November 29, 2007
– Katie Gass, RPCV
If there is one thing Peace Corps taught me it is not to underestimate people, including yourself. Going to a country that is 90% Catholic and where machismo reigns supreme, I went into my service prepared to spend the entire 27 months in the closet. However, it didn’t take me more than two weeks to realize I’d underestimated my feelings and just how hard and painful that decision was going to be.
The first three months of training weren’t so hard, thanks to the support of other trainees and the fact that I was so enamored with Peruvian culture that I was able to push some of my personal feelings aside. I was also fortunate enough to be placed with an amazing host-family during training. From the moment I walked through the front door I was their “hija” and “hermana” and the four of them smothered me with their love, almost to the point of asphyxiation. I toyed briefly with the idea of coming out to my host family but they were the picture-perfect example of a devout Catholic family—my host mom had even been a nun for several years—and I didn’t see how it could possibly go over well.
My instinct of secrecy seemed confirmed one day when I was having lunch with my host mom during our hour break from training. We were discussing religion and I was trying in vain to explain my religious and spiritual beliefs. “But you do believe in the Saints, no?” she asked. “Actually, I don’t,” I replied and then went on to confess, “In fact, I don’t really believe in God.” Big mistake. We spent the remaining 40 minutes of lunch in awkward silence and never discussed the topic of religion again. Based on the success of my religious “coming out,” I didn’t want to test her acceptance further by confessing my sexual “deviancy.” If being an atheist was too much for words, a lesbian atheist might induce coma or worse.
The first six months in my site both flew and crawled by, as only Peace Corps service can. I was forming some really great friendships in my community but it always pained me that I had to keep a large part of who I was hidden. I often felt compelled to lie about male lovers I’d had or men who were waiting for me to return home. I hated feeling like a phony!
One day I got surprise visit from my host-mom from training. She had traveled 16 hours by bus to visit “su hija,” her daughter. I was touched! That afternoon when we were in my kitchen preparing lunch she kept staring at me and saying, “You know I love you no matter what.” I nodded, but she went on to list scenarios, “…even if you don’t believe in God, even if you are a lesbian, I still love you.” By this point I’d stopped chopping vegetables and was close to tears. It was as if a heavy weight that I didn’t even realize I’d been carrying was lifted from my shoulders.
After that breakthrough moment we went on to have a deep and incredibly progressive conversation about homosexuality. She had never known anyone who was openly gay and so we talked about everything from falling in love, to discrimination and the law, to having children. It was probably the most meaningful conversation of my life. I could see how willing she was to accept me and how badly she wanted to understand and support me as her daughter.
Word travels fast in Peace Corps. Once the training staff knew that my host-mom was accepting, she began to receive all the queer female trainees, or as she affectionately called them, “my special daughters.” (To this day I worry she must think the prevalence of lesbians in the US is near 100%). She also volunteered to speak at the meetings for host-family parents about how important it is that they accept their trainees regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation. All in all she has become a little gay activist.
To this day I am not certain how my host-mom discovered my sexual orientation nor do I know her true feelings towards homosexuality. What I do know is that she was able to see past my sexuality and that of so many other volunteers, to welcome and defend us as she would her own children. I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments as a Peace Corps volunteer.
You can reach Katie Gass at firstname.lastname@example.org@yahoo.com