February 29, 2016 Leave a comment
Jeremy Haber (Paraguay 2013-2015) is from Franklin, TN and currently works as a part-time Peace Corps Recruiter and full-time graduate student in Business Analytics at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. He served in Villa Hayes, Paraguay as a Community Economic Development volunteer. Jeremy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had a few crushes during my Peace Corps service. And while these crushes never made it past friendships, they did have a lasting impact on my life.
My first crush was on a Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator, a third year extension position. He gave our group a condom demonstration (on a banana, of course). What stood out the most were his quirky lapses in memory of common English words and his energetic presentation. It was so refreshing to hear him speak after months of dull, plain talks on health, safety, and security.
After the presentation, I emailed the Coordinator thanking him for his great presentation. In the signature, I added a code JUBX FXDUM HXD URTN CX PAJK BXVN LXOONN BXVNCRVN. He responded, “What is this? Is this a code? I like challenges.” But he never followed up more beyond that. A few months later he mentioned he was seeing someone so it made sense why he did not respond.
From this and many other experiences, I learned I was not so good at asking guys on dates because I am not very direct. During training, I made best friends with a Volunteer whose brother is Gay; she really pushed me to not live in my head and instead encouraged me to ask for what I want. In exchange, I helped her on how to use subtlety in conversation. Her problem was she would push dates away with her blunt comments, always trying to be correct. We were both lousy at getting dates, but during our Sunday brunch conversations we always learned from each other.
My second crush happened on my second day in site, after I finished three months of pre-service training. I met my primary contact, a Director of a local cultural center. The first thing we did was take his small pickup and drive to the native cultural center located in the middle of a deserted field about twenty miles away. On the way, in my bad Spanish, I asked him what music he liked. He said Mile Cyrus and Lady Gaga – I smiled. I remember my last interview with my Peace Corps Sector Director, telling her I didn’t care how big or small, difficult or remote the site I will be living in, I would be the happiest if she chose a contact I would work well with. As soon as I found out he loved pop divas in the first few minutes I met him, I knew my Sector Director chose a good contact for me. Although a great guy, our relationship remained professional, we had a very easy time working with each other, a common understanding of one another between guys who love pop divas and dancing.
It is said that ten percent of Volunteers may enter into a long term relationship (Paraguayan or foreign) during their service. So, having a sex life in the Peace Corps was somewhat expected. We were mostly twenty-somethings, now having enormous amounts of time on our hands, sex was almost guaranteed to occupy our time and our minds. Shockingly, I stayed celibate for four years, two years in the Peace Corps and two years while I studied in Asia for my MBA.
Why would I stay celibate? I did not plan on it, and I am not asexual. I just decided to stay with a host family and focus on myself rather than look for sexual partners. There were a few Gay Volunteers and locals, everyone still used social networking and dating sites overseas to hookup. However, I deleted these apps. It was not that I had a mission to not have sex or a relationship. I certainly had a few females and males come onto me. I would not call myself cold or standoffish, puritanical or prudish. It was maybe a calming down phase for me. I had a few crazy escapades, Gay cruises and parties overseas during a more exploratory phase of my youth. Maybe I turned into a mature Gay guy now.
There were a few guys that came after me. I met the local English Teacher at the cultural center. I was greeted with a friendly conversation and an offer to go to lunch. The next day the same, and soon it became routine to go to lunch with him. We were becoming friends, and soon I received a few nice gifts. I learned he was thirty, not married, enjoyed listening to Madonna, and never had a girlfriend. I told him I enjoyed his company but that we were just friends. He understood.
Out of my whole Peace Corps experience, this English teacher was one of the most remarkable people I had met. By the time I left he became the most sought after English teacher in the Department. His childhood was tough, adopted by the grandmother who died a few months before I started my service. He gave up the Presbyterian Church and lost most of his friends when quitting a few months before I arrived. So we spent a lot of time together, and while I was in Paraguay, we traveled all around the country and attended all the Peace Corps parties together.
Peace Corps had its share of parties. The parties in the capitol occurred once every three months, and it was a night of live performances by Paraguayans and Peace Corps Volunteers. It was also a night where many Gay men stopped by the party. There was a high percentage of Gay Volunteers and mostly because Peace Corps attracted a more liberal minded person. So one Gay Volunteer could date a local from the capitol and leave after two years, but the local still could come to the party and then start dating the next Volunteer. It was like going to the foreign exchange parties in undergrad and you were always looking on making new German friends and sometimes hooking up with them even though they would leave in a few weeks.
There was in fact a German Volunteer group known as AFS and there were a lot of Gay guys in that group. These Volunteers were college age so they were quite young, but I know Peace Corps Volunteers who went on trips with AFS Volunteers and even dated a few of them. My rule being twenty-eight at the time was to not date someone who was under twenty-one, since I had the same rule for myself in the United States.
