Peace East: Outcry
April 13, 2017 Leave a comment
I applied to Peace Corps accepting the fact that, for two years, I’d be locking myself in the closet and throwing away the key. Was I apprehensive? Absolutely. But I’d read plenty of literature preparing me for that outcome, and I’d grown to accept it. Then, during our first interview, my recruiter asked me point blank: “Do you have any other minority- or identity-related concerns that you think could affect your service?”
That’s a little forward, I thought, feeling my blood pressure rising.
“Well… I’m gay?”
“Okay, got it, thank you for sharing that with me.”
Another five minutes of less-intrusive questions passed before the conversation came to a head.
“There’s room with University TEFL in China leaving this June. How does that sound?” Something about her wording made me feel like there was a little wiggle room, which struck me as strange, because prior to this conversation, I always thought applicants didn’t have a choice in placement.
“Are there other options?”
“Well… you’re also qualified for Ethiopia, but…” she hesitated, “I think you’d have a much more comfortableservice in China.”
Two years later, this conversation still rings clear as ever, because it took me a good while to understand what my recruiter meant. Ethiopia’s attitude toward the LGBT community is not altogether welcoming. China, on the other hand, is slowly warming to the idea. While not immediately apparent, I grew privy to a handful of gay bars and other gay-friendly establishments in Chengdu, my first home. Then, after I started teaching in my school and picking students’ brains, I was able to grasp the current climate not from reading heavily slanted articles from the media, but from the people themselves.
There’s plenty of reason why things are the way they are. First of all, the majority of the students I work with are very sheltered. They come from villages of 200 people where they were raised by traditional parents and grandparents pummeling their family values into them from birth. They all had cell phones and TV and internet, but had little access to [what I’ll call] “culturally exposing and mind-opening media”. Who can blame them for showing up in a giant town in a giant university where a giant white boy is telling them that, statistically speaking, at least three of their classmates are secretly eyeballing persons of the same sex? Just kidding… I didn’t do that. Not then, anyway.That’s not to say my information wasn’t slanted. My province is famous around China for being backwards, behind, and conservative as hell. When asked about homosexuality in their country, some students would look me in the eye, dead serious, and say “China doesn’t have gay people.” Discouraging? You betcha. It’s not fun to hear your young minds-for-molding saying things that almost feel like personal attacks.
The second and maybe the most important factor is the obvious one: me. Despite China’s warming attitude toward all some things gay, I was not about to march into my first day of classes tossing glitter and painting rainbows on everyone’s faces. The unfortunate thing is, even though I was assigned to a more gay-friendly country, that didn’t mean I could be out. Sure, I wouldn’t run the risk of getting executed or exiled… in fact, physical violence toward LGBT folks in China is virtually nonexistent – I wish I could say the same for my own, more open-minded country. So, what are the consequences of coming out in China?
I’m not saying that staying in the closet directly led to my getting Fridays off for my final semester in Peace Corps. I’m saying that indirectly, this – and a bunch of other stuff – led to my getting Fridays off for my final semester of Peace Corps. Relationships are everything in China, and I wasn’t keen on putting my service in jeopardy from the get-go. That said, I never planned to hide forever… I just had to wait for the right time.Shame, simply put. This shame doesn’t manifest through eye-rolling or gossip, nor does it play out like Cersei’s bare-assed walk back to the Red Keep. In the family context, if a son or daughter isn’t straight, he or she can’t get married and can’t reproduce – the two ultimate no-no’s of traditional Chinese culture. The other things that suffer – and which affect me more directly – are relationships built with other Chinese people… particularly those with whom we’re engaged in a power dynamic. What’s at risk, exactly? I’d say almost everything. That’s because if I don’t make my every effort to be exactly what my school is looking for (rather than what I have to offer as an individual), I lose points. And Chinese people… they keep score. Better than anyone I’ve ever known. If I prance onto campus and start rattling cages, I can say goodbye to friendly invitations to dinner, cooperation from the students… oh, and the most important: having any leverage at all within the department.
That time came on my 627th day of Peace Corps service, just 50 days from the finish line and, at the time of this posting, on Monday of this week. Having worked with my current 175 students for at least a year (and many of them for nearly two years), I knew it had to be now or never. Much of this aforementioned “work” included cultural activities and lessons to pry open their minds little by little, usually using indirect examples to get them thinking outside the box, then slamming their feet on the ground by giving real-life, relevant examples. On these days, I’d always voice my own opinions, when prompted, and make sure they knew my stance without being intrusive.
After the quiz, it was time for the grand reveal. For the first half, they were astonished and amazed to find that Americans are not all tall and white with long faces and big eyes – though that point was very difficult to get across, even after the reveal. But the real shocker, naturally, was the final picture, and the caption that appeared at the click of a button: “A Couple.”So it wasn’t without some lead-in that I laid out some hard truth on the whole lot of English majors at my college this week. My strategy, I’m not shy to admit, was kick-ass. For Oral English and Advanced Listening Comprehension, I titled the lesson “Diversity”. First, we continued a discussion about gender identity and transgender issues which had been on-going for 2 classes. Second, I showed them 10 pictures of 10 individuals of various racial backgrounds, prompting them to guess where each person was from. (They were all from America.) Finally, after a collective brainstorm of different kinds of relationships between people, I showed ten more pictures of pairs of people. Some were family, some were friends, and some were couples. The last picture, #20 of the bunch, showed myself and my boyfriend, Geoff.
