My Esteemed Friend and Compadre
August 29, 1998
–by Dan Rael
During most of my Peace Corps service in Paraguay, I was still living under the illusion that somehow I would actually turn out to be straight. I had a very visible girlfriend, another volunteer, but shortly after her time was up and with the end of my assignment rapidly approaching, I came to realize that I could not go on living my charade.
About five months before I was to return home, I discovered that another volunteer, and a good friend, was a lesbian. She had lived most of her life prior to Peace Corps “out” and decided she simply wasn’t going to stay in the closet any longer, at least within the Peace Corps community in Paraguay. I invited myself to her house one day, on the other side of the country, supposedly to help her out with a bee keeping project. That night while we were enjoying a good meal under candle light, I “came out” to her. It was to me, like it seems to be for most people – suddenly a crack appeared in that huge wall that was always in front of me, and cool, clear, clean water began to gush through over me. That was it. I knew I could never go back in the closet. Within the next two months or so I don’t think there was a volunteer in the entire country who didn’t know I was gay, and it was really great. I hooked up with a support network of gay and lesbian volunteers that I quickly became a part of.
Back at my site things were different. I didn’t see how I could possibly come out to these people with whom I had become so close. They had met my girlfriend (I kept a photo of her in my little house), and were certain that when I returned home we would get married. I was sure they wouldn’t understand, and at any rate, I didn’t want to jeopardize my safety or the work that I had already accomplished.
Those last few months were very tumultuous. It felt so good to be out within the Peace Corps community, that it was hard for me to return to the work at my site. I had also met a great guy, a volunteer who had arrived a year after I did, and we would time our visits to the capital to coincide. On the other hand my time in Paraguay was rapidly winding down and I had formed some really strong friendships with people in my community, and I wanted to spend time with them as well.
My Paraguayan counterpart and I had become close friends. He and I worked together with ten groups of farmers on a variety of projects ranging from latrine building to bee keeping. He’d come by in his jeep, pick me up and we would go and meet with one or two of the groups and talk about whatever the topic of the day was. I also came to know his family well, and was extremely honored when they asked me to be the godfather to their newborn daughter. I accepted. This relationship is akin to uncle in their culture and is not to be taken lightly. I would become my friend’s compadre (co-father, sharing some of his paternal responsibilities). I spent more of my free time than ever with my new compadre and his family.
Now I was gay. I felt guilty visiting them, knowing that I was hiding my true self from them, but I knew I couldn’t tell them. I figured that I would just wait until that day when I flew away, and let the thousands of miles hide me nicely. We could carry on the relationship via letters, where I could easily veil the true facts of my life. When I returned to the U.S., I continued the “coming out” blitz that I began in South America, proceeding through my friends, brothers, sisters and parents within a month of my return.
For over a year I carried on just like I planned with my old friend and compadre back in South America. We wrote each other fairly often. I would describe nearly everything happening in my life, nearly everything. I also kept in touch with that volunteer I had met shortly after coming out, and we made plans for a rendezvous and beach vacation in Brazil. I was to meet him back in Paraguay and we would proceed from there. I felt extremely guilty for not letting my compadre know that I was back, but I convinced myself that there was no easy way to explain why I was there, and why I was only staying a day or two.
We traded a few more letters, and I came to realize that I couldn’t continue to hide such an important part of my life. It wasn’t fair to either of us. I wrote my usual long letter, explaining my new job in San Francisco, talking about the city, and even made mention of my “roommate” (the volunteer I had met in Paraguay), who had recently returned to the U.S. I then attached another letter, where I explained that I couldn’t hide the “reality” of my life from him anymore. I told him that I was gay, and that my friends and family had accepted it without exception, and that they supported me in my new relationship.
I believed that our friendship had probably ended then, but I figured that it was better for the truth to be said. Time seemed to prove me right. A year went by, a year and a half, with no word. I guessed the he had probably had the “godfather-ship” annulled somehow, and had a new one appointed. Then one day a letter arrived. It had been more than a year and a half since I’d sent my letter. It took me awhile to open it.
My esteemed friend and compadre Dan,
After a short time of silence, I would like to break this barrier of silence that has existed between us since your last letter telling me your “reality.” It was a bucket of cold water. It scared me. I laughed. I was angry. I cried, and later I reasoned. I much admire your valor, your sincerity with yourself and with me. You know Dan that in my culture, it is very strange to have friends with this lifestyle, and it is very sad to have relatives and friends like you. I have thought much about your “reality,” and in the end each of us is the owner of his own life. I spoke with many people about you, especially other Peace Corps volunteers, and they tell me that it is normal, and later I spoke with my eldest daughter. She blushed and was quite embarrassed. But we have spoken quite a bit, and she also accepted your “reality.” Next I spoke with my wife. She cried. I had to explain many things, and also she accepted everything. It cost me a lot of time to convince them, but in the end we all accept it and hope to write to you normally. Well, Dan, long time not to see you; I’m sorry…
The letter went on to describe what was happening with the family. My godchild was about to turn five; their oldest daughter was about to finish high school.
I’ve since written a long letter back, and found it so much easier now that there are no forbidden topics. I don’t know how our relationship would have evolved, had I come out to him while I was still in Paraguay. I was struck by the similarity of his reactions to those of my mother. She had to deal with me around her constantly after I came out, so the process went a little faster, but she progressed through the same steps. As it turns out, true friendship with my compadre survives.
Dan Rael was a volunteer in Paraguay form 1992 to 1994. You can reach Dan Rael through us at firstname.lastname@example.org.