Reconciling Development Work and the Closet in Paraguay

–Fiona Martin, now an RPCV 

I looked at my Facebook page recently, and I realized just how… well, gay it had become in the last year and a half. Well over half the links I post are about equal rights, and LGBT news stories. It didn’t used to be that way. In the States, due to my open-minded community, loving family and accepting college town, being queer simply wasn’t a big deal. I rarely considered if and how being queer influenced my interactions with people, my safety, or my future. Liking women (and men) was part of who I was, but it wasn’t a big part. Occasionally I might sign a petition or speak up in a conversation if it seemed necessary, but all-in-all I was very casual in my LGBT identity. Because it was rarely something I felt ostracized for, it was never something about which I sought support.

However, in my impoverished rural community in Paraguay, I am not openly gay. One of the absolutely most important reasons to be out is that, when people realize they personally know someone who is gay, they begin to revise their opinions. They realize that their votes and prejudiced comments directly affect someone one they know as a person, not just as a sexuality. One of the questions I struggled with for a while, was why doesn’t this apply to me in Paraguay? Shouldn’t I be open here for the same reason I’m open in Indiana?

I realized that I have to be closeted in site in order to productively do the development work I came here to do. As an Agriculture Volunteer, I am here to work with everyone who has degraded soil on their farm or wants to improve their family garden or wants to start a worm bin. Bigots deserve access to development workers too. I already have to overcome so many cultural barriers to get someone to try something new on their farm, why add something else? I’m not Catholic, but I don’t advertise that to the community for the same reason. In order to work with as many people as I can, I want to present as few barriers as possible. If I were to come out at the end of my service, or several years from now when I come back for a visit, the community will know me as a person. They will know the work I did. They will have to reconcile the person they know with the sexuality they object to.

By not being out, I am able to reach more people and be more effective. But it means I cannot be a resource for the LGBT youth and adults that live in the community. No one is out, but I have my suspicions about a few folks. I can’t come out to them; because it could compromise my position in the community (one well-worn strategy for deflecting suspicion off yourself is to become an out- spoken homophobe). I can’t be a role model for them, because they don’t know what we have in common. This is the hardest part about not being out in site. There is a gay rights movement in Paraguay. Things are changing especially amongst the youth and in the larger towns and cities. But out here in the campo, there is still a long way to go. Poco a poco (little by little), I guess.

So now, perhaps due to being closeted, if I’m lucky enough to have an internet signal, I find myself trolling Huffington Post Gay news section for hopeful or shocking news stories. I have started to closely follow equal rights issues in the states (e.g. repeal of DADT, North Carolina amendment banning same-sex marriage, President Obama’s public support for marriage equality). I have become more interested in the advancement of equal rights and community acceptance of LGBT people because I now feel the lack of them. Ironically, having to hide my sexuality has made my sexuality more central to my identity.

This writer has written for us previously. You can read her earlier article at http://lgbrpcv.org/2012/01/28/building-my-own-closet-in-paraguay/

You can contact her at  fmmartin@gmail.com.

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It’s Not That Bad in Paraguay

Manuel Colon, former PCV

My application and recruitment process for Peace Corps did not prepare me properly for serving as an out Gay man in Paraguay. Prior to my arrival in country, it was very unclear to me whom I could disclose my orientation (or if I should at all). I was really concerned about staying closeted for two years, and really prepping myself to be a celibate hermit. I can’t speak for all of the Queer volunteers, but I do know that those who I have spoken with have also echoed my initial preoccupations and reservations about being ill-prepared to handle their “out” identities in Paraguay. My local recruiter seemed pretty positive about my sexual orientation and service, although, she did gave me the standard warnings about cultural and gender norms in Latin America. But, I also received a follow-up call from the Paraguay desk staff in Washington really driving home the idea that I’ll need to prepare myself for being closeted for two years and the general non-acceptance of gays in the country I was being invited to (she wouldn’t disclose Paraguay over the phone).

I suppose if I had done some really good research, I could have resolved some of my concerns and uncertainties about being out in Paraguay on my own. But, I doubt it would have been effective. After living in-country for 20 months I now know that there is very little (accurate) information about Paraguay on the internet (and even less in English). Which is why I was inspired to write this piece. I want anyone who is reading this; the local recruiter, the Washington Office desk officer, the interested applicant, the recent invitee, etc, to please know, it’s not that bad!

