February 11, 2002 Leave a comment
-Adult Education Volunteer, Belize
In the States and in some parts of the world, June is recognized as Gay Pride Month. It is a month that is set aside as a celebration of the lives, history, and experience of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the U.S. and throughout the world. For me Gay Pride Month is an affirmation of who I am and celebrates my experience when so much in the world negates it. Now well into my second year of Peace Corps service in Belize, I’ve gained a new perspective on what it means to be a lesbian, especially living in a primarily homophobic environment. Last year at this time I had probably come out to most other volunteers and the rest, thank god were told by the PCV pipeline. It’s funny because when I came to Belize I was already aware of the homophobia and the laws against homosexuality (I had spoken to a lesbian RPCV who had served in Belize in the early 90’s), yet what I was most anxious about was coming-out to the other volunteers.
Being a lesbian in a country that has laws against homosexuality and where the majority of the population practice Christianity means that one cannot be open about her sexuality. Being a lesbian in Belize means discretion. It means being cautious. It means being sensitive to others. It means being afraid. And sometimes it means being ashamed. It means not telling the whole truth. It means avoiding certain topics. It means having to hear homophobic remarks and say nothing. It means that you go back into the closet.
To be honest I’ve been spoiled. I’ve been out since 1993. Which means that I actively participated in the gay and lesbian community, I spoke on panels, I was in parades, I became an activist for gay rights, I had stable and committed relationship with a woman and I was out in every facet of my life including work, school and family. In addition I was able to live in a liberal college town where the gay population was higher per capita than San Francisco and where there were laws against discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation. You could say I was living in a lesbigay paradise!
So that was my experience before Peace Corps Belize. Now it may seem that being a lesbian was my whole life, but not really, just being honest was. I haven’t had many people reject me due to my sexuality. In fact it seems odd that it could possibly happen. Joining the Peace Corps being openly gay was a concern for many of my friends and family. Ironically I wasn’t too concerned. I knew that most Peace Corps countries were either homophobic or not accepting in general. I did expect to be closeted among the host country national. Being closeted wouldn’t be such a struggle because I had hoped to find my support system among other volunteers.
Within the last few years Peace Corps has been actively recruiting people of diverse backgrounds including sexual orientation. Peace Corps has specific policies that state volunteers can not be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. My Peace Corps recruiter didn’t directly ask me if I was a lesbian, but based on my past work and volunteer experience working with queer folk, she did warn me about being discreet and to be careful in Belize if I was planning to be out. I also received sound advice from my RPCV mentor who had served here. In the states, I wasn’t surrounded by gay people all the time, but I was used to people accepting me for who I am, and treating me with respect. Understandably, I sought out that same type of acceptance and support here within our volunteer group. As a result I’ve gained supportive friends who listen to me no matter what course the conversation takes. I’ve found empathy and understanding, some curiosity and a chance to educate and share my experiences with others. I am lucky because the other volunteers have treated me with respect in regards to this issue. I am grateful and thankful because as I have learned from the few Belizean friends I’ve made here, respect is the last thing you receive from others in this country if you’re homosexual.
The few gay and lesbian Belizeans that I know are very closeted and very discreet about their sexuality. Amy who self identifies as a lesbian was one of the first people I met here in Belize. She was born and raised in Belize. She currently works in a government agency. Amy has only recently come out to a select few including close friends and a few family members. She is not out at work and most of the people in her life do not know that she is a lesbian. Her experience as a lesbian in Belize has been stressful and frustrating. Due to the laws of this country, the only place for people to meet with one another is at private parties. There are no openly gay bars or discos. There are no support groups or organizations for lesbiagay people. There is no such thing as Gay Pride Month in Belize. The only medium/resources that lesbiagay people have access to in this country are the pirated cable stations from the U.S. that televise movies and television shows that portray lesbigay characters. The other resource is the Internet and obviously that depends on whether one has access to a personal computer, because checking out a queer website at the District Education office or at Belize Telecommunications Ltd. doesn’t seem like the most discreet way to find lesbigay resources and information! It seems that most lesbigay people in Belize somehow find others like them through word of mouth, which isn’t always the most reliable. Many move to the States to enjoy more freedom and more opportunities to be open and honest about who they are. As everyone knows, Belize has a small population, once you are discovered as either a lesbian or gay man, (bisexuals are usually considered homosexual) life can become rather difficult. In some cases, people are guilty by association.
According to Amy, she has had to go out with boys because that is what society expected of her, society mainly being her family and friends. As an adult Amy has had to live her life in the closet, as an employee of the government she can’t disclose too much about her sexuality, because if one is too obvious then one’s job and social status/reputation is threatened. There have been many cases of people losing their employment due to their sexual orientation even though it is never openly stated as the reason. After talking with other Belizean lesbians and gay men most would agree that it is easier for men to be open about their sexuality than it is for women. Although ironically the laws against homosexuality are targeted at gay men and not lesbians. It seems that more men are out than women and that’s because they are willing to take the risk. Due to these realities, moving to the States to be free or open is so true for many gay men and lesbians. Most people in Belize and throughout the world still consider homosexuality a sin, an aberration, unnatural, disgusting, in other words wrong and not acceptable. Due to these harsh judgments, most people prefer to be closeted.
As I write this article, I wonder how many Belizeans will read this and how many will judge me or lose respect for me and the work that I do. I would like to say that I don’t care, but I still have several months of service to complete and I don’t want to compromise my assignment, my office, or Peace Corps. I believe my reason for being here is more important than letting everyone know about my sexuality. And yet, I wanted the other volunteers to know how much I’ve appreciated their support and to be aware of not only myself who is a lesbian but also others who have lived in Belize all their lives and cannot be out because of fear and rejection. This is the same fear, that will not allow me to publish my name at the end of this piece. I am not ashamed of who I am. If anything I’ve become more proud, living in Belize, not only of myself but, of lesbigay Belizeans who have struggled alone with their sexuality and until recently haven’t even been able to see themselves represented in the media or anywhere for that matter. I am proud of their strength and their honesty. I admire them for being truthful if not with anyone but themselves. Shame and/or fear prevent most people from being open about their sexuality. Coming out is a lifelong process. A good friend of mine once said, lesbians, gay men and bisexual people come-out, so that one day we won’t have to any more. I hope that day comes sooner than later especially for those who live in Belize.
You can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.