My Experience in Morocco as a Lesbian PCV

- A Peace Corps Volunteer

For me, being gay in Morocco is difficult but not unmanageable. Though many people in my small town in the Little Sahara consider themselves more laid-back and open-minded than the Moroccan standard, I would never out myself to anyone here. I don’t find being in the closet here all that difficult, though, because it just doesn’t come up that much.

Yes, people ask me all the time whether I’m married and if I’d like to have a Moroccan husband. I come up with silly, inaccurate answers to these questions that often leave the impression that I have something against Moroccans. I hate that I give that impression, but straight volunteers probably have that problem as much as queer ones – a lot of the difficulty there can be chalked up to language barriers. I have just as hard a time with the idea of being asked whether I’d like to marry someone I’ve never met as I do with the idea of marrying a man, but it’s a lot easier to say, “No, I don’t want to marry a Moroccan,” than it is to say, “It creeps me out that you just asked me to marry your barber without any mention of our common interests or a suggestion that we go to dinner.”

To be a queer PCV in Morocco (or to be a queer person in most parts of the world), you almost have to come to terms with compartmentalizing, i.e., letting the people in your community get to know the parts of you that they will find acceptable. Having just come out in the U.S. a few years ago, I hate having to disintegrate the parts of myself when I was just beginning to enjoy this newfound whole. I don’t see a way around it, though—I’ve never heard a story of someone being out in their community and still managing to integrate. Homosexuality is illegal. Most (not all) Muslim Moroccans will tell you it’s against Islam, and even most (not all) non-Muslim Moroccans still hold that homosexuality is un-Moroccan.

I have a mix of mechanisms that help me handle having to compartmentalize in my community. First, I’m out among fellow PCVs. In fact, being a pretty private person, I’m way more out among PCVs than I am among groups in the States. I’ve outed myself here more than usual both to create a support network for myself and to let other people, who might feel isolated, know that they’re not alone.

Next, Peace Corps Morocco’s LGBT support group, Pride Morocco, offers more overt, official support and functions as my queer social group. We meet quarterly to discuss how we can serve as allies for one another. For example, after having identified that several uncomfortable or inappropriate interactions have taken place between LGBT volunteers and PC staff members, we’re working now on coordinating a Safe Zone training for Peace Corps staff. We also use our meetings to hang out, bond, and, when need be, commiserate.

Finally, it’s important to me to be involved in the LGBT rights and support groups that were important to me before I joined the Peace Corps. Although my involvement in these groups from Morocco is limited by distance and technology, I think it’s mentally healthy to offer myself opportunities to face the challenges of being gay positively and constructively. It also gives me perspective to remember that the challenges I face in Morocco aren’t Moroccan or Muslim problems. My involvement in a support group at my alma mater regularly reminds that being LGBT in the States can be just as hard as it can be in Morocco (at an inter-personal level, at least; it gets trickier at a legal level). Having this kind of perspective helps me direct my frustrations more appropriately.

So my advice to you if you’re queer and you’re thinking about whether you should come to Morocco for 27 months is to go ahead and reconcile yourself to the near-fact that you’ll have to be mostly closeted while you live here and to be proactive about how you’re going to manage your mental health. Focus on creating a strong support network for yourself of people at home and in Morocco, and find ways to face frustrations and challenges through constructive channels.

This Peace Corps Volunteer can be contacted through lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

 

In the Closet in Morocco and Some Poor Decisions

– A Volunteer

License Some rights reserved by lapidim

Some rights reserved by lapidim

To be absolutely honest, upon receiving my assignment to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, I was so super excited to a point that words can’t explain it all. It was especially welcome since I had been waiting so long to hear the good news from PC’s placement office. I was so excited that I forgot, or should I say it never occurred to me, to look up what the gay scene was like in Morocco, a Muslim country. All I could think at the time, since I only had a few months before my departure, was to find ways to make myself become an effective volunteer to ensure that my time spent serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer would be worthwhile toward the people that I would serve.

Having that said, since I discovered my sexuality, I have never placed an important emphasis on it. I mean, yes indeed, my sexuality is a very important aspect of my overall life. It’s who I am! But at the same time, I refused to have others associate with me with just my sexuality or those who don’t seem to see past my sexuality. To me there is so much more to people that defines who they are as a person than just his or her sexuality.

