Coming Out and Safe Zone Training in The Gambia

-Marnie Florin, RPCV, 2008-2010

Author’s Comment:
Alongside this article should be everything you need to conduct the Safe Zone Training in your own country: a detailed lesson plan, the hand-out, a message from the country director, a vocabulary list, power point slides and much more. Even though some of the content is specific to The Gambia, it could easily be adapted for other countries.
Training Materials

Prior to arriving in The Gambia in November 2008, I had no idea that homosexuality was not only illegal there, but also punishable by death—the president made a public statement that he would behead any known homosexuals in the country. It was not a big issue for me as I was not “that gay” at the time. In fact, I did not even mention being gay in any of my Peace Corps interviews. As a result, I had no idea that lying about my sexuality for two years would be one of the hardest parts of my service. I also never could have imagined that, after spending two years in a conservative, Muslim country, I would go back to America gayer than ever.

Unlike a lot of my peers in Orange County, CA, I have very liberal, Jewish parents and have had the same gay hairdresser since age four, so I always knew gay people existed and vehemently believed that they deserved the same rights as everyone else. But, I never had one gay female or male friend, even after I left Orange County and attended college at Emory University in Atlanta. During my Peace Corps service, I befriended so many different kinds of people: environmentally aware hippies (I had never heard of Leave No Trace, nor had I ever met anyone that wore Chaco’s), androgynous boys and girls and, most importantly, lots of gays.

I have heard many of people say it and have said it a lot myself: You will never find a more open and accepting community than the PC Volunteer community. As conservative, scary and judgmental as the Gambian political climate is, that is how non-judgmental the Gambian PCVs are. I did not have a plan as to when or how I was going to come out to my fellow trainees, but everyone was so welcoming that despite my being unable to say, “I am gay,” a month earlier in America, I ended up doing just that during my first week in country.

After that initial “out,” I became more and more comfortable with my sexuality. I later learned that exposure to and acceptance into the gay community is an extremely important step for completing the Acceptance Phase of the coming-out process. While it felt great to be able to say, “I am gay,” the more comfortable I became with my sexuality, the more difficult it became to live a lie in my village. I was starting to develop really close friendships with several host-country nationals (HCNs) in my village and among the PC staff, and wanted more than anything to be honest with them about who I was (in fact, I think I would have extended a third year if I did not have to lie about being gay).

Unfortunately, I was always warned not to come out to HCNs in my village, as it could lead to my being removed from village, and possibly the country, if anything went wrong. But, after hearing from several PCVs that a younger, female Gambian PC staff member, whom I was close with, was an ally, I came out to her. She was incredibly helpful and definitely served as a great asset to us PCVs in trying to reach the other staff members. A little later, two volunteers carried out a Diversity Training with the language/cultural trainers (LCFs). The training did not focus too much on homosexuality, but during the session, one volunteer bravely came out to the LCFs. Not long after that, I came out to two more female, Gambian staff members.

Learning to embrace my sexuality, I began to develop a strong urge to work on gay issues in any capacity possible. During my second year, I became the head of PC Gambia’s LGBT Committee and joined the LGBT RPCV listserv. While on their website, I discovered material used in a Safe Zone Training in Guatemala. I pitched the idea of doing the training with PC Gambia staff, explaining that this is an American institution and as such, all staff members must adhere to American laws while working in their capacity as PC employees, including anti-discriminatory laws. Several members of our direct-hire staff (non-locals – Americans and other expatriates) were against it. They did not think that the Gambian staff was capable of accepting homosexuality in volunteers and they didn’t think we PCVs were capable of pulling the training off. The Gambian staff, go figure, was 100% supportive of the training and wanted all staff members (drivers, cleaners, etc. to be present). I could not have been more impressed. A compromise was finally reached and it was decided that the training staff and senior staff members would attend the training. Although I wanted more staff to go, I was extremely happy with the end result.

I and the other ten members of the LGBT Committee were given five hours to carry out the training. Using the initial training material and PowerPoint provided on this website as a foundation (THANK YOU PC Guatemala for the idea and all the materials!), I spent countless hours over several months creating an interactive curriculum appropriate to this country that included role-plays, skits, games, etc. Each committee member was then assigned one or more sections and spent a lot of time making sure his/her sections were the best they could be.

