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Africa is what often circulates in the western media: the president of Gambia saying gays should be beheaded (he later rescinded this comment); that you can receive the death penalty for homosexual acts in Uganda; that a marabou (religious leader) in Senegal proclaimed that homosexuals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.