Questions About Sex and HIV in Guatemala

- A Liberman, PCV

I was getting blank stares from a sea of uniformed fifteen-year-olds as I fumbled through explaining how AIDS doesn’t actually kill an infected person. Opportunistic infections are what inevitably bring about the demise of the patient. It was a struggle. I felt like I was explaining the process well but I didn’t get a single reassuring nod from the crowd. I hesitated and then turned to my counterpart for the HIV/AIDS training I was conducting for help. In previous sessions he was quick to jump in and eloquently state what my Spanish language deficiency prohibited me from spitting out. Not that day. I glanced over to the side of the room where he was standing silently and noticed he didn’t jump in to save me because he was otherwise occupied; occupied texting on his Blackberry. If he had taken a second to look up from his mobile device he would have seen the look of, “Are you kidding me?” on my face. It seems not even the developing world can escape the digital world.

He never did look up from his phone so I continued to explain myself in circles until I asked the students, “Understand? Clear as water?” And the responded with a resounding, “Sí.” We ended up wrapping up the training with much success, despite my counterpart’s diminishing interest. In three days we gave three HIV/AIDS education and prevention training sessions to the entire high school, a total of 79 students.

Throughout the process I was surprised at how easy it was for me to talk about sex in front of a classroom full of pubescents. Every time I had to say, “secreciones vaginales,” I thought to myself, “those words would not roll so easily off my tongue if I was speaking in English.” Maybe they would, I just never have had the opportunity to test it out.

My favorite part of the sessions was a question and answer period. Right after an activity we did acting out how HIV attacks white blood cells, I’d give each student a piece of blank paper and ask that they write a question on it. Any question pertaining to HIV/AIDS or sexual activity in general. I received a lot of broken/ripped condom questions, a few asking for the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and even one that asked if a girl could get HIV from having sex with a 40 year old man. I’m still a little worried about the girl that asked that question.

The purpose of conducting HIV/AIDS training is to educate the adolescent population on the disease, how it is transmitted, how it can be prevented and to discredit stereotypes about the disease. A secondary benefit of these sessions is to allow the teenagers to speak openly about sexual reproduction, sexuality and the inherent risks of being sexually active. The sessions in themselves were truly gratifying however, there was one moment, outside of the classroom that I am most proud of.

During the question and answer session of our first training, my counterpart took charge of reading the papers and I did the answering. Nearing the end of the pile he picked up the following question and read it aloud, “Can HIV be sexually transmitted from male to male?” I could tell the question made him uneasy. Homosexuality is a touchy subject in Guatemala. Machismo is deep-rooted in Latin culture and often hinders many Guatemalans from being accepting of non-heterosexual sexual orientations. At that moment I was experiencing the negative impacts of that ideology. It pained me to watch him read the question with discomfort and then it broke my heart to hear him squeak an awkward giggle after the question. He did this in front of the entire classroom. Not the best behavior for promoting tolerance. I resolved to have a discussion with him before the next session.

The next day before our second training I pulled my counterpart aside and told him that I thought we did a wonderful job the day before, the kids seemed really receptive, blah, blah blah. There was only one thing we needed to watch out for today.

“We have to remain completely professional, especially during the question period, I noticed yesterday you laughed when reading the question about HIV being transmitted between two men.”

“I did?” He responded with seemingly genuine astonishment.

“We can’t laugh at any question especially ones pertaining to homosexuality because if there is a homosexual in the class we don’t want to make her or him feel uncomfortable. We need to be completely accepting and professional. If you don’t feel comfortable reading those questions, let me know because I can read them instead.”

“No,” he replied, “I can do it.”

Sure enough, during the second session we received a question identical to the one he had laughed at the day before. As he breezed through the papers at the onset of the answer session I saw him move the question from the middle of the stack to the end. When it finally came up, the slip of paper gently rattled in his quivering hand. However, he read the question aloud in a completely unwavering voice. “Can HIV be sexually transmitted from one man to another?” No giggle.

We both gave a sigh of relief.

 

Safe Zone: Making Peace Corps Havens for LGBT PCV/Ts Worldwide

-Grant Martin Picarillo, PCV, Guatemala, 2008-2010

Overview:

“Safe Zone” is a LGBT sensitivity, acceptance and awareness training exercise designed to promote understanding and promote ally development among our straight peers. Subsequently, the mission is simple. By facilitating a better understanding of LGBT issues among Peace Corps staff, LGBT trainees and volunteers will feel more supported, comfortable and accepted in their individual interactions with staff members and thus in their service as a whole. On a recent Monday early in the New Year, Peace Corps Guatemala completed an all staff Safe Zone training. Sparking dialogue, engaging questions and presentation of new and real facts about LGBT people, Safe Zone in Guatemala was a great success. Here’s how and why we did it.

