The Double Life of a Gay Volunteer in Kenya
November 3, 2002
-Eric Shea, RPCV
What is it to be a gay volunteer in Kenya? This question is actually two. What is it like to be a gay volunteer in the Peace Corps organization in Kenya? And, what is it like to be a gay volunteer living in a rural village in Kenya? It is necessary to separate the question into two because I led a double life as a volunteer. There’s me in the organization: active and out, pushing Peace Corps Kenya to embrace all volunteers. And there’s me at my work site: passive and willing to assimilate, believing that I need to be led by the people with whom I live. It has taken time to realize, accept and balance this separation, but maintaining it was crucial to my success as a volunteer. There have been times when I wished a trapdoor were beneath me – but who hasn’t? It is tough to be a volunteer, but to be a gay volunteer is tougher.
Let’s begin at the recruiting office in Boston. It was in my first interview when the recruiter asked, “Any questions?” I replied, “I’m gay – is this going to be an issue in Peace Corps?” He stated Peace Corps’ firm diversity policies, but explained that many of the countries in which volunteers serve are not as open. He warned me not to have illusions that I could live in a village somewhere and be 100% of who I am. Leaving the recruiting office I felt comfortable to enter the Peace Corps, assured that as I jumped there would be a net.
After arrival in Kenya I met with my Peace Corps supervisor. One of the first “getting to know you” questions was: “Why did you join the Peace Corps?” I stated that the desire came from the work I had done in gay communities around the world. “I have met humanity in these communities. They have taught me how to care for people living with HIV/AIDS and how to teach prevention to those who aren’t.” She replied, “I appreciate what you have told me, but I advise you not to tell anyone else – not your home-stay family, staff members or trainers. This is for your own physical safety.” I never had the intention of telling my home-stay family, as I knew it would be disrespectful to them and detrimental to me. What struck me was that I was advised not to tell Peace Corps staff. My first thought: this is not what I was told in Boston.
“They’re Kenyans,” my supervisor said, as if this were justification for the tape she was placing over my mouth. “Kenyan aside,” I replied, “they’re human and they work for an American organization that believes that all are to be treated equally. I’m not asking for a runway on which to display myself, but I want the freedom to share what I’ve gained through years of work with HIV/AIDS. If staff or trainers can’t handle American diversity, then either Peace Corps Washington needs to intervene or those unable to embrace diversity should go.”
There were numerous times during my pre-service training when I hit a wall, put in front of me by either administrative or training staff. I came to Kenya to be an HIV Education Resource Volunteer. It was a pilot program and I felt I had a lot to offer. Unfortunately, the training staff did not agree because my experiences with HIV/AIDS were “gay related.” Ironically, the motto for our training, taken from the World AIDS Conference in Spain, was “Breaking the Silence.” During training our group was told that any male volunteer caught having sex with another man would be sent home, out of respect for host-country laws. And that if villagers realize a volunteer is gay and they complain, that volunteer will be sent home. On more than one occasion I overheard homophobic comments from some of the training staff. I was denied the request to facilitate a session on MSM (men who have sex with men) HIV transmission in the developing world, even though fellow trainees were asking me how to respond to the MSM questions that came up in their classrooms. I was told numerous times that the only gayness in Kenya is found in the form of prostitution with westerners. A senior administrator told me that supporting homosexuality was not part of the American mission in Kenya. This same administrator asked me if all I wanted to do in Peace Corps was “be gay.” He told me to be careful about doing diversity work with Kenyan staff; he asked, “what kind of image of America do you want to spread?” He also told me “lesbians are intriguing.” I was told that regarding diversity policies, “We are not in America anymore.” He went on to ask me what exactly the diversity policies in Peace Corps were. Finally, he questioned my intentions for joining the Peace Corps.
I brought these incidents to the Training Center’ s coordinator. He put his head in his hands and sighed, asking me what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to meet with the training staff and make them aware of Peace Corps’ policies regarding discrimination. When the time came I posted an upside-down triangle in rainbow colors on the wall of the conference room and marked the space a “ Safe Zone.”
All the trainers attended and I made it clear that I was not trying to change anyone’s views on gayness; the objective was to create awareness and prevent discrimination. The trainers took well to the idea of the Safe Zone and asked plenty of questions regarding my life and my sexuality. Questions covered the whole spectrum. Did I want a sex change? What were my thoughts about going to hell? How could my family possibly accept me? But there were also questions about what the trainers could do to support gay volunteers, about how to identify a GLB person or how to encourage openness among the GLBs, and about what other gay volunteers have been through in Kenya. I answered each question to the best of my ability, explaining that I’m only one and can not talk for others. Each answer, no matter what the question, was received with an effort of understanding. I have climbed Kenya’s mountains, swam in its water and seen its amazing wildlife, but all of that pales in comparison to the humanity I witnessed during that training session. From that day Peace Corps Kenya began a long transformation.
I became part of the volunteer-run Diversity and Peer Support group, using it as a tool to break down the walls in Peace Corps Kenya. With barely any support from senior administration and no budget, DPS has trained all permanent staff on issues regarding American diversity and Peace Corps’ policies. Among other things, we have facilitated diversity panels and peer-support workshops. Through DPS, the ideal of diversity has gained respect and understanding from staff and volunteers, raised awareness about Americans and established a solid Safe Zone for all people committed to Peace Corps Kenya.
Life in a village is different. To say that gayness never comes up would be a lie. It came up when openly gay Gene Robinson was ordained as an Episcopal bishop, and when Kenya’s government began rewriting its constitution, questioning the abolition of its sodomy laws. I worked in a school, spending a lot of time in the staff room bantering with teachers. When the latter issues arose I took them as learning experiences, quietly allowing myself to understand what my village thinks. Furthermore, when the topic of sexuality is raised it is a faraway thing. Sexuality is never sitting in the staff room. I’ve found my space under this veil and I accept it as freedom. If I were confronted with, “Are you gay?” I would have answered honestly, probably creating my own demise. Since sexuality was never pointed at me I remained, however quietly. This is a tool that many volunteers utilize to assimilate, whether she or he comes from a rich family in the states, or is a practicing Muslim posted in a Christian village. Many choose not to reveal certain aspects of themselves in order to survive and succeed as volunteers.
What would I tell a gay person wanting to join Peace Corps Kenya? Again I would separate the two lives most volunteers lead: one within the Peace Corps and the other within a village. The organization has come a distance in embracing diversity, and though there is still work to do, the spectrum of American diversity has begun shining. In terms of village life, I would say the same thing that my Peace Corps recruiter said: do not have illusions, do not think that you can live in a rural village somewhere and be 100% of the person you are. But isn’t it nice to know that in Peace Corps you can be?
Eric Shea has recently returned to the States and starts a graduate program at the New School in New York City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org•