Peace Corps Service and Finding a Partner in Honduras

- Erica Brien and Camila Fiero, RPCVs

Erica and Camila at Boston Pride

Erica’s Story:
Being openly gay as a Peace Corps Volunteer was, for me, impossible. I lived in a community of 300-people in the mountains of Comayagua, Honduras. Upon my arrival, I spent days visiting the homes and getting to know the families that lived in them. I was given incredible amounts of coffee, what amounted to loaves of sweet-bread, hundreds of tortillas and plenty of beans. When I left these homes to head back to my host-family’s home, I was given freshly-laid eggs to take with me. As time went on, I spent the majority of my days in my small town simply getting to know these people. They opened up to me. We talked about so many things. I remember having discussions about the meaning of life, the truth of an inevitable death, the importance of family, love and the many existences of god. We obviously talked about the state of the community, the hopes people had for the future. We would talk about the world and where it is headed. Families would invite me over to make bread or tamales, depending on the time of year. Through all of this, I can truly say that I grew close to many of my community members. However, nonetheless, there was one thing that I knew we could never talk about, one thing they could never know: my sexuality.

The people in my community took religion very seriously. All families belonged to either the Catholic Church or the Evangelical Church, and being gay was a horrible sin. There was one openly gay man of 24 years, who I will call Tio, who at times I would verbally defend when I heard other people criticize him. I’d say simple things like, “It’s okay that he is gay. It doesn’t make him a bad person.” After defending him, I would be asked by various community members to step aside to have private conversations. They would tell me, “Erica, I heard that you defended Tio, but love is between a man and a woman. You can not defend this boy for committing such a sin.”

After a trip home for the summer, I returned to my community with a new hair-cut. It was short. The Evangelical pastor, a woman who invited me frequently to her house for dinner with the family, told me she would have to pray for my soul because I went against God’s will; women are supposed to have long hair. These incidents made me realize the impossibility of being completely honest within my community. No matter how welcoming and friendly the people of my community were, no matter how fond of me they had grown to be, if I told them that I was a lesbian, I truly believe that my work would have ended right there. No one would have wanted to work with me. People would have closed up. I had to pretend I was straight. As a straight person, people accepted me. I was able to work with their kids. I was able to build great relationships, and I will say that in the end, it was worth it. For me, it was worth it to be in the closet for two years. It was worth it to sacrifice a certain part of me in order to truly make the most of a meaningful experience. However, to be able to say that I could have had the same experience as an openly gay person within a culture that does not understand the truth of human-sexuality would be naïve and a lie.

Camila’s Story:
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was never explicitly told to lie about my sexual orientation. Instead, I was asked to understand the culture and community I was trying to become a part of. It was more difficult than I had anticipated. Although I am from the Mid-West and have very traditional parents, I had spent the last four years at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts and had finally learned to be proud of my sexual orientation. Thus, Honduran culture, for me, was especially difficult as it is steeped through and through in machismo and intense patriarchy. At the same time, the generosity and amiability of the people almost make up for it. About six to seven months into my service I had to be site changed from my mountain community of 300 people to a larger “rural city” community further south. A community partner had displayed some bizarre behavior that made me feel outed within the community. Thus, I felt I had to leave because the rumor mill would stop short anyone who was at one time willing to work with me. I also felt unsafe. I remember that night before I was set to leave, and I was fighting visions of people busting through my front door with the idea of “corrective rape.” I don’t personally know of any of these cases happening in Honduras, instead, people would just get killed.

