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making the best of it in benin
making the best of it in benin
making the best of it in benin
(May 1997) Scott R. Marquardt, PCV
As many of you know, life as a queer volunteer is not so easy. The trick is to make the best of it. That's what I've tried to do since June 1995 in Benin, West Africa. And all of a sudden it's 1997 and I have only a few months left in my assignment. Where has all the time gone? Volunteer life here is easy in a lot of respects, more difficult in others. The down side is trying to integrate into the local culture, while having to remain silent about a major part of my life. I am not used to being silent and if I hear "Asi to we lo" (roughly translated: "How is your wife?") one more time I think I'll scream. But this article is not about that, it is about me and your great newsletter and how to help currents PCVs feel less isolated.
My first experience with Peace Corps was when I was 19 and traveling in Morocco. It was January 1991 and unbeknownst to me the Gulf War was about to break out. I was in the post office in Rabat trying to get a line out when I met two RPCVs. One was now a Fulbright scholar, the other had become (in his words) "a citizen of the World." Upon seeing me they said, "Man, what the hell are you doing here? Don't you know what's going on?" They were staying in a Peace Corps apartment that had been evacuated and told me to come home with them until the situation blew over. The war broke out two days later and I stayed with them for a month. During that month I learned a lot about them, Peace Corps and myself. Those two guys saved my life. Thanks to them, by the time I left Rabat, I had decided that I would graduate from college and go into the Peace Corps. One thing my friends had told me during the month stuck with me. After I told them I was gay, they said, "You'll love the Peace Corps. The only people that join are catholic kids and gays and lesbians." I knew I'd found something I wanted to do. Now that I'm sitting in my village almost two years into service, I wonder what the hell they could be talking about. No, just kidding, but I am surprised to find the diversity of people with whom I'm serving. My fellow volunteers are for the most part the most encouraging and open-minded people I could hope for. Being here together has been a learning experience for all of us. This learning experience started during staging in Philly. In a crowded elevator the guy squished up next to me asked what all the symbols meant on my PFLAG "Promote Tolerance" T-shirt. So I ended up giving an impromptu gay history lesson as to the significance of the pink triangle and what a red ribbon stands for. Training became a three month coming out event for me. After training ended I got a better feel for what was going on around me. I had spotted the catholic kids but the lesbians and gays had escaped my view. I took the bull by the horns and started inquiring. What I found out did not set my mind at ease. There were two out male volunteers who had finished their assignments the year before I arrived. As for the rest of our volunteers, that was speculation (and everyone speculated).
I soon came to realize that we do have gay and bisexual volunteers, the problem was that they were not yet ready to deal with it. Having done a workshop for NAFSA (National Association of Foreign Students Abroad) about coming out away from your friends and family, I know what an international experience does to someone struggling with their sexuality. Peace Corps Benin has been wonderful about my questions and suggestions. We have incorporated lesbian and gay issues into the medical training sessions, and when talking about sex the description of intercourse has broadened to include more than just opposite-sex partners. But, there is just so much the medical office can do. A lot of volunteers would never talk to the medical unit about sexuality issues.
Having read a few copies of the LGB RPCV newsletter, I noticed that one of your goals is "to do more to support lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers serving in isolated and homophobic environments" (August 1996). I also had the same idea. Last year Peace Corps Medical Services had their Africa conference here in Benin. With the help of the medical unit people from Benin and Togo, I had the opportunity to meet with Karen Anderson, PTO, Office of Medical Services. We talked about what it's like being a gay volunteer in a country where "homosexuality does not exist," what closeted volunteers have to deal with, and what Peace Corps Washington could do to support the LGB volunteers. We went through some gay and lesbian source material she brought to show the PCMOs, and we came up with some other ideas for providing LGB PCV support. I showed her a copy of the recent LGB RPCV newsletter. Later Peace Corps' Office of Special Services sent a copy of the newsletter and a list of LGB resources to all PCMOs in countries with Peace Corps programs.
I knew there was concern in the RPCV community about issues concerning lesbians and gays. I learned this meeting a lot of you at the March on Washington. What I did not know until I got here was that Peace Corps was also supportive of LGB issues. I started applying to Peace Corps just after the "Gays in the Military" stories hit the headlines. Since I was out I was concerned how another government organization perceived homosexuality. I still remember the day I called the San Francisco recruiting office to ask about the PC policy on gay volunteers. I did not want to risk calling my local office in case someone recognized me, and I didn't want anything to stop me from joining. The man at the recruiting office reassured me that Peace Corps respects diversity and that being gay is not a problem with Peace Corps. What I did not know until I got here was that there was a newsletter by and about people that had done what I am doing right now. What a great resource for us at our volunteer posts. I had an idea about how RPCVs could help current volunteers feel less isolated in their villages, and at the same time strengthen the RPCV LGB organization. You could start a pen pal program between current volunteers and RPCVs. I think PCVs would love to correspond with LGB RPCVs who had gone through similar experiences. My gay and lesbian friends at home just don't get it. They don't understand that I live in a village and shower outside, nor how I live without clubbing or Neiman Marcus. Being able to relate to past volunteers would be ideal. We can throw that idea out there and Peace Corps could make such a program known, but it's up to us to make it happen.
From the newsletter I understand that there are many countries that have informal support groups for LGB volunteers, but with the two year cycle of programs these cannot always be maintained. Sometimes countries have a dry spell when there are only one or a few LGB volunteers. If trainees could be made aware of Peace Corps' pledge of diversity and a support system could be set up with the LGB RPCV group instead of PC's medical office, that might put more LGB PCVs at ease.
For the time being, gay life here in Benin is going better. We have two new out gay volunteers, and one next door in Togo. I wonder if there are any lesbian volunteers. I did not come into Peace Corps to be gay. I was , already that. What I came here for is hard to put into words. What I experience here is an awakening, and what I've realized is that being gay is part of who I am no matter where I live.