My posts tapered off towards the end of my service because I was running around like a madwoman the last few months, trying to wrap things up and say goodbye. We held another summer camp (Camp GLOW) for high school girls; I worked with the environmental volunteer in my town to start a model garden for women with HIV; I helped one of the schools I’d worked with for World Handwashing day set up a station for kids to wash their hands. Life was busy for pretty much the first time. And just as all the activity was at its peak, it was time to say goodbye.
After traveling to Egypt and Turkey for a week, I came back to the U.S., did a little more traveling, and pretty quickly started grad school. I’m in a Masters of Public Affairs program, and it’s challenging my brain in a way it hasn’t been challenged in a long time.
Right now, I’m putting off writing about what I really wanted to say. Today is National Coming Out Day, and in that vein, I wanted to write about something I couldn’t while I was in Ethiopia: what it’s like being a gay Peace Corps Volunteer in a place where being gay is not only illegal, but looked upon as something abhorrent to the vast majority of people.
I’d been lucky throughout most of my adult life to be surrounded by people for whom my sexuality was, above all, no big deal. My immediate family was probably surprised, but never anything but supportive; I lived in big cities where I never encountered discrimination or intolerance. I was able to be myself everywhere I went.
Ethiopia was different. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when, about two days into our training in Addis, we had a session called “Coping with the Closet.” In sum: Welcome In. In Ethiopia, gay people are shunned; at worst, they’re killed. Homosexuality is illegal, and most Ethiopians don’t believe it exists in their country. Our physical safety and cultural integration depended entirely on our discretion, and that of any other PCVs with whom we chose to share our identities. Scary stuff.
It wasn’t that hard, at least at the beginning. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a bunch of other Peace Corps Trainees with whom I could be honest. I even started (discreetly) dating a fellow trainee, and that relationship survived for two years, despite the insane distance and unreliable communication. When I moved to site, I had some great PCV friends in and near my town, and their support was incredible. As part of my country’s Peer Support Network, I helped give the Coping with the Closet talk to subsequent groups of incoming trainees, and, I hope, was a resource for other gay volunteers.
The hardest part was that no matter how close I got to Ethiopian friends, I still had to hold back. Frankly, I lied all the time. I fabricated a boyfriend back home and said that we were getting married when I got back. I promised everyone I’d invite them to the wedding. I felt the worst with two women to whom I became particularly close; they’d confide in me, and I’d be lying about an essential part of who I am.
Being home has felt like I can exhale for the first time, but old habits are hard to shake. When I’m in a conversation and someone uses the word “gay,” I instinctively look over my shoulder to see if anyone’s overheard, forgetting I don’t have to worry about that anymore (after all, I’m in a state where gay marriage is legal, at least for now). I’m worried that Ethiopian friends are going to find this post and decide that they hate me for who I am, and that I’m not the person they knew me to be — or, worse, have a different perception of all Peace Corps Volunteers.
I wanted to write this post, anyway, despite the complex manipulations of my Facebook privacy settings it necessitated. I wanted other LGBT Americans who are thinking about doing the Peace Corps to know that we’re out there (even if we’re not “out” while we’re “there”), we’ve done it, and we’ve lived to tell the tale. As difficult as it was to jump into a closet for really the first time in my life, I wouldn’t trade this experience for two years of going to lesbian bars or kissing my girlfriend in public.
And we get to come home to a country that gets more tolerant and more equal by the second. You know why? Because people are starting to realize that when they discriminate against LGBT people, they’re not discriminating against abstractions: they’re standing in the way of their relatives, friends, and neighbors living full, loving, normal lives. People are realizing that it’s easier to hate an idea than it is to hate a daughter or granddaughter they’ve known since before she was born. People can think that gay marriage is icky, but John and Paul? That couple at the end of the block? They always bring that amazing barbecue chicken to the neighborhood festival, and of course they should be able to get married.
America is changing because we don’t feel we have to hide who we are, and we don’t feel we have to hide who we are because America is changing. It’s all spiraling up towards a more equal, more just, more loving society. And we get to be part of it.
Happy Coming Out Day.