Lending a Hand to Peru, Returning to the Closet

– Tymon Manning, RPCV 2011-13

As a muscled male model playfully flits across the screen on my favorite Peruvian show, “Combate,” my host sister calls him, in English, a butterfly.

“Como se dice ‘butterfly’ en Español?” I innocently ask. “Homosexual,” she replies.

A smile is all I can think of as an appropriate response. To pursue this point any further would bring my own sexual orientation into question — or so I fear.

To ignore it, however, is to silently condone the stereotypes I openly fought back in the US. I am very clear on that point.

Welcome to the awkward world of reentering the closet as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Third World country.

I want to make clear at the outset that I would never accuse the Peace Corps of forcing its volunteers into the closet. To be sure, I have been encouraged to keep my sexual orientation to myself. But I was similarly urged not to date a Peruvian woman in the community where I live and work.

The advice regarding my sexual orientation is, unfortunately, appropriate, regrettable as that is. The suggestions regarding dating locals, I must confess, have actually come in handy as an excuse for not pursuing women here.

As an American, I am already viewed as an outsider in Peru. I have little doubt that being out as a gay man would make my work here impossible. I have known and heard of LGBT volunteers who headed home early because of problems, including harassment that ensued from their sexual orientation becoming known. Some who departed have publicly accused the Peace Corps of homophobia, of not supporting their LGBT volunteers, and of contributing to the ignorance about gay people in the places where they work.

My experience has been my own; I can’t speak to the experiences of others nor can I lay out exactly what future LGBT volunteers should expect.

When applying to the Peace Corps, I decided to discuss my sexual orientation with the recruiter, concluding that no good would come from dishonesty or obfuscation. My bigger concern, in fact, was my vegetarianism, but that is another issue — a failed one, at that.

From the time I came out in the application process, I received a very real picture of what life could and probably would be like for me were I to press on with my effort to join. Peace Corps personnel directed me to a range of helpful information resources and lauded me for my alleged bravery. I exchanged sporadic emails with current and returned volunteers from countries around the world, but without knowing where I would be placed, I wasn’t able to assemble a clear picture of exactly how my experience would play out.

As I later found out, no one can tell you what your experience will be like, and the advice I received from those initial emails was really no different than what I heard from volunteers in Peru once I learned of my assignment.

The information I drew from my correspondences and research fell into three general categories:

Your experience as an LGBT volunteer will vary primarily based on your country assignment and your work site.

 

The author with local youths in the Peruvian mountain community where he serves as Peace Corp volunteer.

The author with local youths in the Peruvian mountain community where he serves as Peace Corp volunteer.

I currently serve in the mountains of Peru’s poorest state, and it is a very conservative community. Except for the anecdote I described above and one other occasion with my host parents, sexual orientation has not come up in discussions with anyone in my town.

A fellow volunteer, however, has observed a gay community in her town. I can’t say for sure if I would reveal my sexual orientation were I working in her town, but it would present a completely different situation. She tells me she is free to discuss homosexuality in her classes and in working on her projects. Given the lack of discourse on the subject in my town, I frankly fear that broaching it would likely point the gay finger at me as it sometimes does even in places in the US where homosexuality remains invisible.

It’s worth noting that the advice I got talked about the significance of the country assignment, not the specifics of Peace Corp leadership on the ground. Peace Corps staff in-country play a huge role in our experiences, but they are well trained to be sensitive to LGBT issues. I have rarely encountered anything offensive from PC leadership regarding my sexual orientation, and have never come across any malicious intent.

In fact, I was recently invited to the Lima office to assist in an LGBT sensitivity training for our regional coordinators and Peace Corps volunteer leaders.

Gay life in Peru seems defined largely by the concentration of the nation’s population in Lima, the capital, where nearly 30 percent of its residents live. In fact, the capital’s preeminence has all sorts of implications for its culture. A gay night out means traveling to the Miraflores district in Lima, where gay clubs exist and same-sex couples hold hands in public.

I have also visited two of Peru’s other large cities, much less populous than Lima; gaycities.com offered nothing for me there and Grindr became a ghost town. One returned volunteer claimed other large cities besides Lima have gay clubs, but they have eluded me.

