Weather … or Not

By – Wayne Hill, RPCV, Micronesia

I’ve been following the weather reports on the Boston Globe web site recently to see how things are going in my home town. Not well, unless you think that two feet of snow is just as good as it gets. I don’t which is why, starting with Peace Corps Micronesia, my adult life has been spent in and around the  Pacific Basin. Sure, Japan has winter, but it’s not “New England winter.”  Otherwise, San Francisco’s once-in twenty-years snowfall is as far as I go. But just because there’s no snowfall, the tropics are no more free of tragic weather events than is Boston, just of a different sort.

Tacloban_Typhoon_Haiyan_2013-11-14

Debris lines the streets of Tacloban, Leyte island. This region was the worst affected by the typhoon, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Caritas is responding by distributing food, shelter, hygiene kits and cooking utensils. (Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas)

This past fall, the Philippines, where I now live with my common law spouse, Julius, suffered what some have said was the worst typhoon on record. Haiyan, locally named Yolanda, slammed into the city of Tacloban with incredible force, levelling almost everything in its path. If the storm had swung further south, we would have shared in the devastation, but luckily we had nothing more than a few hours of very heavy rain and virtually no wind.

The post-storm pictures from Tacloban brought back vivid memories of another typhoon named Jean which plowed into the island of Saipan on April 11, 1968, when I was a volunteer there. Typhoon Jean had sustained winds up to 175 MPH, we were told, and 75% of the buildings were seriously damaged. My own house was picked up off its foundation and dropped a few feet to the south, but when the storm had passed, my home was still a house.  My neighbors found only piles of rubble from which they had no choice but to build some kind of structure to live in for the time being.

We were very lucky because the US Navy from Guam flew to our rescue within a day and set of soup kitchens and tents for those with nowhere else to stay. My fellow volunteer Karen was preparing to marry her Saipanse fiance only two weeks after the typhoon hit, and the wedding went on as scheduled, but her family had to cancel their plans to attend and the blessed event was catered by uniformed Navy men.

With the schools all destroyed or greatly damaged, we were put to work assisting with the relief efforts and ended up much busier than our TESL duties had kept us. I remember how hot is was all that summer because no leaves were left on most of the trees and therefore, no shade to be found. That summer of 1968 was really busy and fulfilling, more so, I would say than teaching ESL, knowing that our work had such an immediate effect.  By September things on Saipan had returned to something like “normal,” back to teaching, and yes, welcoming in a brand new typhoon season.Typhoons come and typhoons go, but I’ll never forget Typhoon Jean!

In comparing Haiyan and Jean, Haiyan was somewhat stronger, but not a heck of a lot. Each storm approached its targeted island from the open Pacific to the east gaining strength every mile of the way, but Tacloban suffered thousands of deaths and Saipan one.  Why?  Well, it’s all because of a whim of geology.  The entire east side of Saipan is cliffs and rocky slopes and in 1968, everyone lived in the towns strung along the west coast, away from the brunt of the storm. There are also a whole network of caves built by the Japanese during World War II which serve as typhoon shelters. Tacloban, on the other hand, is on the east side of the island of Leyte, facing directly into the wind with no protection and the wind and waves came plowing in and destroyed the city and the lives of the people living there. If Saipan’s geology had been reversed, you might not be reading this, at least not written by me!

Wayne Hill can be contacted at waynzwhirld@aol.com

Nine Years Later: A Love Letter to Ghana, Continued

– Joel Parthemore, RPVC

Author’s Note: All names have been changed: both those who would not wish to be named and those who wouldn’t care.

The last time I came to Ghana, I was still employed with Peace Corps Washington. I used the excuse of a few days’ work in the Lome and Accra offices to travel on my official passport, which saved me the headache of getting a visa.  I don’t remember who, precisely, met me at the airport any more, but I can think of who was probably there: my brother Josh, now completing a master’s degree in Trondheim, Norway; my friend Tony, one of the first people I met when I took up my station at Gbledi Gbogame in the Volta Region; and Kwesi, my friend and more than a friend: still the only man I’ve ever proposed to.

I had not heard from Kwesi for several weeks before traveling, so I was not necessarily expecting him at the airport. I was, however, expecting Tom (American expat who’s lived in Ghana since time before when) and Tony.

In the end, there was no welcome delegation.  I went to the hotel desk and had them book me a room at the Hilltop Hotel (130 cedis, USD $65) and arrange a taxi (25 cedis).