Why Safe Zone in Peace Corps is Necessary:

An inclusive and accepting environment of mutual support and acceptance is vital to relationship building between PCV/Ts and PC administration and staff. This fact can be particularly true when it comes to LGBT issues such as “coming out,” personal sharing, feelings of safety and security, self-esteem, and mental health. Dealing with a LGBT identity can be hard in the United States, let alone in a different and often more “conservative” culture of Guatemala. All this is going on while dealing with the other adjustments that being a PCV entails. Speaking from personal experience, I found dealing with my sexual orientation identity in this new environment to be one of the hardest adjustments in my transition from American to Guatemalan living. One of the mediating factors to this challenge has been my interaction with Peace Corps staff. While I can’t say I have ever felt discriminated against or unsupported there have been moments of uncertainty and doubt. For example, questions such as “Is it OK if my APCD knows that I’m gay?” “Can I openly talk about my boyfriend with a Spanish teacher when we share stories in language class?” “What if I have to ask the nurse a question that “outs” me?” While some of these questions are applicable to my own case and others not, I can promise that all of these and more have been concerns to countless volunteers. The negative ramifications of these feelings and hesitations can be harmful to the volunteer and to her or his ability to thrive in their community. Compounding this situation is the sad reality that we non-straight identifying volunteers (for the most part) must live a lie in site for two years; acting as heterosexual for the sake of our safety and integration. To have few obvious outlets to be open and honest, neither on site nor in our interactions with staff could be extremely damaging to one’s Peace Corps experience.

Therefore, it is my strong belief that should the general knowledge of LGBT issue be raised and should any number of staff members sport the “acceptance symbol” (see attachment as a model to one we could design on our own) on their door or in their office as a symbol to say “I’m a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues,” the PC community in Guatemala would be healthier, safer, and more inclusive. Note: as is also outlined in our safe zone script, PC-Washington also states that all PC-Centers must be supportive and accepting places for volunteers. So from the PCV community up and the Washington headquarters down PC Posts worldwide have little excuse not to engage their LGBT volunteer community.

How We Did It:

Starting with a proposal from our LGBT representative on our Gender and Development – Committee (GAD), the Safe Zone idea was presented to our Peace Corps Training Officer (PTO) and Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO). While they were initially receptive to the idea, I followed up by modifying and combining various LGBT centric resources I had, including a Safe Zone training script I received while at college from New York University’s LGBT resource center, to create a Peace Corps Specific Safe zone module. From there, GAD presented the proposed 2-hour agenda of activities to the aforementioned staff contacts. Impressed, our PTO and PCMO gave me the green light to present our “Safe Zone” training to staff. Seeing the importance of this training, our staff liaisons coded the upcoming Safe Zone training as a mandatory event for all staff (they rightly assumed that should this not be mandatory some staff would choose not to attend because of the subject matter at hand…which is exactly the point of the training! To raise staff “comfort level” with LGBT issues). From here, our organizing committee reached out staff members we already knew to be allies to as them to facilitate parts of the workshop. With buy-in from various staff members – Guatemalan and American – and not just the token gay volunteer and socially liberal American staff, we were able to communicate before even starting that it’s OK… “cool” even, to be an ally.

With our safe zone script finalized and sticker logo printed (see attachments) it was game time. Coming together, myself, our GAD chairwoman, PTO, PCMO, Country Director (CD) and 2 other Peace Corps Alphabet soup facilitators executed the 2 hour safe zone training on Monday the 25th of January, 2010 to a captive, curious, and willing to engage (SUCCESS!) audience.

Conclusion and Follow Up:

An important part of Safe Zone for Peace Corps Guatemala was ensuring the change was not just internally processed staff member to staff member…but that PCT/Vs were able to more obviously understand and see that our PC center was a place of total acceptance and support. Therefore, as a concluding part of our training, we allowed staff to take our in-house safe zone logo (circle of rainbow colored hand prints) and stick it up in a visible place somewhere in their office or workspace. Low and behold, the majority of attendees took not just 1 but two stickers to hang up, as did they take all copies of other LGBT/GAD resources I had previously created: “How to fight homophobia in site,” “What to expect as an LGBT PCV,” and our fall 2008 “Gender Blender” newsletter containing upwards of 5 articles about homosexuality in Guatemala. With stickers in place our Peace Corps office and training center is a visible safe zone, with more staff then not sporting their rainbow stickers implicitly saying “I’m an ally… a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues.”