As expected, reactions were mixed. The junior students betrayed a mix of confusion, realization, and acceptance – in that order. Having had foreign teachers and having studied Western culture for three years, they aren’t surprised by much at this point. The freshmen, though? Chaos. I may as well have fired a gunshot into the crowd. The first five minutes had me assuring them repeatedly that it wasn’t a joke. After denial comes resentment, so, I heard shouts of “You broke our hearts!” ringing out from around the room. Then, as they began to tire themselves out, a more meaningful discussion ensued. They may be young, and many of them naïve, but generation gaps in China can be seen from year to year with the emerging adult group, and the freshmen seem in some ways light years ahead of other, more mature groups I’ve worked with.
Of course, I had to save the best for last. It was utterly unsurprising that the best reactions came from my sophomore students – the only groups whom I’ve stayed with since day 1 of my service to China. They’re currently enrolled in my Public Speaking course, which is dry and boring compared to the others, but we’re so tight it doesn’t matter in the least. I timed my big announcement around the impromptu speech unit, because during the lecture portion, I put their nerves at ease by giving an example impromptu speech in Chinese.
So, maybe it wasn’t so impromptu (considering I rigged it), but the closeness I have with these classes coupled with the fact that I did it in Chinese produced the most genuine and heartwarming responses I could have ever asked for. The first group was beaming with smiles, some even clapping and cheering to show their enthusiasm, the cherry-on-top being when one relatively quiet female student shouted, in Chinese, “I also like girls!!”
The second group, which I’ve always connected with better than the others, reacted rather unexpectedly. By the time I got around to them, most of them had already heard through the grapevine. And while a few faces beamed like the first class’, I noticed that quite a few – enough to make me uncomfortable – were eyeing me with a furrowed brow, doing that folded, puffy smirk/frown that you might do if you heard someone swear loudly at a nice restaurant. I learned right away, though, that it wasn’t malice or judgment. It was disappointment – and not for the reasons you’d imagine.
“Why are you only telling us now? Is it because you’re leaving?” a student asked, and about half the class nodded and sat up straighter. It knocked the wind out of me. They weren’t disappointed to learn the truth itself; they were disappointed that I didn’t feel I could trust them with that information from the beginning. I didn’t expect to feel so bad… so guilty… because in that moment, I knew that the compassion I felt for this bunch was something mutual. And they had every right to question my motive – after all, they’d just learned I’d been hiding something from them for our entire two years together.
The reason why – and although not every class asked, they all got the answer – was that I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk my relationship with the school, but more importantly, I couldn’t risk losing their respect. Coming out early in my service would be opening the door to judgment and preconceived notions about who I am and how I conduct myself, and I couldn’t have that. I explained to them as bluntly but respectfully as possible that, basically, I needed them to like me and trust me first. To see me as a normal, friendly, approachable, trustworthy, intelligent, successful, and happy person. And that being gay does not define me, nor should it define them or their opinions of anyone they meet in their lives. Finally, I begged all of them to go forward from the class and be more accepting and open to friends and family who identify as LGBT, if for no other reason than because one of their true friends and mentors proved their inherited ideas to be totally false.
Turns out they weren’t as indoctrinated as I thought. On the contrary, most of the initial questions were frighteningly normal… like “How long have you known your boyfriend?” and “How did you meet each other?” Being the bunch of hopeless romantics they are (and 90% of English majors are female in China) it almost seemed that they were just thrilled to know I was dating someone, regardless of the person’s gender. A few of them actually remembered meeting Geoff a year ago during Jennifer’s and Mark’s (my colleagues last year) going away party. One of the brighter ones shouted, “THAT’S GEOFF!” much to my surprise and delight. Even the harder, more conservative and traditional students in the classes made a clear effort to listen, understand, and accept the news. They asked some difficult questions like “Have you ever tried dating women?” and “Why would you choose this lifestyle?” but instead of jumping on the defensive, I was more proud of their having the courage to ask in the first place, and I therefore responded as calmly and respectfully as possible.
I always giggled while imaging myself on my last day of classes shouting, “I’M GAY, BITCHES!” over the school P.A. system, then ripping my clothes off and shimmying off campus while cackling like a Disney villain all the way back to America. As it so happens, coming out to my classes directly, respectfully, and well before my last day has been one of the most positive and rewarding experiences of service thus far. What I thought would drive a wedge between myself and them has brought us closer than ever, and even given others a voice to speak out.
My sophomore gems – who I too-often call “my babies” – only had two more questions on the topic before it was time to end class. The answer to the first one (“When are you leaving?”) was met with an outcry of confusion and frustration, since my COS (Close of Service) date from Peace Corps falls before they’ll finish their final exams. And the second question, which made for an absolutely perfect bookend on my absolutely amazing class, was simply this: “Will you make time to have dinner with us?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “As many times as we can.”