Kwesi came by the hotel in the morning and stayed until evening. It was an oddly bittersweet reunion: his words said one thing, his body language quite another.  It was he who brought up the matter of my marriage proposal, saying that he was heterosexual, that nothing I could say would make him a homosexual, and that I had lured him into our former relationship. I said only that I did not remember things that way.  I could have added, and didn’t, that we had both been adults; that much of what happened between us was very much on his initiative (I think of the time we were traveling and, without fanfare, in not the most private of locations, he gave me a most revealing view — with only a comment that “oh, I forgot and left those at home”); the rest was at least as much on his initiative as mine; that he had once answered a woman’s question whether he was, to use the quaint Ghanaian phrase, “walking with me”, in the affirmative; that he had, indeed, taken my proposal seriously, going as far as asking his minister what he thought of same-sex marriage (to my surprise).  His minister had nothing good to say about it (no surprise).

He says he wants to “just be friends”, the way I’m friends with Josh and Tony.  I wish him the best with his marriage plans (sincerely) and tell him that I will always think of him the way we were when we more than friends, that nothing can change the past.

In the months leading up to my visit, Kwesi had assured me, repeatedly, that he would have no trouble at all getting the time off to travel with me throughout my visit. Now he said he would be able to spend Sunday/Monday with me, but that Tuesday he would need to ask again about the leave.  We arranged to meet at Tony’s place in Tema on Saturday night.

In the end, he did not make it to Tema, nor did I see him Sunday or Monday.  He called on Monday to say I should precede him to Anamabo (where I wished to greet my brother Paul, whose family hosted me in pre-service training) and that he would join me en route to Wenchi (my second Peace Corps posting).

I traveled on my own to Wenchi and saw the computer lab I had helped set up, still running though facing some very critical issues. I was happy, at least, to see it finally on broadband, after the dialup connection I had established ended pretty much with my departure in 2001.  I strolled the campus taking photos with which to update the school website, and met one of the campiest students I have ever met, trying to be quite macho about disciplining one of his juniors and somehow failing miserably.  I greeted Kwesi’s father, a lonely old man on retirement, spending his days at home while his wife is away at work. By this point, the plan was for Kwesi to join me for my final excursion, to Gbledi. But on my way back through Accra, we met up for dinner; he introduced me to his latest fiancé, and now the plan was to join me in Hohoe and travel together back to Accra via Tema. Of course, that did not happen, either.

Now it is the next to final night, and I sit in a hotel room in Hohoe, looking back on the past two weeks.  More than my previous visits, this time I have felt out of place, awkward, unsure where I fit in. Where before I traveled with more companions than I knew what to do with, this time I have done all my traveling on my own – except that Tony will likely join me from Kpeve (where he is running a computer lab of his own now) to Tema.

I have taken fufu and banku with both palm nut and ground nut (peanut butter) soup, eating them with my hand (right, of course; no spoon) in the proper local way. I have had jolloff rice and fried yam with hot pepper and “meat pies” with not a trace of meat to be found in them, and beans and gari (with fried plantain where available) nearly every morning.  I have listened to “Touched by an Angel” more times than I care to count.  I have spoken by phone with my former headmaster (who went on to be the director general of Ghana Education Service for a while) and talked over beer with my former paramount chief.  I have promised to do what I can for Chris, my former student, for many years now helping oversee the computer lab, to help him further his education. I have re-established dormant contacts and, perhaps, made a few new ones.  I have met some incredibly beautiful men; but then, I seem to manage that wherever I travel in the world.

Still, I am left with the question that, I suppose, we all must face sometime before we die: what difference have I made; what have I left – what do I leave – behind here:  surely something, yes, but what?   …Hopefully more than a computer lab always on the brink of falling down; hopefully more than a mural I and the students painted on the wall outside the lab years ago, part of it since re-painted, the rest peeling away badly. (The world map we also did has long since been painted over.)

That Kwesi should consider my former proposal and his entertainment of it as a youthful whimsy is no surprise; his feelings on the matter have, over the intervening years and emails and phone calls, ranged all over the map.  He is, as Josh says, a conflicted individual; and I should well know, from my mother’s experience with my father, the impossibility of changing someone you love. His fiancé may strike me as an improbable match, but she is intelligent and educated and, as the saying goes, has her heart in the right place, if our dinner conversation is anything to go by.

Ah, Ghana:  you stole my heart, years ago, and yet I ran away, back to America.  I suppose I cannot complain at your present seeming ambivalence.

The author can be contacted at joel@parthemores.com

Serving in Moldova, a Mixed Blessing

– A Current PCV

Moldova FlagSunday, May 19th, Moldova had a gay pride parade. While it only lasted half a block it was still deemed a success and many international organizations helped support the local LGBT crowd. I joined our ambassador and country director for the event, feeling safer knowing that they were there, but my biggest worry was ‘what would happen at site?’ Well now that it’s the next day and I’m in my village I still am concerned. How many people saw the news? How many will confront me? Will I be able to stay here for my second year or will I have to move?

