– Micah Carbonneau, PCV
“Peace Corps allows gay volunteers?! And you agree with this?!” asked my surprised host mother.
We’d been discussing diversity in Peace Corps and I hoped to feel out her views. From this first talk I’ve tried as a gay man, to talk about diversity and its role in my life. To avoid scandal or harm, volunteers must usually remain in the closet completely or stay very discreet. Our closet compared to those of many host country nationals however, is rather spacious. From the time of our staging, Peace Corps Administration has made clear its support. Other PCVs make ours the most accepting community I’ve ever been part of.
Even a large closet however, becomes claustrophobic. I can go along with jokes from acquaintances about ‘finding a nice Romanian woman,’ but when friendships at site deepen keeping a secret begins to feel like lying. True friends deserve the opportunity to prove themselves. How would this go at my site, I wondered? Worse case scenario, I’d have to leave. But, I reasoned, gay Romanians come out of the closet and have no such choice.
So, five months into site, I told those I was closest to: my tutor, host mother, and counterpart. My trust in them was well placed. With my tutor, our friendship strengthened after the uncertainty of romance was removed. My host mother was shocked, yet remained kind and continued to insist I use their washing machine. My counterpart while personally accepting was afraid of a scandal. I assured her I would remain discreet and had no intentions of dating.
Not long after this, two Romanian friends came out to me. While they knew one another, neither was out to the other. The woman was heartbroken after a breakup with her girlfriend and had no one to speak with. At the time, she lived and worked for her family. They’d told her at one point they considered homosexuality a mental disease. For obvious reasons, she was afraid what rejection would mean and could not tell them the truth.
My other friend, a man, disclosed one night, his past sexual encounters with men. He was so nervous I could see him shake. He does not however, consider himself gay. He longed to find a girlfriend and a have a traditional family. What about his same sex attractions, I asked. He responded that he would most likely seek sex outside the marriage. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When homosexuality is a mark of shame, deceit to self and others is a deep temptation. For my friend, gay people do not have happy endings.
When we are true to ourselves and honest with others, I believe everybody benefits. Sometimes this means taking bold decisions, but more often it means doing what comes naturally. Things I grew up doing, such as cooking, helping with the dishes, and cleaning the house, here stand out and expectations for me as a man are quite low.
When I told some female acquaintances I was moving into an apartment alone, they asked with mournful curiosity: “But who will cook for you?” In their eyes I could saw the black clad procession follow my coffin. When moving out of my last apartment, my landlady without a glance surmised I had not kept the place clean. Later, to my co worker, I angrily listed my efforts – rug beating, dusting shelves…plant leaves! And, I told her, I’m a very good cook!
I’d once asked this same co-worker how to can and pickle vegetables. She asked me:
“What are you, a woman?!” I was quite shocked and not a little amused to hear her new take: “Well, you know how to cook and you know how to clean…You don’t have to marry!”
Though I cook, in visits to friends I’m often provided a hot meal despite my polite (and unconvincing) protests. Romania greatly benefits from its women who maintain its traditions of home gardening and cooking. I wonder if gender roles become less strict if Romania won’t lose this culture. No more stocked preserves; jarred jams, vegetables, and fruit, cakes and pies! I didn’t expect I would ever be so happy to benefit from such a set-up (I ease my conscience by trying to clean the dishes, compliment the cook, and reciprocate with a meal here and there, though the scales forever tilt away from me). Whenever anyone asks me what I appreciate about Romania, I tell them it is this culture which women uphold.
Romanians’ desire to set me up with a Romanian wife reflects urgency for people to “settle down” more pronounced than in the United States. The ability of Romanian women to feed their husbands and guests makes a convincing argument! In discussing with my host father the possibility of my doing another term of Peace Corps in Africa, he intimated that at some point I had to have children; that this was the natural order of things, and this is God’s expectation for us.
If, as my Romanian co-worker says, I can cook and clean, why shouldn’t I remain single? I asked my host father. “The world is drawing from finite resources, now more then ever before. Why further tax these resources by bringing new children into the world when there are abandoned children seeking loving parents, here and in the United States?”
While for my host father, the responsibility to procreate is about God, I think it is more about economics and education. From my observations, it seems that the higher a person’s wealth and education, the later a person marries. Without education or middle class status, there are fewer social and travel or employment options, fewer options in general, and settling down at 20 or 25 seems much quite logical.
As volunteers, building relationships with coworkers, friends, and adopted host-country families, we discuss who we are. My sexuality is a big part of who I am and I’ve been fortunate to have found a small group of friends to be open with. I know my views in many ways differ from theirs, but in giving them someone they know, rather then a character from a movie or in some news article, I’ve succeeded in making it easier for them down to the road to accept others in their lives who are gay or lesbian.
And here a short update on my two friends: the woman has come out to both parents who have accepted her and continue to support her. Also she has found a new girlfriend. The man found a girlfriend who is now pregnant. He is very happy to have the family he’d always wanted.
In talks on trains and with strangers, I hope I’ve been able draw attention to how much Romania owes women in maintaining this country’s deep agricultural roots, stocked kitchens, and set tables. And finally, perhaps I’ve shown others that there is life beyond this small town; that adventure always calls.
Micah Carbonneau can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.