A Friend and Lover in Cote d’Ivoire

 – Rob Tocci, RPCV

Before Peace Corps’ invitation I lived a quiet life, teaching public school and was out to only a few friends. I figured that expressing my sexual orientation would have to be put on hold as a PC volunteer. I was going to live and work in a foreign culture and language. That would take up most of my energy. Then I met George in Atlanta, in 1976, during our pre-stage training. He was handsome, intelligent, and charismatic. He stood out among our diverse group headed to Cote d’Ivoire. I had no idea then, that for the next two years, he would become the most important person in my life.

On the plane from New York to Abidjan I had a chance to talk to George and was intrigued. We were both from New England and valued our Italian heritage. We had similar family backgrounds and were the same age, 26. Conversations and shared experiences with the other PC trainees continued during the four-week stage (training), held at a lycee in Abidjan. Up at 6:30, cold showers, language, cultural, and pedagogical classes filled our days. Training was exhilarating, but exhausting. Besides meals, interactions with George became the high point of each day. I don’t remember the exact moment, but at some point during that time in Abidjan, I was smitten. Now what?  He seemed more and more interested, but in all likelihood, we would be assigned to different towns at the end of August. How could a potential relationship develop if we lived scores or hundreds of miles away before computers and cell phones?

By the end of training we decided to continue and deepen our relationship and requested that Peace Corps assign us to the same town. In a move that surprised both of us, Peace Corps assigned us to Dabou, a town about 25 miles east of Abidjan, on the main paved north/south road in Cote d’Ivoire. The Ivorian government provided teachers furnished housing, in our case a three-bedroom ranch with indoor plumbing and a metal roof. We decorated the house with Ivorian-produced fabrics and batiks. We welcomed many guests to a home that reflected us.

School was a five-minute walk from the house. We taught from 7:00 AM to noon. After lunch and a siesta my favorite part of the day was between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. The heat of the day was abating and the glaring sun of mid-day was replaced by a softer, richer illumination. Often we would get on our PC-provided motor bikes to go to the marche, tour the surrounding countryside, or visit friends. If lessons were already prepared, evenings were spent reading or studying French. When the mosquitoes became intolerable, we retreated to bed under mosquito netting.

After I returned from a five-week med-evacuation in March of ’77, we established an English-language library at our school, which we staffed three or four afternoons a week.  Students could borrow books, practice their English, or just hang out. Those afternoons when the hazy setting sun reflected off the tin roofs of the houses sloping down the hill, I felt peace and contentment. The words of our training director would come to mind.  “The red dust of Africa gets into your veins.”

Because of school vacations, we and our fellow PC volunteer teachers traveled to Abidjan, Korogo, and Sassandra in Cote d’Ivoire. During our summer vacation, we took two trips through West Africa. We used the same transport as ordinary Ivorians. The usual transport was an overcrowded bus or station wagon, driven by a possessed driver. One evening the bus we were in broke down at the Burkina Faso/Niger border. For dinner we ate bread and canned sardines from a near-by village. We slept outdoors under a spectacular star-filled sky. At another point during that summer we took a thirty-six hour train from Bamako, Mali to Dakar, Senegal. As we approached Dakar, the train got so crowded with people carrying produce to market, that the aisles became impassible. At one point we had to chase away would-be thieves who tried to steal the purses of our female Peace Corp friends.

I savor the memories of the experiences I shared with George. Aside from the fact that we were living in Africa, in many ways our lives were quite ordinary. I loved him, but, perhaps more importantly, liked him. For two years we were friends and lovers. Who knows how different our Peace Corps adventure might have been had we not met. Sharing those two challenging years with him in a foreign culture and language resulted in an infinitely more rewarding experience. I would not have changed a thing. I knew then that we were very lucky to share that time together. I realize that even more so now.