We here in PC-Guatemala are hoping to have some follow up dialogue about the many questions raised during our session. Most pressing of all, were perhaps the many questions from APCDs concerning either: a) how to select a site for a LGBT volunteer and b) what to do when they believe the volunteer is struggling with sexuality issues in Guatemala but has yet to come out to them. These are all good questions that GAD and our PCMO are working on addressing more concretely in the near future.

While many hours of work were involved in “making this happen,” I have been thrilled with the immediate results and ongoing dialogue. We all have unique PC experiences and challenges and while helping LGBT volunteer mitigate some of the potential landmines of service is just one step in the right direction, it is an important step, and one we must take. Saludos from Guatemala!

Workshop Materials:

Contact Grant regarding any questions about the Safe Zone training, accessing Spanish translations and/or implementing a Safe Zone at your post at gmpicarillo@gmail.com.

LGBT in Guatemala PCV Land

-A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

What is it like to be a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (or Questioning) Peace Corps Volunteer you ask? Well, in just the same way that every heterosexual volunteer’s experience is different, so are the experience of us volunteers who identify as queer, or to be politically inclusive, us volunteers who are not 100% straight.

Keeping this in mind, I can only honestly and respectfully answer this question by describing my own personal story. To speak on behalf of all gay volunteers out there in this “Think Global, Act Local” Peace Corps world that we live in would impede the diverse collection of experiences and unique identities of other gay volunteers.

All in all, my hope is that this story helps shed light on what exactly is the experience of the elusive, endangered species we call the Gay Peace Corps Volunteer. So here’s my story. My big-fat-I’m-a-gay-peace-corps-volunteer…er… trainee, story:

Three years ago I moved to New York City. Two years, 8 months ago I “came out” to myself and to my friends. One year ago, after the sudden death of my mother, the final walls came down and I told my family I was gay, learning the hard way that life is too short to hide your true identity from those you love. However, I still think of myself as blessed, for not only have I been accepted for sharing my sexual identity with those around me, but embraced, celebrated even!

So now I find myself in the present tense, some few months into my 27 months of Peace Corps Service and because “Culture Matters” so very much, I have been forced in many real ways, back “into the closet” I fought so long to escape. Imagine coming from Chelsea NYC to Guatemala. In my neighborhood in the states, arguably the gays outnumber heterosexuals compared to Guatemala, a country where machismo reigns supreme and the marginalization of gay culture approaches a national pastime status. It has been quite the adjustment.

This sudden loss of the emotional, cultural and sexual freedoms I was privy to in the United States has exacerbated many feelings of loneliness, homesickness, and the difficulties of cultural adjustments. For example, the LGBT advocate inside of me winces each time I feign an “oh yeah my novia (girlfriend) in the states” sentence to a host country national for the sake of my successful cultural assimilation and safety. Yes, I often feel that if my sexual identity were to slip into any host country community, my reputation and personal safety would be jeopardized. All for no better reason then I like to lie next to another man in bed.

Additionally, I have struggled, unable to find a gay friend(s) to run to when I need, well… a gay friend – somebody to 100% understand what it is that I need to tell them. On the bright side, my PC family is chalk full of uber-allies. This helps, but let’s be real here – allies are not the real thing and I suspect I will struggle with this nuanced dimension of loneliness for the entirety of my service.

So why you ask, after so many years of self repression, why would I, a gay individual, choose to give up the euphoric and intoxicated thrill of living “out and proud” to live as a “born again closeted” Peace Corps Volunteer? For me, there really was never a question about it. Being gay is only part of my complete identity and making compromises to some part of our respective identities to become a PCV is something I imagine we all endure. Thus, despite the struggles I face living under the guise of gay PCV concerns, it seems so far, vale la pena (worth the trouble).

Addendum: Since I first wrote this, my eyes have been opened a bit wider in terms of gay life in Guatemala. So, yes, there is a gay scene. Yes I have met gay Guatemalans. Is this group suppressed and marginalized? Incredibly so. Is it difficult to find? Very. Is there still tremendous work to do? Por supuesto (of course)! But is there hope? Absolutely!