When I am in Lima, it screams progress. My tiny town does not. PC Peru is keenly aware of the differences, and its leaders’ advice that I use discretion regarding my sexual orientation where I live seems to me altogether sound.

You will likely feel conflicted about hiding your identity as a gay man and “reentering the closet,” so regular communication with friends who know you as a gay man is key.

dancing-with-lauraWEB

The author may be “flaquito,” but while dancing with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, he gets no other flak.

At times, I feel I am losing my integrity by hiding what I deem a very integral part of who I am. Foucault might kick me for saying this, but my sexual orientation has really helped me define who I am.

I am constantly reminding myself, however, that my job in Peru is not to spread the acceptance of openly gay lives but to improve the community in which I now live and work. It would be wonderful if bringing a boyfriend home to my host family meant they would worry about whether he was enjoying their meals rather than question my motives as a gay man in their community.

The Peace Corps has no Rural Homosexuality Promotion Program; many of the communities in which we work are more concerned with infant malnutrition and the risk that excrement will seep into the water table and end up in their dinner table glasses. The fact that I am contributing to strong, tangible, sustainable improvements in the health of my community allows me to swallow my rainbow flag — at times, gladly so — and even laugh when told that I’ll end up marrying a Peruana and staying here forever.

My fellow volunteers are as invaluable as the Starbucks Via packets and Girl Scout cookies my family sends me from back home. I text or call them daily and spend time with them whenever possible. With them, I feel free to discuss my sexual frustrations, the gorgeous Latin American fútbol players on TV, and the dire need for anti-bleaching laws to preserve Peruvian jeans.

I’ve heard a story about one volunteer who left partly because they felt it would be impossible to develop close relationships with locals in their community without discussing their sexual orientation. I disagree that it is impossible, but I do appreciate the difference between relationships in which this crucial information is shared and those in which it is not.

Back home, the relationship between my brother and me improved drastically after I told him I was gay, but it was not without any value before that. Similarly, relationships I am developing in my Peruvian community are meaningful despite my invisibility as a gay man.

You will be inundated with machismo and be expected to live up to hyper-masculine standards.

One day, my host family was talking about a man, who had drunkenly stumbled into a store, who they apparently felt was acting very effeminate. Trying to understand what they were referring to, I asked for details, and my host mom responded with what roughly translates as “he was acting as though he played for the other team.”

Got it.

My host dad then said that they call such people “macho menos” which is a play on the phrase “más o menos,” or “more or less” in English.

This was the only time my host parents have ever referred to homosexuality, and from their remarks I gleaned that they believe for one to be gay, one must also be less of a man.

Every member of my host family is as kind as my favorite people back in the US, and it pains me to hear them express something so offensive to me without knowing the hurt they are causing.

Machismo is a deplorable part of Peruvian culture, something that is challenged constantly in the press, media, schools, and through social programs. Sadly, I suspect that the impact of machismo on attitudes toward homosexuality will be the last vestige of it to disappear since it is the one least addressed openly. I can deal with a five-year-old friend I’ve met in the community saying my boat shoes are for girls, but it’s a lot harder to absorb in silence more potent stabs at my sense of self.

Thankfully, machismo has not been forced on me as a standard of manliness in my day-to-day life here. I’ve been able to cook, help my host mom with the dishes, run in really brief running shorts, and dance in skinny jeans without any insults, aside from being called “flaquito,” or too skinny. If I were known as a gay man here, I’m betting folks would have much more to say on the subject of my machismo.

For all my preparations and the helpful feedback I got, no one could have fully and adequately prepared me for the community where I live. Volunteers are told of their placements only two to three weeks before we move to them permanently. But even with more time to investigate Peru, I couldn’t have anticipated how I would feel once I was living here.

Peace Corps staff have supported me through the early stages of my volunteer service. My silence about my sexual orientation has not always been a comfortable choice, and I’ll feel lucky if the occasional lie about not having a girlfriend anymore is the worst way I deny my identity. I can’t say for sure what the future holds, but with the support I’ve found among my fellow volunteers and the affection I feel for my host family, I feel reasonably well armed for my next year and a half as a reluctantly born-again closeted gay man.

You can follow Tymon Manning’s experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru at timeinperu.tumblr.com.

 

A Special Daughter in Peru

– 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 katiegass@yahoo.com.katiegass@yahoo.com

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 155 other followers