The Uzbekistan Closet Carries On

– Anonymous, RPCV, 2003 – 2005

We recently interviewed an RPCV who was in the last Peace Corps group to serve in Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Terrorist incidents and worsening relations between the U.S. and Uzbek governments over human rights and other issues caused Peace Corps to evacuate all PCVs in 2005 and close down PC programs. This RPCV has asked to remain anonymous. He will explain why later in the interview.

Q. How did you come to join the Peace Corps?
During my senior year at college, I had toyed with the idea of joining the Peace Corps after meeting with a PC recruiter. Never in my wildest had I ever planned on this. I really did not have much ESL or TEFL experience, but once my recruiter saw that I was willing to teach English in Central Asia, she signed me right up. I thought it would be interesting and with my language and cultural skills, I thought it would be a match. I did discuss my sexuality with the recruiter, but neither of us thought that it would hamper my service in the Central Asia. So after only four months after applying, I left for my assignment in August of 2003.

Q. What concerns did you have about being a gay PCV in Uzbekistan, a conservative Muslim country?
I had read just about everything there was out there for future gay PCV’s in a Muslim country. My recruiter helped put my mind to ease that I would be ok and that if I felt uncomfortable during my service, PC would be there to help me. I assumed that I would not come into contact with another gay person during the two years I would be in Uzbekistan. I guess I really didn’t think much about leaving a pretty comfortable life here in the US and living in a Muslim country. I was just so excited to be going, I didn’t think about it. What did I have to lose?

Q. How did you find out about Uzbek attitudes towards homosexuality once you got to there?
Once I arrived there I was shocked to discover that there were about 10 other gay guys already in-country from earlier PC groups. Although I was the only out volunteer in my group, having these other folks there to talk with was assuring. PC Uzbekistan had even set up a mentor program pairing me with another gay guy who had already been there for a year. We actually ended up dating for a while. That relationship became my security and helped me through those first few months.

I learned about the attitudes towards homosexuality in Uzbekistan mostly from these other volunteers. I never actually discussed homosexuality with Uzbek friends, but I did learn about their views from passing comments and conversations between my host families and friends. I did not tell them I was gay.

Q. Tell us about your teaching assignment(s) once you got to Uzbekistan. How were they different than other PC assignments?
Once I arrived in Uzbekistan, my fellow volunteers and I were put through rigorous assessments before our placement was determined. I was assigned to teach in an Islamic madrassa (religious secondary-university school). This was the first time that PC had ever placed a volunteer in a religious affiliated assignment in Uzbekistan. Since I had experience with the Muslim culture and had an Arab family background, PC staff determined this would be a good fit. We never discussed the fact of how my being gay would play out in this scenario. I left my personal life at the door of the madrassa every day. When I was asked questions about why I wasn’t married, I had to make up a convincing story.

Q. Although you left before PC was evacuated from Uzbekistan what did you later find out what happened during that time?
I had been home awhile when I learned that PC Uzbekistan was actually going to be evacuated and the volunteers sent home.

My RPCV friends were evacuated to the US, and I went to visit them the day they arrived to help console them. I think that many of them were happy to see a welcoming face, but I could see the pain and confusion in their eyes after having so abruptly left their lives in Uzbekistan. On one hand, I was sad that I had made the decision to leave early. On the other hand, I was happy that I had met with closure in Uzbekistan before I left, unlike my friends who had been uprooted from their host families and work.

Q. Are you still in touch with friends and colleagues you worked with in Uzbekistan?
Yes, I still have some friends in Uzbekistan, but not many. On my most recent trip back to Uzbekistan (for my current job), I met with some of my host family members and visited my school. Most people I knew though have left for better jobs in Russia or Europe. I missed the good work PC had done there. Most of my close Uzbek friends are now here in the States studying.

Q. Because you are still in contact with many Uzbek friends, you’ve decided to remain closeted with them. What has led to your decision?
Staying closeted with my close Uzbek friends here in the States has been difficult. There are times when I would like to just yell out to them that I am gay. For the time I was in Uzbekistan, these people became like my family and actually were my support system. Coming out to them would be like coming out to my own family in the States all over again. This will take some courage but over time I feel it will happen. In fact, I am sure that some these friends now living here have their suspicions.

Q. Do you think about being more open with some of them in the future if you’re going to continue these relationships?
Yes indeed. I would love to tell them and have them welcome me with open arms much as they did when I first arrived in Uzbekistan. I was welcomed there like a long lost family member. Being gay, would not necessarily change that with my closest friends.

I feel that once my friends from Uzbekistan have experienced my culture, similar to how I experienced theirs, we’ll both come to a level of comfort and be totally open with each other. One day I’ll have the courage to tell them face to face, and not in a letter or an email. After all, it is one of the main goals of Peace Corps service to exchange cultures. I feel that being a gay volunteer leaves one with quite a unique experience, like no other volunteer will encounter. I would like to share that with them.

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