Gender Roles in Andean Society
May 1, 2002 Leave a comment
– Peace Corps Volunteer, Ecuador
Gender roles in Latin America tend to be rigidly defined and Ecuador is not an exception. Cultural expectations of feminine and masculine roles, traditional to my North American eyes, are the fabric of rural Andean society. Marriage prevails. Men are the breadwinners and women are the caregivers. A man’s place is is outside of the home whereas a woman’s is strictly within it. While there are many exceptions, this basic framework dominates the region in which I live.
As a bisexual woman venturing into this new environment, I realized very early on to proceed with caution. My first personal experience with homosexuality happened when I had recently arrived at my site. As a rural public health volunteer, my assigned counterparts were staff at the town’s health clinic. Upon meeting the dentist, I quickly surmised he was gay based on his mannerisms, interests, and dialogue, as well as my American standards. I quickly learned though that Ecuadorian standards vastly differ.
Along the lines of defined gender roles, ideas of sexual orientation are strictly outlined. In Ecuador, being gay adheres to a norm, based on the notion of passive versus active participation. Between two men who are partners, the male who is the passive receiver is considered gay whereas the active giver is not. Men are equated to women in many ways, and the stereotypical gay man is extremely feminine in appearance and mannerisms. The only open men I have met in Ecuador have been transvestites, literally dressing as women. Much to my surprise, this seems to be the predominant understanding of homosexuality, neatly packaged in these exaggerated gender terms.
My counterpart, who quickly became a friend, does not fall into this stereotype. He is not a cross dresser, does not wear makeup, and therefore blends in. He leads a double life that is fairly common in this intolerant environment. My friend has children and has had several long-term relationships with women. We have never addressed the issue of sexual orientation with each other and probably never will.
While among men homosexuality is a repressed issue in Ecuador, among women it is incomprehensible. I have never met an openly lesbian woman and have not even heard much mention of it. Being that sex is associated strongly with dominance and passivity, be it a straight or a male relationship, the idea of two women together does not fit into this scheme. I imagine that most people in my rural, fairly isolated town have not contemplated lesbianism and would never imagine knowing lesbians. The level of awareness in large cities is undoubtedly higher, but is an issue only beginning to emerge.
I have been able to blend in within my town and haven’t faced much scrutiny of my personal life, largely because I have had a serious relationship with a man and I happen to be a woman, hence I raise no major suspicions. I do not reveal my orientation in order to simplify my life. Other gay volunteers have similarly chosen to hide their sexual orientation in an effort to be accepted and respected by their communities. Unfortunately after being out of the closet in the United States for many years, it has been difficult to feel this kind of overt homophobia. At the same time, it has made all of us appreciate the freedoms we took for granted at home.
Eventually Ecuador will open up to issues of sexual orientation and broaden its defined ideas of gender roles. The closet will no longer be a necessary hiding place for so many of its citizens. I have to remind myself that social change happens one step at a time.
We frequently do not identify Peace Corps Volunteers by name for reasons of security. You can contact the author by emailing her in care of the editor firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll forward your message to her in Ecuador.