In my new community I felt extremely cautious. I was constantly analyzing myself. Eventually, I got settled in and made a few close friends. I worked with a local Honduran environmental NGO and worked with other volunteers on environment classes, HIV/AIDS classes, and improved stoves projects. However, I never told any Hondurans about my orientation. Miraculously, Erica and I started dating, and I say miraculously because we never considered dating one another until it happened. We were both in the Protected Areas Management Group, which has since been cancelled and lumped together with the Business Program. Sadly, there are no current programs that have a specific goal of addressing issues such as loss of biodiversity and environmental education. We were about one year into our sites when I would go visit Erica and she would come visit me, taking turns doing the 8-hour bus ride. We both feel that we looked somewhat innocent since close friendships between females are not unheard of or frowned upon. Yet, we had no time to confirm or disprove our notions because we were evacuated about seven to eight months before our official completion of service.

The day before I left I came out to my closest friend in my community. She said she already knew and knew within the first month of meeting me! I was surprised and sad that I missed out on a deeper more honest relationship with her because I was afraid. Yet, the real tragedies are the thousands of individuals that are beaten, murdered, and subjugated because of who they love. Honduras has seen an increase in violent hate crimes, although reporting is spotty on the subject. Also, with a friend, we re-started the LGBTQ support group for volunteers in Honduras and were starting to make connections with Honduran “clubs” or support groups. Yet, that too was cut short. There has been straight forward reporting on exactly why the program was cut short: Peace Corps could no longer guarantee our safety due to the ever-escalating drug war. We have since called back to friends in Honduras who have said the situation has only gotten worse, violence is spreading and rural communities are cut off from the larger cities because the roads are too dangerous.

In the end, I think your service is what you make of it. I am proud and happy with my time spent in Honduras. However, I would caution that one shouldn’t expect to be out and shouldn’t expect understanding.

Erica Continues:
It is hard to say if people in my community ever grew suspicious of the relationship I had with Camila. She came to visit me at my site more consistently than any other volunteer. And while we tried very hard not to seem suspicious within my small-community, there were times when I questioned certain comments made by my community members. Was it all in my head? Maybe. Maybe not. I remember taking Camila to my host family’s house where my host mother gave us coffee and tried to convince me to date the family’s cousin who recently came from out of town. My host-mother would describe how nice of a man he was, and how he is different than most men. Camila would play along, saying things like, “wow, he sounds like a catch” as she would throw me a mischievous smile. Camila even took a picture of this man and me standing together outside of my host family’s home. They thought it was essential to our future together. When Camila and I would return back to my house, hiding behind the privacy of closed doors, we would talk about the same questions that today we still ponder, such as how much does “respect” and being “culturally” sensitive turn into tolerating intolerance? What is our role as queer Peace Corps Volunteers and allies in educating around sensitive subjects such as sexual orientation? How are we to facilitate change if we, ourselves, are doing our very best to uphold cultural norms? These are the questions we would like to leave with you.

You can contact Erica at ebrien03@gmail.com  and Camila at camiximena@gmail.com.

Serving with Risks in Honduras

- Paul Kozak, RPCV

While my fellow invitees and I were checking into DC’s Washington Plaza Hotel for our Peace Corps Staging, we realized a large convention was checking out: a Leather Pride Convention. As we were chatting and introducing ourselves, discussing our fears and ambitions of spending the next 2 years and 3 months in Honduras as PCVs, I said under my breath to my new straight friend Ben: “Man, I hope they at least removed the bedspreads before getting their kink on, else I might be a little grossed out to lie on top of the bed.” A couple weeks later, Ben admitted with a laugh, “My first impression of you was, Man… that gay guy was kinda homophobic!”

How ironic, then, to go from a Leather Convention at Staging in Washington, DC, to the closet for Training in Siguatepeque, Honduras. I got lucky; a member of GLOBE (discussed later) hitched a ride with us to the training grounds, and with her counsel became my guardian angel. She wasn’t your hackneyed, ethereal, femmy, soft-spoken kind of angel, but rather the butch dyke type, tattooed and passable as a defensive nose guard. Now really, nothing against the ethereal angels, but which type of angel would you prefer to have your back in an unknown world?

