Waiting 30 Years for Peace Corps and Ukraine
March 11, 2010 1 Comment
-Edwin S. Patout, RPCV, Ukraine 2005-07
The name conjures up a compelling sense of overseas service and adventure, motivating the interested spirit with an inspiring challenge. Peace Corps volunteers bound together by this irresistible fusion have answered life’s call. Peace Corps service is the sum total of many experiences, shared by all who are branded RPCV. I am profoundly proud to be in that distinguished and distinctive herd.
My first real connection with Peace Corps is a special memory, and no doubt that fateful encounter played a part in my eventual reconnection. As a college student from rural south Louisiana I was given the opportunity to work for a sugar plantation on the island of Hawaii. It was 1969, a summer of the unimaginable. A summer bookmarked, not by my personal experience, but the televised broadcast of man’s walk on the moon. Watching the amazing accomplishment from a small Hawaiian village on the Hamakua coast seemed as exotic as a moon walk itself. I had recently been transported to an island paradise, its tropical landscape breathtakingly beautiful, and the engaging inhabitants a blend of cultures with whom I shared a similar economic history, the production of raw sugar. Yet, this new state with its burgeoning tourist trade and spiraling property values was preparing to embrace a more modern economic base. The plantation system was nearing an end.
Change also brought assimilation and the demise of ethnic entertainment, such as the local movie house where I spent Saturday afternoons with co-workers watching, while speed reading subtitles, outrageous Japanese B movies. I lived near the Honokaa sugar mill, amongst acres of sugar cane, off the old scenic road that meandered through the lush coastal cliffs from Hilo, the big island’s largest city. Five miles up from where I lived this road ended. There at cliff’s edge one could behold the spectacular view of Waipio Valley.
This vista took in mammoth coastal cliffs as they dropped thousands of feet to create a jungle floor with lush green foliage and colorful fruit plants canopied by large protruding red blossomed flame trees. The massive valley fronted the ocean with a black sand beach, to the back dramatically rising terrain produced waterfalls highlighting this natural wonder.
A hike down to the valley floor required careful negotiation. On some of trips the winding dirt road showed signs of being tracked by all terrain vehicles, but on my several visits few vehicles or people were sighted. The steep graded trip down ended near the beach. Overgrown paths heading back into the valley invited trespass. This cautious trod revealed several isolated taro farms, and continuing further towards the middle of the valley the discovery of what appeared to be an abandoned native village. I later learned it was a Peace Corps training camp used for volunteers headed to Micronesia. The secluded spot complete with tree houses, rope ladders, and luau pits could have easily been the set for Treasure Island, an impression not easily forgotten.
Returning to Louisiana to finish school future possibilities seemed unlimited. Peace Corps service, a commitment to cultural exchange and global understanding imbedded in a naive young mind.
Idyllic college days ended the next year as real life drama was delivered to my door. The draft board notice to appear for a physical in New Orleans produced a shutter of disbelief. Had I been in denial, thinking my low draft lottery number would not be called? This diminutive closeted homosexual was going to be conscripted sustenance, new nourishment for a misguided military machine. Being drafted for service in Vietnam was not an option. Time was short and the local draft board was unwilling to delay induction pending a Peace Corps application. The urgent matter required immediate action. I decided to end this torment and enlist in the National Guard. I was fortunate. This momentous decision appears innocuous today, but for a twenty-one year old man child boarding a bus headed for basic training, it was horrific. Sentenced to prison for something I was not involved in. I had never before experienced the deprivation of free choice or self-determination.
The arrival at Fort Polk is burned in my memory banks. The shouted commands and frantic exit from the army green school bus deposited me in front of a raging army drill sergeant, tall muscular black man whose raspy vocals yelled, “Sissy, hit the ground for fifty push-ups.” That night I lay to rest on a cold bottom bunk in an old army barracks. Peering up at the rack’s springs, motionless in my open cage. Manhood earned.
Active duty ended and I returned home ecstatic to learn I had been accepted into law school. The first year of law school, a subject prolifically portrayed in books and movies is exactly as presented. I made the cut, the pressure was off, and the headiness of college days returned, monthly warrior duty notwithstanding. All was good as I entered my senior year, but short-lived when tragedy came calling.
The words from the receiver pierced my soul. The dropped phone twirled as I slumped and moaned from hearing the unexpected news of his death. Best friends since high school, the unrecognized nature of our relationship and the sudden loss of this requited but unspoken love shattered me. He departed without talk or touch, leaving me to bear an internal languish sure to linger until my own death.