As a result of all our efforts, the training was a huge success. Given The Gambia’s views on homosexuality, much of the training’s content was sensitive and potentially divisive. Fortunately, all the staff members were extremely participatory: we facilitators were blown away by their insightful comments and open-mindedness. The staff’s concern for and desire to support volunteers was very evident, especially among the Gambian staff, whose own culture and religion largely shun homosexuality. I would like to share some highlights from the evaluations, which were completely anonymous:

  • Seventeen of the twenty staff participants indicated that their opinions on LGBQ# issues had “absolutely changed” from the start of the presentation. The other three participants had already identified themselves as allies before the training.

We asked participants before the training, and after it was finished, “What do you think of when you hear the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’?” Here are the pre- and post-training responses from two participants:

  • Pre: “Scared, embarrassed and confused.”

Post: “Fine happy knowledgeable.”

  • Pre: “Some one’s way of expressing their sexuality.”

Post: “Each human being has the right to express your sexuality in any way youchoose.”

The following are some of the answers to the question, “In what ways, if any, has your opinion changed?”:

  • “The people are made with different opinions which are to be respected.”
  • “More prepared and ready accept the homosexuality from now on.”
  • “I have a clear view of what homosexuality is, and how to prepare to support them.”
  • “LGBQ have right to exist.”
  • “That they exist and that they need to be supported”

Here are some responses to the last question, “Any other comments, concerns, or unanswered questions?”:

  • “Wonderful presentation and it has really broadened my concept about the gay community.”
  • “Every staff should respect the LGBQ and be friendly to them so as to have a comfortable stay in the country.”
  • “Every member of PC staff needs to go through this training, it is very helpful.”

These comments are part of a larger report on the training.

I would also like to add that I did eventually come out to one of my best friends in my village, an HCN. This did not happen until a few months before I completed my service. She and I were very close (she named her baby after me) and I could not stand lying to her anymore. It was killing me. I trusted my instinct that she would be ok with my being gay and she was 100%. I cannot tell you how amazing it felt to be honest with her. Then, about a month after being back in America, I told another one of my very close Gambian friends over Facebook chat. One of my few literate friends, he runs the internet café in the town near me. He wrote me back an email that said in huge letters, “Homosexuality is OK to me.” It made me cry. I am not saying you should tell every HCN about your sexuality, just be smart about it. Test the waters and trust your instinct, just as you probably did when you were first coming out to people in America.

I urge everyone to try and conduct this training and if you have any questions at all, please email me:marnie.florin@gmail.com.

An LGBT PCV Retreat in West Africa

- a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Editor’s Note: This is an interview conducted by email with a current volunteer in West Africa. The subject is a Peace Corps sanctioned retreat attended by LGBT volunteers from Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania. Because of increased homophobia in many parts of the world, we usually don’t identify our current PCV contributors by name. Our newsletter articles are all on our web site, and everything including authors’ names are accessible.

Q. How had LGBTQ volunteers in the three different countries come to know of one another? Had they met before? How were plans laid for this weekend retreat?

I was the main connection with all of the volunteer involved. I met one of the Senegal volunteers very early in my service (we actually had a mutual friend in common that helped us meet up). Then she and another Senegal volunteer came to a GLBTQ meeting that we held in The Gambia a year ago. These volunteers went back to Senegal and set up a similar meeting of their own there last August or so. Then in February, at the annual West African Invitation Softball Tournament (WAIST) in Dakar, I organized a dinner, initially for the Gambia and Senegal volunteers involved in the groups, but we were able to get volunteers not just from Gambia and Senegal but also Mauritania, Mali, Benin and Guinea.

So that was a great networking tool and I proposed the idea of having a Pride get together then and people liked the idea so I went ahead and planned it. I kept in touch with people and had them inform and invite new volunteers and those I didn’t know. We decided to do it in Senegal because it was the most central location and didn’t require any special visas or anything. One of my friends who I met at the softball tournament site is very close to the location we selected, so she helped organized the housing for us. There were a couple Mali volunteers who wanted to come but weren’t able to make it because of Close of Service dates and trainings.

Q. Where was the retreat held, and how many people attended?

It was in Senegal (just south of Dakar).There was a total of 14 Volunteers who attended (3 from Gambia, 8 from Senegal, and 3 from Mauritania). Also attending was a Gambian friend of a volunteer who is a student in Dakar. The CDs (Country Directors) of all three countries were supportive of volunteers going. Senegal volunteers were not required to take vacation days or out of site days as it was viewed as a PC sanctioned event. My CD in Gambia wanted to let us go without using vacation days but because it crossed borders he was required by PC to make us use days since we are not a group officially recognized by PC Washington. Mauritanian volunteers were also required to take vacation days. Volunteers covered all their own expenses including transport, housing, food, etc. One of the PCMO’s (Peace Corps Medical Officer) from Senegal attended some sessions on Sunday morning and had very good input and suggestions.