Being an LGBT volunteer in Moldova is what I imagine being an LGBT person in the 60s. Believe it or not there is a gay scene in Moldova but it is very underground. You have to know the right people to ‘gain entrance.’ We do have one club that is very LGBT friendly – they even have a rainbow painted around their doorway to let others know and within are various stickers protesting homophobia. Other than that many of the LGBT people tend to hang out with various EVS (European Volunteer Service) people and PCVs, since they know that we are LGBT friendly.

I’m very lucky that I have a great support network within the PC world and staff (HCNs – host country nationals and U.S.) who are open and supportive of me and my unique service. But when I come back to site I am a completely different person. Not only am I lying about who I am attracted to but also who I am at my very core. My village has accepted me for the most part – my coworkers at school come to me and seem genuinely seem interested in talking to me – but how can I develop a relationship with someone if they don’t even know who I am? Knowing that if they knew the truth, they would shun me or take me to the priest to be ‘healed.’ Knowing that when I return to the states to begin my gender transition, I will never be able to keep in contact with them, except by email, for once I start hormones my voice will change.

I live with a grandmother who happens to be very open. We enjoy each others company and we’ve had some great times. Once, over a few shots of home-made rakiu, I even changed her mind on gay-marriage by telling her that love is love and this world is hard enough alone. If you can find someone to share your struggles, and victories, with then you should be allowed to marry them. You see even during pre-service training I was somehow ‘popular’ with many of the HCNs even though I dressed oddly. I guess the one good thing about being a stranger in strange lands is that you are a stranger. How do they know that what you are doing is odd, different, or strange?

It’s a mix of a blessing being in a country full of such ignorance but also a curse. People tend to see what they want to see, you could walk around with a LGBT flag and they would comment about how pretty the colors are, but once the words LGBT are involved then it’s a completely different story.

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

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

Open Secrets – Serving Queer in Paraguay

– Compiled and Edited by Manuel Colón and Fiona Martin, RPCVs

Have you ever heard the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? It’s a story about a vain Emperor who cares for nothing. He hires two swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense, until a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession anyway.

That story embodies what an open secret is. How many times have those of us in Peace Corps heard about local and national governments that are run by corrupt leaders, yet they continue being elected? Or teachers/adult leaders having inappropriate relations with students yet haven’t lost their job? Or the spouses, who have extramarital relations, yet will not divorce? An open secret is information that is well-known throughout a community, but isn’t spoken aloud because of the power that said information contains. Overt acknowledgement may encourage and sometimes require the knowledge holders to take action of what they already know, but were purposefully ignoring. While open secrets like this, and others, make work and personal life difficult, they actually serve as a positive way for some volunteers to serve safely and productively.

While applying to Peace Corps, I received a call from the Paraguay Country Desk in Washington, D.C. with some follow up questions regarding my interview and application. Near the end of the call, as we were wrapping up, the woman on the line asked me, “You are comfortable staying in the closet for two years, right? The country you are being invited to isn’t that open to homosexuality. You’ll have to keep it a secret.” I sat in the cubicle of my summer job and calmly tried to process this blunt, and rather awkward, turn of the conversation.  Hesitantly, not sure who might overhear my response, I said “Well, I suppose. But, I’m pretty gay. Like, even if I didn’t tell anyone, it wouldn’t be too hard to guess.” That was the quickest, most professional response I could come up with, as I thought about my voice, speech patterns, hand motions, and general composure that are usually a dead giveaway for my sexual orientation (and had been for many years). She politely quipped back, “Oh, don’t worry about that. Those non-spoken cues are things we pick up from a cultural context, the country you’re going to isn’t exposed to much gay culture, so the cues don’t communicate the same things.”

Reflecting on that phone conversation, I wonder what the desk officer really meant to communicate. I initially understood her to mean that no one will ever suspect I was gay and would just fly under the radar, which is definitely not the case. I’m confident that several of my community members knew that I was gay, without ever having told them. During an asado (BBQ) at my house, during a conversation, my Paraguayan housemate said “Yeah and I have a gay cousin. But, not gay like you Manú…” and continued on nonchalantly. I, however, sat there in an utter stupor for about ten seconds, food hanging from my fork, as many things ran through my mind; 1) He knows I’m gay. 2) How did he find out? 3) When did he find out? 4) Who else knows? 5) He dropped that bomb in the conversation and carried on really fucking casually. In that instant, I understand what the desk officer really meant in that call; people will know that I’m gay, will share their suspicions with others, but they’ll simply add that information on their list of other open secrets and carry on about their lives.

