Handling Host Country Homophobia

RPCV Kenya

I know very few gay or lesbian people in this country who haven’t experienced some form of homophobia. It could be something as little as overhearing a homophobic comment between classmates or listening to a homophobic reference in church. These little things add up and make us wonder what people would think of us if they knew we were gay. Due to these small but common messages, each of us has experienced uncertainty and fear when coming out to our peers, parents, and friends here in America. Why did we put ourselves through the anxiety of coming out?

In my life here in America, my coming out experience at 19 was filled with a fear of the unknown at first. But “living a lie” did not sit at all well with me. This is a free country and I thought that I should be able to live and be comfortable as myself. If someone had a problem with that, that was too bad for them because everyone else would be on my side. After about a year, I was fully out and I haven’t looked back. That is until I moved to Kenya with the Peace Corps a few years later.

I was prepared to live in another culture. While there I expected to follow the customs of my new host country as much as I could. With that in mind, I had no problems behaving like any other gay Kenyan would behave. That was to be in the closet. Was I living a lie? Absolutely! This time however, I was very comfortable with it. The reason for this was that almost everyone in Kenya lives some sort of a lie! Just like any country with strict rules, people are forced to lie so much that it becomes a normal thing to do and is almost acceptable to the point of being expected. Kenyans lie about not having money to lend; they lie about not having girlfriends on the side; they lie about why they have not called you the past few weeks. Lies are basically accepted if the result is avoiding conflict and if no one gets hurt. Even if you are caught in a lie, it’s okay! Just keep going on with the lie and it will be dropped. The whole concept is actually quite hilarious, but that was my experience in Kenya.
Realizing that I would be in the closet does not mean that I had to be a miserable, bitter individual hating the homophobic world in which I lived. Instead, I found many ways to be a closeted activist.

Here’s my experience and advice to LGBT volunteers. In a country where all the gay people are closeted, you may want to start with finding other gay people first. Once you do that, you then find a safe spot for them to get together to meet each other. That way you can form a secret group where people can be themselves and start to build a gay community. The people participating will feel very happy to meet others like themselves, talk and learn from each other. It can be a very empowering experience for the people involved. One friend of mine who lived in Mongolia did just that and a new group of Mongolian gay guys took over from there. In Kenya that had already begun when I got there. I just found that small group and we all helped to add members and expand the network.

Another way to make progress is among your fellow volunteers. If you don’t already have a “diversity support network” among volunteers, find the most gay-tolerant Peace Corps staff person and ask her or him if you could start something similar with other volunteers. I did just that after two gay volunteers left Kenya because they thought they had no support. Soon after starting the diversity support network, many gay and lesbian volunteers became more empowered and had people with whom they connect and share useful information. I’m not aware of any LGBT volunteers in Kenya who have left their service early since. The diversity support team can even suggest to the Peace Corps staff areas of a country that are more hospitable to LGBT volunteers, information that the staff probably doesn’t have.

Living in a homophobic host country (Kenya) was a great experience. Our coming out in the United States enlightens those around us, but getting people to come out to themselves in a homophobic country lays the groundwork for an entire revolution of change. In adjusting to your host country’s culture, you will adjust the culture of your host country. That is the dynamic spirit of the Peace Corps that I signed up for, and it far exceeded all of my expectations.

 

LGB Support in Peace Corps Kenya

-RPCV Kenya

Kenya is a fairly conservative country. Sex almost never comes up in normal conversation between Kenyan friends and co-workers. For a man to hold hands with his female partner would be very scandalous and people would stare. Homosexuality is even more taboo. In Kenya people who are caught in a homosexual act can be prosecuted with up to 10 years in prison. Attitudes among the local communities toward openly gay people, or people that everyone believes is gay, ranges from avoidance to physical hostility. Is this any place for a gay volunteer?

Well… I entered Peace Corps Kenya in May of 2000. Knowing that attitudes in Kenya were more conservative than in the U.S., I figured that I would proceed cautiously during training to feel out the situation. Two weeks of training went by and we got lots of information on many aspects of life in Kenya. One cultural awareness exercise we did was to discuss a type of person and how that person might be received in their community. One example discussed was a gay black atheist. We discussed the topic a bit, and then the Kenyan facilitator said that people might think you are Kenyan if you are black, evil if you are atheist, and they may stone you to death if you are gay. Of course knowing the facilitator’s penchant for hyperbole, I just figured that meant it wasn’t such a hot idea to be out in my community. Other than that, the Peace Corps didn’t mention homosexuality much at all.

Luckily, there was another volunteer in my group who is gay (I will call him Bob). Bob and I decided that there was no need to be out to anyone other than other gay people while here in Kenya. As it happens, Bob was an expert at routing out other gay people and it wasn’t long after we were placed at our sites that we had a decent sized group of gay friends. This served as a good support network for both of us. The idea of the Peace Corps providing a support network for gay and lesbian volunteers wasn’t even thought about as a need by the staff or by Bob and me for that matter.

