Open Secrets – Serving Queer in Paraguay

- 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 macolon2@gmail.com and Fiona Martin at fmmartin@gmail.com

 

LGBT Ally Training in Paraguay

- Manuel Colon, former PCV

PC Paraguay (Jopara)

On Friday, November 2, 2012, Peace Corps – Paraguay hosted its first ever LGBT ally training with 16 participants, volunteers and staff, in attendance. The training comes as a response to the 2011 all volunteer survey (AVS) that stated roughly 25% of the incidents of harassment received by volunteers as a result of their sexual orientation came from either volunteer peers or staff. Peace Corps Headquarters is currently in the process of creating a training packet to address this issue specifically, but has yet to release anything more than the outline. Jopara, Paraguay’s volunteer diversity group, decided to step in and move forward with organizing and facilitating the training instead. Topics covered in the training included facts and history of LGBT events and legislation, correct terminology usage, a guided experience of the coming out process, and an overview of the in-country LGBT resources. Upon termination of the training, all participants were awarded “safe space” stickers to be placed anywhere of their choosing (desks, doors, notebooks, etc) to communicate their dedication as an ally to the LGBT community.

LGBT Resources in Paraguay

LGBT Resources in Paraguay

Organizations

Somosgay

  • República De Colombia 141 C/ Yegros.
  • (21) 495802, (+595) 981 616 203
  • Mon-Th 14:00 to 22:00 Fri. and Sat. 14:00 to 00:00
  • comunicacion@somosgay.org
  • http://somosgay.org/
  • Marcha de Orgullo, Besaton
  • Their center functions as a temporary relief shelter for LGBT youth who are homeless, they offer HIV screenings, and a general space to be rented for events

Paragay

Aireana- lesbian organization

  • Eligio Ayala 907 entre EEUU y Tacuary
  • 21 447976
  • aireanaparaguay@gmail.com
  • http://www.aireana.org.py/
  • La Serafina Bar, Friday night events, Feminist Conferences, Radio Show, Marcha para la Igualdad, LesBiGayTrans Festival de Cine

Panambi- Trans community

Grupo Ñepyru- Trans community and people living with HIV

  • O’leary 177 c/Cap. Carmelo Peralta y Padrea Molas, Cnl. Oveido
  • 0521200059
  • http://www.nepyru.neositios.com
  •  Services and focus: HIV screenings and education, human rights

Todo Mejora- Paraguay- entire LGBT community

  • Facebook page and YouTube account
  • A project that offers resources and support to LGBT youth
  • Offers a collection of videos on YouTube from LGBT Paraguayans sending messages of hope and support to LGBT youth for the future

LGBT Friendly Spaces

Babylon Dance

  • Dance club and bar
  • 760 25 de Mayo c/ Tacuari

Hollywood Dance

  • Dance Club
  • Independencia Nacional c/ Teniente Farina
  • 0982.488.652

Frogus Karaoke Gay

  • Estrella 852 entre Montevideo & Juan de Ayolas

La Serafina

  • Feminist Safe Space with Books, Internet, Space to Hang Out
  • Monday-Friday 9am-12pm and 1pm-5pm/Converted into a restaurant + bar and event space on Friday nights 8pm-1am
  • Eligio Ayala 907 c/Tacuary
  • 0921.447.976

Peace Corps – Paraguay Resources

Peace Corps Medical Officers/Counselors/ Security Officer

Jopara, Volunteer Diversity Group

Peer Support Network

You can contact Manuel at macolon2@gmail.com

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.

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

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.

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