Peace Corps Service and Finding a Partner in Honduras

– Erica Brien and Camila Fiero, RPCVs

Erica and Camila at Boston Pride

Erica’s Story:
Being openly gay as a Peace Corps Volunteer was, for me, impossible. I lived in a community of 300-people in the mountains of Comayagua, Honduras. Upon my arrival, I spent days visiting the homes and getting to know the families that lived in them. I was given incredible amounts of coffee, what amounted to loaves of sweet-bread, hundreds of tortillas and plenty of beans. When I left these homes to head back to my host-family’s home, I was given freshly-laid eggs to take with me. As time went on, I spent the majority of my days in my small town simply getting to know these people. They opened up to me. We talked about so many things. I remember having discussions about the meaning of life, the truth of an inevitable death, the importance of family, love and the many existences of god. We obviously talked about the state of the community, the hopes people had for the future. We would talk about the world and where it is headed. Families would invite me over to make bread or tamales, depending on the time of year. Through all of this, I can truly say that I grew close to many of my community members. However, nonetheless, there was one thing that I knew we could never talk about, one thing they could never know: my sexuality.

The people in my community took religion very seriously. All families belonged to either the Catholic Church or the Evangelical Church, and being gay was a horrible sin. There was one openly gay man of 24 years, who I will call Tio, who at times I would verbally defend when I heard other people criticize him. I’d say simple things like, “It’s okay that he is gay. It doesn’t make him a bad person.” After defending him, I would be asked by various community members to step aside to have private conversations. They would tell me, “Erica, I heard that you defended Tio, but love is between a man and a woman. You can not defend this boy for committing such a sin.”

After a trip home for the summer, I returned to my community with a new hair-cut. It was short. The Evangelical pastor, a woman who invited me frequently to her house for dinner with the family, told me she would have to pray for my soul because I went against God’s will; women are supposed to have long hair. These incidents made me realize the impossibility of being completely honest within my community. No matter how welcoming and friendly the people of my community were, no matter how fond of me they had grown to be, if I told them that I was a lesbian, I truly believe that my work would have ended right there. No one would have wanted to work with me. People would have closed up. I had to pretend I was straight. As a straight person, people accepted me. I was able to work with their kids. I was able to build great relationships, and I will say that in the end, it was worth it. For me, it was worth it to be in the closet for two years. It was worth it to sacrifice a certain part of me in order to truly make the most of a meaningful experience. However, to be able to say that I could have had the same experience as an openly gay person within a culture that does not understand the truth of human-sexuality would be naïve and a lie.

Camila’s Story:
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was never explicitly told to lie about my sexual orientation. Instead, I was asked to understand the culture and community I was trying to become a part of. It was more difficult than I had anticipated. Although I am from the Mid-West and have very traditional parents, I had spent the last four years at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts and had finally learned to be proud of my sexual orientation. Thus, Honduran culture, for me, was especially difficult as it is steeped through and through in machismo and intense patriarchy. At the same time, the generosity and amiability of the people almost make up for it. About six to seven months into my service I had to be site changed from my mountain community of 300 people to a larger “rural city” community further south. A community partner had displayed some bizarre behavior that made me feel outed within the community. Thus, I felt I had to leave because the rumor mill would stop short anyone who was at one time willing to work with me. I also felt unsafe. I remember that night before I was set to leave, and I was fighting visions of people busting through my front door with the idea of “corrective rape.” I don’t personally know of any of these cases happening in Honduras, instead, people would just get killed.

In my new community I felt extremely cautious. I was constantly analyzing myself. Eventually, I got settled in and made a few close friends. I worked with a local Honduran environmental NGO and worked with other volunteers on environment classes, HIV/AIDS classes, and improved stoves projects. However, I never told any Hondurans about my orientation. Miraculously, Erica and I started dating, and I say miraculously because we never considered dating one another until it happened. We were both in the Protected Areas Management Group, which has since been cancelled and lumped together with the Business Program. Sadly, there are no current programs that have a specific goal of addressing issues such as loss of biodiversity and environmental education. We were about one year into our sites when I would go visit Erica and she would come visit me, taking turns doing the 8-hour bus ride. We both feel that we looked somewhat innocent since close friendships between females are not unheard of or frowned upon. Yet, we had no time to confirm or disprove our notions because we were evacuated about seven to eight months before our official completion of service.

The day before I left I came out to my closest friend in my community. She said she already knew and knew within the first month of meeting me! I was surprised and sad that I missed out on a deeper more honest relationship with her because I was afraid. Yet, the real tragedies are the thousands of individuals that are beaten, murdered, and subjugated because of who they love. Honduras has seen an increase in violent hate crimes, although reporting is spotty on the subject. Also, with a friend, we re-started the LGBTQ support group for volunteers in Honduras and were starting to make connections with Honduran “clubs” or support groups. Yet, that too was cut short. There has been straight forward reporting on exactly why the program was cut short: Peace Corps could no longer guarantee our safety due to the ever-escalating drug war. We have since called back to friends in Honduras who have said the situation has only gotten worse, violence is spreading and rural communities are cut off from the larger cities because the roads are too dangerous.