Once I arrived to Morocco with about 60 other PCVs, I discovered that only a handful of us self-identified as LGBTQ. For the first few months in-country, overwhelmed with all sort of things, I never really thought about my sexuality in the context (now) in a Muslim country, or the gay scene, or my needs for that matter. But before I even knew it, I realized that I was lonely and missed the privileged lifestyle and the freedom of acting and expressing myself and my sexuality freely back in the States. I thought I had it tough growing up discovering my sexuality and all sorts of feelings and emotions overwhelmed my mind, realizing my self- identity, my sexuality, and coming out to certain individuals. Don’t get me wrong, I did in fact have a really hard time. However, compared to gays here in Morocco, they do have a tougher time of it. Like anywhere else, there are people from all sexual backgrounds. It’s just that gays in Morocco like in other Muslim countries have it a lot tougher in so many ways.
I will be completely honest with you based on my experience for the past 22 months. Yes, Morocco is indeed a more liberal Muslims country; however, it’s still a Muslim country, where gays and the act of gay are forbidden. For that reason, gays in Morocco are forced to suppress themselves and their feelings freely toward one another. I can speak from my own experience with honesty. I feel like I have been living a lie and not being true to myself as well as others, especially with the people I’m serving.

Moreover, PC staff during training had given us the worst case scenario about how homosexuals are perceived in Morocco. They placed an emphasis on if we get caught in a gay sexual activity, or drug use, we would be in big trouble. We as PCVs would then have to abide by Moroccan’s laws. We might be put in jail for up to three years without support from PC, the US Embassy, or anyone to that matter. It’s definitely a scary thought! It has got us all worried and scared for our lives, safety and security. Because of that we would have to take ourselves back in the closet at least for the next two years of our service. It’s definitely a sad feeling, serving a country for two years, and the people don’t know the true you. My host family as well as the majority of the people in this country would condemn me to hell if they would find out about the true me. This scary thought has crossed my mind almost everyday of my service.

Gays, especially those who are more effeminate, are often forced to hide themselves for their own protection and for safety reasons. If a male PCV is suspected of being gay, he’s often looked down upon by his community, and his reputation, safety and security will be at risk. Given that my site with a fairly large population is a more liberal site, it’s still a Muslim community. Having that said, I can’t come out to my community, even to my close friends and my host family who I love dearly. They are disgusted by homosexuals and the act of gays, as they have pointed out to me multiple times over conversations we’ve had, yet they’ve also expressed that they are very open-minded people. I know it’s quite confusing. I guess it’s just not in their culture to accept homosexuality. I know religion surely plays a big part in this mentality and ways of thinking. It also, to my belief, restricts people from thinking and expressing freely for themselves.

I would like to think that I am very integrated into my community. However, often times I would feel so out of place because of my sexuality and how it doesn’t fit so well in this Muslim culture and society. Yes, given that Morocco is and might be a more liberal/tolerant Muslim country in some perspectives comparing to other Muslims’ societies, I still often feel un-at-ease and have constant worries for my safety and security if someone in my community were to find out about my sexuality. It, to some degree, affects my integration process in terms of getting to know people and being close with them to the best that I can and vice-versa. For instance, I would almost always have to be careful, think twice, and be cautious about myself with others, and I think that totally affects my relationship with them. For example, often times a good friend, among others, would invite me over for dinner. I would refuse and turned them down because I feared their getting to know me too well.

I would always have to be careful about how I talk, speak, act, and overall how I presented myself in front of my community, even with the closest people in my community, my host family. I’ve never been good at lying. Hence, it’s extremely uncomfortable when asked by my host family, close friends, and community members at large about my love life, whether I have a girlfriend, or if I want a local girlfriend. When local girls hit on me, I honestly don’t know how to react. And when I try to avoid them, people would ask what’s wrong with me? And when I find local male friends attractive (even if my gaydar might highly suspected that they might be gay), I can’t expressed anything to them because I fear putting my reputation at risk.

I know I was never big on celebrating my gay pride back in the States, but it’s an extreme here, where I would have to hide my true self and identity, each and every moments of every day of my service, and having a constant fear of people seeing the rainbow flag in me. Sometimes I cry myself to sleep, and hope that the next day will be better.

Sometimes my loneliness, my so-called needs, and desire to be with somebody have gotten the best of me and have led me to do things that I would never wish to revisit. I mean I have never really thought about the people that I met up with were gay prostitutes and thugs, or even that they can cause harm and danger to me. During my service thus far, I have made some bad decisions with hooking up with local men where I put my safety and security at risk. I’ve been assaulted and my belongings taken from me. It was definitely a scary moment, but it could have been a lot worse. All I could think of afterward, beside the fact that I was scared for my life and scared to notify PC, was to realize how naïve I could be. I could have gotten myself killed in a worst case scenario. However I was lucky and I’m grateful for that. I have definitely learned from it the hard way. It’s just that at times, it can get lonely and I wish somebody would be there to cope, share, and spend time with. Moreover, I remember when I was hanging out with a fellow PCV and some locals at a park in Rabat. All of a sudden, the fellow PCV and one of the locals got stopped, questioned, and hustled off to the police station by some undercover policemen. It seems as if we have no rights in this country.