Rob Tocci can be contacted at robtocci@yahoo.com

 

 

It’s Not That Bad in Paraguay

- Manuel Colon, former PCV

My application and recruitment process for Peace Corps did not prepare me properly for serving as an out Gay man in Paraguay. Prior to my arrival in country, it was very unclear to me whom I could disclose my orientation (or if I should at all). I was really concerned about staying closeted for two years, and really prepping myself to be a celibate hermit. I can’t speak for all of the Queer volunteers, but I do know that those who I have spoken with have also echoed my initial preoccupations and reservations about being ill-prepared to handle their “out” identities in Paraguay. My local recruiter seemed pretty positive about my sexual orientation and service, although, she did gave me the standard warnings about cultural and gender norms in Latin America. But, I also received a follow-up call from the Paraguay desk staff in Washington really driving home the idea that I’ll need to prepare myself for being closeted for two years and the general non-acceptance of gays in the country I was being invited to (she wouldn’t disclose Paraguay over the phone).

I suppose if I had done some really good research, I could have resolved some of my concerns and uncertainties about being out in Paraguay on my own. But, I doubt it would have been effective. After living in-country for 20 months I now know that there is very little (accurate) information about Paraguay on the internet (and even less in English). Which is why I was inspired to write this piece. I want anyone who is reading this; the local recruiter, the Washington Office desk officer, the interested applicant, the recent invitee, etc, to please know, it’s not that bad!

I commonly use an example from our staging in Miami that demonstrates the general discomfort and confusion about how candid and honest we can be about our sexual orientation when coming to Peace Corps. My training class was pretty big (47 total) and it has come to light that at least 6 of us openly identified as Queer prior to coming to Paraguay. Though, when we were in Miami and running through the classic “Biggest Hope”/ “Biggest Fear” activities, only one of us mentioned her sexual orientation. One, only one of six! It clearly was on my mind and a definite fear of mine (and I would imagine the five other’s too). But, between the conversations I had with my recruiter and the Washington Office desk officer, I understood that I had to keep quiet about my sexual orientation and stay in the closet. I didn’t know if that meant to everyone, other volunteers, staging staff, in-country staff, or only host country nationals… to whom exactly?

During training you’re in a small bubble, with little information about what really is going on Paraguay and with other volunteers. Among my training group, little by little  my peers opened up about their sexual orientation and we’d talk about it together; what our experiences were back home, what we expected in Paraguay, who we had told so far, etc. But, as luck would have it, it turned out there was a volunteer-led diversity advocacy group, Jopara, that offered safe space for Queer volunteers (and other identities) and apparently there was a tradition after every swear-in to go dancing at a Gay club in the capital. Wait… Let’s unpack that a little. There is a Gay club here in Paraguay? Volunteers know about it? And frequent it? Where was that in my Welcome Handbook? And wouldn’t you know it, there isn’t just one Gay club, there are several. In fact, two new ones have opened up since I’ve been here. Additionally, there are several Queer NGOs, Pride/Equality rallies and marches, and LGBT movie festivals.

All in all, there is a whole bunch of Queer positive activity happening in Paraguay. Like most progressive movements, these activities are concentrated in the capital. But, hell, why didn’t anybody tell me that they existed in the first place? I distinctly remember being on a new site visit and a fellow trainee and I were taken to a Gay karaoke club in the capital where we ran into some other volunteers. When Glee’s version of Madonna’s “Vogue” played across the screen I thought to myself “If this is Peace Corps Paraguay, I’m going to be alright”.

I understand that recruiters and desk officer need to paint the toughest possible picture of service, because it is a reality that some volunteers will have to live. In fact, while I seem to be ranting and raving about the progress that exist in the capital, I don’t know any volunteers (myself included) who actually are out to their communities. However, just like lots of other concerns and worries about your service that are created before even getting in country, I think they can be alleviated before arriving here too. No one should come into service thinking it will be a walk in the park, much less Queer volunteers. But, there needs to be no confusion over who a volunteer can be out to during their service. Peace Corps Paraguay wants to support its volunteers, all volunteers! And if that involves you disclosing your sexual orientation, that’s okay! As with any new setting you should be cautious about individuals who may not receive the information well. But, it’s okay to tell your trainee peers, your sector bosses and general office staff. The PC medical officers will probably be the first you’ll disclose it to, or at least it was for me. During my mandatory, arrival medical check-in I was asked about my plan for contraception, I replied “Homosexuality.” I find it very unlikely that I’ll be getting anyone pregnant here and I thought it was important they knew that. Invitees and interested applicants need to know that the in-country staff is supportive of diversity issues and are open to having that conversation.