One strategy in addressing open secrets is to do so indirectly. During my service, I was requested to be at a meeting to help plan Día de la Juventud (Youth Day) events with the Muni (our local city hall). However, the conversation got derailed from whom to invite to speak about health and wellness to making sure that we don’t get anyone who will come and talk about sexuality. Not that they didn’t value a safe-sex and HIV-AIDS charla (lectures), but they didn’t want a situation where a puto (faggot) would come and say that homosexuality is a normal, healthy lifestyle. They began to discuss how lesbians and gays should not have rights; that they shouldn’t be allowed to marry or raise children, etc. Once again, I found myself paralyzed by shock, blankly staring at my computer screen, where I was previously taking notes, with my fingers now lying flat on the keyboard. I sat there for ten minutes, listening to people who I considered friends and professional work counterparts dissect and discuss my value and worth as a human being based solely on who I love. I had been curious why I was invited to the meeting in the first place, and began to wonder if my presence was specifically requested for this very exchange. Non-confrontationally discussing my sexual orientation, in such a passive manner, allowed them to air their disapproval without the burden of actually taking action. If they were to openly acknowledge the “secret,” they would be expected to do something about it, at the very least shun me, and by doing so, potentially lose a valuable and productive member of the team.

But the real impetus for writing this piece was an exchange I had with a good friend at my site. As I was lying in my hammock, he stumbled over in his mid-afternoon drunken stupor (which was all too common) and asked “Manuel, you’re a pacifist, right?” to which I respond “Yeah, I guess so.” He followed up with, “Good. So am I. But, can you defend yourself, like if you needed to? In a fight?” I was unsure of where the conversation was going and imagined that shortly he’d slap me in the head and run away giggling. So, I stood up, out of the hammock to exert my clear height advantage and said, “Well, I’m a big guy, I sure think I can defend myself.” He let me know that he was glad I could defend myself if needed, but also that I could count on him if I ever find myself in a sticky situation. He went on to recount, teary eyed, having witnessed the hatred, discrimination and even violence, his lesbian sister had received growing up. He assured me that if I ever experienced this in my time here in Paraguay, he would have my back.  And to remember that there were good, respectful Paraguayans, like himself.  It was after this exchange, I began to ponder the complexity of the open secret.

Open secrets can be great. They allowed me, and other LGBT Volunteers, to safely live and work in Paraguay with minimal burden. Open secrets allowed us to retain our identity and behavior but with the understanding that we must remain silent and never demand public recognition and approval. There is an unspoken agreement: we won’t say anything if you don’t say anything, which again is the basis of every open secret.

However, open secrets are also damaging. They contribute to the sequestering of positive imagery of gay citizens, a “glass” closet, if you will. I am unable to counteract the pervasive, harmful rhetoric of gay men being pedophiles and sole carriers of HIV because despite being a successful working professional, I am not officially out; my sexual orientation can not be publicly acknowledged. My passion for social justice and diversity advocacy is silenced and squelched where it should matter the most, my personal identity. Not only are we unable to serve as positive counterexamples to the pervasive and damaging stereotypes about gays, we are also unable to serve as positive role models to youth, just now coming to terms with their sexuality. A culture of open secrets allows and encourages passiveness of the status quo, rather than challenging ignorant or bigoted ideology.

Complacency about the status quo creates a complicated environment, not only for members of the LGBT community, but as conveyed in my last anecdote, even for allies. There are situations, where LGBT Volunteers are clearly rendered voiceless and disenfranchised. However, these situations are opportunities for allies to stand up and do what we cannot.  There are spaces for our allies (especially other straight PCVs), to say or do something when it is too delicate or dangerous for us to do so. Hearing someone who is a confirmed heterosexual speak up in disagreement to homophobic comments carries much more weight than the comments of someone living an “open secret.” It’s also safer for an ally to speak up and less likely to result in complications for our communities. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, much of your personal and work safety is, after all, at the whim of your community. There are two very simple choices to be made in situations like these. Similar to the Emperor’s ministers, and educated townspeople, we can stay silent and allow an open secret to parade through our society rearing its bigoted self, unchecked into our lives. Or, with the purity and sense of equality as a child, we can actively challenge the status quo and bring attention to what is wrong, and demand it be corrected. So, next time you see a naked man walking down the street…are you going to say something?

You can contact Manuel Colón at macolon2@gmail.com and Fiona Martin at fmmartin@gmail.com

 

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