On the other side of things, I have accidently stumbled across some hush-hush of discrete gay activity in big cites like Rabat, Fez, Meknes, and Casablanca. It is here I have had some beautiful encounters with some really nice and genuine local men as well as with other PCVs. It is on the hush-hush staying with a low profile, because I didn’t want to put my reputation at risk in my community or jeopardize my safety and security while in-country during my service. Other than that, there isn’t really any gay scene to speak of in Morocco. There aren’t any outlets for gays. There’s one gay-friendly club I know of, Le Village, located in the Ain Diab district of Casablanca, but it’s very expensive.

As gay volunteers, we often get mixed messages from Moroccan guys. Guys in general in this society are very affectionate and show their affection towards each other somewhat freely. They often hold hands when walking in public, kiss each other on the cheek, and caress each other. This is absolutely normal in their culture, like it is some other places in the world. It’s just that a lot of these actions would often in our society be perceived as the behaviors of homosexuals.

Honestly, I don’t know if I were to have had a chance to search and look up the gay scene in Morocco to have prior knowledge and insight of what it’s like to serve as a gay Peace Corps Volunteer in a Muslim country prior to coming, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. But maybe it would have, but the feelings of loneliness, being out of place, constant worries about my safety and security, would still have been a factor after I got here.

In closure, despite some of my difficult experiences, I have had memorable moments and outings with local gay men as well as with my fellow gay PCVs. We bonded and shared some beautiful times with each other. One instance which I least expected, involved an extremely attractive PCV who has a genuine and charismatic soul). Let just say, it was a very beautiful experience that I will never forget.

Given that I have had some difficult and challenging situations, I’ve dealt with them in a manner that was most comfortable and suitable for me. I’d made the decision not to report my problems to Peace Corps, but I did reach out to fellow PVCs for moral support. They were extremely helpful. Despite some bad experiences, I did not allow them to affect my service. I’ve learned that I’ve been living in a very different culture, but this could have happened anywhere in the Peace Corps world. Therefore, I’ve dealt with these problems, and learn from them and overcome the challenges. Overall, I have had a good experience. I find my service both very pleasurable and rewarding. I have met interesting people from a different part of the world and from all walks of life.

Anyhow, in a nutshell, that’s my life as a gay Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.

You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Queer Volunteer? What to Expect in Morocco

- A Current Peace Corps Volunteer

Hi, I’m gay and just got invited to serve in Peace Corps Morocco.  What should I expect, in terms of harassment, homophobia, support networks, etc?

I’ll start with the obvious, just to get it out of the way: everyone’s service is different. How you experience Morocco depends on a thousand factors, of which your sexuality is only one. That said; it’s hard to be queer here.

Take a typical conversation. After the Salaamu alaikum and a few ritualized greeting phrases, any stranger you meet is going to want to categorize you according to the most important value system here: family. “Do you have children?  Are your parents still alive?  How many brothers and sisters do you have? Are you married?” Oh, who am I kidding; they’ll start with “Are you married?”

And when I say “No,” they immediately come back with, “But you want to get married, right?” And then my chest catches and I think of how painful a political issue this is, and how I wept last Election Day after hearing about Proposition 8 winning in California. But I smile, and think resolutely about the few states in which it is legal, and say, “If God wills it, I hope so!” Just another day in the life of a closeted queer Peace Corps Volunteer.

To be fair, we’re not the only PCVs who have to hide ourselves from our friends and neighbors. Anyone who drinks, smokes, engages in premarital sex, doesn’t believe in God (or worse, is Jewish) has to choose between honesty and community. If you tell the truth, you risk losing a friend or colleague; having them spread the news of what you’ve said, and losing more friends and colleagues; destroying that all-important integration and acceptance.

Morocco is a Muslim country. While individual levels of devotion vary widely, everyone is at least nominally Muslim, and as such, many feel compelled to condemn homosexuality. In the few, roundabout conversations I’ve had with Moroccans on the issue (I’ve never come out to a Moroccan, so the conversations have to be roundabout) their position feels reflexive, completely unexamined. I hope that means that it’s subject to change, but I’ve never dared push against it.