I just want to let whoever is reading this know, that upon entry to Peace Corps Paraguay you’ll be greeted by a community of Queer volunteers and straight allies that want to make sure you have an excellent and meaningful service and an office that supports you too. Really, it’s not that bad.

The writer can be contacted at macolon2@gmail.com

Safe Zone Training in Senegal: The Queer Quiz

– a current PCV

One of my proudest achievements in service, thus far, did not include attempts to end malaria, to promote nutrition for small children, or even to introduce an alternative fuel source. No, instead, my moment of glory came in the administration of a quiz, a “queer quiz,” to be exact.

At the tail end of June 2011, Gay Pride Month in America, five other volunteers joined me at the Thiès Training Center to deliver a day-long seminar on sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles. Our target audience was a group of local Peace Corps staff members whose job it is to provide language training and cultural support to Peace Corps Trainees. Also in attendance were other key members of the Peace Corps Senegal staff, including the Training Director, Safety and Security Coordinator, and the Medical Officers. This training (called Safe Zone Training) was originally put together by volunteers in The Gambia, the small country that cuts through the middle of Senegal, and was shared at our Gender and Development Summit a few months earlier. The Gambia version was itself a version of Safe Zone Training developed by volunteers in Guatemala. It focuses on increasing the staff’s awareness of different sexual identities and instructs them on how to support volunteers that come to them with personal issues. Homosexual acts are not only considered immoral by the religious leaders here, but they are also punishable by law. In 2007, 96% of the Senegalese population surveyed said that homosexuality should be rejected by society and, in the past 3 years, 14 Senegalese men have been arrested and 5 imprisoned for illicit homosexual behavior. Just two months ago, several of my friends and I were stunned upon reading a front page news article declaring a “jihad” on homosexuality, wherein one of the most prestigious religious leaders suggested that those found guilty of this heinous crime be stoned on the streets.

They say that serving in the Peace Corps is the “toughest job you’ll ever love”, but when that job comes with the challenge of masking your true identity for fear of personal harm or imprisonment, as it did for 14% of the volunteers who swore in last year, that makes the job even tougher and, frankly, this just didn’t sit well with me. I was raised to be open-minded and accepting of people’s differences and I include in my “circle of love” many people whose lifestyles differ from my own. My mother recalls a phone call she received from me in college after I’d witnessed a KKK march where little kids stood next to their parents holding signs with anti-gay slogans. I was livid at them; she was proud of me; and yes, I said KKK, as in Ku Klux Klan. I’m not blind to the fact that discrimination is still alive and well in our great nation, but I’ve never been one to tolerate it. When I arrived in Senegal, and realized that many of my friends who had been “out” at home had to go back into the closet here in order not to offend their host families or, worse, subject themselves to possible danger or arrest, it made me feel as uncomfortable as they did. Living in this foreign culture is hard enough without the added burden of trying to change who you are. So, I took matters into my own hands and pushed to have this training.

The SeneGAD (Senegal Gender and Development) Board met at the beginning of May and approved my proposal. Shortly thereafter, we had full support from our Country Director, and we formed a Safe Zone Committee of interested volunteers from around the country to review and modify the training materials we’d gathered. In less than 2 months, we conducted our first day-long session to 12 attendees. We covered basic vocabulary, issues faced by homosexual volunteers, current gay rights around the world, the stages and difficulties of coming out, testimonials shared by current volunteers, and anti-gay behavior. We spent the last hour of the session discussing the definition and role of an “ally” and how our staff can be supportive of volunteers who have issues related to their sexual orientation. At the end, we passed out the “queer quiz”, which was really just an evaluation form, asking attendees about how their perceptions may have changed from the beginning of the class. Across the board, the participants demonstrated an increase in understanding and a willingness to discuss these issues. We had lively and open discussion throughout the day and everyone agreed that this was a topic that no one had felt comfortable broaching before and that this training was long overdue.

We may not have changed a nation’s attitude, but we connected with a room full of people who provide daily support in the lives of future Peace Corps Volunteers as they struggle to understand a new language and acclimate to a new culture. We “helped promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” which is the second goal John F. Kennedy defined for the Peace Corps. Even though most of our participants still hold strong to their religious/legal beliefs regarding these matters, they’re open to accepting and supporting others whose beliefs are different from theirs. Like all countries where Peace Corps is present, Senegal is a developing country with a young democracy, so of course there is room for improvement when it comes to many rights and the concept of equality.

