Diversity


This past December, I had an interview posted on my friend Mike’s website, Bushkids.org. We discussed my role in malaria prevention and awareness work throughout my Peace Corps service, what I’ve been doing in my 3rd year for Stomping Out Malaria in Africa, life as a 3rd year, GAD work, etc. It’s a lengthy interview so this post is simply to give you the link to the page: here. Enjoy!

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Volunteers should not disclose their sexual orientation to their host family members, particularly early in service. Such a confession may be a source of danger or discomfort. There is no tolerance for public displays of gay or lesbian affection in Senegal and homosexual acts remain illegal here. Homosexuality is not accepted in Senegal, neither in the culture nor in law, even between consenting adults. Volunteers who may be accused of homosexuality risk physical threats or harassment that may reach a point that the volunteer may have to leave the country because of safety concerns.

If you have accepted your invitation to serve in Peace Corps Senegal, typically you will have two to three months to prepare before flying to DC or Philly for your staging. In those two to three months, the paperwork you have to fill out, packets you should read, and conference calls with PC Senegal administration can keep you so busy that it’s easy to forget you’re actually going and in fact not just reading pdfs.

Amongst the mounds of literature you’ll receive, the first paragraph in this post is the only statement you will receive from Peace Corps or Peace Corps Senegal concerning your sexuality and how it may affect your life while serving for two years in Senegal. Read it again and think for a moment – that is all you get. Packing lists? Here’s twenty. Information on Senegal and language cheat sheets? Have this 2GB folder of pdfs. That one paragraph though, sums up everything PC has to say to you about being gay. Kind of scary, isn’t it? Terrifying, actually, especially if the only other thing you’ve ever heard concerning homosexuals in Africa is what often circulates in the western media: the president of Gambia saying gays should be beheaded (he later rescinded this comment); that you can receive the death penalty for homosexual acts in Uganda; that a marabou (religious leader) in Senegal proclaimed that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and thus should be thrown off of the top of a tall building. Would you reconsider getting on the plane to Senegal if you were gay? I would.

Three years ago, when I was a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) living in Thies and Mbour Senegal, not one session during our nine weeks of training discussed sexuality and how to approach the topic in Senegal. It didn’t seem weird at the time – our staff assumed that as young, mostly liberal, western-thinking adults, we were all open and comfortable with not only our own sexuality but also the diversity of those around us. Luckily for my training group, the staff assumed right and my stage (refresher: stagaire in French means intern or trainee, so training groups are “stages”) adjusted smoothly to life in village. Training groups after us did not bode as well.

Flash forward to November 2010: it’s the annual Gender and Development (GAD) conference that takes place the day before our annual All Volunteer Conference. Volunteers from across West Africa come to Senegal for the conferences, and Alhumdulilliah that they do because that year was the year PC Gambia introduced us to the Safezone training curriculum. As my half-awake blog post on Quest for a Safezone, Part 1 explained, this curriculum was originally created for PC host-country national staff. What I did not mention in that post was what the Safezone staff training helped us realize: we were dedicating an entire day to our PC staff to talk about about gender diversity in the Peace Corps, yet our PCTs were getting nothing. Moment of inspiration – we should create a shortened version for PSTs! (Such an obvious move looking back now, but before it actually began to happen, the absence of such a training wasn’t noticed, until it was noticeably necessary.) April and I discussed this idea after the staff training was completed and had soon put together an hour-long training for the current group of agriculture PCTs.

Flash forward again to the beginning of March 2012: this training for PCTs was one of the reasons I was in Thies the beginning of the month. Reviewing the outline of the session, it looked simple and thorough enough: we’d start by reviewing the statement from the PC Senegal handbook, then discuss possible adjustment issues for PCTs to life in Senegal – especially those who identify along the LGBT continuum, and then review laws and social conceptions of homosexuals in Gambia and Senegal. (Forgot to mention- this PST group has trainees heading to Senegal and The Gambia training in Thies, for more see here.) We assumed one of the last parts of our presentation would be the most hard-hitting for a lot of the trainees. This part was about keeping volunteers safe while serving in Senegal or the Gambia – and how to do so, they  must remain “in the closet” during their service. We assumed right.