In the end, I think your service is what you make of it. I am proud and happy with my time spent in Honduras. However, I would caution that one shouldn’t expect to be out and shouldn’t expect understanding.

Erica Continues:
It is hard to say if people in my community ever grew suspicious of the relationship I had with Camila. She came to visit me at my site more consistently than any other volunteer. And while we tried very hard not to seem suspicious within my small-community, there were times when I questioned certain comments made by my community members. Was it all in my head? Maybe. Maybe not. I remember taking Camila to my host family’s house where my host mother gave us coffee and tried to convince me to date the family’s cousin who recently came from out of town. My host-mother would describe how nice of a man he was, and how he is different than most men. Camila would play along, saying things like, “wow, he sounds like a catch” as she would throw me a mischievous smile. Camila even took a picture of this man and me standing together outside of my host family’s home. They thought it was essential to our future together. When Camila and I would return back to my house, hiding behind the privacy of closed doors, we would talk about the same questions that today we still ponder, such as how much does “respect” and being “culturally” sensitive turn into tolerating intolerance? What is our role as queer Peace Corps Volunteers and allies in educating around sensitive subjects such as sexual orientation? How are we to facilitate change if we, ourselves, are doing our very best to uphold cultural norms? These are the questions we would like to leave with you.

You can contact Erica at ebrien03@gmail.com  and Camila at camiximena@gmail.com.

Follow My Dream: Letters from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania

– William M. Trunk, RPCV

Imagine having a well-paid career as a Finance Manager at a large multinational industrial company for 17 years. And then you leave the company to join the Peace Corps to pursue a dream. Everyone is shocked and amazed at your decision. But does your experience in the Peace Corps actually live up to your dreams?

That is what I did at the age of 43 in 2007. Shortly after arriving in Albania to begin my two years of service as a Peace Corps Community Development Volunteer, I decided to send monthly email letters to my family and friends. Those monthly email letters helped me remain connected to my family and friends after moving to Albania to begin Peace Corps. It was also a tool that I used to implement goal #3 (i.e. to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people) for Peace Corps.

The feedback from my monthly emails letters was very positive. Many individuals suggested that I even write a book about my Peace Corps experience. So that is what I did. Overall my experience in the Peace Corps truly was a dream come true for me despite the challenges in my personal life as a gay volunteer in Albania. And I hope that you consider purchasing my book  and sharing it with others.

This article summarizes some key points related to my experience as a gay volunteer in Albania that are incorporated into the book. The other two Albanian articles from 2008 and 2009 on this website provide more details about my experiences.

My search on the internet for the LGBT community in Albania began even before I left the US for Peace Corps in Albania (March, 2007). Although I was disappointed to find virtually no information online, I did find a postal address for a gay NGO (non-governmental organization). So I mailed them a letter. And after about five months in Albania, I met the director of this gay Albanian NGO.

After this NGO received funding for a project, I took on the role as its Finance Officer for the first year of the project’s funding. My responsibilities as Finance Officer centered on preparing the budgets and monthly financial statements and then advising the director about the implications of the NGO’s programming activities. During the second year of the project, the funding level was severely reduced. As a result, the activities implemented by the NGO had to be cut back. In addition, the NGO was required to hire an Albanian as Finance Officer. So my role in the second year was limited to a financial advisor.
At the same time that I was working with this NGO, I collaborated with some other LGBT PCVs and Peace Corps staff in Albania to create a LGBT Committee for PCVs in Albania. It was a peer group of LGBT volunteers and their supporters. Our main goals were:

  • Provide peer support for existing LGBT volunteers.
  • Provide advice for new volunteers about realities in Albania and identify coping strategies.
  • Work with Peace Corps staff to provide diversity training for Peace Corps staff and volunteers on LGBT issues.
  • Do outreach with LGBT organizations in Albania.

The LGBT Committee met each quarter to support one another. Just getting together periodically to share the challenges that we face was very beneficial to each one of the committee members. The committee also provided written advice for new LGBT volunteers coming to Albania. But the biggest accomplishment of the committee was probably having a different committee member “come out” to the staff and new volunteers each year as part of diversity training and sharing our story of what it is like to be a LGBT volunteer in Albania.

Given my limited role with the gay NGO during the second year, I began to do more outreach to the gay community in the capital city, Tirana. I met some individuals with another gay organization through an American NGO consultant whom I worked with previously. However, this other gay organization was basically inactive as well. Nonetheless, I learned more about the gay community in Tirana (capital city of Albania) by meeting some representatives from this other gay organization.

