Reconciling Development Work and the Closet in Paraguay

–Fiona Martin, now an RPCV 

I looked at my Facebook page recently, and I realized just how… well, gay it had become in the last year and a half. Well over half the links I post are about equal rights, and LGBT news stories. It didn’t used to be that way. In the States, due to my open-minded community, loving family and accepting college town, being queer simply wasn’t a big deal. I rarely considered if and how being queer influenced my interactions with people, my safety, or my future. Liking women (and men) was part of who I was, but it wasn’t a big part. Occasionally I might sign a petition or speak up in a conversation if it seemed necessary, but all-in-all I was very casual in my LGBT identity. Because it was rarely something I felt ostracized for, it was never something about which I sought support.

However, in my impoverished rural community in Paraguay, I am not openly gay. One of the absolutely most important reasons to be out is that, when people realize they personally know someone who is gay, they begin to revise their opinions. They realize that their votes and prejudiced comments directly affect someone one they know as a person, not just as a sexuality. One of the questions I struggled with for a while, was why doesn’t this apply to me in Paraguay? Shouldn’t I be open here for the same reason I’m open in Indiana?

I realized that I have to be closeted in site in order to productively do the development work I came here to do. As an Agriculture Volunteer, I am here to work with everyone who has degraded soil on their farm or wants to improve their family garden or wants to start a worm bin. Bigots deserve access to development workers too. I already have to overcome so many cultural barriers to get someone to try something new on their farm, why add something else? I’m not Catholic, but I don’t advertise that to the community for the same reason. In order to work with as many people as I can, I want to present as few barriers as possible. If I were to come out at the end of my service, or several years from now when I come back for a visit, the community will know me as a person. They will know the work I did. They will have to reconcile the person they know with the sexuality they object to.

By not being out, I am able to reach more people and be more effective. But it means I cannot be a resource for the LGBT youth and adults that live in the community. No one is out, but I have my suspicions about a few folks. I can’t come out to them; because it could compromise my position in the community (one well-worn strategy for deflecting suspicion off yourself is to become an out- spoken homophobe). I can’t be a role model for them, because they don’t know what we have in common. This is the hardest part about not being out in site. There is a gay rights movement in Paraguay. Things are changing especially amongst the youth and in the larger towns and cities. But out here in the campo, there is still a long way to go. Poco a poco (little by little), I guess.

So now, perhaps due to being closeted, if I’m lucky enough to have an internet signal, I find myself trolling Huffington Post Gay news section for hopeful or shocking news stories. I have started to closely follow equal rights issues in the states (e.g. repeal of DADT, North Carolina amendment banning same-sex marriage, President Obama’s public support for marriage equality). I have become more interested in the advancement of equal rights and community acceptance of LGBT people because I now feel the lack of them. Ironically, having to hide my sexuality has made my sexuality more central to my identity.

This writer has written for us previously. You can read her earlier article at http://lgbrpcv.org/2012/01/28/building-my-own-closet-in-paraguay/

You can contact her at  fmmartin@gmail.com.

The Life of a Transgender PCV: Are You a Boy or a Girl?

- Bryce Wolfe RPCV

Last year my host mother called the Peace Corps medical officer. She had seen my boxers drying on the line, she said, and had doubts about my gender. She feared I was actually a man, and was now concerned for the safety of her two young daughters. The notion that I would ever harm my host sisters disturbed me; the doubts about my gender did not. I have long hair. I have a deep voice. I have an hourglass figure. I have facial hair. It confuses people. The medical officer assured my host mother that I am, in fact, female, and that she has no cause for concern. Boys and girls both may wear boxers, the medical officer explained, and Westerners frequently wear clothing of the opposite sex. When I learned about this phone conversation, I wasn’t upset; instead I was glad that my host mother took the initiative to call the medical officer. This way, rather than harboring fear or spreading rumors, she learned about the fluidity of gender.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” People ask.

Technically, I’m intersex. I identify as transgender. Currently, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer serving in a predominately Muslim country.

In this culture, your sex determines your life. It influences what you do for a living, what you do in your free time, what you absolutely must do and what would be an absolute shame for you to do. Men interact with men differently than women interact with women, and inequalities exist. To speak the language, you must identify yourself as a man or a woman.

I took a good, long look at myself before I joined the Peace Corps. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. There would be the constant questioning, the lack of privacy and the need to change my appearance and behavior. There would be the stares and the possibility of even physical violence. All volunteers face this. What I couldn’t find, was much information about the unique challenges faced by volunteers who don’t fit neatly into “male” or “female”. For all I knew, I would be the only one. This was okay. I never let a fear of the unknown hold me back. Still, who would I trust? How would I dress? Would I commit a grievous faux pas and be stoned to death?

I was prepared to live undercover for twenty-seven months. Now, looking back, I’m amused to think I considered hiding who I am, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to.

In my first month as a volunteer, I facilitated a diversity training session for staff and found that both Americans and host country nationals wanted to know how they could be allies to LGBTQI volunteers. I met gay and lesbian and otherwise queer volunteers already serving in country. When I walked the office halls, I saw rainbow stickers of support on office doors. Their support has been unwavering and, while I tested the waters in the beginning, I’m now open about my gender identity with all volunteers and staff members.

Still, I’m not open in my community. This is a conservative country, and I don’t know who I can and can’t trust. I teach English at a secondary school, and I don’t want to be accused of “converting” children, as others have been accused. The level of violence and harassment against LGBTQI individuals here is high, and the law enforcement is no help.

Last month two law enforcement officers approached me on the street. I reached for the ID in my bag, expecting them to ask me for identification. Instead, they asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” and, once satisfied with an answer, they walked away. I’m pretty sure they settled a bet.

You need to have a thick skin. You can’t sweat the small things. I knew this before I boarded the plane and, like all volunteers, I’m willing to sacrifice some personal comfort in exchange for the experience of a lifetime. Of course it isn’t easy. I can’t speak freely. I’m always vigilant. I avoid the public baths, and groups of idle young men. But I’m fortunate. I’m a foreigner, and therefore I can “get away” with a lot of things that my local friends can’t.

Establishing a connection to the LGBTQI community in country tangibly changed my life here. Not only is my work more fulfilling, knowing that I’m supporting NGOs that support people like me, but I’ve made close friends, who have literally clothed and fed me in times of need. They inspire me with their strength and courage and good humor. I had thought I would spend two years isolated. A local friend, also transgender, reminded me, “We’re everywhere. We’ve always been here, and we’ll always be here.”

This has been the most uplifting and depressing aspect of my service so far: being welcomed into this community, and seeing first hand the kind of life necessitated by a government whose laws will not protect you and a culture whose norms will not accept you. In America, I can walk down the street knowing I am, in general, safe. I can work where I want. I can love who I want. I can wear boxers without my sex being called into question.

If I make no other impact during the course of my service, I feel I’ve at least opened the minds of people around me. From high school students who agree that boys can bake and girls can box, to volunteers who confess I’m the first transgender friend they’ve had, to my counterpart who knows and accepts me for who I am – I feel, more than anything, that my gender identity has been an asset to me as a volunteer. After you’ve struggled to fit into your own skin, you find you have the flexibility, resilience and open mind to fit just about anywhere.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” This is the chorus of my life. I listen to it in another language now, but the answer is the same. I say, “Yes.”

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

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

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