I commonly use an example from our staging in Miami that demonstrates the general discomfort and confusion about how candid and honest we can be about our sexual orientation when coming to Peace Corps. My training class was pretty big (47 total) and it has come to light that at least 6 of us openly identified as Queer prior to coming to Paraguay. Though, when we were in Miami and running through the classic “Biggest Hope”/ “Biggest Fear” activities, only one of us mentioned her sexual orientation. One, only one of six! It clearly was on my mind and a definite fear of mine (and I would imagine the five other’s too). But, between the conversations I had with my recruiter and the Washington Office desk officer, I understood that I had to keep quiet about my sexual orientation and stay in the closet. I didn’t know if that meant to everyone, other volunteers, staging staff, in-country staff, or only host country nationals… to whom exactly?

During training you’re in a small bubble, with little information about what really is going on Paraguay and with other volunteers. Among my training group, little by little  my peers opened up about their sexual orientation and we’d talk about it together; what our experiences were back home, what we expected in Paraguay, who we had told so far, etc. But, as luck would have it, it turned out there was a volunteer-led diversity advocacy group, Jopara, that offered safe space for Queer volunteers (and other identities) and apparently there was a tradition after every swear-in to go dancing at a Gay club in the capital. Wait… Let’s unpack that a little. There is a Gay club here in Paraguay? Volunteers know about it? And frequent it? Where was that in my Welcome Handbook? And wouldn’t you know it, there isn’t just one Gay club, there are several. In fact, two new ones have opened up since I’ve been here. Additionally, there are several Queer NGOs, Pride/Equality rallies and marches, and LGBT movie festivals.

All in all, there is a whole bunch of Queer positive activity happening in Paraguay. Like most progressive movements, these activities are concentrated in the capital. But, hell, why didn’t anybody tell me that they existed in the first place? I distinctly remember being on a new site visit and a fellow trainee and I were taken to a Gay karaoke club in the capital where we ran into some other volunteers. When Glee’s version of Madonna’s “Vogue” played across the screen I thought to myself “If this is Peace Corps Paraguay, I’m going to be alright”.

I understand that recruiters and desk officer need to paint the toughest possible picture of service, because it is a reality that some volunteers will have to live. In fact, while I seem to be ranting and raving about the progress that exist in the capital, I don’t know any volunteers (myself included) who actually are out to their communities. However, just like lots of other concerns and worries about your service that are created before even getting in country, I think they can be alleviated before arriving here too. No one should come into service thinking it will be a walk in the park, much less Queer volunteers. But, there needs to be no confusion over who a volunteer can be out to during their service. Peace Corps Paraguay wants to support its volunteers, all volunteers! And if that involves you disclosing your sexual orientation, that’s okay! As with any new setting you should be cautious about individuals who may not receive the information well. But, it’s okay to tell your trainee peers, your sector bosses and general office staff. The PC medical officers will probably be the first you’ll disclose it to, or at least it was for me. During my mandatory, arrival medical check-in I was asked about my plan for contraception, I replied “Homosexuality.” I find it very unlikely that I’ll be getting anyone pregnant here and I thought it was important they knew that. Invitees and interested applicants need to know that the in-country staff is supportive of diversity issues and are open to having that conversation.

I just want to let whoever is reading this know, that upon entry to Peace Corps Paraguay you’ll be greeted by a community of Queer volunteers and straight allies that want to make sure you have an excellent and meaningful service and an office that supports you too. Really, it’s not that bad.

The writer can be contacted at macolon2@gmail.com

Sometimes I Want to Live in Buenos Aires, Too

– A Peace Corps Volunteer, Paraguay

Of the approximately six million Paraguayans in this world, two to three million are in Buenos Aires on any given day and another half a million live in Spain. This opens up a number of important conversations. How can we help people find meaningful work in their country of birth? How can we keep prices fair for small producers as trade takes place on a larger scale? How can we help our contacts and communities foster a sense of cultural pride, when many people want to leave to find work? However at my site, this phenomenon lends itself a bizarre amount to one topic in particular: same sex marriage.

Where I live, just over half of the adult population works at least seasonally in Buenos Aires, where people of different genders and sexualities have equal rights under the law. Many of the Paraguayans who I met during the Christmas holidays this year had returned to see news about DADT being repealed in the United States coupled with a growing pride (and civil rights) movement in Paraguay. Since I was the new shiny estado unidogua (person from the United States) people asked me my opinion.

In the interest of caution and self-preservation, I never bring up the topic of same sex rights first, and until I know a person at my site well, I don’t tend to discuss my personal views. I do tell people who ask, however, that statistics show that the majority of people in the United States now supports a separate, if not mostly equal, marriage-like institution (though this exists in only a few states) as well as open military service. And then I hear the inevitable comment: We’ll, we just don’t have gays here like you do there.

I try and avoid judging books by their covers, so to speak, but between the drag queens in Paraguari, some of the prettier looking shoe shiners at the Villarrica bus terminal, and the nights at the club in Asuncion, I’ve gathered there’s something a little less than heterosexual going on. But I keep my mouth shut and refrain from saying what’s really on my mind: You have thirteen siblings, and Edgar is the gay one. Or; Is it really so mysterious that Janina isn’t married? And; Yes, Sebastian is a nice dresser, and his hair does always look great.

Because I have the sneaking suspicion that if I play my cards right, Edgar, Janina, and Sebastian might knock on my door one night, asking my help. After talking to other Peace Corps Volunteers, it seems that someone approaching us to talk about their sexuality is not unheard of. There are at least a few volunteers right now who are counseling teens through what might be the most difficult years of their lives. The teenage years are just as hard for Paraguayans as they were for us in the United States. Compound hormones with being gay in a country where you’re not generally accepted, and it gets a lot worse. Yet because of the Peace Corps, because of our privileged position, we are able to tell people at our sites what their families won’t or can’t. You are still a wonderful human being. You have so much to offer the world. You have the right to be who you are, and there are safe places in the world, places where your gender or sexuality wouldn’t even be interesting enough for gossip.

Sometimes, our role as Peace Corps Volunteers can feel frustratingly like ‘the shiny new toy for the community to play with,’ but I’ve noticed it is this role in particular that makes people open to us in a way they might not be with their family or community members. With some particular ‘non-traditional’ situations (non-heterosexuality, religion, divorce, abortion, drug problems, HIV) those in need elect us as the people in the community who are most likely to still treat them like human beings.

When it comes to gender and sexuality rights, this country is extremely frustrating for me for a few reasons. Even though many people deny the existence of gays altogether, there’s also a belief that ‘the gay can be cured’ by such traditional methods as putting pyno’i (a plant that burns) in a person’s tea, or physically beating it out of them. Even though most people have visited Buenos Aires, one of the most open and out cities on the continent, the belief of gays as tattooed, long haired, drug addicted, HIV carrying criminals strongly persists in many parts of this country.

At the same time, I’m in a unique place to be there for people who might want my help by providing them a safe space and an open mind to express what they need to say. I’ve got amazing friends and allies among my Peace Corps Volunteers, and one person at my site to whom I’m out and who couldn’t be more supportive of me. I have a semi-active scene in the Capitol, where I can go, be exactly who I am, and not feel threatened by physical violence. There is homosexuality on TV here, and while it might not be casually accepted, it doesn’t induce riots. I get the sense, and I know this is partly my own personal hope, that Paraguay will make leaps and bounds in equality in a shorter span of time (ten to twenty years) rather than a century from now. This definitely isn’t Peace Corps Uganda.
I might have a lot of frustration, and I sometimes find myself wishing I was hopping the next bus to Buenos Aires with my next door neighbor, but when I take a step back, it is amazing, and I can find a lot of happiness.

You can contact this writer by emailing lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

Building My Own Closet in Paraguay

-–Fiona Martin, now an RPCV

I am very lucky. Until now, I have never lived in a community where I have felt uncomfortable being out. Paraguay is different. I have all the support and respect I could ask for in the Peace Corps office, and from fellow volunteers. But, self-imposed closeting in my own community is taking a toll. Part of it is my inability to read the subtle cultural signs, which as a foreigner I frequently miss. I worry about small comments from people in my community. I second guess conversations, searching for a sign that they have figured me out. Maybe I don’t need to be so scared. Maybe if they knew, it wouldn’t make any difference. Maybe, like my Grandma back home, they know without me saying a thing.

I am a horrible liar. But, unlike many queer volunteers, I am attracted to and have dated both men and women. This allows me to ride the wave of heteronormativity when answering questions about my personal life, with minimal falsehoods. But, by sidestepping such questions, I wonder if I am giving up the chance to make a difference. What about the unmarried 28 year old woman who regularly makes time to talk with me? What about when my (closeted but almost defiantly gay) host brother asks me questions about my love life? How am I supposed to answer? Do I maintain my lie of a fake and absent boyfriend? Do I explain how close I am to my “cousin” who visited? I worry that by telling anyone in my community that I am not straight, even someone I suspect would be sympathetic, I would be potentially putting myself (or at least my ability to work with people) in danger. After all, a common way to deflect suspicion of ones own sexuality is to act bigoted towards others (examples: Ted Haggard, George Rekers, Larry Craig, need I go on?).

Perhaps it is different in other sectors. Logically enough, agriculture volunteers find themselves in rural, usually conservative, areas. Comparatively, my site is not super conservative, but I imagine it would still severely hinder my cultural integration and work effectiveness to be too open. When I worked in the Boot Heel of Missouri (also rural and conservative), at least I was able to interpret the cultural signals. One of my greatest skills was being able to read what put a stranger at ease after just a short conversation. Even if I wasn’t originally from the Ozarks, queer people can often find a way of letting each other know that they are talking to someone who understands; someone who is in the “family.” How do I do that here? I am still struggling to speak Spanish, never mind Guarani, and the cultural intricacies are still far beyond me.

In any new work situation, I prefer to let my coworkers get to know me before I mention my sexuality. And when I do mention it, it is usually in a context where several people are sharing aspects of their romantic lives. When a guy friend complains about a crazy ex-girlfriend, I complain about my crazy ex-girlfriend too. I thus out myself in the not-a-big-freaking-deal way that I prefer. I don’t feel like that is an option here. I would like to casually mention an old flame while sipping mate with my neighbors, but I’m suspect it would first be viewed as a language error, and then as something that would irrevocably estrange me from the community.

Recently, I have gotten to know a little bit of the queer community in a large town in my department. Discovering that such a network existed, and being allowed into it was wonderful. However it was disheartening to see the secrecy and fear that many queer people in the campo (country) experience. The most exhausting part of being closeted is constant monitoring of comments and conversations to see if anyone has guessed “the secret.” But igual (nonetheless), even having some limited contact with this underground queer community, has eased some of the stress that my self-closeting at my site produced.

I have seen very little homophobia at site… but maybe that’s just because no one is out. So even though there is very little evidence that would make me fear for my safety, I have, along with a lindo (good looking) garden, fuerte (strong) tacuara (bamboo) fence, and scraggly abonos verdes (green manure) demo plot, constructed a large impenetrable closet in which to hide an important part of myself. I just hope after two years in such a space, I will come out strong and confident, not cramped and anemic, deprived of sunlight.

You can contact the author at  fmmartin@gmail.com.

Jopara (Paraguay) Mission Statement

– PCV Paraguay

Jopara is a committee organized by Peace Corps Paraguay Volunteers interested in supporting diversity within the Volunteer community and strengthening contacts with diversity interest groups in Paraguay. The USA is a diverse place, and we feel that it is important for this multiplicity to be represented and supported amongst Volunteers.

Among our objectives are:

  • To provide a support network for Volunteers to discuss the challenges of living and serving in Paraguay while reflecting the diverse face of the USA. Jopara intends to provide support for Volunteers who identify with a range of situations regarding, but not limited to: ability, age, chemical dependency, dietary restrictions, ethnicity, gender identity/expression, marital status, physical/emotional health, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • To create a safe space for Volunteers struggling with limitations and challenges due to their diverse identity where they can express themselves freely and obtain necessary resources.
  • To provide resources and information on in-country diversity interest groups.
  • To serve as a resource to Peace Corps Paraguay staff and Volunteers in regards to training and sensitivity issues.
  • To provide resources to Volunteers who want to educate themselves or their community about diversity in Paraguay, the USA, and the world at large.
  • To identify and remove all barriers, whether institutional, attitudinal or behavioral, to the full and meaningful participation of diverse Volunteers.

For more information or a PCV Paraguay contact email lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org