This changed one year later when another group of volunteers came to Kenya in May 2001. Two of them were gay and very open about it right away. One of them left the country after one week due to other issues (i.e. he was afraid of insects and dirty conditions) but the other volunteer was more serious. He also had lots of questions about gay life in Kenya that the staff just didn’t know how to handle. No one knew what to do. I was very busy at my site, and told Bob to go talk to him, tell him everything is cool, and that Kenya is a nice country with a really good underground gay network. Tragically, Bob is a bit of a head job, and although he talked to the new gay volunteer, Bob didn’t tell him that he was gay, and instead told him that there was another volunteer he could talk to about it. I was shocked by this paranoid moronic behavior on the part of Bob. After a week or so of prying, I finally got the new volunteer’s email address only to find out that he’d left the country a day before I emailed him to say that there is nothing in Kenya for a gay person to freak out about. A few days later, Bob was administratively separated for totally unrelated reasons.

I decided that Peace Corps needed a gay and lesbian support structure. I was in Nairobi for the All- Volunteer Conference, and met with the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) of Kenya. She is a very kind and understanding woman, and I felt she would be best able to assist in the matter. I explained about the situation of the volunteer leaving due to his lack of support with gay and lesbian issues. I told her that if anyone others had any such questions that she should refer them to me. Since I was gay I would be more than happy to network with other gay and lesbian volunteers so they’d know they weren’t alone and that there were also lots of gay and lesbian Kenyans out there.

The PCMO then set up a small open space session at the All-Volunteer Conference on diversity issues. There were other volunteers interested in peer counseling and minority and age issues. It turned out that it wasn’t just gay and lesbian volunteers that had a variety of unique problems. Many minority volunteers also had issues of concern. Over the next year, we formed a Peer Support and Diversity Committee to create an atmosphere of peer support within the volunteer community and also create awareness among the staff on diversity issues ranging from LGB issues to religious, ethnic and age issues. I also decided to be out among the Peace Corps Volunteers, because why not really?

I returned home from Kenya in October of 2002, but I still keep in contact with some of the volunteers there. One new volunteer who is gay is on the Diversity Support Committee and apparently they have now begun to run sessions to train the staff in handling gay issues. Totally different from 2 years ago! While the process is still ongoing, I would say that Peace Corps Kenya is a much more hospitable place for gay volunteers. Anyone reading this who is thinking of joining the Peace Corps and interested in Africa, put Kenya on the top of your list of places to be assigned!

 

The Double Life of a Gay Volunteer in Kenya

-Eric Shea, RPCV

What is it to be a gay volunteer in Kenya? This question is actually two. What is it like to be a gay volunteer in the Peace Corps organization in Kenya? And, what is it like to be a gay volunteer living in a rural village in Kenya? It is necessary to separate the question into two because I led a double life as a volunteer. There’s me in the organization: active and out, pushing Peace Corps Kenya to embrace all volunteers. And there’s me at my work site: passive and willing to assimilate, believing that I need to be led by the people with whom I live. It has taken time to realize, accept and balance this separation, but maintaining it was crucial to my success as a volunteer. There have been times when I wished a trapdoor were beneath me – but who hasn’t? It is tough to be a volunteer, but to be a gay volunteer is tougher.

Let’s begin at the recruiting office in Boston. It was in my first interview when the recruiter asked, “Any questions?” I replied, “I’m gay – is this going to be an issue in Peace Corps?” He stated Peace Corps’ firm diversity policies, but explained that many of the countries in which volunteers serve are not as open. He warned me not to have illusions that I could live in a village somewhere and be 100% of who I am. Leaving the recruiting office I felt comfortable to enter the Peace Corps, assured that as I jumped there would be a net.

After arrival in Kenya I met with my Peace Corps supervisor. One of the first “getting to know you” questions was: “Why did you join the Peace Corps?” I stated that the desire came from the work I had done in gay communities around the world. “I have met humanity in these communities. They have taught me how to care for people living with HIV/AIDS and how to teach prevention to those who aren’t.” She replied, “I appreciate what you have told me, but I advise you not to tell anyone else – not your home-stay family, staff members or trainers. This is for your own physical safety.” I never had the intention of telling my home-stay family, as I knew it would be disrespectful to them and detrimental to me. What struck me was that I was advised not to tell Peace Corps staff. My first thought: this is not what I was told in Boston.

