Serving with Risks in Honduras
August 3, 2008
– Paul Kozak, RPCV
While my fellow invitees and I were checking into DC’s Washington Plaza Hotel for our Peace Corps Staging, we realized a large convention was checking out: a Leather Pride Convention. As we were chatting and introducing ourselves, discussing our fears and ambitions of spending the next 2 years and 3 months in Honduras as PCVs, I said under my breath to my new straight friend Ben: “Man, I hope they at least removed the bedspreads before getting their kink on, else I might be a little grossed out to lie on top of the bed.” A couple weeks later, Ben admitted with a laugh, “My first impression of you was, Man… that gay guy was kinda homophobic!”
How ironic, then, to go from a Leather Convention at Staging in Washington, DC, to the closet for Training in Siguatepeque, Honduras. I got lucky; a member of GLOBE (discussed later) hitched a ride with us to the training grounds, and with her counsel became my guardian angel. She wasn’t your hackneyed, ethereal, femmy, soft-spoken kind of angel, but rather the butch dyke type, tattooed and passable as a defensive nose guard. Now really, nothing against the ethereal angels, but which type of angel would you prefer to have your back in an unknown world?
My guardian angel and I are members of the LGBT community, a misnomer for many of us. Solidarity is difficult with so much diversity; it resembles more the breast cancer or myopic communities, where mutual needs bring people together than, say, the French Canadian or Hispanic communities. None of us are raised gay; there’s no genetic lineage to trace back, no independent or historical civilizations with which to associate (not even the island of Lesbos). But are mutual needs the only thing that binds us? I’ve felt many times like an outsider looking in at gay bars and pride marches while always being the token gay guy amongst my predominantly straight friends. Yet for many reasons, some I understand and some I do not, there seems to be a connection which constitutes an LGBT community concept beyond shared adversity, one that strings someone like me to leather daddies and lesbians alike.
Arriving in Honduras, I immediately began my search for that connection. I knew linking with the Honduran LGBT community would be important to me before I ever set foot on foreign soil. That invisible social safety net would help me bridge my understandings of Honduran and American cultures while finding the safest path to cross them with my sexuality. I knew I would get lonely and bored; during training that was consistently presented as among our greatest obstacles for finishing the full two years. I quickly learned how my fellow straight volunteers coped, as the condom supply quickly vanished. My guardian angel told me about a volunteer group called GLOBE, or Gays and Lesbians (Or Bisexuals) Offered a Better Experience. This support group was by volunteers, for volunteers, with transportation partially funded by the Peace Corps office. It allowed LGBT volunteers to confide with issues they faced in their sites while having an opportunity to get out of the closet for a weekend.
Peace Corps changes the cultural context in which we are to be queer; it sends volunteers around the world, to lands of varying laws and cultures. LGBT volunteers should remain brave to serve, but recognize the particular challenges to our safety we will face. According to www.sodomylaws.org, in many countries homosexuality is illegal, punishable by death (Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan), caning (Malaysia), hard labor (Jamaica), or imprisonment (see Sodomy Law map). Despite these dangers, we audaciously go. While there, we find means to play.
Gay bars have always been a port in the storm of queer intolerance. No one can be offended by gay coquetry when that’s the theme. One may not find tolerance in every major city in the world (or for that matter a leather convention), but one can find a gay bar. Unfortunately, gay bars in Central America are not found in the yellow pages. Many are in unmarked buildings without a sign out front, and are never in the best of neighborhoods. Knowledge of such places is passed almost strictly by word of mouth. This puts the foreigner at a disadvantage. I made my first gay friend when he brazenly made a pass at me in public. He had learned that foreigners were safer to hit on. He might have offended me (constantly) by never accepting my blatant refusals, but he was helpful. Through him I learned where a couple of bars were, and then began going on my own and made other friends.
Once I was “in”, I was exposed to a Honduran interpretation of homosexuality. The class lines outside the bar were not left at the door; even the gay bars had separate sections you could pay extra to sit in, usually with white leather couches. I made some friends, but I noticed that the more upper-class the homosexual, the more elaborate their closet scheme. The affluent and well educated liked the status quo just as it was; some even had girlfriends or wives that knew they were gay. He paid the bills, she would say nothing. Usually only the poor were “out” in Honduras (or being out cost them). When I came out to my gay Honduran friends as out in the states, that all of my family and friends back home knew I was gay and didn’t care, they gave me a look as if I were the source of some noisome odor, and then shrugged and explained it away with “it’s different in The States.” This is why I would have lost all my gay friends had I come out in my site; from the Honduran point of view, the closet begets shame, which in turn begets tact: nothing is more dangerous to the closeted Honduran homosexual than an openly gay friend. I also found that sexuality in Honduras is defined more by sexual role than by the object of one’s affection. Men were either “hombre” (man/top) or gay (bottom). Bisexual was a confusing term for many, and to some it was thought to be a man who topped only with men.
I ultimately felt that the full acceptance of both the closeted lifestyle and nondisclosure by gay Hondurans were the worst threats to the safety of a gay Peace Corps volunteer, more so than the threat of violence. Many of my more closeted local gay friends had never had HIV tests, as they seemed to associate HIV with poverty. They were perfectly happy in the closet; I often wondered if it was a power trip to control how much others knew about them. They all said it wouldn’t matter if they were HIV+, as they would never tell anyone anyway. Also, it was as if the more they passed or lived as heterosexuals, the more exhilarating, the more risky, it was to “be bad” by being gay. Many people liked that they could escape their ascetic, public lifestyles into a world of incalculable risk and possibility. My advice is for anywhere in the world: hold on to your drinks and USE A CONDOM.
I wish I had some information to offer my sapphic sisters, but I do not. I met three gay women in three years in Honduras, and never had the opportunity to grow close. I’d hear men glorify lesbianism in theory. I’d also hear stories of brutal violence against queer women as punishment for their sexual betrayal. One thing seemed clear: a schism exists within Honduran sexuality, an iron curtain between man and woman. Heterosexual men (I respect their self-identification) discuss their wives unabashedly with their male friends, and even their gay cicisbei (lovers). These libertine men felt no scruples from cheating, and had no fear of disclosing with fellows, as they knew a man would never tell a woman. With that in mind, I in all honesty believe only a woman could attempt a sound exploration of female sexuality in Honduras.
There are plenty of reasons to have reservations about serving as an LGBT Peace Corps volunteer, but we must remember that life’s about taking calculated risks, and that exploration itself is a risky behavior. Making lifelong connections in my assigned community, the Honduran LGBT community, even the LGBT Peace Corps community made serving worth the risks.
You can reach the author by email at firstname.lastname@example.org