I graduated and returned home alone disguising the torrent of emotion I suffered. Coming to terms with being gay would have eventually determined the nature of our relationship, but heart wrenching speculation is unnecessary. I was coming out, confused and disconnected by all that I had known. The anesthetized pleasures of French Quarter gay bars provided comfort. It was 1974, my subsequent survival through the next decades a miracle. An angel cared, the recurring tearful memories kept him looking on.
Being gay is always filled with complicated challenges quantified by the closet door. Mine was neither locked nor off the hinges, more of a swinging door, opened if you want to come in. Early on I was out to close family and friends and my social life revolved around them. Satisfying as that was I had separated professional life from private life and the increasing anxiety generated from weighty business engagements drew in the storm clouds. Balancing acts get tiresome, especially public intercourse that limits you from revealing your nature. Long term committed relationships share this burden, kudos’ to my brother and his partner
For thirty years I practiced law in the small town where I was born. I had prominently served my community, recognized for pro bono legal services to the economically disadvantaged and people suffering with HIV/AIDS. Despite my success a crisis of sameness was smothering me. I literally collapsed under the provincial weight of my circumstance. Seeking the help of a therapist and support from close family and friends the painful state was shared. With their support I began a deliberate process for life change. Change can happen.
Lifting the window shade I stirred in the plane seat after hours of semi-conscience thought. Blinding light poured in. My eyes slowly adjusted to a framed view of the earth’s curve looking like the top of huge white cone covered in brilliant azure blue. We were preparing to land in Kiev on a cold winter’s day. The in-flight meditation awoke to the reality and the enucleation from the familiar took hold. I was overcome with joy. Dream fulfilled.
It was March 2005 when I arrived in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was 56 years old and gay. Except for a tiny storage unit back home I carried what remained of my physical possessions, a large duffel bag and back pack.
I presented myself for service with no expectations and certainly none that included what gay life would be like. Although cultural exchange is an important piece to Peace Corps service I had a more parochial view that did not include promoting gay rights in a repressed former communist state. Leave that issue for the human rights activist. Personal matters were important, wanting to make sure Peace Corps staff and fellow volunteers knew I was gay. Thankfully this task was helped along at our arrival confab. An excellent presentation from the PCV GLTB support group, it was a WOW event. How tremendous, easily making friends with my gay brothers and sisters. I embraced my new name Papa Bear.
Rumors aside, placement in a rural Ukrainian village was not to be. Assigned to a university teaching post I boarded an overnight train in Kiev rumbling to a real life fantasy. L’viv, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains is an ancient eastern European city located near the Polish border. It escaped the ravages of WWII and consequently a protected UNESCO world heritage site. Dating from the 13th century (I celebrated its 750th anniversary in 2006) historic orthodox churches, spires like needles atop onion domes, dominate the cityscape. Layered throughout the city were massive ornate buildings including an opulent opera house and prince’s palace. The exquisitely preserved town square rivaled any in Europe. Architecturally not much had changed since 20th century’s first occupying power, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire were removed following WWI. I lived in the center of this time capsule.
Southern hospitality reigned as I regularly entertained the GLTB support group and many other traveling volunteers. Weekend parties, sleepovers, all the camaraderie helped through the long winter stretches. Often I was in contact with a nearby gay volunteer, younger with much better language skills. He had connected with a couple of gay Ukrainian students in L’viv. Through the students we learned that a gay group from Kiev was coming to L’viv for a HIV fundraiser. Never mind that it was a school night, it was gay life to behold. After traditional vodka shots we trotted ourselves out for the midnight event. Buzz the door, down the steps and into the dark mirrored room blaring sounds of familiar disco music. This one event was the only community gay life I experienced in L’viv. Kiev was where it was happening, with one large disco located just outside of town and two smaller downtown bars. It was the gay epicenter of Ukraine. A twelve hour overnight train ride made the Kiev trip difficult but I would try to get there for the quarterly GLBT support group meeting. More accessible was gay life in Ukraine revealed through internet surfing at my home desk. Fortunately, L’viv was a tourist destination for adventuresome travelers. I registered on several gay websites and received occasional hits from gay travelers coming from all parts to visit L’viv. Several meetups led to some interesting and lasting connections. That was fun, but community gay life was non-existent, two years arrived just in time, I was starved to reconnect with my culture and community.
My Peace Corps experience was amazing and I returned home with a healed
spirit and a renewed appreciation for American culture and values. The experience was about service to country and the goodwill that comes from the exchanging knowledge and gaining understanding of people from another country. Peace Corps challenges you to step into this adventure no matter your age or orientation. I did and it’s the best part of my life’s story.
Edwin Patout is living, working and volunteering in Washington DC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org