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 Many of the Paraguayans who I met during the Christmas holidays this year had returned to see news about DADT being repealed in the United States coupled with a growing pride (and civil rights) movement in Paraguay.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.

Jopara (Paraguay) Mission Statement

– PCV Paraguay

Jopara is a committee organized by Peace Corps Paraguay Volunteers interested in supporting diversity within the Volunteer community and strengthening contacts with diversity interest groups in Paraguay. The USA is a diverse place, and we feel that it is important for this multiplicity to be represented and supported amongst Volunteers.

Among our objectives are:

  • To provide a support network for Volunteers to discuss the challenges of living and serving in Paraguay while reflecting the diverse face of the USA. Jopara intends to provide support for Volunteers who identify with a range of situations regarding, but not limited to: ability, age, chemical dependency, dietary restrictions, ethnicity, gender identity/expression, marital status, physical/emotional health, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • To create a safe space for Volunteers struggling with limitations and challenges due to their diverse identity where they can express themselves freely and obtain necessary resources.
  • To provide resources and information on in-country diversity interest groups.
  • To serve as a resource to Peace Corps Paraguay staff and Volunteers in regards to training and sensitivity issues.
  • To provide resources to Volunteers who want to educate themselves or their community about diversity in Paraguay, the USA, and the world at large.
  • To identify and remove all barriers, whether institutional, attitudinal or behavioral, to the full and meaningful participation of diverse Volunteers.

For more information or a PCV Paraguay contact email lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

My Esteemed Friend and Compadre

–by Dan Rael

During most of my Peace Corps service in Paraguay, I was still living under the illusion that somehow I would actually turn out to be straight. I had a very visible girlfriend, another volunteer, but shortly after her time was up and with the end of my assignment rapidly approaching, I came to realize that I could not go on living my charade.

About five months before I was to return home, I discovered that another volunteer, and a good friend, was a lesbian. She had lived most of her life prior to Peace Corps “out” and decided she simply wasn’t going to stay in the closet any longer, at least within the Peace Corps community in Paraguay. I invited myself to her house one day, on the other side of the country, supposedly to help her out with a bee keeping project. That night while we were enjoying a good meal under candle light, I “came out” to her. It was to me, like it seems to be for most people – suddenly a crack appeared in that huge wall that was always in front of me, and cool, clear, clean water began to gush through over me. That was it. I knew I could never go back in the closet. Within the next two months or so I don’t think there was a volunteer in the entire country who didn’t know I was gay, and it was really great. I hooked up with a support network of gay and lesbian volunteers that I quickly became a part of.

Back at my site things were different. I didn’t see how I could possibly come out to these people with whom I had become so close. They had met my girlfriend (I kept a photo of her in my little house), and were certain that when I returned home we would get married. I was sure they wouldn’t understand, and at any rate, I didn’t want to jeopardize my safety or the work that I had already accomplished.

Those last few months were very tumultuous. It felt so good to be out within the Peace Corps community, that it was hard for me to return to the work at my site. I had also met a great guy, a volunteer who had arrived a year after I did, and we would time our visits to the capital to coincide. On the other hand my time in Paraguay was rapidly winding down and I had formed some really strong friendships with people in my community, and I wanted to spend time with them as well.

My Paraguayan counterpart and I had become close friends. He and I worked together with ten groups of farmers on a variety of projects ranging from latrine building to bee keeping. He’d come by in his jeep, pick me up and we would go and meet with one or two of the groups and talk about whatever the topic of the day was. I also came to know his family well, and was extremely honored when they asked me to be the godfather to their newborn daughter. I accepted. This relationship is akin to uncle in their culture and is not to be taken lightly. I would become my friend’s compadre (co-father, sharing some of his paternal responsibilities). I spent more of my free time than ever with my new compadre and his family.

Now I was gay. I felt guilty visiting them, knowing that I was hiding my true self from them, but I knew I couldn’t tell them. I figured that I would just wait until that day when I flew away, and let the thousands of miles hide me nicely. We could carry on the relationship via letters, where I could easily veil the true facts of my life. When I returned to the U.S., I continued the “coming out” blitz that I began in South America, proceeding through my friends, brothers, sisters and parents within a month of my return.

For over a year I carried on just like I planned with my old friend and compadre back in South America. We wrote each other fairly often. I would describe nearly everything happening in my life, nearly everything. I also kept in touch with that volunteer I had met shortly after coming out, and we made plans for a rendezvous and beach vacation in Brazil. I was to meet him back in Paraguay and we would proceed from there. I felt extremely guilty for not letting my compadre know that I was back, but I convinced myself that there was no easy way to explain why I was there, and why I was only staying a day or two.

We traded a few more letters, and I came to realize that I couldn’t continue to hide such an important part of my life. It wasn’t fair to either of us. I wrote my usual long letter, explaining my new job in San Francisco, talking about the city, and even made mention of my “roommate” (the volunteer I had met in Paraguay), who had recently returned to the U.S. I then attached another letter, where I explained that I couldn’t hide the “reality” of my life from him anymore. I told him that I was gay, and that my friends and family had accepted it without exception, and that they supported me in my new relationship.

I believed that our friendship had probably ended then, but I figured that it was better for the truth to be said. Time seemed to prove me right. A year went by, a year and a half, with no word. I guessed the he had probably had the “godfather-ship” annulled somehow, and had a new one appointed. Then one day a letter arrived. It had been more than a year and a half since I’d sent my letter. It took me awhile to open it.

My esteemed friend and compadre Dan,

After a short time of silence, I would like to break this barrier of silence that has existed between us since your last letter telling me your “reality.” It was a bucket of cold water. It scared me. I laughed. I was angry. I cried, and later I reasoned. I much admire your valor, your sincerity with yourself and with me. You know Dan that in my culture, it is very strange to have friends with this lifestyle, and it is very sad to have relatives and friends like you. I have thought much about your “reality,” and in the end each of us is the owner of his own life. I spoke with many people about you, especially other Peace Corps volunteers, and they tell me that it is normal, and later I spoke with my eldest daughter. She blushed and was quite embarrassed. But we have spoken quite a bit, and she also accepted your “reality.” Next I spoke with my wife. She cried. I had to explain many things, and also she accepted everything. It cost me a lot of time to convince them, but in the end we all accept it and hope to write to you normally. Well, Dan, long time not to see you; I’m sorry…

The letter went on to describe what was happening with the family. My godchild was about to turn five; their oldest daughter was about to finish high school.

I’ve since written a long letter back, and found it so much easier now that there are no forbidden topics. I don’t know how our relationship would have evolved, had I come out to him while I was still in Paraguay. I was struck by the similarity of his reactions to those of my mother. She had to deal with me around her constantly after I came out, so the process went a little faster, but she progressed through the same steps. As it turns out, true friendship with my compadre survives.

Dan Rael was a volunteer in Paraguay form 1992 to 1994. You can reach Dan Rael through us at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

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