It’s especially hard to know how to talk to Peace Corps staff. They’ve been trained in American diversity, and all claim to have had gay PCV friends, but I’m sympathetic to their lifetime of indoctrinated homophobia, and don’t want to force them to overcome something just to keep talking to me.

When I’ve had these conversations though, my Moroccan friends invariably cite the story of Loth from the Qur’an (virtually identical to the story of Lot in Genesis) and tell me about a gay wedding that was celebrated a few years ago between a man and his drag queen bride. Both bride and groom were promptly arrested and imprisoned, sentenced to multi-year terms (of which they only served a few months).

Nobody had cared about the two men living together. Indeed, in this culture that draws no distinction between “alone” and “lonely,” it would have been far more bizarre for either of them to live alone. Furthermore, Moroccans cherish the distinction between public and private. What happens in your home is your own concern, but what happens on the street is subject to public opinion. The two men could have lived together for years without incident, if they hadn’t tried to stage a public wedding, but once they did, once they moved from the private sphere to the public, the law intervened. Because homosexuality is against the law here.

Further complicating matters is that there’s no real concept of homosexuality as an identity. Many, many men could say, “Of course I’m not gay! I will marry and have many children! So what if I happen to enjoy having sex with my friends? This is simply young men playing around together. Boys will be boys, you know. But no, I’m not gay!  Don’t be ridiculous.” This prevalent attitude that there’s no connection between sexual activity and sexual identity is why AIDS workers usually use the term “MSMs” instead of “gay men.” Men who have Sex with Men are defined by their actions alone.

On the other hand, Morocco has a culture of same-sex physical affection that makes it easier for a gay couple to walk on a street in Marrakesh than in Chicago. In every city, town and village that I’ve visited, I have seen people engaging in activity that reminds me of Provincetown. I’ve seen people holding hands, sitting on each other’s laps, walking around with their arms around each other, hugging, kissing on the cheeks. It’s always with someone of the same gender. Cross-gender affection is very rarely seen here, and is considered inappropriate and shameful to display in public. When I was new in-country, I kept thinking, “Oh, what a cute gay couple!” and having to stop, check myself, and realize that no, the two men I was looking at would identify as straight (though they may well be heading off to have sex with each other).

In that way, we actually have an easier time than our straight PCV friends. They have to remember not to publicly display their affection with their significant others, whereas we can snuggle in public and nobody cares. We can have lovers spend the night without anyone batting an eyelash, whereas cross-gender sleepovers could have massive negative repercussions, especially for female Volunteers.

OK, but what about sexual harassment?

Assuming you stay closeted (which, let’s be frank, we all do within our communities, though a few friends in bigger cities have come out to a careful handful of Moroccan friends), you probably won’t receive any. Not for being gay, anyway. If you’re female, you’ll receive harassment from men, and this can be quite a shock for women unused to sexual attention from the males. In the States, I routinely waved off flirtation and harassment by breezily announcing that I don’t date men. Here, I can’t do that, and was forced to find a whole new series of tools for dealing with harassment. One of my favorites; I wear a ring on my left hand, and tell strange men that I’m married. I’ll be honest about my singleton status with strange women, and with members of my community, but it’s handy for deflecting attention quickly and painlessly when traveling.

And now for the good news: Yes, we do have a Peace Corps support and advocacy group. It’s been known as GLIM (Gays and Lesbians in Morocco) for a few years, but at our last meeting, we renamed ourselves. Among other things, most of our membership identifies as bisexual, and once we tried to fit in a B, we wanted to add Ts and Qs, and it just got crazy. So we ended up with Pride. We have a yahoo group and Facebook group. Email glimorocco@gmail.com (yeah, we haven’t updated the email address yet) for details.

GLIM/Pride meets two to four times a year, and our meetings typically include some formal sit-down time where we have serious conversations, as well as some hanging out time where we just relax in our own miniature Provincetown. Our group waxes and wanes in size; we’re pretty big at the moment, plus we’re all out within the PCV community, so we’ve started to talk about taking on a more public role within PC/Morocco, maybe offering trainings for staff, maybe meeting with new PC trainees.

Have members of GLIM/Pride hooked up?

Are you kidding? According to our Medical Office, 90% of PCVs are sexually active. Yes, that includes members of Pride. Just given the numbers, it’s usually easier for bisexual PCVs to find partners outside of the Pride family (i.e. straighties), but yes, we date and hook up about as frequently as straight PCVs. Does this take place at our meetings? I’ll never tell. What happens at Pride stays at Pride.