It’s easy to understand why coming to grasp with the idea that you have to remain in the closet for two years would be difficult. Maybe you’re coming from a city like San Francisco where the LGBT community is not only accepted but also celebrated, and now you’re being told to go back to the time you were struggling with accepting who you are by hiding the fact that you’re gay. Or perhaps you’ve lived in rural Ohio where the only pubic options was to be straight but found the courage to tell your family and close friends that you’re gay before coming to Senegal. A huge weight was lifted off your chest; it’s like seven years of frustration, hate, and fear just melted away. Now you’re in Senegal, adjusting to the heat, the food, the language – and they tell you to not talk about the “gay thing” you just came to terms with. Put yourself in these people’s shoes: “While serving in Senegal or the Gambia, you must remain ‘in the closet’ for your own personal safety” – that statement is like a punch in the gut. But it’s unfortunately a true one, volunteers do have to stay in the closed because the current social climate in Senegal and the Gambia does not support homosexuals, and we don’t want anyone getting hurt. (That isn’t to say that volunteers are still free to do what they deem best: there have been a number of volunteers who’ve gotten close enough to their families that they’ve felt comfortable coming out to them.)

As you may expect, the session got pretty quiet during this conversation. To help people open up and discuss what they or their peers could be facing over the next two years, we passed out testimonials written by PCVs from across West Africa. The testimonials spoke on things like being gay in the PC, coming out at home, and being afraid to come out at site. To get the trainees more involved, we passed the testimonials out randomly amongst them, then had everyone reading one stood up and read it aloud to their stage-mates. When they finished, they sat down and rejoined the group until the last one was read. Here’s a few examples of testimonials:

 I’ve come out to my friends at home, but only to a few of my family members. My mom is totally supportive though I’m scared to tell my dad for fear that he will no longer talk to me and it will ruin our relationship. I know I have tell him eventually and can’t keep hiding the fact that I’m gay, but at the same time I love him and am afraid of losing him.

I haven’t come out to my family because I’ve heard them talk about gay people in the media, acquaintances, things like that. Knowing what they say about these people, I would never feel comfortable telling them about my sexuality. They just wouldn’t understand, and they could never accept it. Why come out to them when it would just invite cruelty I don’t think I could handle.

In Senegal it is much different to be sexually attracted to girls than in the States. First of all homosexuality is illegal. Secondly I feel that the women here would not be receptive due to the culture. I’m barely comfortable with any label in the states and will definitely go without one here. Culturally women walk around topless and it is not considered sexual. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get my attention. All I can do is turn my head though, it’s not like I can say, “Wow you have really nice tits and I’m attracted to you. Could you please put your shirt on?”

I got really lucky in the parent department because both of them were hugely supportive when I came out. In fact, they may have been too supportive; in middle school my dad confronted me about my sexuality, and then in high school my mom couldn’t understand why I waiting so long to tell my friends. That might have formed my perception of being gay in Senegal; the hardest part for me is hiding something about myself from people. How can I be close to someone if I’m hiding an integral part of myself from him or her? It’s incredibly depressing to think that someone I think is my friend may hate me if he or she found out the truth about me.

It’s hard to feel fully integrated when you can’t share a vital part of who you are.

 

As intended, hearing these personal stories stirred up a lot of emotions. I’ll be honest, there are a few testimonies that I avoid reading because I have a hard time reading them aloud without tearing up; it’s a sentiment that was shared among the PCTs as many eyes were red by the end of the reading. Still, no one wanted to talk, so April and I discussed why we work in Safezone perspective. Revealing a bit of ourselves to the group did the trick: one trainee got up to simply applaud all of his peers who had gone through the process of coming out: “I know I don’t have the guts to stick up for the gay community all the time, so I can’t even imagine the kind of courage you guys have.” “Obviously this isn’t the place or time to try and come out,” another trainee said, “but if you’re struggling with the self-hate and doubt and pain of not knowing who you are, don’t suffer any longer – talk to us, talk to me, we’re here for you. You can’t make it through these two years without us.”

This conversation went on for 15 minutes. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to witness. These people had met each other five days before and were sharing facets of themselves that were so intimate, some of their closest family and friends back home wouldn’t know what they were talking about. April and I were so proud of them. Not only were they opening up to each other, but they were beginning the process of becoming allies for each other – something they will undoubtedly need throughout their service. These PCTs are truly a phenomenal group of people.

