– Compiled and Edited by Manuel Colón and Fiona Martin, RPCVs
Have you ever heard the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? It’s a story about a vain Emperor who cares for nothing. He hires two swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense, until a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession anyway.
That story embodies what an open secret is. How many times have those of us in Peace Corps heard about local and national governments that are run by corrupt leaders, yet they continue being elected? Or teachers/adult leaders having inappropriate relations with students yet haven’t lost their job? Or the spouses, who have extramarital relations, yet will not divorce? An open secret is information that is well-known throughout a community, but isn’t spoken aloud because of the power that said information contains. Overt acknowledgement may encourage and sometimes require the knowledge holders to take action of what they already know, but were purposefully ignoring. While open secrets like this, and others, make work and personal life difficult, they actually serve as a positive way for some volunteers to serve safely and productively.
While applying to Peace Corps, I received a call from the Paraguay Country Desk in Washington, D.C. with some follow up questions regarding my interview and application. Near the end of the call, as we were wrapping up, the woman on the line asked me, “You are comfortable staying in the closet for two years, right? The country you are being invited to isn’t that open to homosexuality. You’ll have to keep it a secret.” I sat in the cubicle of my summer job and calmly tried to process this blunt, and rather awkward, turn of the conversation. Hesitantly, not sure who might overhear my response, I said “Well, I suppose. But, I’m pretty gay. Like, even if I didn’t tell anyone, it wouldn’t be too hard to guess.” That was the quickest, most professional response I could come up with, as I thought about my voice, speech patterns, hand motions, and general composure that are usually a dead giveaway for my sexual orientation (and had been for many years). She politely quipped back, “Oh, don’t worry about that. Those non-spoken cues are things we pick up from a cultural context, the country you’re going to isn’t exposed to much gay culture, so the cues don’t communicate the same things.”
Reflecting on that phone conversation, I wonder what the desk officer really meant to communicate. I initially understood her to mean that no one will ever suspect I was gay and would just fly under the radar, which is definitely not the case. I’m confident that several of my community members knew that I was gay, without ever having told them. During an asado (BBQ) at my house, during a conversation, my Paraguayan housemate said “Yeah and I have a gay cousin. But, not gay like you Manú…” and continued on nonchalantly. I, however, sat there in an utter stupor for about ten seconds, food hanging from my fork, as many things ran through my mind; 1) He knows I’m gay. 2) How did he find out? 3) When did he find out? 4) Who else knows? 5) He dropped that bomb in the conversation and carried on really fucking casually. In that instant, I understand what the desk officer really meant in that call; people will know that I’m gay, will share their suspicions with others, but they’ll simply add that information on their list of other open secrets and carry on about their lives.
One strategy in addressing open secrets is to do so indirectly. During my service, I was requested to be at a meeting to help plan Día de la Juventud (Youth Day) events with the Muni (our local city hall). However, the conversation got derailed from whom to invite to speak about health and wellness to making sure that we don’t get anyone who will come and talk about sexuality. Not that they didn’t value a safe-sex and HIV-AIDS charla (lectures), but they didn’t want a situation where a puto (faggot) would come and say that homosexuality is a normal, healthy lifestyle. They began to discuss how lesbians and gays should not have rights; that they shouldn’t be allowed to marry or raise children, etc. Once again, I found myself paralyzed by shock, blankly staring at my computer screen, where I was previously taking notes, with my fingers now lying flat on the keyboard. I sat there for ten minutes, listening to people who I considered friends and professional work counterparts dissect and discuss my value and worth as a human being based solely on who I love. I had been curious why I was invited to the meeting in the first place, and began to wonder if my presence was specifically requested for this very exchange. Non-confrontationally discussing my sexual orientation, in such a passive manner, allowed them to air their disapproval without the burden of actually taking action. If they were to openly acknowledge the “secret,” they would be expected to do something about it, at the very least shun me, and by doing so, potentially lose a valuable and productive member of the team.
But the real impetus for writing this piece was an exchange I had with a good friend at my site. As I was lying in my hammock, he stumbled over in his mid-afternoon drunken stupor (which was all too common) and asked “Manuel, you’re a pacifist, right?” to which I respond “Yeah, I guess so.” He followed up with, “Good. So am I. But, can you defend yourself, like if you needed to? In a fight?” I was unsure of where the conversation was going and imagined that shortly he’d slap me in the head and run away giggling. So, I stood up, out of the hammock to exert my clear height advantage and said, “Well, I’m a big guy, I sure think I can defend myself.” He let me know that he was glad I could defend myself if needed, but also that I could count on him if I ever find myself in a sticky situation. He went on to recount, teary eyed, having witnessed the hatred, discrimination and even violence, his lesbian sister had received growing up. He assured me that if I ever experienced this in my time here in Paraguay, he would have my back. And to remember that there were good, respectful Paraguayans, like himself. It was after this exchange, I began to ponder the complexity of the open secret.
Open secrets can be great. They allowed me, and other LGBT Volunteers, to safely live and work in Paraguay with minimal burden. Open secrets allowed us to retain our identity and behavior but with the understanding that we must remain silent and never demand public recognition and approval. There is an unspoken agreement: we won’t say anything if you don’t say anything, which again is the basis of every open secret.
However, open secrets are also damaging. They contribute to the sequestering of positive imagery of gay citizens, a “glass” closet, if you will. I am unable to counteract the pervasive, harmful rhetoric of gay men being pedophiles and sole carriers of HIV because despite being a successful working professional, I am not officially out; my sexual orientation can not be publicly acknowledged. My passion for social justice and diversity advocacy is silenced and squelched where it should matter the most, my personal identity. Not only are we unable to serve as positive counterexamples to the pervasive and damaging stereotypes about gays, we are also unable to serve as positive role models to youth, just now coming to terms with their sexuality. A culture of open secrets allows and encourages passiveness of the status quo, rather than challenging ignorant or bigoted ideology.
Complacency about the status quo creates a complicated environment, not only for members of the LGBT community, but as conveyed in my last anecdote, even for allies. There are situations, where LGBT Volunteers are clearly rendered voiceless and disenfranchised. However, these situations are opportunities for allies to stand up and do what we cannot. There are spaces for our allies (especially other straight PCVs), to say or do something when it is too delicate or dangerous for us to do so. Hearing someone who is a confirmed heterosexual speak up in disagreement to homophobic comments carries much more weight than the comments of someone living an “open secret.” It’s also safer for an ally to speak up and less likely to result in complications for our communities. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, much of your personal and work safety is, after all, at the whim of your community. There are two very simple choices to be made in situations like these. Similar to the Emperor’s ministers, and educated townspeople, we can stay silent and allow an open secret to parade through our society rearing its bigoted self, unchecked into our lives. Or, with the purity and sense of equality as a child, we can actively challenge the status quo and bring attention to what is wrong, and demand it be corrected. So, next time you see a naked man walking down the street…are you going to say something?
You can contact Manuel Colón at firstname.lastname@example.org and Fiona Martin at email@example.com