Even we, in America, don’t quite have this right yet, as we were reminded by the late Coretta Scott King, but we’re trying. “We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say ‘common struggle’ because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”

Senegal Safe Zone Training materials.

This volunteer can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Sometimes I Want to Live in Buenos Aires, Too

– A Peace Corps Volunteer, Paraguay

Of the approximately six million Paraguayans in this world, two to three million are in Buenos Aires on any given day and another half a million live in Spain. This opens up a number of important conversations. How can we help people find meaningful work in their country of birth? How can we keep prices fair for small producers as trade takes place on a larger scale? How can we help our contacts and communities foster a sense of cultural pride, when many people want to leave to find work? However at my site, this phenomenon lends itself a bizarre amount to one topic in particular: same sex marriage.

Where I live, just over half of the adult population works at least seasonally in Buenos Aires, where people of different genders and sexualities have equal rights under the law. Many of the Paraguayans who I met during the Christmas holidays this year had returned to see news about DADT being repealed in the United States coupled with a growing pride (and civil rights) movement in Paraguay. Since I was the new shiny estado unidogua (person from the United States) people asked me my opinion.

In the interest of caution and self-preservation, I never bring up the topic of same sex rights first, and until I know a person at my site well, I don’t tend to discuss my personal views. I do tell people who ask, however, that statistics show that the majority of people in the United States now supports a separate, if not mostly equal, marriage-like institution (though this exists in only a few states) as well as open military service. And then I hear the inevitable comment: We’ll, we just don’t have gays here like you do there.

I try and avoid judging books by their covers, so to speak, but between the drag queens in Paraguari, some of the prettier looking shoe shiners at the Villarrica bus terminal, and the nights at the club in Asuncion, I’ve gathered there’s something a little less than heterosexual going on. But I keep my mouth shut and refrain from saying what’s really on my mind: You have thirteen siblings, and Edgar is the gay one. Or; Is it really so mysterious that Janina isn’t married? And; Yes, Sebastian is a nice dresser, and his hair does always look great.

Because I have the sneaking suspicion that if I play my cards right, Edgar, Janina, and Sebastian might knock on my door one night, asking my help. After talking to other Peace Corps Volunteers, it seems that someone approaching us to talk about their sexuality is not unheard of. There are at least a few volunteers right now who are counseling teens through what might be the most difficult years of their lives. The teenage years are just as hard for Paraguayans as they were for us in the United States. Compound hormones with being gay in a country where you’re not generally accepted, and it gets a lot worse. Yet because of the Peace Corps, because of our privileged position, we are able to tell people at our sites what their families won’t or can’t. You are still a wonderful human being. You have so much to offer the world. You have the right to be who you are, and there are safe places in the world, places where your gender or sexuality wouldn’t even be interesting enough for gossip.

Sometimes, our role as Peace Corps Volunteers can feel frustratingly like ‘the shiny new toy for the community to play with,’ but I’ve noticed it is this role in particular that makes people open to us in a way they might not be with their family or community members. With some particular ‘non-traditional’ situations (non-heterosexuality, religion, divorce, abortion, drug problems, HIV) those in need elect us as the people in the community who are most likely to still treat them like human beings.

When it comes to gender and sexuality rights, this country is extremely frustrating for me for a few reasons. Even though many people deny the existence of gays altogether, there’s also a belief that ‘the gay can be cured’ by such traditional methods as putting pyno’i (a plant that burns) in a person’s tea, or physically beating it out of them. Even though most people have visited Buenos Aires, one of the most open and out cities on the continent, the belief of gays as tattooed, long haired, drug addicted, HIV carrying criminals strongly persists in many parts of this country.