Q. What were the main topics of discussion, concern? You did a survey at the end of the retreat. What can you say about the results?

Main topics were concerns with PC staff in different areas, specifically PCMOs/Med Units. Gambia and Senegal’s groups have quite good reputations, but Mauritania less so. Safety and Security is the biggest concern across the board with volunteers. This is mainly because of the lack of information that we receive from PC concerning LGBTQ issues in country. And it’s become a hot button issue with the recent arrests and rioting in Senegal and homophobic statements made by the president of Gambia and arrests in Gambia also. Then there are the differences in working with PC American staff members and PC HCN staff members. There was lots of discussion on how to go about getting education and sensitization training for different staff, who to start with, how to go about it, and getting GLBTQ issues added into the framework for Safety and Security briefings for volunteers.

And of course we had some fun activities… a Pride trivia game, Gayderdash (an adapted version of Balderdash) and general more informal discussion between volunteers about living as a GLBTQ volunteer in West Africa, coping strategies, where to find support, difficulties, outlets, etc.

Q. What came up as possible solutions to questions, concerns, problems?

Solutions – the PCMO who attended suggested a contact to work on getting GLBTQ issues included in trainings for staff for West Africa. I’m in the process of contacting her. Volunteers are dealing individually with their own countries as far as the Safety and Security concerns and lack of information dissemination. I’m also working with my PCMO and CD on possible ways to get our group officially recognized by PC Washington so in the future there won’t be conflict over vacation days and possible access to funding. Mauritania volunteers are holding a GLBTQ forum in their country for volunteers with the support of their CD in August I believe. And Senegal volunteers are already planning a weekend in their country later in the year once they have new volunteers sworn in. Also in conjunction with my CD, we are tying to get support from the Office of Medical Services at PC Washington to provide counseling techniques and suggestions for PCMOs when dealing with and counseling LGBT PCVs.

Q. Any plans for follow-up – sharing agenda, survey results with PC CDs, others?

I sent out the results to all that were in attendance and I’m leaving it up to the volunteers of the individual countries to pass it along to their CDs and have a sit down with them. I sat down with my CD recently and he was very receptive to all the issues and as mentioned early is helping take steps to help with some of the concerns. We discussed the political situation in Gambia at some length and the difficulty of handling local political and cultural issues that could affect volunteer safety and security.

Q. Any differences in concerns between gay men and lesbian volunteers?

Safety was a concern for both, but in my opinion I would defiantly say that it is viewed as a much more serious concern for men just based on cultural norms in West Africa. The other main concern with the med unit in Mauritania was from both male and female volunteers.

Q. Any thing else that you think would be of interest to LGBTQ volunteers in other parts of the world?

Ummm… well I guess that just the most groups we get going out there the easier it is going to be to get the ear of Washington and have them take notice of our issues especially when it comes to trainings that they conduct for PCMOs, CDs, Safety and Security officers etc. I was actually contacted recently by a staff member in Bolivia about a group that wants to start there.

And if anyone wants more info about what we’re doing here feel free to give them my contact information.

You can contact this current Peace Corps Volunteer by emailing lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org .

Believing AIDS is Real

-Timothy Mah, RPCV, The Gambia, 2001-03

The Peace Corps experience is filled with hurdles and obstacles, which if overcome, can turn into very positive defining moments. As a recent college graduate, I looked upon my Peace Corps service as an opportunity to find that specific path that I knew awaited me somewhere – possibly in one of those Peace Corps moments that I had previously heard about.

I applied to the Peace Corps with the notion that I wanted to do HIV/AIDS work – whatever that meant in the context of my assigned country and community. I had some previous experience as a pediatric AIDS researcher during college and as an intern at an AIDS service organization, but I was unsure what those experiences would mean to me as a community health educator in Africa. At some point during the application process, I was asked why I wanted to work in the HIV/AIDS field. At the time, I didn’t have a very clear answer. But I think I can answer that now.

AIDS is an intriguing epidemic that has affected communities in countless ways – some foreseeable, others with surprise. AIDS is unique in its ability to transcend its label as solely a health problem; it has social and cultural, religious, political, and economic components, all of which have had a role in defining the epidemic. For many years, HIV was seen as a gay disease. Some purported it be punishment for homosexual deviance, and some people continue to believe this. It was at another time a Haitian disease, brought to the US by unwanted immigrants. Some have theorized that it was engineered as a social and scientific tool to dissuade overly sexual and promiscuous people from their immoral behaviors. It has been and still is used as a political vehicle – linking funding for prevention efforts with primarily one form of prevention, abstinence, rather than a more effective and comprehensive approach. From an economic perspective, an entire generation of working age men and women in parts of southern Africa has nearly been wiped out.

It is different from any other disease that has so affected people. Unlike many of the common ailments found in developing countries, HIV doesn’t necessarily show outward symptoms all the time. While sicknesses such as malaria, tuberculosis, or a host of stomach ailments can be easily seen and understood, HIV is invisible and more often than not, not understood. HIV also strikes through a basic yet taboo subject – sex, which is rarely if ever breached in many communities. All of these factors make this epidemic multi-faceted and utterly dynamic – changing with time and place.

I spent much of my Peace Corps service organizing HIV/AIDS education programs and events for youths throughout The Gambia, a small country in West Africa. These programs provided the youths with basic information about HIV/AIDS – prevention strategies and modes of transmission, as well as more general “life skills,” such as relationship, decision-making, thinking, and negotiating skills. Some of the boys were trained to be peer health advocates in their schools and communities, while others were trained simply to help prevent themselves and their friends from becoming infected and to dispel the rumors and misinformation that floated around the villages.

During many of my workshops on HIV/AIDS with Gambian youths, the questions would inevitably come up: “Where is AIDS from? How was it found?” How could such simple questions be so difficult to answer? I could easily have said, “AIDS was discovered in America and France in 1981, by doctors who noticed an unusual number of gay men were becoming sick with strange and rare sicknesses.” Finished. Next topic. That answer however was not as simple as it sounds and introduced myriad cultural, political, and colonialist issues into the discussion: If it was discovered in America, why do people say it started in Africa? If it started among gay men, how did it get to Africa, since there are no gay people here? If it was discovered in America, why are there so many more people in Africa who have it now?

At first, the answers to these questions just seemed secondary. Shouldn’t these boys ultimately be concerned with whether or not they have the information and ability to prevent themselves and their friends from getting HIV? To the participants however, the answers they knew to these questions were the basis for their denial of the existence of HIV. The answers fed into the numerous conspiracy theories that surround the AIDS epidemic in The Gambia. I soon learned that it didn’t matter if the boys knew everything about prevention or the modes of transmission. It mattered that they first believe that HIV was real and could have an impact on their health and well being. It therefore often became my role to persuade the youths that HIV was indeed real and that it could affect anyone in their community, from their friends and siblings to their parents and the village leaders. Whenever possible, I would include HIV positive individuals in the workshops. 99% of the youths I worked with had never known, heard of, seen, or interacted with a Gambian living with the virus. My hope was that seeing truly would mean believing.

So many of the simple scientific aspects of the AIDS epidemic are completely intertwined with seemingly distant political and cultural issues. From questions about the discovery of the disease to prevention (aren’t condoms just a western way of keeping Africa’s population in check?) and treatment issues (why are there drug treatments widely available in the US, but not in The Gambia?), there are no simple answers. But these are the challenges that make the AIDS epidemic unique, interesting and frustrating.

In addition to those motives for being interested in working in the HIV/AIDS field, there were the more personal reasons. There was the issue of being gay. Did I subconsciously feel that I needed to give back in some way to the gay community, which has been so grossly affected by AIDS? Would I be able to do that by going to The Gambia? Would my efforts in The Gambia even have an impact on the gay community in the US?

In a general sense, no, my efforts in The Gambia didn’t have an effect on the gay community in the US. However, despite the obvious differences, the epidemics in the US and throughout Africa are inextricably linked. Progress on one front means progress on another. My work in The Gambia gave me the opportunity to see the epidemic from a different perspective. It put me in a place where the reality of the epidemic was still not understood. I was lucky to have the foresight when I worked in the Gambian villages that if people weren’t educated early on about the dangers and consequences of this disease, then communities there and around the world would continue to be unnecessarily hurt.

In the past two decades, there has been much progress in the fight against AIDS. While the epidemic has hopefully peaked in many communities, there are countless others in every corner of the world where it is just beginning. There is still so much work left to be done.


Tim Mah has spent the last 7 months working in the Public Policy Department of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. He starts graduate work at the Harvard School of Public Health in September. He can be contacted attlmah22@hotmail.com.

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