My guardian angel and I are members of the LGBT community, a misnomer for many of us. Solidarity is difficult with so much diversity; it resembles more the breast cancer or myopic communities, where mutual needs bring people together than, say, the French Canadian or Hispanic communities. None of us are raised gay; there’s no genetic lineage to trace back, no independent or historical civilizations with which to associate (not even the island of Lesbos). But are mutual needs the only thing that binds us? I’ve felt many times like an outsider looking in at gay bars and pride marches while always being the token gay guy amongst my predominantly straight friends. Yet for many reasons, some I understand and some I do not, there seems to be a connection which constitutes an LGBT community concept beyond shared adversity, one that strings someone like me to leather daddies and lesbians alike.

Arriving in Honduras, I immediately began my search for that connection. I knew linking with the Honduran LGBT community would be important to me before I ever set foot on foreign soil. That invisible social safety net would help me bridge my understandings of Honduran and American cultures while finding the safest path to cross them with my sexuality. I knew I would get lonely and bored; during training that was consistently presented as among our greatest obstacles for finishing the full two years. I quickly learned how my fellow straight volunteers coped, as the condom supply quickly vanished. My guardian angel told me about a volunteer group called GLOBE, or Gays and Lesbians (Or Bisexuals) Offered a Better Experience. This support group was by volunteers, for volunteers, with transportation partially funded by the Peace Corps office. It allowed LGBT volunteers to confide with issues they faced in their sites while having an opportunity to get out of the closet for a weekend.

Peace Corps changes the cultural context in which we are to be queer; it sends volunteers around the world, to lands of varying laws and cultures. LGBT volunteers should remain brave to serve, but recognize the particular challenges to our safety we will face. According to www.sodomylaws.org, in many countries homosexuality is illegal, punishable by death (Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan), caning (Malaysia), hard labor (Jamaica), or imprisonment (see Sodomy Law map). Despite these dangers, we audaciously go. While there, we find means to play.

Gay bars have always been a port in the storm of queer intolerance. No one can be offended by gay coquetry when that’s the theme. One may not find tolerance in every major city in the world (or for that matter a leather convention), but one can find a gay bar. Unfortunately, gay bars in Central America are not found in the yellow pages. Many are in unmarked buildings without a sign out front, and are never in the best of neighborhoods. Knowledge of such places is passed almost strictly by word of mouth. This puts the foreigner at a disadvantage. I made my first gay friend when he brazenly made a pass at me in public. He had learned that foreigners were safer to hit on. He might have offended me (constantly) by never accepting my blatant refusals, but he was helpful. Through him I learned where a couple of bars were, and then began going on my own and made other friends.

Once I was “in”, I was exposed to a Honduran interpretation of homosexuality. The class lines outside the bar were not left at the door; even the gay bars had separate sections you could pay extra to sit in, usually with white leather couches. I made some friends, but I noticed that the more upper-class the homosexual, the more elaborate their closet scheme. The affluent and well educated liked the status quo just as it was; some even had girlfriends or wives that knew they were gay. He paid the bills, she would say nothing. Usually only the poor were “out” in Honduras (or being out cost them). When I came out to my gay Honduran friends as out in the states, that all of my family and friends back home knew I was gay and didn’t care, they gave me a look as if I were the source of some noisome odor, and then shrugged and explained it away with “it’s different in The States.” This is why I would have lost all my gay friends had I come out in my site; from the Honduran point of view, the closet begets shame, which in turn begets tact: nothing is more dangerous to the closeted Honduran homosexual than an openly gay friend. I also found that sexuality in Honduras is defined more by sexual role than by the object of one’s affection. Men were either “hombre” (man/top) or gay (bottom). Bisexual was a confusing term for many, and to some it was thought to be a man who topped only with men.

