From Canvassing to Closets: Life as a Lesbian in Jordan

- A Recent RPCV

Editor’s note: The author is unnamed because she still retains relationships in her country of service which could be compromised if her full identity were revealed.

“If you do not do conservative, Peace Corps Jordan is not for you.” This sentence was highlighted, capitalized, and in bold in our welcome letter from Peace Corps staff in Jordan. Listed in the paragraphs that followed were a variety of personal identifiers and characteristics that volunteers headed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan might have to either tone down, or hide all together. Amongst them, any sexual orientation or identity differing from heterosexual, or ‘straight.’ It was clear that PC staff wanted to make sure no one showed up at Pre-Service Training expecting to live two years in Jordan openly as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Armed with the knowledge that only two years after coming out of the closet, I would be heading right back in and locking the door behind me, I did my best to contact anyone who knew anything about being gay in Jordan and in the Peace Corps. After weeks of emailing, phone calls, and blog reading, I had come to only a few general conclusions: you cannot underestimate the challenge of going back into the closet (just because you’ve done it once before doesn’t mean it’s any easier now); I will be constantly approached by Jordanians about finding a husband; and that while some PC countries have LGBT support groups, Jordan does not. My research did not provide me with much comfort.

As I sit here writing this now, almost six months after my close of service, what I realize about the knowledge I had gathered prior to my departure is that however vague, it is pretty accurate. It is very difficult to describe the difficulty of going back into the closet, so the easiest thing to do is sum it up by telling people there is no way to prepare yourself. I did get questioned about my future husband on a daily basis, and there was no Peace Corps support group for volunteers who are LGBT in place when I arrived. Despite the confirmation of my fears, I want to make one thing very clear: while serving as a lesbian in Jordan was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, completing my service was simultaneously one of the most rewarding.

Contrary to common belief, homosexuality has been decriminalized in Jordan. Its legal status, however, does not relieve the strict social and religious beliefs marking it as extremely taboo. Violent hate crimes have been known to occur, and arrests of individuals who are suspected of or are known as being LGBT are sometimes made under the pretense of another violation. These types of assaults on identity however, are typically kept within the confines of the capital or bigger cities where certain bars are known to be gay friendly or underground “gay” parties are not an infrequent occurrence. While life in the villages and small towns where Peace Corps volunteers live can be seemingly less hostile, it is only because the gay communities are much smaller or even non-existent.

As a female volunteer in Jordan, social life is generally absent of sex and anything related to it. Marriage and family life is very frequently discussed, but sex education does not occur in schools or at home. Having heard horror stories from gay male volunteers about having to explicitly describe (fake) sexual encounters with females, I am grateful for the conservative nature of most of Jordanian females. The issue that came up most often for me in daily life was the constant talk of marriage. One of the first questions a Jordanian will ask you is if you are married, and why not? Even now, Skyping with my family and friends back in Jordan, it is still the number one topic. When I tell them I would like to visit, their response is always, “not alone! You better bring your husband! When are you getting married anyway?”

Despite the difficulties, serving as a lesbian in Jordan has some very unique positives, that many would not necessarily expect. One of the more conservative aspects of Jordanian culture is gender segregation. Men and women who are not blood relatives or married do not socialize together, sit on public transportation together, or interact in any public or private settings (with the exception of university classes). Because of this, heterosexual Peace Corps Jordan volunteers interested in dating each other were faced with quite a dilemma. If you lived in a village ten minutes down the road from your boyfriend or girlfriend, you might have to travel over an hour to the next biggest city or to the capital in order to see each other. Luckily for any LGBT volunteers, this was not the case. My girlfriend and I could visit each other several times a week, under the pretense of being close friends of course. In fact, our respective host families enjoyed our visits so much that they started suggesting we just live together. It is my personal opinion that if PC were to start placing same-sex married couples, Jordan would be the perfect place for them to serve. It is not only normal for two people of the same sex to spend all their time together, but expected, thanks to their unique tradition of gender segregation.

Another huge plus of being a gay volunteer in Jordan is that the biggest PRIDE festival in the world takes place in Jordan’s next-door neighbor. Jordan’s Peace Corps volunteers visit Tel Aviv in June every year to celebrate diversity during their PRIDE weekend. Having the ability to get away for a weekend and not only be yourself, but celebrate your identity can be a huge boost of energy and confidence, and a reminder that serving in Jordan is about a lot more than having to hide your sexual identity.

The ability to be open about my sexuality amongst the Peace Corps community while in Jordan was a huge factor in my ability to overcome the associated challenges. When I entered PST in 2009, there was no concrete support system for volunteers who were LGBT, but by the time of my close of service, not only were we implementing annual Safe Zone Trainings to American and Jordanian staff, we published a resource manual for volunteers, trainees and staff on the unique issues that LGBT volunteers face. I saw a lot of good change happen, and can now proudly and confidently tell anyone who is LGBT and interested in Peace Corps Jordan that there is a support system in place specifically geared toward our experiences.

Support from Peace Corps and the fact that Tel Aviv PRIDE is only a few hours away is key in helping LGBT volunteers through their service. This does not mean, however, that serving in Jordan as a lesbian is a piece of cake. Like I was told before I began my service, there is no way to adequately prepare yourself for the emotional stress of hiding your sexuality, whether it be the first time or again after years of enjoying an honest and open lifestyle. Personally, I took a big jump, from canvassing the streets of New York City with the Human Rights Campaign – announcing my sexual orientation to strangers on a daily basis – to sitting with Jordanian friends designing my future husband. Not only do you feel a little ridiculous lying constantly, but there is also a definite barrier between you and the people you are trying so desperately to create meaningful relationships with. These are things that no system of support or ability to visit your significant other freely can diminish. They do not simply go away after you finish your service, either.

We are a lucky generation of Peace Corps Volunteers – blessed with technology and Internet, keeping in touch with Jordanian friends and family is as simple as logging onto Skype. Maintaining relationships after your Peace Corps service is finished means maintaining the lies you told as well. The decision to accept an invitation to serve in Jordan not only has to come with the understanding that during your service you will remain closeted, but most likely after your service is complete as well. For me, the relationships that I developed in Jordan were just as, if not more, important than the projects I designed and participated in. The stress of having to continue hiding what is becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life from people I now consider family does not lessen after close of service. Yes, I signed up for two years of Peace Corps, but I also seemed to have signed up for a lifetime of hiding my identity from a portion of the people I love and care about.

There are plenty of pros and cons to serving as a lesbian in Jordan. The same goes for gay male volunteers, though due to cultural norms and expectations of men, their experiences can be very different. No two experiences are the same, but for me the pros outweighed the long list of cons. I learned about other aspects of myself apart from my sexual orientation. I also learned how important my lesbian identity is to me. I have a better understanding of what it takes to form true friendships, and how dishonesty can bring them down. I had my first two wonderful experiences at a PRIDE event, and now whole-heartedly appreciate the ability to celebrate diversity on a daily basis. Finally, of course, thanks to Jordan, and against all odds, I fell in love.

I frequently get asked if I regret going to Jordan, or if I would tell people who are LGBT to decline an invitation to serve there. No, and no, I always answer. Like I told myself a million times throughout my service – I am not the first gay volunteer to go to Jordan, and I will certainly not be the last.

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

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers