Cuates: “Good Friends” in Guatemala
May 3, 1996 2 Comments
-Aida Sahud, RPCV
During my in-country training in Guatemala in the summer of 1993, I heard that we would take part in a diversity panel discussion as part of our cultural training. The idea of a diversity panel appealed to me for I had begun to notice, as a closeted lesbian, that many volunteers had open hearts for the Guatemalans as foreigners in a new land, but had lesser tolerance for diversity within the Peace Corps community. As a 49 year old volunteer, I had already experienced some “ageism” from some younger volunteers, and I was not yet ready to “come out” to the majority of the volunteers.
The day the diversity panel was scheduled to come to the training center, I waited with the anticipation of a young child. I knew that many minorities would be represented including a lesbian and gay man. I desperately wanted to hear their viewpoint about “coming out” in their communities, gay life in Guatemala and where to go to meet people. I had heard that there was a gay, lesbian, and bisexual PCV support group which met once a month on pay-day weekend. Both the diversity panel and the support group had been around for less than a year. Many months before two gay volunteers who had “come out” to country director, Peter Lara and asked that more attention be paid gay/lesbian/bisexual volunteers.
The two volunteers who spoke with CD Lara and two of the PC nurses said that during “pre-staging” they had felt that it was not an OK thing to be gay, let alone talk about it. My friend Scott who was one of the pioneer volunteers in this movement told me later that being a volunteer was hard enough without knowing that you can’t truly be yourself, at least within the Peace Corps.
Scott had begun the process of reaching out to other volunteers, by organizing the monthly meetings, putting up posters in the PC office and at the training center. He felt that the administration wholeheartedly supported these activities. But for many volunteers it was difficult. A journey into Guatemala City took an average of 6 hours each way. Still, 8 to 10 volunteers attended these monthly support sessions. There were some volunteers who wished to remain closeted to people outside the support group. Finding a meeting place was also a problem. None of us lived in the capital and most of us did not want to meet at the Peace Corps office. We finally agreed on a restaurant which allowed for some privacy as we could sit together in a far corner and chat. We shared books, magazines and newspapers about gay/lesbian/bisexual life in the states from letters and mailings we’d received from friends back home.
There was some objection to the title “support group.” This wasn’t therapy, and after some discussion, we all agreed on the name “Cuates,” suggested by our colleague Michael. Cuates means “good friends” in Spanish. Our purpose in meeting was to find a safe place and share our experiences as gay volunteers. After our afternoon meetings we would usually go out for something to eat, or to a movie, and then end up either at Mario’s “El Encuentro” or “Tropicana” for a drink or to “Pandora’s Box” for some disco.
After about six months we agreed to invite more Guatemalans. Some were in relationships with volunteers, others were friends we had met along the way. This caused some language difficulties because many of our Guatemalan friends did not speak English and the majority of the volunteers wanted to express their deep feelings in English. Often times, someone would sit next to a Spanish speaker and translate. It became an excellent forum to better understand about gay life in Guatemala. Our Guatemalan friends would always say, “the family is the first to know and the last to accept it.” Because of this strong social constraint, very few of our local friends were out to their families.
In June 1994, I was asked by the country director if I would be willing to be a “contact person” for gay volunteers from other countries who were looking for support groups. I welcomed the role. After that time, Peter would regularly ask my opinion about issues relative to being gay in the Peace Corps. My first out-of-country contact was with Edna Fogerty who was serving in Grenada, West Indies, and was reaching our for support as the only gay volunteer in her group. Edna worked and lived in a strongly homophobic environment and wanted to connect with other gay volunteers. She had initiated a gay/lesbian support group in the Eastern Caribbean. Several of us wrote back and forth and to other volunteers in the region. We corresponded with gay and lesbian volunteers in Belize, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador.
Cuates was tremendous support for me and helped me to come out to all of my fellow volunteers, my three sons and the Peace Corps staff. I found myself going regularly to meetings the first year and being the facilitator the second year. Involvement with Cuates was a challenge because of communication, difficulty of transport and my regular Peace Corps activities, but it was worth every bit of effort to have a place to totally be myself.
At the time I left Guatemala, another volunteer had agreed to take over the facilitation of the group. The latest news I’ve heard is that Cuates is still going strong and that the need was still great to have a group in place. We are “everywhere” and there will always be “self-directed” volunteers who will pick up the responsibility to take on an extra project like Cuates when it’s important to do so.