired of roasting. It has been worthwhile, but the experience has challenged me to painfully grow in ways I didn’t know possible. Guess Lipez was right in that regard. If I were to give a detailed account of all I have experienced here, all I have learned, all the people I have met and how they have shaped my understanding of myself and my world, you would have to cuddle up in front of a blazing fire over a long snowy weekend to truly appreciate it. Instead, for now, here’s the abridged version you can read on your coffee break.

I was sent to a small island in the Eastern Caribbean where an interfaith service is one in which there are Protestants and Catholics. You do not necessarily have to be a Christian, but you should at least acknowledge that Jesus is God. Is homosexuality a sin? Come on! I mean, is the world flat? Wait, no, I mean, is the world round? Either way, the answer is yes. Homosexuality? Definitely a sin. Within the first week of arriving at my home stay, my host mother shared with me her perceptions of those sinful, shameless homosexuals that came through on a cruise ship. Amazingly, Brokeback Mountain played for a whole two nights before it was pulled due to religious and government intervention.

While gay bashings are not frequent, they do happen, but most usually by acquaintances or family members. A local friend told me that when his brother found out, they got into a fight. Naively thinking this meant a verbal argument, I asked what happened. His response? “He kicked my ass.” A few men have told me they have received beatings from family members in the attempt to correct them. From the larger societal perspective, the existence of gay men and lesbians is mostly denied. “Those people don’t exist here!”

In fact, the concept of gay or lesbian does not exist here. It is much easier to experience this fact than explain it. Since I have been here, the way I understand myself has changed. In my previous life, I lived and interacted with a degree of integrity and authenticity; whereas here, I have learned to be misleading, concealing, and vague in personal and professional relationships. This has led to a slight decrease in my self-respect. Fortunately I had a lot to begin with, and I plan to regain what I have lost.

The experience of being a non-entity is even reflected in the local terminology for homosexuality. While the term “gay” is recognized here, it does not have the same connotation. In the States, at least in my experience, the identification as gay was liberating, emboldening, and empowering. When I declared “I’m gay” I was revealing a significant aspect of how I relate to others without shame or embarrassment. I was stating my future hopes and dreams; the importance I place on honesty in my relationships, the relationships I hope to build that would endure throughout my lifetime. I do not feel I have that opportunity as an MSM.

MSM is the term used for the gay male population in developing countries where there is no identifiable homosexual community. It is not an identification so much as it is a description of an activity, Men who have Sex with Men. Frankly, I’m not a “men” and I don’t define myself by having “sex with men.” Being gay, to me, is not defined by sex. Being an MSM is. It’s limiting, demeaning and oppressive.

That’s the nasty of it. But I still believe the experience has been worthwhile despite the fact that I have had to put a significant aspect of my life on hold and perfect the practice of deception. Aside from issues of sexual orientation, it has been a privilege to work on developing and implementing educational initiatives in a developing country, my primary project. In the past year and a half, I have had the opportunity of creating vital support systems for students and teachers – not something that I would have been able to do so dramatically back in the States.

But even in regard to sexuality and, specifically, the local MSM population, I have been fortunate to become involved, experience the nuances of the culture, and support individuals attempting to make life better, and all with Peace Corps support. One of the greatest opportunities I had was assisting a local Non-Government Organization sponsor a workshop held over three weekends for MSM on HIV/AIDS and safer sexual practices. Fifteen men participated representing a wide age range and an equally diverse connection to the MSM population. Though I had spent several years in gay activism back in the States, I felt like I was witnessing a scene from another planet or another era.

During the first weekend, the men were reticent. By the second weekend, they began to trust each other and the format of the workshop. By the third weekend, there were tears that there would not be a fourth weekend. The information was basic. But it was not the information that mattered. For many of the men, maybe for all of them, it was the first time they had had the opportunity to discuss their sexuality in a group setting and discover they were not alone, that their experiences were not unique, and that in sharing a burden, solidarity and hope emerge. According to the organizers, it was the first such event to happen in the country’s history. I was there. ‘Nuff said.’

I would not describe my Peace Corps experience as fun. It has been beautiful, and in many instances, the beauty has been laced with intense pain. But through the process, I have discovered resources I never knew I had and have developed an inner strength I know I never wanted. I have met phenomenal people who have redefined resilience. I now know that the level of acceptance of diverse sexual orientations and gender expressions that exist in the States is not as bad as it could be even though it is not as good as I would like it to be, but that it can slide backwards as easily as it can advance. I have also learned that I have a voice and a say in the matter.
Yeah, this experience has been worth it. Thanks, Mr. Lipez. I look forward to seeing you back in the States as a fellow RPCV.


We often have current PCVs write anonymously. Individual safety and security in a homophobic environment is the obvious reason. You can contact this volunteer by emailing us at lgbrpv-news@lgbrpcv.org We will forward your messages to him.

