By RPCV Ethiopia, 2012-2014
My second day in Ethiopia, our group of volunteers crammed into the basement of a hotel for what had been called a “Diversity Panel.” The doors were shut, he curtains pulled, and the session began.
I was nervous. I had done my research before stepping on the plane and knew your laws, sisters and brothers of Ethiopia. I knew about deportation and prison time—twelve to fifteen years—and, though I tried not to think of it, that there were other punishments for those unlucky enough to be caught by friends and family first. And I knew about Robel Hailu, Ethiopia’s first entry into the Mr. Gay World competition. He fled to South Africa and likely wouldn’t come back.
Two volunteers gave us background information on what “LGBTQ” means, struggles for Queer Volunteers, and ways straight Volunteers could be allies. Then the stories began; the leader of our Peer Support Network told us about an Ethiopian man whose friends took him to an alley and killed him. We learned of the Volunteer who outed another Gay Volunteer to an Ethiopian friend the next town over. Both were separated from the service and left the country. Finally, we learned that it wasn’t safe to come out to Ethiopian Peace Corps staff members; Our support could be compromised. Volunteers in other countries had put a Safe Zone training module together, but, so far, Peace Corps-Ethiopia’s staff had refused to implement it.
I looked around at my fellow group members and wondered if there was anyone like me. I began to feel very alone. But you know all about what it’s like to wake up every day in a world that isn’t yours. When the session ended, I went upstairs for our coffee break and bummed my first Nyala cigarette off of another Volunteer.
We learned to use code words for ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in public, because we never knew when someone at a cafe might be sitting at the next table over, listening to the foreigners chat to practice English for an upcoming university exam. There were others who might be listening as well; our phone conversations, emails, and blog posts weren’t private. The night of the Diversity Panel, I asked another new friend if she’d pose as my girlfriend just in case anyone asked. All we would need to do was take pictures together at conferences and trainings so I could keep up my alibi. She agreed.
Occasionally, we volunteers caught glimpses of some of you in our day-to-day interactions:
There was a woman living in another training site who dressed like a man. Neighbors simply shrugged and said, “That’s her way.”
There was another woman I saw at a hotel in my site. I’d gone there with my site mates and my neighbor, and I saw her short hair and jersey for the national football team. I asked my neighbor, “Did you see that woman in the football jersey?” She scanned the room quickly and said, “What woman?”
There was a man working at the hotel I met after attending a counseling session. He had bright white teeth and a trimmed mustache. He lightly touched my wrists from behind the hotel bar, admiring the bracelets I’d bought. And he watched my eyes, just half a moment too long, each time we ran into each other in the hallways.
I lied to Peace Corps Medical office staff and told them I was having trouble coping with this new culture. The counselor I saw was born in Ethiopia but was adopted as a child, moving to the United States. She’d come back to the capital to open a practice. I told her everything, how it felt to be queer in this country. I told her about lying to my friends, and then I described the touches. I was confused about the physical affection Ethiopian men show each other. She heard what I was describing and said, “I know Ethiopian men are more affectionate than American men, but what you’re describing isn’t… typical.”
There had been other light touches like those on my wrists in the hotel bar. A neighbor’s hands brushing against my stomach in passing, a friend’s extra long caresses on my shoulders and neck. A man spilled beer down my leg at a community celebration once and brushed it off, letting his fingers linger on my calf. And I recognized some of you the way I recognize my American brothers on the street: something loose in the gait, that half-moment pause in the eyes as if asking, “Are you one of us?”
Friends, I still think of you often. I still see you on Facebook sometimes, friends of Volunteers who still live in Ethiopia. I envy those straight friends and what they can know. Why is it that my straight friends have always been able to know my people? What must it be like not to risk that?
But, one story: My neighbor up north was about twenty-two years old. She was from the capital and spoke fluent American English with little accent. We spent many evenings with my site mates, mixing our cheap wine with Coke and Mirinda to lessen the bitterness. We were sure she knew about me; no one could watch as much American TV as she did and not know. One Sunday, she told me she’d made too much for lunch and invited me over. She handed me a plate of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. I looked at the food and asked, “How long have you known I’m gay?”
“You’re gay?” she asked, incredulous.
“Oh, honey,” I said.
“But what about your girlfriend?!”
“Oh, HONEY,” I repeated.
I came clean. I told her about the alibi girlfriend, the counseling session, the touches. Other than the counselor, this was the first time I had ever been completely honest with an Ethiopian. I was worried; I’d done what we were told never to do.
She thought for a moment and said, “You know, I’m kind of proud of myself. I always thought I’d be okay with people being gay, and now I know I am! Gay people are kind of like celebrities. You know they exist, but you never think you’ll meet one. Now, let’s go get a bottle of wine and talk all afternoon!”
Dear friends, I ache for the time we couldn’t spend together. I wanted, so much, to know you, extending our solidarity and love to each other; our world has been treacherous and dark. But there are allies. They show themselves over time. I hope it’s true what the counselor told me:
“Right now in Ethiopia, it’s like the 1960s in America. The sexual revolution in America was so violent in the 1960s, but in time it calmed down.”
Peace Corps-Ethiopia was finally required by Headquarters in Washington, DC to administer Safe Zoning training to its staff. I had already returned to the United States by that point, but a Gay Volunteer, friend of mine, who was still there said the staff wished afterward that they didn’t know there were Queer Volunteers in Ethiopia. I still struggle to help my American friends understand my Peace Corps story. It was often heartbreaking and difficult; it was not what I expected. Some in the Peace Corps family are changing minds and hearts, and others are still waiting for the calm in the storm.
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A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday
Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum
Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa