Cracking the Closet Door in Bulgaria

Brian Hartig, RPCV

During training toward the end of the last month of summer I was outed here in Bulgaria by another volunteer to a select few Bulgarian nationals. Don’t get me wrong. It was not really an intentional outing. No one wanted anyone else to get hurt in the deal. In fact, it was done with a sense of obligation, with a certain sense of educational duty felt by the “outer.” She felt she could no longer stand by while her family casually spouted phobic remarks.

It was when those remarks turned “homo-” phobic, though, that I eventually became the example, the vehicle by which to show a people unexposed or unused to great differences and variances that stereotypes were not always true, were sometimes fallacious, and were often unrepresentative. As a potential teacher, however, who would go on to teach kindergarten through 11th grade in Central Bulgaria, I knew that this unintentional “incident,” unless countered, could very well spell the demise of my service.

Deep down I didn’t want to deny her words. It went against everything that I’d always felt contributed to the life-education of those who didn’t realize they know “us.” But I had to place this outing in perspective and consider the new situation within which I found myself with Peace Corps. So I spoke with the volunteer (and with another volunteer to whose family the news had spread), expressed my views and asked them to do what they thought was best. They did. The final solution hurt. It hurt a lot. It was a denial of my sexuality. The volunteer stated to her host parents that she’d been mistaken about me and that I was straight as the proverbial arrow. I felt I’d just denied—through a pander, no less—within the expanse of a weekend, who I was, and had regressed the movement and had negated any educational value possible, to the point at which it had been before our arrival.

Once again, though, “perspective” came floating back. I realized that it had become the main issue in this incident and I knew that in the long run that the wise decision had been made because of it; I simply could not educate in Bulgaria if I’d been sent back to America. And although, Peace Corps, obviously, would never send me back for being gay (it has a non-discrimination policy regarding sexual orientation), I would very readily be sent back—or to another country—if I had, all of a sudden, become ineffective. And that, gentle reader, was the bottom line.

In a nutshell, this story has come to represent the situation to me here in Bulgaria for lesbians and gay men. Some have equated Bulgaria to America in the ‘50s yet at a slightly accelerated pace. Not a whole lot different than what you might experience in other East European countries, though sparks of change, however, are apparent often in my daily life. The personal opportunity to counter phobias and bias exists and allows me the possibilities to make a difference in individual lives.

But back to perspective. It being so important, allow me to give you a bit of it regarding my background. Before I entered Peace Corps I was co-founder/ President/Executive Director of Louisiana’s first non-profit group for lesbians and gay men, Louisiana Electorate of Gays And Lesbians, Inc. (LEGAL, Inc.). We worked to bring about one of the South’s first Hate Crimes laws, which was inclusive of “sexual orientation” wording. We also successfully fought an amendment to Louisiana’s Constitution to outlaw “gay marriages.” No small potatoes according to me and according to those who told us not to even fight that fight in Louisiana. We were also successful, amongst other things, in organizing the various lesbian and gay student groups around the state.

I was known by some as Louisiana’s State Faggot, my picture on all of our road maps right there next to the State Bird. I was out to the extent that I believed the closet door could never have been shut again as it had been removed from its hinges.

And so it was soon after starting LEGAL that I had vowed never to allow myself to be pushed around through fear of acknowledgment of who I was. That ideal, held so dearly, however, because of “perspective,” was altered here in Bulgaria—and rightly so—in order to further another cause. I realized that my fight was not here in Bulgaria. I could exist closeted again and still be an effective person. It may have been a decision against my principles, but it was one that was based on common sense. Sometimes common sense wins over in such situations when you are so far away from home and have so little recourse against bigotry or ignorance.

Actually, my Dallas recruiter had even asked me point blank if, considering my background of six years as a gay rights activist in Louisiana, I would be able to go back into that closet I had known so intimately for so long. That was a tough question that called for a well-thought-out answer. I was ready for it, though, and having been closeted in the military before I knew what I was up against and had decided that I could do it again. I knew the loneliness and, somehow, having already existed through it, knew I could willingly (this time) do it again.

My time spent here can not truly be described as totally closeted. As a matter of fact I realized soon after my arrival in Bulgaria that my time here was not meant to be used solely as a vehicle for education for those Bulgarian students I was to teach. Another way to educate regarding sexual orientation soon surfaced which, although not evident coming in, made itself quite evident during training. I think we as Americans coming to other, less economically developed countries, to teach and help bring about positive change, sometimes forget that we ourselves are still learning, growing, finding out who we are and learning how far we can mentally, as well as physically, go.

Most volunteers who enter Peace Corps are right out of college, starting their careers and, quite often, looking for direction, either professionally or personally. I’ve met many volunteers here who, for lack of a better word, were “confused” not only about their career path choices but also about who they are and how they fit into the whole system. As a former Marine Corps officer, and human rights activist I did what I felt I could to blend leadership with a positive forward-thinking sense of self and did my best with the other volunteers to lead by example. What I’d accepted without thinking about it over the past six years, suddenly had become something I would have to consider deeply for the next two years. For starters, I knew I would have to be careful with how I came out to other volunteers.