For me, one of the most poignant comments during the session came towards the end. Looking slightly uncomfortable and visibly upset, a girl from the corner said, “I’m really glad we’re having this training so early because I’m beginning to realize that I’m going to have to go from being a bisexual atheist to a straight Christian in order to integrate here. That’s fine – but it’ll be a huge change, so I’m glad we’re talking about it now while we still have 8 weeks to go.”

Again, why the hell we never did this session for trainees before I’ll never know, but at least now we’ll never miss another group. Seeing how much the Safezone training and other diversity initiatives PC Senegal has taken up over the past year have affected the volunteer community has made me really proud to be a part of the team who’ve put these trainings together and hassled PC Admin to make sure they’re included in every training plan. After this year of hard work and success, I really think that our diversity initiates can only get better, but that’s not really up to me. It’s up to those 67 people we just trained who will be running the show sooner than they think.

It’s 00:56 here, which supposedly means that I should be snoozing but I’m a bit too wound up to sleep. Not wound up in the too-stressed-to-stop-my-mind-from-reeling way I was from this past November through February, but in a I’m-so-excited-about-things-that-are-awesome-that-may-or-may-not-happen wound up way. Don’t get me wrong, I 100% prefer to be kept up by thoughts of a good nature rather than the taxing ones, but the late night tossing does make me worry for tomorrow’s workday. Either way, since I’m committed to being awake (or more importantly to a late night snack) I may as well use the time to catch up with you.

I’ve decided that instead of giving all of you out there in interweb land a play-by-play of the past seven or so months as originally planned, I’m just going to highlight interesting events and projects that have busied my time since we last spoke. You’re really not that interested in what I did over home leave anyway, are you? Me neither. (Ok if you are, here it goes in bits: seafood, lots of rootbeer, lots of draft beer, my brother’s grilling, cheese, [noticing a pattern?] Boston, cigars, north end, bars, pizza, family reunion, Maine, driving, NYC, soft pretzels, DC, PC HQ office, dancing, more NYC, more cigars, comedy show, live band, Mexican food, more draft beer, 3am Chinese food, mom’s condo, awesomely bad daytime TV, shopping, rootbeer, wedding on the Cape, dancing, good whiskey, cigars, sleeping, ice cream, massive amazon.com order, back to Dakar in the gut of rainy season. Got to see all of my favorite people save about five, and the whole trip reminded me how much I missed you all and what exactly I missed about being en Amerik [which was apparently surprisingly easy to forget after 2.5 years].)

Anyway, back to interesting events and projects. In PC Senegal land there exists an organization called SeneGAD. SeneGAD (GAD for short) stands for Senegal Gender and Development, which is a group made up of volunteers who lead the country’s gender-based initiatives (girls’ camps, girls’ scholarships, men as allies/partners in female rights advocacy, talibe work, etc.). Though I wholeheartedly support GAD work, I’d never got involved in SeneGAD during my two years as a wee health volunteer down in Kolda. Then one day in Dakar, I was wondering around the PC office in my new 3rd year PCVL shoes and came across a sign for Safezone allies. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Safezone is the name for LGBT awareness and sensitivity trainings as well as support groups that exist in many universities, organizations, and PC countries. Since LGBT rights are something that are important to me and since I’d worked pretty extensively with gender rights in Boston (FYSOP Gender Focus, focus on your gender!), I decided to heed the call at the bottom of the list asking for additional volunteers who would be interested in being listed as allies. And that is where things took an intriguing turn.

Through conversations with the volunteer who was leading the Safezone initiative, April, I learned that Safezone allies were running a training for the Host-Country National (HCN) staff of PC Senegal. This was interesting indeed: a Safezone training for our Senegalese staff? In Senegal, where Imams proclaim in major newspapers that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and so should be thrown off of a tall building? Where gay men are so taboo that two men can walk down the street holding hands and no one would dare to think they’re anything but friends because the idea of homosexuality is so far removed from the general consciousness? Well, all of that considered, the first staff training apparently went really well, “but that’s because it was the staff all-star group – all of the medical staff and language instructors who’ve been working with PC for years. This next group may be more difficult,” April explained. This next group was the other half of our training center’s language instructors and staff, and they were getting trained that Thursday. I agreed to help out.

