Reflections on Costa Rica
November 15, 2007 Leave a comment
– Tracy, RPCV
At COS (Close of Service) when we were asked to reflect on our experience, I found myself thinking of my life two years ago. I thought of my turning down Peace Corps and then calling back a few days later and pleading with an official to still allow me to go. I could see myself sitting in an empty hotel room in Washington and wondering if I had made the right choice. It wasn’t that I had any doubt about joining – I still remember the exact day I decided to do Peace Corps ten years ago. It was that I was afraid of loosing Kate.
Kate told me several times that if she could marry me and serve with me, that she would do it in a second because my dreams were her dreams. Kate went to my recruiter’s office and broke down in tears when my recruiter told her that she was “sorry, there’s nothing we can do.” She called RPCVs to gage the likelihood that she could just follow me – it seemed doubtful at the time. We explored other volunteer options together, but Kate knew that, to me, none of them were Peace Corps.
I’ll never forget the moment that I hugged Kate goodbye and stepped on the escalator to board the plane to Washington D.C. She stood there waving until she slipped out of sight.
Before I left, we discussed the possibility of Kate’s coming to Costa Rica. She was going to join World Teach and try to end up in a site near me. If her site was not near mine, she would visit every weekend. By incredible luck alone, Kate found a job at an English school within nearby traveling distance of my site so we were able to see each other frequently. I was extremely fortunate to (unlike most peace corps volunteers) have been placed in a small country with good public transportation so this was a possibility.
Because I knew that Peace Corps discourages same sex relationships within your site, I made the decision to keep my orientation under wraps for fear that they would impose some regulation that would prevent Kate and I from spending time together in Santa Maria. In my efforts to prevent Peace Corps staff from finding out I was a lesbian, I remained in the closet with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers during training and felt very isolated and left out of the emotional support network other new volunteers were developing.
Looking back, I don’t have any regrets about my decision to board the plane that day–I was lucky enough to have finished Peace Corps with Kate as my wife.
My experience in Peace Corps has been everything I wanted it to be. I came thinking that if I could help one person I would be fulfilled. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to help and be inspired by several groups and individuals.
But it has been difficult to participate in an organization that does not recognize what I consider to be the core of who I am. While Peace Corps staff may recognize me as a lesbian, Peace Corps as an institution fails to recognize my union with Kate.
I never really knew if I actually needed to follow the rule to ask for permission to marry Kate. I never bothered to find out. I reasoned that if Peace Corps had wanted to know about my marriage, they would have allowed me to do it in the first place before I joined. We had a beautiful ceremony July 8, 2006 in the Berkeley botanical gardens in front of seventy friends and family.
I still have a hard time even looking at married couples that had joined together. I envy them. I wish that Kate and I could have shared everything together. I wish that I could have proudly introduced her as my spouse to everyone instead of making every effort to hide it.
And, I definitely went to every extent to hide the fact that Kate had moved to Costa Rica and was living nearby. I would make her wait in the pouring rain outside of the office. Since Peace Corps discouraged gays from being out in their site, whenever Kate was in my site, I introduced her as my cousin. When Peace Corps staff would do a site visit, if Kate happened to be around, I would tell her to go for a long walk.
As I looked around the room at my fellow volunteers reflecting on the people that they had become and the friendships they had made, I couldn’t help thinking, “were all my frustrations and suffering really necessary?” Peace Corps may justify encouraging gay people to hide their orientation on the basis that ‘it may be more difficult for them to integrate and work in their community.’ But, following that same logic, why would they send a female to a sexist society or a black person to a racist region?
During my time as a volunteer, I met a couple in my site whose daughter was serving in rural Morocco. They told me that she had been very unsuccessful because she was not allowed to enter tea houses or even talk to men, and the women were unable to leave their houses. At first, she had resisted wearing the headscarf, but she gave in when she was continuously followed by younger boys that threw rocks at her.
If I had been able to serve with Kate as an open gay couple, I have reason to believe that not only would my experience have been much easier than that female volunteer but that it would have been possible to serve as a functional volunteer in my site. There are a handful of gay people in my site that manage to not only be contributing members of society but also have several friends in the community. For example, there is a gay couple that lives together in my community. One of the members of the couple has a well respected position in the Red Cross. Also, the assistant director at the high school is openly gay. Yes, people do call them ‘playos,’ but they are not at any safety risk.
Peace Corps is about promoting ¨a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served¨ (goal 2) about presenting a cross section of American culture, but why does that presentation have to be heterosexual? Just as not every American is blonde haired and blue eyed, not every American straight, we come in different colors, shapes, sizes and orientations. Encouraging a gay person to stay in the closet would be the same as (if it were possible) telling a woman to dress as a man in a sexist country. Sexual orientation defines a person as much as gender or race.
At staging, when reviewing goal two, one facilitator told us a touching story of a black volunteer that changed the racist minds of a rural family in India. When her host family came to pick up their ‘American’ they were shocked to find that she was black, and they wanted to trade her for another. The facilitator was able to politely coax the host family into taking the volunteer home. Two weeks later he received an apology letter stating that the family was very sorry and that their volunteer was an outstanding individual.
By permitting a black volunteer to serve in a racist region of India, Peace Corps opened the minds of at least one Indian family. By discouraging a lesbian to be out in rural Costa Rica, Peace Corps deprived the people of Costa Rica the opportunity to become more tolerant. The moral of the facilitator’s story was to never underestimate the capacity for people’s minds to open and for tolerance to win out. In his words, “that is what Peace Corps is all about.”
And I know that had we been given the chance, Peace Corps Costa Rica staff would have a similar story about a female same sex couple that had opened the minds of the citizens of a small town named Santa Maria de Dota.
Tracy can be contacted at email@example.com.