At the same time, I’m in a unique place to be there for people who might want my help by providing them a safe space and an open mind to express what they need to say. I’ve got amazing friends and allies among my Peace Corps Volunteers, and one person at my site to whom I’m out and who couldn’t be more supportive of me. I have a semi-active scene in the Capitol, where I can go, be exactly who I am, and not feel threatened by physical violence. There is homosexuality on TV here, and while it might not be casually accepted, it doesn’t induce riots. I get the sense, and I know this is partly my own personal hope, that Paraguay will make leaps and bounds in equality in a shorter span of time (ten to twenty years) rather than a century from now. This definitely isn’t Peace Corps Uganda.
I might have a lot of frustration, and I sometimes find myself wishing I was hopping the next bus to Buenos Aires with my next door neighbor, but when I take a step back, it is amazing, and I can find a lot of happiness.

You can contact this writer by emailing lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

Building My Own Closet in Paraguay

-–Fiona Martin, now an RPCV

I am very lucky. Until now, I have never lived in a community where I have felt uncomfortable being out. Paraguay is different. I have all the support and respect I could ask for in the Peace Corps office, and from fellow volunteers. But, self-imposed closeting in my own community is taking a toll. Part of it is my inability to read the subtle cultural signs, which as a foreigner I frequently miss. I worry about small comments from people in my community. I second guess conversations, searching for a sign that they have figured me out. Maybe I don’t need to be so scared. Maybe if they knew, it wouldn’t make any difference. Maybe, like my Grandma back home, they know without me saying a thing.

I am a horrible liar. But, unlike many queer volunteers, I am attracted to and have dated both men and women. This allows me to ride the wave of heteronormativity when answering questions about my personal life, with minimal falsehoods. But, by sidestepping such questions, I wonder if I am giving up the chance to make a difference. What about the unmarried 28 year old woman who regularly makes time to talk with me? What about when my (closeted but almost defiantly gay) host brother asks me questions about my love life? How am I supposed to answer? Do I maintain my lie of a fake and absent boyfriend? Do I explain how close I am to my “cousin” who visited? I worry that by telling anyone in my community that I am not straight, even someone I suspect would be sympathetic, I would be potentially putting myself (or at least my ability to work with people) in danger. After all, a common way to deflect suspicion of ones own sexuality is to act bigoted towards others (examples: Ted Haggard, George Rekers, Larry Craig, need I go on?).

Perhaps it is different in other sectors. Logically enough, agriculture volunteers find themselves in rural, usually conservative, areas. Comparatively, my site is not super conservative, but I imagine it would still severely hinder my cultural integration and work effectiveness to be too open. When I worked in the Boot Heel of Missouri (also rural and conservative), at least I was able to interpret the cultural signals. One of my greatest skills was being able to read what put a stranger at ease after just a short conversation. Even if I wasn’t originally from the Ozarks, queer people can often find a way of letting each other know that they are talking to someone who understands; someone who is in the “family.” How do I do that here? I am still struggling to speak Spanish, never mind Guarani, and the cultural intricacies are still far beyond me.

In any new work situation, I prefer to let my coworkers get to know me before I mention my sexuality. And when I do mention it, it is usually in a context where several people are sharing aspects of their romantic lives. When a guy friend complains about a crazy ex-girlfriend, I complain about my crazy ex-girlfriend too. I thus out myself in the not-a-big-freaking-deal way that I prefer. I don’t feel like that is an option here. I would like to casually mention an old flame while sipping mate with my neighbors, but I’m suspect it would first be viewed as a language error, and then as something that would irrevocably estrange me from the community.

Recently, I have gotten to know a little bit of the queer community in a large town in my department. Discovering that such a network existed, and being allowed into it was wonderful. However it was disheartening to see the secrecy and fear that many queer people in the campo (country) experience. The most exhausting part of being closeted is constant monitoring of comments and conversations to see if anyone has guessed “the secret.” But igual (nonetheless), even having some limited contact with this underground queer community, has eased some of the stress that my self-closeting at my site produced.

I have seen very little homophobia at site… but maybe that’s just because no one is out. So even though there is very little evidence that would make me fear for my safety, I have, along with a lindo (good looking) garden, fuerte (strong) tacuara (bamboo) fence, and scraggly abonos verdes (green manure) demo plot, constructed a large impenetrable closet in which to hide an important part of myself. I just hope after two years in such a space, I will come out strong and confident, not cramped and anemic, deprived of sunlight.

You can contact the author at  fmmartin@gmail.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 83 other followers