Peace Corps made Volunteers comfortable with uncertainty. There were many expectations, dreams, ideas of one’s life in the Peace Corps during the application process. “I’ll learn a new language, I’ll make wonderful friends, I’ll make a difference, I’ll try new foods, I’ll figure myself out. I’ll meet someone and fall in love. I’ll have wonderfully successful projects.” This honeymoon phase quickly disappeared the first few months in site. The first few months of service, was likes like jumping into a pool of ice cold water every day. It was quite uncomfortable every time, but it warmed up as the day went on.
Soon the water started to become warmer, and my classes filled up with lots of students. In Paraguay, a White male was thought of as handsome, and young girls flirted with me. They soon found out I was not interested. Younger Gay guys would come to class sometimes with their boyfriend and learn a little English. My second crush was on one student who was a hot Zumba teacher. He took all of my classes one year and was the only guy over twenty-one. I remember one English lesson involved clothing, and students yelled out different articles of clothing, and he yelled out underwear with the cutest smile. I blushed. It was great to see him and others so motivated, maybe they were originally coming for other interests, but I turned that motivation into learning English and they soon became some of my best students.
During the summer, a guy Facebook messaged me with a “Hooollllaaa,” and a smiley face emoticon, the common online flirting for young Gay guys. I mentioned to him I was Gay, but not into him because he was under twenty-one. Then an idea popped into my head. I really wanted to get out of site and go to a gender and diversity camp. So I invited him to the camp. He was brilliant and told his story at camp about how he came out at the hospital he worked at. Unfortunately, his coworkers started gossiping and the other employees made horrible comments. He ignored them for a while, but then his boss told him to think about leaving. After the camp the youth became a new person, empowered with confidence. He eventually became a leader in the community and even hosted a Volunteer after I left Paraguay. We became good friends and still chat on Facebook.
Every Volunteer got the option to request a follow-up Volunteer to further develop the projects the previous Volunteer started. The Volunteer to serve after me in my site asked me advice on dating in site. I mentioned relationships for volunteers with alternative lifestyles may be more accepted in the capitol versus our small town, so meeting guys or dating Volunteers in the capitol may be a better idea especially since he lived in the center of town. We went for coffee one afternoon out of site. Not really a date, but we shared some personal stories.
At my local cultural center, every Events Coordinator, and there were three when I served, were not a typical male for a small Paraguayan community. I did not know if they were Gay. They never came out to me, but we shared some unforgettable experiences and stories. One Events Coordinator went to a youth leadership camp with me before obtaining the Events Coordinator position. He was a great speaker, having a lot of practice leading the youth in the church. I learned his passion was to be a beauty pageant consultant. He knew about every Miss Paraguay and all the winners in Latin America. His goal for the future was to meet me in my hometown of Las Vegas and see the Miss Universe Pageant at Planet Hollywood. I told him I’ll take him to see the Britney Spears show if he comes and visits.
I had a crush on another Events Coordinator of the cultural center, who left my site two years before I arrived. He returned to the cultural center only a few times. The first time we met, we spoke English and he invited me to his graduation at the Police Academy. He was the valedictorian of his class, and decorated with many medals in his police uniform. Who wouldn’t fall for this guy? We hung out two more times during my service. The first time we ate street food and had a stroll by the river after the sun set. We sat under the stars and talked about our time in high school in our respective countries. It was a fun night but did not amount to more than just chatting. The second date did not go over well. I chose an expensive Gay friendly café in the capitol, and he felt a little uncomfortable. We didn’t talk as much, maybe he wasn’t Gay. So we parted ways.
The last person I wanted to mention was my mentor. I had the best mentor in Peace Corps. He had been a Volunteer already for a year, and he gave me good advice on being Gay in Paraguay. He answered a lot of my questions over email before I started training in country. And then during training we spoke once a week to see how things were going. One additional conversation with someone in English and who went through the same thing I was going through as a Gay man made a big difference during that initial few months.
Now coming back to University of Tennessee being the Peace Corps campus recruiter, I am still very out and open about my sexuality. There is a huge rainbow flag on the wall of my office. I give recruitment speeches at Pride Week and joined LGBT commissions and Gay organizations. I quickly found out how fortunate I am to be back in an environment where students are extremely motivated to create positive change, however there is still a lot of change needed to be made.
In addition, as a recruiter, I find it important to share my identity as Gay in my class presentations. During job fairs, I lay my rainbow flag on my table where I have had students approach me because I reached out to them indirectly with the flag. There have been Transgender students and Gay couples who have come to chat with me about Peace Corps. While I am learning more and more in my role each day, I know sharing these stories about my friends in Paraguay have made the biggest impact on students’ decision to join Peace Corps. I also know my Paraguayan friends also had the biggest impact on making me a better person, too.