“They’re Kenyans,” my supervisor said, as if this were justification for the tape she was placing over my mouth. “Kenyan aside,” I replied, “they’re human and they work for an American organization that believes that all are to be treated equally. I’m not asking for a runway on which to display myself, but I want the freedom to share what I’ve gained through years of work with HIV/AIDS. If staff or trainers can’t handle American diversity, then either Peace Corps Washington needs to intervene or those unable to embrace diversity should go.”

There were numerous times during my pre-service training when I hit a wall, put in front of me by either administrative or training staff. I came to Kenya to be an HIV Education Resource Volunteer. It was a pilot program and I felt I had a lot to offer. Unfortunately, the training staff did not agree because my experiences with HIV/AIDS were “gay related.” Ironically, the motto for our training, taken from the World AIDS Conference in Spain, was “Breaking the Silence.” During training our group was told that any male volunteer caught having sex with another man would be sent home, out of respect for host-country laws. And that if villagers realize a volunteer is gay and they complain, that volunteer will be sent home. On more than one occasion I overheard homophobic comments from some of the training staff. I was denied the request to facilitate a session on MSM (men who have sex with men) HIV transmission in the developing world, even though fellow trainees were asking me how to respond to the MSM questions that came up in their classrooms. I was told numerous times that the only gayness in Kenya is found in the form of prostitution with westerners. A senior administrator told me that supporting homosexuality was not part of the American mission in Kenya. This same administrator asked me if all I wanted to do in Peace Corps was “be gay.” He told me to be careful about doing diversity work with Kenyan staff; he asked, “what kind of image of America do you want to spread?” He also told me “lesbians are intriguing.” I was told that regarding diversity policies, “We are not in America anymore.” He went on to ask me what exactly the diversity policies in Peace Corps were. Finally, he questioned my intentions for joining the Peace Corps.

I brought these incidents to the Training Center’ s coordinator. He put his head in his hands and sighed, asking me what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to meet with the training staff and make them aware of Peace Corps’ policies regarding discrimination. When the time came I posted an upside-down triangle in rainbow colors on the wall of the conference room and marked the space a “ Safe Zone.”

All the trainers attended and I made it clear that I was not trying to change anyone’s views on gayness; the objective was to create awareness and prevent discrimination. The trainers took well to the idea of the Safe Zone and asked plenty of questions regarding my life and my sexuality. Questions covered the whole spectrum. Did I want a sex change? What were my thoughts about going to hell? How could my family possibly accept me? But there were also questions about what the trainers could do to support gay volunteers, about how to identify a GLB person or how to encourage openness among the GLBs, and about what other gay volunteers have been through in Kenya. I answered each question to the best of my ability, explaining that I’m only one and can not talk for others. Each answer, no matter what the question, was received with an effort of understanding. I have climbed Kenya’s mountains, swam in its water and seen its amazing wildlife, but all of that pales in comparison to the humanity I witnessed during that training session. From that day Peace Corps Kenya began a long transformation.

I became part of the volunteer-run Diversity and Peer Support group, using it as a tool to break down the walls in Peace Corps Kenya. With barely any support from senior administration and no budget, DPS has trained all permanent staff on issues regarding American diversity and Peace Corps’ policies. Among other things, we have facilitated diversity panels and peer-support workshops. Through DPS, the ideal of diversity has gained respect and understanding from staff and volunteers, raised awareness about Americans and established a solid Safe Zone for all people committed to Peace Corps Kenya.

Life in a village is different. To say that gayness never comes up would be a lie. It came up when openly gay Gene Robinson was ordained as an Episcopal bishop, and when Kenya’s government began rewriting its constitution, questioning the abolition of its sodomy laws. I worked in a school, spending a lot of time in the staff room bantering with teachers. When the latter issues arose I took them as learning experiences, quietly allowing myself to understand what my village thinks. Furthermore, when the topic of sexuality is raised it is a faraway thing. Sexuality is never sitting in the staff room. I’ve found my space under this veil and I accept it as freedom. If I were confronted with, “Are you gay?” I would have answered honestly, probably creating my own demise. Since sexuality was never pointed at me I remained, however quietly. This is a tool that many volunteers utilize to assimilate, whether she or he comes from a rich family in the states, or is a practicing Muslim posted in a Christian village. Many choose not to reveal certain aspects of themselves in order to survive and succeed as volunteers.
What would I tell a gay person wanting to join Peace Corps Kenya? Again I would separate the two lives most volunteers lead: one within the Peace Corps and the other within a village. The organization has come a distance in embracing diversity, and though there is still work to do, the spectrum of American diversity has begun shining. In terms of village life, I would say the same thing that my Peace Corps recruiter said: do not have illusions, do not think that you can live in a rural village somewhere and be 100% of the person you are. But isn’t it nice to know that in Peace Corps you can be?


Eric Shea has recently returned to the States and starts a graduate program at the New School in New York City. He can be contacted at ericinkenya@yahoo.com

 

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