So what did I learn about the LGBT community in Albania as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2007 – 2009? The good news is that from a legal perspective, homosexuality in Albania became legal in 1994. Therefore, Albanian gay or lesbian individuals cannot legally be imprisoned for their sexual orientation. However, do not be misled by the legality of homosexuality. Generally Albanians are sadly, deeply homophobic and generally never discuss the topic. The LGBT community in Albania is very underground and there are no gay bars in any city in Albania including the capital city, Tirana. The code word they use for gay is “communist.” Although homosexuality exists in Albania, few individuals have a “gay” identity similar to what we find in the United States or other developed countries. Given the social stigma to being gay in Albania, it was very important for me to be discreet about my sexual orientation.

During my outreach to the gay community, I also met an American lesbian couple who lived in the capital city. One of the women worked at the US Embassy in Albania. Shortly after I met them, the US Ambassador to Albania asked the American lesbian couple to meet with him to discuss their recommendations for what he should do as the US Ambassador to Albania to support the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. When this couple told him that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been working with the gay community in Albania, he asked them to invite me to the meeting.

At our initial meeting we agreed upon some actions to address the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. The highlights of these actions were for the US Ambassador to include sexual orientation when he spoke about human rights in Albania. In addition, the Ambassador supported conducting some type of roundtable meeting regarding “human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania.”

Shortly after this meeting, this advisory committee attended the First Albanian Human Rights Debate Conference in Tirana. It was sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN’s declaration of human rights. The topics covered were human rights for women, children, and sexual minorities. It was the first time that a human rights conference in Albania had included the topic of sexual minorities.

During the sexual minorities’ panel discussion, the panel members from several organizations made a strong case for why human rights of LGBT were important. Despite the success of the conference, a major problem was that there were no representatives from the Albanian LGBT community at the session due to their fear of disclosure.

After the sexual minorities’ session, I spoke with some of the individuals leading it. The moderator of the session was the director from an Albanian NGO called Albanian Human Rights Group. I was very impressed with her commitment to this issue as a straight woman. I shared with her my experience in Peace Corps working with some Albanian gay NGOs plus starting the LGBT Committee for volunteers. I also suggested that the key method to change people’s acceptance to LGBT issues in Albania was to have LGBT people share their stories anonymously (because they feared negative ramifications from disclosure).

Shortly before I completed my Peace Corps service, we had a meeting at the US Embassy with the organizations working on LGBT human rights issues in Albania. Most of the participants at the meeting were individuals whom I had met during the First Albanian Human Rights Debate. This first meeting focused on brainstorming about the possible activities these various organizations could implement and collaborate together to support this initiative. I shared with others my recent experience of providing diversity training for new volunteers and Albanian staff and how we could utilize Peace Corps volunteers around the country to share LGBT educational materials in their communities.

Prior to completing my service, I introduced the new chairperson for the LGBT Volunteer Committee from Peace Corps Albania to these organizations. Therefore, Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania were able to continue to collaborate on this important project to improve human rights for LGBT in Albania after I completed my Peace Corps service.

Overall I was very pleased with my unique opportunity that Peace Corps gave me to advocate for the LGBT community in Albania.

You can contact Bill Trunk at willyt2000@hotmail.com.

Machismo and Gay Slurs in the Dominican Republic

– A Peace Corps Volunteer

Recently, Blue Jays’ shortstop Yunel Escobar painted the words “Tú ere maricón” into his eyeblack for a game against the Boston Red Sox. Once the North American audience realized what that meant (you’re a faggot), outrage ensued. The Blue Jays suspended him for three games, and he has agreed to donate money to GLAAD.

Setting aside the fact that Escobar is Cuban rather than Dominican, I hope this incident somehow prompts a conversation about homophobia here in the DR. I’ve been living here for over a year now, and can tell you that only incautious observation and a loose grasp of Spanish are necessary to feel the machismo, sexism, and homophobia permeate the very air (though that could also be the exhaust from muffler-less vehicles). Suffice it to say, being a closeted lesbian in such an environment has not been a picnic. Neither is being a single woman, a childless woman, and a woman living alone. “Have you gotten married yet?” is a common question heard by single female Volunteers. We also are told we’re becoming jamonas (old maids), that we shouldn’t live alone ever, and that we need a man.

The male-centered machismo even has a presence in the Dominican LGBTQ community. At gay pride last July, I saw approximately 10 male-bodied people for every woman. All the speakers, performers, and award recipients were either male-bodied or an attractive, straight female ally.

For the past year, as the only lesbian I knew in this whole country, I have had no community. It hasn’t been so bad, though. During a mandatory discussion in my local school about sexuality, the teacher declared to her 7th grade class that being gay is totally fine, that it isn’t a choice, and that no one should ever demean someone for being gay. When she met resistance from some of the students, she reaffirmed in no uncertain terms that she was serious and that she wouldn’t stand for any intolerant comments. With some Dominicans, I have been honest about my orientation, and the reaction has been mostly positive. My friend Wilson has been adamant about finding me a girlfriend (though he has had no luck so far). Lastly, Placement seems to have sent a few queer Trainees, so I’m really looking forward to making friends with them.

In the meantime, I’m going to bring up this Escobar thing with my youth. Who knows? Maybe they’ll start to think gay slurs are uncool.

You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 144 other followers