A few mornings later I was prepping a training room with five of my good PCV buddies. They had all led the first Safezone training, so they divvied out the easier parts of the training agenda to me (vocabulary game and testimonial introductions) reserving the more touchy areas for the vets (what “causes” homosexuality? How do you feel about homosexuality? What do we expect from you in terms of support as a PC Senegal staff member?). Before the HCN staff arrived, we also planned out how we’d deal with the awkward moments that were sure to come: what if everyone is too embarrassed to talk? What if everyone is too afraid to talk? What if someone is aggressively homophobic? How are we going to respond to the religious views on homosexuality in Senegal? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these potential sticky training scenarios didn’t make me a bit nervous – they were significantly different in nature to the conflicts I’d dealt with when working Boston when working in gender rights and I didn’t feel very prepared. Plus, I didn’t know the majority of the new language instructors who were attending the training, so I didn’t have much clout to diffuse any sticky situations with. That and it was a bit obvious from everyone’s expressions when they filed in that they either a) weren’t sure why they had to be at this training, or b) were not interested in talking about the gays, never mind the Bs and the Ts.

But then, everything started to go smoothly. I opened the training with a vocabulary game that had participants match words with their definitions and then present to the group their matched definitions in their own words (interesting first activity when the words were ones like “transsexual,” “outing,” and “civil union”). My friend Steve continued the training, talking about the history of gay rights in America, around the world, and in Senegal. The staff told us about stereotypes they’d heard regarding homosexuals from their friends growing up, explained the Senegalese mindset on gays, and delved deeper into the religious community’s views of gay men and lesbians. And no one freaked out, no one was visibly uncomfortable, – people were engaged and even curious. BOOP light bulb: in a culture where homosexuality is as taboo as it is here in Senegal, this training was the first time that most of the staff in attendance were able to discuss homosexuality in a safe and honest environment.

Opinions and questions started pouring out: “I don’t think you can choose if you’re gay or not,” and “but aren’t lesbian women just women who were abused by men and so decided to be with women instead?” The discussion turned into a fascinating critique of cultural norms, gender stereotypes, and sexuality, and as they day progressed I was more and more thankful that I’d agreed to help. It’s easy after 2+ years as a PCV to get lazy about the culture you’ve integrated into. Not necessarily because you “know it all,” but more that the frequency of surprising cultural moments diminish to the point that what was at first foreign is now your new normal. This training though, brought me back to my wide-eyed days; this training was letting me into a facet of Senegalese culture that I’d never ventured to face before.

One of the most poignant moments of the training was when me and the five other PCVs leading the training got up in the front of the room and read a series of PCV testimonials (some testimonials are included in this blog post). Background: PC’s Safezone training was originally developed in Panama, then made its way around the globe, throughout West Africa, into the Gambia and onto us. Along the way, it collected PCV testimonials. They covered topics about what it was like being a gay volunteer in the Peace Corps, how volunteers got kicked out when they came out to their parents in America, how it’s awkward to be a lesbian volunteer in a culture where women typically don’t wear shirts, and how painful it was to live with a family you grew to love to the bone during your service yet that you were still petrified to tell you were gay because of how their culture dictated their likely reaction. The testimonials were candid, written with clear voice, some funny, some honest to the point that they were difficult to read without tearing up, and as we read everyone in the room was entranced. It was one of those moments where when we stopped reading, the silence in the room seemed to vibrate in the air around until someone sniffed or scuffed a chair, breaking the trance.

The training ended about an hour later with the staff having the option to list themselves as Safezone “allies,” or people who are advocates for LGBT volunteers in Senegal. This is a big move for a Senegalese person to make – openly listing that they support gay volunteers (well not openly openly – the list isn’t published anywhere, we just disperse it among the PC Senegal community. It’s still a big deal though). To our delight, we had a few of the staff sign up. Awesome!

Believe it or not I have more to tell you about Safezone and diversity and such, but sleep has caught up with me now (almost 2, woops) so I’ll save those words for another day. As a parting gift, I leave you all with a cheer from my days as a Gender Focus FYSOP coordinator:

Gender 1, focus all, let’s all do the GF call.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 2, focus 3, let’s fight for equality.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 4, focus 5, let’s all do the GF jive.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 6, focus 7, boys and girls make out with Kevin!

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 8, focus 9 STOP: it’s GF time.

GO GF GO GF GO! GO GF GO GF GO!

Le sigh, I miss college sometimes.