This PCV can be contacted through lgbrpcv@lgbrpcv.org

Cuates: “Good Friends” in Guatemala

-Aida Sahud, RPCV

During my in-country training in Guatemala in the summer of 1993, I heard that we would take part in a diversity panel discussion as part of our cultural training. The idea of a diversity panel appealed to me for I had begun to notice, as a closeted lesbian, that many volunteers had open hearts for the Guatemalans as foreigners in a new land, but had lesser tolerance for diversity within the Peace Corps community. As a 49 year old volunteer, I had already experienced some “ageism” from some younger volunteers, and I was not yet ready to “come out” to the majority of the volunteers.

The day the diversity panel was scheduled to come to the training center, I waited with the anticipation of a young child. I knew that many minorities would be represented including a lesbian and gay man. I desperately wanted to hear their viewpoint about “coming out” in their communities, gay life in Guatemala and where to go to meet people. I had heard that there was a gay, lesbian, and bisexual PCV support group which met once a month on pay-day weekend. Both the diversity panel and the support group had been around for less than a year. Many months before two gay volunteers who had “come out” to country director, Peter Lara and asked that more attention be paid gay/lesbian/bisexual volunteers.

The two volunteers who spoke with CD Lara and two of the PC nurses said that during “pre-staging” they had felt that it was not an OK thing to be gay, let alone talk about it. My friend Scott who was one of the pioneer volunteers in this movement told me later that being a volunteer was hard enough without knowing that you can’t truly be yourself, at least within the Peace Corps.

Scott had begun the process of reaching out to other volunteers, by organizing the monthly meetings, putting up posters in the PC office and at the training center. He felt that the administration wholeheartedly supported these activities. But for many volunteers it was difficult. A journey into Guatemala City took an average of 6 hours each way. Still, 8 to 10 volunteers attended these monthly support sessions. There were some volunteers who wished to remain closeted to people outside the support group. Finding a meeting place was also a problem. None of us lived in the capital and most of us did not want to meet at the Peace Corps office. We finally agreed on a restaurant which allowed for some privacy as we could sit together in a far corner and chat. We shared books, magazines and newspapers about gay/lesbian/bisexual life in the states from letters and mailings we’d received from friends back home.

There was some objection to the title “support group.” This wasn’t therapy, and after some discussion, we all agreed on the name “Cuates,” suggested by our colleague Michael. Cuates means “good friends” in Spanish. Our purpose in meeting was to find a safe place and share our experiences as gay volunteers. After our afternoon meetings we would usually go out for something to eat, or to a movie, and then end up either at Mario’s “El Encuentro” or “Tropicana” for a drink or to “Pandora’s Box” for some disco.

After about six months we agreed to invite more Guatemalans. Some were in relationships with volunteers, others were friends we had met along the way. This caused some language difficulties because many of our Guatemalan friends did not speak English and the majority of the volunteers wanted to express their deep feelings in English. Often times, someone would sit next to a Spanish speaker and translate. It became an excellent forum to better understand about gay life in Guatemala. Our Guatemalan friends would always say, “the family is the first to know and the last to accept it.” Because of this strong social constraint, very few of our local friends were out to their families.

In June 1994, I was asked by the country director if I would be willing to be a “contact person” for gay volunteers from other countries who were looking for support groups. I welcomed the role. After that time, Peter would regularly ask my opinion about issues relative to being gay in the Peace Corps. My first out-of-country contact was with Edna Fogerty who was serving in Grenada, West Indies, and was reaching our for support as the only gay volunteer in her group. Edna worked and lived in a strongly homophobic environment and wanted to connect with other gay volunteers. She had initiated a gay/lesbian support group in the Eastern Caribbean. Several of us wrote back and forth and to other volunteers in the region. We corresponded with gay and lesbian volunteers in Belize, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador.

Cuates was tremendous support for me and helped me to come out to all of my fellow volunteers, my three sons and the Peace Corps staff. I found myself going regularly to meetings the first year and being the facilitator the second year. Involvement with Cuates was a challenge because of communication, difficulty of transport and my regular Peace Corps activities, but it was worth every bit of effort to have a place to totally be myself.

At the time I left Guatemala, another volunteer had agreed to take over the facilitation of the group. The latest news I’ve heard is that Cuates is still going strong and that the need was still great to have a group in place. We are “everywhere” and there will always be “self-directed” volunteers who will pick up the responsibility to take on an extra project like Cuates when it’s important to do so.

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