I could tell you straight away (ahem) how I did this and the complications it presented, but instead I’ll relay another little incident, which happened toward the end of training. One-day while sitting in Bulgarian language class with a rather large group of volunteers we were playing a game whereby we were asked personal, yet general, questions. When it came to my turn, the doozy was asked of me: “Tell about your last love interest.” As I had taken the tack of not “coming out” guns a’blazing and no-holds-barred to the other volunteers (rather taking an “as-it-comes” approach), not everyone— including instructors—knew about me. Answering this question in front of the group gave me the wonderful opportunity to educate.

Beginning my answer in Bulgarian I started by using the word “He.” I was quickly halted by the instructor who explained that I was using the male pronoun and that what I wanted to use was the Bulgarian word for “She.” So not one to be easily dismayed, I unabashedly came out with the word “He” again, was once again stopped and corrected. Obviously I continued onward using “He.” At long last, after several delayed starts, it was understood, by everyone who hadn’t known already, that I knew what I was talking about. The laughter by those in-the-know was contagious. Soon everyone felt at ease and was joining in.

Later on in the day, however, a friend who had obviously not had a clue about me, approached me and asked if he could speak with me about something. He said that as I had revealed my sexual orientation earlier that day he sat next to me stunned, his feelings slowly turning to anger and then to betrayal. He explained that he had felt I had hidden something important from him and he didn’t understand why. I saw how he had taken my coming out personally. As he had thought about the situation further, though, he said, he realized how wrong he was to feel this way. If I had come out to everyone in the beginning, he reasoned, he would have felt that I was flaunting my sexuality when there was no reason to do so.

He ended up telling me that he now understood how fine a line lesbians and gay men walk when choosing whether or not to be out about their sexual orientations. He had just wanted to tell me this and to thank me to helping him to learn about something he had known little about. I felt personally fulfilled. Though it is a very fine line, indeed, that we are forced to walk regarding how and whether we disclose our sexual identities to those around us. I agree. Too far to one side and you’re labeled an outspoken, in-your-face activist. Too far to the other and your reticence challenges that of St. Augustine’s.

I chose not to hide my sexual orientation to the group, but at the same time not to announce it outright or force it down anyone’s throat. In so doing I led by example and taught some people, in a passively progressive way, about who we are, who I am. As the question came up I gave it my honest answer; I didn’t seek them out, but I didn’t run either. I found that when you come out this way, though, that word does get around, but that word gets around selectively and, as I presented in my last incident, it got around quicker to some than to others. That, however, is the nature of the beast.

After my gradual self-outing I realized how everyone who had a story to tell me, and felt they could tell it, told it. In the process, they were letting me know that they accepted me and that they understood—as well as a straight person could—the difficulties I faced in my daily life— particularly now in Bulgaria. With this newfound status our Peace Corps Medical Officer eventually asked me if I would feel comfortable giving a short presentation on being gay and living in Bulgaria to the new group of incoming volunteers. This self-outing I instantly recognized was to be a horse of a different color—a different way entirely from how I came out to my group. I pictured myself instantly being labeled by the new group as the “gay volunteer” before even being known as “Brian the volunteer from B-8 group”. I suppose that slightly bothered me. I’d known the feeling before, though.

I accepted the proposition, however, and made a presentation to the new group in two time periods. I slowly outed myself, but over a much shorter period of time—half an hour. I learned many things in that half-hour, though. I learned that everyone in the room knew someone who was gay or lesbian, that the majority respected not only my orientation but my speaking to them about such a personal matter, and that, in view of the average age of incoming volunteers, many, as heterosexuals, were very happy to hear what was presented because it allowed them to understand the pitfalls before they were to meet them—thereby their avoiding this year with their group what had happened to me last year with mine. They also knew, as I presented the topic in this way, that the talk was not mainly directed towards those who considered themselves lesbian or gay. It was also, and in a way more so, directed towards those in the group who considered themselves heterosexuals and for a very simple reason—people like myself (and others in the room who chose or chose not to reveal their sexual orientations) needed to know how to deal with the situation of being out or not (if and when it came up) and that their support would be not only appreciated but also very necessary.

My biggest lesson from that presentation came to me over the year as I worked as a member of our Volunteer Support Network. I realized just how important it was to have the topic brought up to the new group and how much its simply being brought up by a leader from the group before theirs lent it an air not only of Peace Corps—and volunteer-sanctioned authority but one of honesty and a sense—which some volunteers may not have had previously—that “it’s OK to be gay.”

I reveled in the applause I received at the end of my speech but not for myself. I smiled inwardly for those others who may not have felt they’d feel comfortable being out, but that they could, at least to any one person in their group shed light on their secret. And in so doing they could receive something that they would do well to have over the two-year period in-country: support.

Since my period of instruction, I have had many volunteers approach me to thank me for speaking on the topic. Also since my presentation I have spoken with volunteers who were having difficulty dealing with gay sexuality and felt more comfortable speaking to me personally. So, in a way, these volunteers were already working to provide support to others who needed it. And in the end I suppose, that’s what it’s all about—support.

In the Marines they used to tell us that the front lines would fall and that infantrymen would die without aid from the support units (supply, motor transportation, etc.). It’s never before been more powerfully brought home to me than here in Peace Corps just how true that maxim is. “Just showing up,” as Mark Twain once said, is not “90 percent of the job” (at least not for volunteers in a foreign country); support is. Now many others in Peace Corps know exactly how important support—or simply its availability—can be.•