July 5, 2016 Leave a comment
By: Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill
The last day in my Paraguayan community was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had. I had been going around the last month to say goodbye to different families and community members, but the last day was the hardest because I had to officially say goodbye to my host family. I lived with them for the whole two years of my service, which is unusual for a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay. Over those two years, I was closer to them than even my own family at times because they experienced the inevitable highs and lows with me during my service.
The person I grew the closest to during my service was my host sister. She was only three years older than me and we lived together in the same house. She is incredibly smart, independent, and ambitious, which is an unusual combination for many women in my community. We both felt like we didn’t exactly fit in due to the strict gender and cultural norms in Paraguay. We would talk about things, such as our hopes for the future and life goals, that we felt that we couldn’t really share with other people and have them understand. However, the hardest part was when we would talk about dating or sex. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my sexual identity because I was unsure of her response and I didn’t want to lose her as a friend or a sister, so I usually just changed the subject when she would ask me about my romantic life or why I didn’t want a boyfriend.
Being closeted became harder when I started dating my girlfriend my last year of service. My host family would joke that I must have a secret boyfriend because I was more bubbly and I spent hours texting and talking on the phone each day. When my girlfriend came to visit me in my site, I introduced her to my family as “my best friend” and she would occasionally come to stay with me a couple days in my host family’s house. My family never really said anything to me about my relationship with my “friend” and life went on as usual. However, it pained me that I had to keep my relationship a secret from people I considered a part of my family, particularly my host sister.
As much I disliked being closeted for two years of my life, it was surprisingly easy as a woman in rural Paraguay. There were very few moments I felt worried about people finding out because many Paraguayans in my community didn’t have a very robust understanding of female sexuality and the idea of a romantic relationship without a man probably seemed impossible to them. My community would gossip about men they suspected to be gay, but never once did they gossip about women in this regard. Thus, while there was always a little fear in the back of my mind, I felt somewhat comfortable having my girlfriend around my host family and other community members.
My last day in site, my host sister drove me to the bus terminal in the nearest city about an hour away. During that hour-long ride, we reminisced and talked about how much we would miss each other and keep in contact through texting and photos on WhatsApp and Facebook. Then there was a moment of silence as we approached the city, my sister finally said “you know, you can tell me anything about your life. I won’t care because you’re my sister and that won’t change. We will always be your family.” So I finally confessed that I was gay and the “best friend” that would come to visit me was really my girlfriend.
She burst into laughter and told me everybody in our family already knew and how they loved me anyways. She said how our mom knew, but she kept denying it when the rest of the family would bring it up. She compared it to how our mom knew she wasn’t a virgin but wouldn’t ever say it out loud. I was shocked. While I suspected my host sister might figure out I was gay, I never suspected that the rest of my host family would figure it out too, especially my host mother.
My host sister and I talked the rest of the drive about my girlfriend and what I thought would happen when I got back to the States. Then she proceeded to ask me several questions, including how long I knew I was gay, if I was certain I was not attracted to men, if I had ever tried to be with a man to make sure, and then, my favorite, how specifically did women have sex without a man. When she dropped me off at the bus terminal, she gave me a big hug and told me she loved me and how she would miss her sister. It was emotional and I felt this huge weight lifted off my shoulders by coming out to her.
Shortly after arriving in the States, my girlfriend and I did break up. Even though I knew it was probably for the best, I was a mess. There’s such an extreme bond you form with your romantic partner in Peace Corps because they understand so intimately a part of your life that nobody else can truly understand, even your closest friends in Peace Corps, and to lose that person is painful. I didn’t very feel comfortable talking very much about my breakup to my friends in Peace Corps because my girlfriend had several months of her service left and I didn’t want it to be a topic of gossip in the volunteer community. I also didn’t really know how to explain how intense the breakup felt to my friends in the States.
However, the person I felt most comfortable talking and opening up to was my host sister. We would text back and forth about my breakup and she would comfort me. She was also the one who supported me when I started dating again. Then she continued to be there for me when I went through another breakup. Even when I came out to my host sister my last day in site, I never imagine us having this close of a bond and the freedom to talk about my relationships. It even has gotten to the point that when I get on Tinder, I send her screenshots of profiles and she gives me her opinion to swipe left or right (even though we rarely agree). Definitely not what I thought my RPCV life would look like.
It’s amazing how my host sister continues to feel like my family. She still drives me crazy. She is still the one I can talk to about things I feel I can’t share with anyone else. I feel so grateful that I was able to share a part of my life I never thought I would be able to share with any Paraguayans from my community and have such a positive response. It has made my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and my experience in Paraguay all the more special and invaluable to me. I went to another hemisphere preparing to give up the openness I felt about my sexual identity in the States, but I came back from the experience with so much more confidence and acceptance of myself, including my sexuality, than I knew was possible.
Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill currently coordinates educational programs and other social services for the children of migrant farm workers in Kentucky. She served as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Paraguay from 2013–2015. She can be contacted at email@example.com.