When you make the decision to join Peace Corps, you know you’re signing on for a lot of hardship. There’s a reason it was called for so long “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”  Most of the difficulty has nothing to do with your sexuality, but yes, some of it will. For female PCVs of any sexual orientation, dealing with sexual harassment can be the single most challenging aspects of service. For straight male PCVs, adapting to the culture of male-male public cuddling can be hard. And don’t get me started on what happens in the hammams, the public bathhouses.

Just remember that most developing countries are much, much less tolerant than the US, and life there isn’t a cakewalk yet, is it? So yes, expect that being a queer PCV will challenge you in many ways, often painful ones. But reach out to your fellow PCVs, straight or not. We’re all pretty doggoned liberal and tolerant or we wouldn’t have joined, right? And if your country doesn’t have a group like Pride, start one.

And welcome to Peace Corps!  Marhaba bikum!

The author remains anonymous until she completes her Peace Corps service for reasons explained in her article. She can be contacted by email at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

And I’ve Been to Morocco

-A Recent PCV

Nothing makes me cringe so much as hearing someone talk about Morocco. When people talk about Morocco it’s only as real as DisneyWorld and that’s about all of Morocco they ever see or hear about. Casablanca, Agadir, Tangiers and Marrakech conjure exotic Orientalist fantasies filled with Aladdin and bazaars filled with spices or something. On the other hand, there are the people who heard from me when I was at my lowest and these are the ones who never fail to remind me about the worst of my experiences. I don’t regret my service, but I hope to never return to Morocco.

I write this approximately 3 months after I was medically separated for anxiety with 10 months left of my service. Nothing could prepare me for my Moroccan experience, from the unexpected challenges of living in a Muslim society to the unique set of experiences that triggered the beginning of my anxiety. I didn’t walk into Morocco blind, having studied Islamic history and art history, but they don’t talk about street harassment in those classes. I knew I would be in the closet with my community, but I didn’t realize how much I wouldn’t be saying.

I eat pork. I am a smoker. I drink alcohol, like most 20somethings. And, don’t tell my Southern grandparents, I am sexually active. Alcohol and pork are forbidden for everyone by Islam. And good women don’t do the other two. Visits from male PCVs were visits from work colleagues or brothers, and ideally chaperoned by another female volunteer.

Dan Savage once said he only believed in God when his boyfriend was passing another car at 90 mph in a snow storm and stopped believing in Him as soon as they were back in the right lane. Ganesh (a wise Hindu god with the head of an elephant who is known for removing obstacles from one’s life) is my figurehead for a god and I believe in him as often as Dan Savage does in his. Islam (in theory) is fine with other Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity). During in country training, we’re told to just say we’re Christians (unless you’re Muslim) and change the subject. The worst thing you can do is tell a Moroccan that you don’t believe in the God of Abraham, much less imply that you don’t accept the existence of any god, unless the bus is speeding around hairpin turns of the Todra Gorge, narrowly avoiding other cars.

This was the daily struggle, fitting into a culture that had no qualms with not accepting me. To do my job at a Women’s Center (for education), I had to look like a good Muslim, but with a slightly relaxed dress code. I could wear ¾ length sleeves and shirts that only half covered my butt. Leaving the house required changing into street appropriate clothes and steeling myself for the cat calls, the yelling and the general unwanted attention from men that came no matter what I wore, for no reason other than I was a white woman. Every time I thought of leaving my apartment whether for work or food or going to the cyber cafe was weighed against the constant barrage on my self esteem and self worth.

Being a woman in Morocco is hard. There are big cities, where I could relax and be a straight ‘tourist’- something I abhorred having grown up in Florida. During PST (PreService Training) and during IST (In Service Training) I could be my street self with other volunteers. During the one LGBT meeting that was held during my service, I could be my unfiltered bisexual self who is known for a certain wild streak.

In January, the therapist I’d begun seeing in country and I decided that the best thing that could happen for me would be a medical separation. My pillar of strength had COS’d and my province was quickly emptying of volunteers. When, I left my service 10 months early, I was richer a boyfriend, 2 cats and an anxiety/depression disorder. I’m coming to peace with my time spent teaching, which was the highlight of my service, in relation to the bad. I loved my students and the head of my center, and I loved the city I lived in. Will I go back? No. Will I rejoin the Peace Corps? Only if I’m guaranteed 27 months worth of Spam on a beach with attractive and scantily clad host country nationals – so, probably not.

The author can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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