I ultimately felt that the full acceptance of both the closeted lifestyle and nondisclosure by gay Hondurans were the worst threats to the safety of a gay Peace Corps volunteer, more so than the threat of violence. Many of my more closeted local gay friends had never had HIV tests, as they seemed to associate HIV with poverty. They were perfectly happy in the closet; I often wondered if it was a power trip to control how much others knew about them. They all said it wouldn’t matter if they were HIV+, as they would never tell anyone anyway. Also, it was as if the more they passed or lived as heterosexuals, the more exhilarating, the more risky, it was to “be bad” by being gay. Many people liked that they could escape their ascetic, public lifestyles into a world of incalculable risk and possibility. My advice is for anywhere in the world: hold on to your drinks and USE A CONDOM.

I wish I had some information to offer my sapphic sisters, but I do not. I met three gay women in three years in Honduras, and never had the opportunity to grow close. I’d hear men glorify lesbianism in theory. I’d also hear stories of brutal violence against queer women as punishment for their sexual betrayal. One thing seemed clear: a schism exists within Honduran sexuality, an iron curtain between man and woman. Heterosexual men (I respect their self-identification) discuss their wives unabashedly with their male friends, and even their gay cicisbei (lovers). These libertine men felt no scruples from cheating, and had no fear of disclosing with fellows, as they knew a man would never tell a woman. With that in mind, I in all honesty believe only a woman could attempt a sound exploration of female sexuality in Honduras.

There are plenty of reasons to have reservations about serving as an LGBT Peace Corps volunteer, but we must remember that life’s about taking calculated risks, and that exploration itself is a risky behavior. Making lifelong connections in my assigned community, the Honduran LGBT community, even the LGBT Peace Corps community made serving worth the risks.

You can reach the author by email at paulkozak@hotmail.com

Rainbow Flag in Honduras

-by Chela Fielding, RPCV

It was an early evening as I settled into my hammock. My body ached and groaned with happiness to finally relax. I had worked all day in an “aldea” (small village) up and over the mountains with a large group of eager wide-eyed kids. We talked about “finca humana” (people’s farms), using your hands, heart and mind while planting gardens and seeds for trees. We sang a song about the forest and we made up names for each tree we planted.

It was a good day. I felt very satisfied, inspired and touched by the energy and interest of the kids. Now in my small room alone, I leaned over from my hammock to grab a bundle of Xeroxed pages. In them is a story sent by my friend Nora that I had been wanting to read out loud to myself, called “A Letter to Harvey Milk” by Leslea Newman. I began raising my voice as the rain started to fall. I had gotten to the second page and found myself in tears, an “ol fella” was writing to Harvey Milk as an assignment for his writing class. In it he describes their friendship and how Harvey’s death affected not only him, but the whole city of San Francisco.

I am in a small town in La Mohaga, Honduras. I am pouring out tears for the reality of discrimination gays and lesbians face day to day. I continue reading and I’m practically sobbing by the end of the story. Upon finishing I feel sad and alone in my small “aldea” away from my tribe of friends in Northern California. I want to be there fighting for our rights, sharing the simple idea that it’s just love between two people and that we are everywhere.

But how in this environment do I explain this to Dona Delmi or Dona Balzamina, two beautiful womyn who are my neighbors and my closest friends here. I don’t think there is even a chance for them to understand my deepest feelings because of what their culture demands of them. I learn to share warmth with them: making tortillas, collecting wood, grinding corn, sipping coffee in their adobe smoke-filled kitchens. And somehow that is enough, but then when I retreat into my space and begin reading gay and lesbian poems or a story like “The Letter to Harvey Milk,” I feel like I am going to explode.

And so I paint a rainbow on a piece of wood shaped like a flag and nail it to a post in my garden. I write to you. I write to my gay and lesbian friends in California and I keep my antenna up high searching always for others of us. I continue to fall in love with the lines deeply carved in the farmers hands, bending over working the soil day to day, harvesting corn with the womyn, getting lost in tall fields on rolling hills. I am developing a relationship with the people in this community. They may never really know who I am but the flag is bright and all who come to see my garden comment on its beauty, and I smile inside and out because of the beauty of what it represents to me.

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