May 14, 2009 Leave a comment
– a current Peace Corps Volunteer
It’s been 5 months in Mozambique and I find myself writing this article on Valentine’s Day. It’s no secret to friends and family that I’ve never been a fan of the holiday, but here I sit, writing about being gay in a country that, like most places Peace Corps sends its volunteers, is unfortunately very homophobic. I guess the irony is that it is on a day that is supposed to symbolize love, intimacy and all those things that Danielle Steele has made a fortune at writing about, and the same things that I have been asked to give up.
Having previously gone through the standard “crisis of conscience” that all volunteers experience at the beginning of service, I have gotten past most of the doubts about being emotionally fit to serve and, more importantly, capable to make a difference. But one lingering question persists on going unresolved – Why would I do this to myself? Before Mozambique, I lived a stone’s throw from one of the great Gay Meccas, West Hollywood, California. I managed an organization involved in the gay community, had a boyfriend, and a great cadre of gay friends. So why give up all that to move halfway around the world to a country that is so opposite of the lifestyle to which I had become accustomed? We each have our reasons for serving so I’m not going to proselytize about the benefits of Peace Corps. However, being a gay volunteer makes your friends and family give that extra “Why?” look when you announce your departure.
Last night I was sitting on my front porch under a dim light bulb, having watched the sunset and eaten my dinner, my puppy in my lap and my book in hand. I was reading an amusing yet undemanding memoir entitled Mississippi Sissy, which was a much needed departure from my previous two books, Crime and Punishment and A History of American Law. Here I am privately indulging in what has been the only real gay experience I have been able to partake in since arriving to Mozambique 5 months ago, and all of a sudden the lights go out in my neighbourhood. Frustrated, I let out a “Dammit” only slightly louder than my usual voice, but audible enough to be heard through the silence by my neighbour in his hut, who let out a short laugh at our common misfortune.
Then it hit me. Having read under this light bulb the whole time, I was completely unaware of the spectacular Mozambican sky in front of me, filled with the brightest stars that the Southern Hemisphere has to offer. I had seen our night sky before but rarely with such a dramatic and immediate presentation, as if someone just flipped off a switch. Speechless, I sat quietly for a few minutes reflecting and watching as the sliver of a newly waxing moon shown just enough light to distinguish the line of palm and mango trees against the starry background. It was then that the answer to my lingering question started to unravel. We do this because personal growth is SUPPOSED to be uncomfortable. We do this because in stepping outside of our comfort zone, in making sacrifices and going beyond what we know, we learn to see and appreciate other pleasures in life, some simple yet none-the-less meaningful. We know that long periods of security and contentment in life usually lead to stagnation and an overall lack of awareness. Not unlike the multitude of other sacrifices that every Peace Corps Volunteer makes, those of a gay volunteer (i.e. our temporarily suppression of sexuality or the absence of real intimacy) are a small price to pay for the chance to experience a more distinctive and complex understanding in the lives of people in the communities in which we serve. It reminds me that there are many who still aren’t able to express their deepest emotions and desires, even after my two year commitment has come and gone and I have returned to the open arms of West Hollywood. It makes me appreciate their unique, and some would say unfortunate situation, while putting mine into perspective.
Never to miss a perfect moment, after several minutes of reflection I scooped up my puppy and went inside to grab my Ipod (yes, it’s 2008 and Peace Corps volunteers have Ipods). I put on my playlist of Etta James and Nina Simone, and underneath the glittering Mozambican sky, I danced with my puppy and took pleasure in the unique and precious moment.
They say that gays and lesbians make excellent parents in part because of the enormous amount of thought required with such a decision and the hurdles that we must go through in the process. We are also said to make excellent managers in business for similar reasons. Why can’t the same principle apply to PC Volunteers? The harder the struggle for the volunteer, whether it is with housing, community resources, race, gender or sexuality, the more that volunteer learns in the experience and gains perspective of the situation.
Thankfully, in my house, I’ve got Etta and Nina to help me through.