Alone on an Island

-a Youth Worker PCV, Eastern Caribbean, August 2001

Coming into the Peace Corps, I had no worries that I would find people like me among fellow volunteers, people who shared my ideals and philosophies of the world. Peace Corps is supposed to be a bunch of bleeding-heart hippies, right? Instead I was surprised to find that not only was I the lone gay person, but that the majority of my coworkers were rather conservative-minded, even the youngest ones just out of college.

I began to get an inkling about the situation while still in training. During one of many personal safety sessions, the trainers (all PCVs from the previous class) led a discussion on the hazards and benefits of dating during service. Each of the trainers related a personal story about his or her own experience in fraternizing with local people. When one woman finished her story about a man she had dated, I had to ask how common homosexual relationships were. She immediately answered that she knew a few gay people but that they would never consider coming out. The other volunteers added that non-hetero relationships were not only rare, but also dangerous. I was told it would threaten a person’s position in their community and that gay people were considered outcasts due to the religious nature of the island culture.

I had expected this kind of attitude from the local people, but what took me by surprise was the response from the other volunteers. Half of training was spent talking about setting up a support system among your coworkers and I began to feel more and more alone. Everyone spent the lunch hour talking about girlfriends and boyfriends left behind. When asked if I was in a relationship (I’ve dated the same woman for more than a year) the conversation would become quiet and awkward. On one occasion, near the end of training, a Peace Corps trainee sidled up to me at an party and said, I’ve been watching you all week and gave me that look. The next day, she made sure to tell me about her boyfriend back home.

As the weeks and months passed, I grew closer to some of the volunteers. However, the issue of my sexuality continued to be an awkward, uncomfortable subject with the other volunteers. In the beginning, I was faced with actual disbelief from others about my being gay.

One volunteer told me of a conversation he had had with two other male volunteers. He said that they didn’t believe I was a lesbian, but thought I did have something going on with a volunteer (male) who had trained us.
It was so hard being away from my girlfriend and I had no one to confide in, no one who I could talk to without them casting nervous glances to the floor and shooting anxious smiles and nods in my direction every three seconds. The only person I could talk to was my girlfriend in San Francisco, and without a phone or reliable access to email, that wasn’t as frequent as either of us needed.

I’ve been here for a year or so now and it’s just in the past few months that the other volunteers are at the point where they sometimes inquire about my girlfriend and are able to offer some kind of support. Still, there are times when I wonder what they really think. At one gathering of PCVs and some local people, a local man was telling a volunteer about all the derogatory names they have for gay men. At each example she would crack up and make comments like, “That’s a funny one, and what else? Tell me another one.” I was in the kitchen just a few feet away in her direct view when I heard her say, “What about lesbians? Do you have any names for lesbians?” Either I had been in the closet so much that she had forgot that I was a lesbian or she just didn’t care. Either way, it upset me. So what did I do? I left the room, and wondered what had happened to the outspoken person I used to be.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend came to the island to visit, and we had a blissful time. Its been like drinking from an oasis. At the same time, however, I felt the need to show some small sign of affection toward her around the other volunteers to prove that we really are a couple. They repeatedly refer to her as my “friend” and while they have been polite, it is clear that they are uncomfortable with the idea of us and unsure of how to relate to us together.

It is a strange thing to be out among your friends and family and then have to go back in the closet. I regret but understand the need to disguise who I am among the local people. What is harder for me to fathom is why a group of young people, Peace Corps volunteers, normally tolerant and open-minded, dedicated to making the world a better place, and coming from one of the freest nations on earth, are so uneasy with who I am.
I’ve left behind everyone I’ve known several times before for new jobs, but this time I feel isolated in a way that I never have before. It’s a jolting feeling to realize you are the ONLY homo you know in five countries – male or female. Recently, the LGB RPCV newsletter was sitting on the table in the Volunteer Lounge in the Peace Corps office. I picked it up to read it and quickly thought that I should make a copy to take home in case someone else wanted to read it. Then I remembered I was the only one who would have any interest in it, or even the courage to pick it up. It struck me again at that point how deeply alone I felt.

I’m invested in my projects and I enjoy living here most days. I’ve created special friendships with the people of my village, especially the children. I even enjoy being around the other volunteers. I know I have made some life-long friendships. But because of the loneliness that I feel, I’ve been tempted to end my service early.

While I would feel like a quitter for leaving, it seems like this could be the only way to be true to myself and preserve my sanity. It’s as though I have to hide myself away almost all the time – not a happy feeling. Equally important, it isn’t fair to my relationship with my girlfriend. She loves and needs me, and I’m thousands of miles away with people who will never be able to accept me as I am. We’re both making an awesome sacrifice, and I wonder sometimes if it’s really worth it.


Editors note: To protect the security of the author, we have not included her name. To contact her, e-mail the editor at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org and we’ll put you in touch.

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