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.

20 Years after an HIV Scare in Africa

– Brian Guse, RPCV, and PC Trainer, Mali

I was perusing the National Peace Corps Association site on Facebook today and saw a post urging readers to check out an RPCV’s blog titled “No Going Back – There Is Only Forward.

The author is a young woman who was recently med-separated from Peace Corps after contracting HIV while in country (Zambia). Her story is one of courage and strength and she is an inspiration to all – Peace Corps or not, HIV positive or not.

After reading her blog I couldn’t help but think back to where I was 20 years ago and the intersection HIV made with my own Peace Corps experience. By no means do I compare my “scare” with what she is going through, but I think some of you might be able to relate to the story I am about to tell.

20 years ago, almost to the day, I was sitting on an airplane crossing the Atlantic on my way back to Mali. I had been away from my village, my friends and my Malian family for more than 45 days – on medical evacuation for a serious life threatening illness. After having spent a week in Georgetown University hospital, another 2 weeks recuperating in the Virginian Hotel in Rosslyn, VA (Washington, DC) and a couple of weeks fattening up back home in the Midwest, I was anxious to get back to my mission and finish my remaining months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

To many of the other PCVs I met on medevac, the time spent in DC was like a vacation – time to recuperate from whatever ailed them, job hunt or visit the sites of the Nation’s Capital. For me, those weeks in DC were some of the most frightening days of my life; a time when I thought I was going to die.

As a sexually active gay man in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I was extremely aware of and paranoid about the prospects of acquiring HIV. Nonetheless, safe sex was a concept but not always a reality for me. Getting tested for HIV was a nerve wracking affair yet throughout college I had been pretty good about getting tested on a regular yet anonymous basis. Then, as now, Peace Corps required a full physical including an HIV test in order to be placed in a country. Before submitting to the full physical, I went to a city health clinic and was tested anonymously one last time. I tested negative. I was ready for the real deal, the official, named and documented HIV test. I tested negative.

I was living in Chicago the day the acceptance letter arrived. Mali, West Africa. Never heard of it. Still, what a happy day. I sat at my favorite Chicago hotdog stand and cried tears of joy and relief as I opened the acceptance letter. The moment the invitation package arrived, the HIV testing stopped. I wanted nothing to get in the way of being a PCV. I knew testing positive would put an end to my dreams of joining Peace Corps so I put it out of my mind and assured myself that I was and would remain negative. If later I discovered I was positive I would be compelled to disclose the information to Peace Corps and end my PCV experience before it ever began. Better not to know. In four non-celibate months I would be on the plane to Mali. Nothing to worry about.

I wasn’t sure of my HIV status the day I flew to New Orleans for pre-service orientation. Stupidly or rather naively, it never occurred to me that Peace Corps would require one final HIV test before allowing me to get on that flight to Mali. The test took place on the first day. I lost sleep in New Orleans. While my fellow trainees were out enjoying their last few nights in the US, I sat in my hotel room shaking with fear. I wasn’t afraid for my health or even my long-term future. Testing positive meant only one thing to me: the end of ever being a Peace Corps volunteer. I tested negative.

After getting settled into my rural village the fears of HIV passed and I focused on other things. In 1990, AIDS hadn’t penetrated land-locked West Africa yet. Peace Corps hadn’t even begun to build an HIV/AIDS sector yet. In my mind the next 2+ years would be a time free from worry. HIV would not get near me.

Several months into my service I received a cassette tape (yes it was the 90’s) from my best friend back home. We went to high school together and came out to each other at a time when coming out was not in vogue. Hearing his voice was wonderful; hearing news about our friends and families brought a smile to my face; hearing him cry as he told me had tested positive for HIV devastated me. HIV had returned to my life; it suddenly became of part of my reality albeit it through someone else; someone for whom I cared deeply but could not comfort in person. I immediately got on my motorcycle and drove to the capital. I placed a phone call to my mom asking her to arrange for my friend to call me from her home the next day. He and I talked for an hour. We laughed and cried and discussed how he became infected. We talked about the future – my future. I felt selfish and petty talking about the community garden I was working on when all he could focus on was whether he’d live long enough to see his 22nd birthday and avoid a slow and painful demise. The early 90’s were an especially frightening time for people with HIV. My generation witnessed the sudden loss of the gay generation before us to AIDS. We had no mentors; we had no role models. To us, AIDS meant death. He was positive. I was negative. He could only focus on the present. I was able to look forward; look to the future. Guilt.

Fast forward one year to three restless nights of fevers and sweats in my mud hut. I had already come down with malaria a few times while in country but this was something different. My Malian host mother had seen enough and insisted that I make my way to the capital to seek medical attention. She sent word by mouth from village to village until a nearby PCV learned I was ill and gave me a lift on his motorcycle to the capital. A few days later I was unable to eat; was losing weight too quickly; had abdominal pains and high fevers. PC sent me to several specialists – no one had an answer. During that time a close friend came to country for a visit. When he saw me at the airport his jaw dropped. I looked bad. In a way that only close friends can speak to one another he said, “You look like you have AIDS.”

Months before, as part of our mid-service physical, Peace Corps required an HIV test. I tested negative. Shortly after the physical I went on vacation to Europe and made up for sexual lost time. For the most part, I was safe. I had nothing to worry about. Until, “You look like you have AIDS.”

The Peace Corps medical unit was unable to diagnose what ailed me. The only choice was medevac. My heart sank. I knew deep down it was HIV. I knew that once it was confirmed Peace Corps would separate me and I would never again see my Malian family. I would never have the chance to say good-bye.

The Peace Corps doctor escorted me on the flight to DC where I was immediately admitted into Georgetown University hospital. I weighed 109 lbs. I had lost 50 lbs in less than a month. The fevers continued. I couldn’t eat. I was delusional at times. I called my mom and told her she needed to come to DC. The doctor spoke with her and said make it quick.

For days, doctors examined me. Phlebotomists drew blood. Nurses held my hand. Students studied me. Most had never seen my symptoms. One intern, I never got her name, boldly suggested a bone marrow exam. She had an idea. She was correct. Typhoid. Curable. Not HIV. No, that test came back negative. Twice. Called mom and said not to worry. “I’ll come visit you once I recover.” Bacon – the first solid food I ate in weeks. I love bacon.

A week in the hospital. Christmas and New Years in the Virginian hotel. Finally, home to mom. More bacon. I spent a good amount of time with my friend. I was embarrassed. I had been worried about myself. I was negative. He was positive. But in those months since sending me the cassette tape much about him had changed. He had come to terms with HIV and was under the care of a number of HIV/AIDS specialists. In the time since we had spoken on the phone he had become positive about life again. He was looking forward; looking to the future. He was not defeated.

20 years later he still is looking to the future. He has lived with HIV for over 20 years. He has suffered losses and buried a lover. He graduated from college. He witnessed his brother’s wedding and watched his nephews grow into fine young men. He bought a house and started a career. He and his partner adopted one too many pugs. Through his strength and perseverance he has inspired all who know him.

I remain engaged in international development. Over the past 20 years I’ve seen African nations fall victim one by one to HIV/AIDS. I’ve seen hope disappear and reappear on the faces of the farmers, students and professionals that I have come into contact with. This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to Mali. Not a day goes by where I don’t think how lucky I was to have a second chance on life – a second chance to complete my Peace Corps service – although really, come to think of it, do we ever really finish Peace Corps?

You can contact Brian Guse at bvguse@aol.com and visit the story on the blog that inspired this article “There is no going back, there is only forward.”

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