When I met with the other volunteers, the atmosphere felt tense because we didn’t know how the Nicaraguan staff would react to our training. This training had never been given before. We knew staff might be uncomfortable, and we didn’t want to impose our beliefs on them. The workshop would also be completely in Spanish, so some of us had to practice translating complex gender terminology that we’d only used in English. Words like “genderqueer” don’t have a translation (yet), so we made a point to explain them as we went. We chatted about the same sex initiative as well as ways in which we think facilitators (our Spanish teachers in training) and staff could be more inclusive of queer volunteers.
I shared that this made me think of my first day in Nicaragua. Only a couple of hours after getting off the plane, all 42 of us met with Don Howard, our country director and Peace Corps Guatemala alum. On our first day, he said that he and his staff were welcoming to anyone of any race, class, and sexual orientation. Just by mentioning that there were people in the room who didn’t identify as straight, I felt as if I were acknowledged and as if I could breathe. I wasn’t being ignored. Looking back, I just wished that a Nicaraguan staff member had said the same thing. As basic as it sounds, I wished that I could have just heard this simple sentence from any one of them. Instead, possibly to avoid making anyone else uncomfortable, they would just tell us that they supported us if we needed anything and that they respected us. As I reflect on this more and more, I realized how important it was to specifically mention sexual orientation as an identity, at least for those like myself.
After we met, we split up into groups to work on our segments of the workshop. One volunteer and I worked on a poster that broke up a “Genderbread person” into 4 parts: Biological sex, gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. We had an interesting disagreement on what it means to be genderqueer, since this diagram placed it in between “male” and “female” in the gender identity section. I saw the term “genderqueer” as more of a rejection of societal gender labels, but he saw it as more of a biological term for someone whose hormone levels cause them to neither identify as male nor female. I said that if society didn’t make me check off a “male “ or “female” box then I would probably just identify as genderqueer. Although my hormones pretty much tell me I’m a woman, I wouldn’t have to worry about walking into the “correct” bathroom. I also wouldn’t worry about being harassed on the street for holding hands with a woman, because no one would care about my gender and no one would expect me to hold hands with only a man. It was an interesting discussion that showed us how gender identity is an extremely complex and fluid subject that queer people even interpret in different ways.
After finishing up our posters, I sat at La Colonia’s comedor with two of the volunteers I would be presenting with. I bit into my huge enchilada (in Mexican food, this means a fried empanada stuffed with rice and a bit of meat) and sipped on my coke zero. We chatted about how nervous we were for the workshop. “Let’s make it fun”, one of them wisely suggested. “I’m nervous, too, but this training is long overdue and it will help future volunteers feel more comfortable”, I said. That night I had trouble sleeping because I was so nervous. It was the good kind of nervous, though. The kind of nervous where you aren’t sure about what’s going to happen, but you know that it needs to happen for the good of those around you and for the good of those you’ll never even meet.
That morning at our hostel, I put on my black v-neck dress and colorful scarf. Managua is very hot, but the office has the air conditioning on full blast, so that’s the only reason I’d have worn a scarf. I grabbed a plate of eggs with ham, beans, rice, tortillas, and orange juice, and headed for the office to present at 8 am. Staff members, both American and Nicaraguan, were heading upstairs to the conference room for the workshop. This is really happening, I thought. I went to say hi to my facilitator, who I had not come out to but who I deeply care about, and told her I was going to be visiting the states during Holy Week. Her eyes grew wide as she asked me if I could bring her back something. “Sure, as long as it’s not too big”, I reassured her. “Can you bring me back two packs of scented markers?”, she asked. Of all the things to ask for, like, I don’t know, face cream or chocolate, this is what she wanted. Well, she is a teacher after all. Materials matter.
The workshop opened with a few words from Don Howard as he addressed the fact that in the U.S., times are changing and same sex marriage is being recognized, even in places as conservative as Alabama. While some countries in Africa and in the Caribbean still criminalize homosexual activity, countries like Nicaragua have decriminalized it. Since same sex partnerships are being legally recognized in the U.S., this means that if a host country allows same sex activity, that the Peace Corps is opening up to the idea of having same sex couples serve together. The first female same sex couple in the Peace Corps just finished serving in Ecuador about a year and a half ago. I really would like to hear about their experience. One staff member asked if we would actually be having a same sex couple serve, and the answer to that was yes, but we just don’t know when. “Que bueno”, she said. Well, it looked like today was starting off on the right foot.
My group and I then began our presentation with a term and definition matching activity. Some people were given a term like “transgender”, and they had to find the person with the definition of the term. One by one, each partnership placed their term and definition on the whiteboard. This was when staff members began asking great questions. The only mistake one group made was to match “gender identity” with the definition of “sexual orientation”, but everyone else had the correct terms with their definitions. As some staff members asked questions like “what’s the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘gay male’”, others scribbled down what we were saying in their notebooks. I honestly didn’t expect them to be taking so many notes and to be so curious. Others asked “So, can you come out of the closet and go back in?”. Yes, we said, depending on how conservative of an environment we are in. I shared that didn’t have any queer female friends when I grew up in my conservative hometown of Moses Lake, Washington, so I didn’t come out until I was 19, after a year of being at the very queer friendly Wellesley College. Then, I went back into the closet in Nicaragua in order to protect myself and to adapt, to this environment because I didn’t know how Nicaraguans would react. As soon as I began putting myself out there to the staff with these personal stories, I felt as if they trusted me even more. Making yourself a little vulnerable goes a long way.
We also explained the answer to “What’s the difference between transgender and gay?”. I explained that I was gay, but I’ve had biologically female friends in college who realized that they identified as male, so they began to inject themselves with testosterone. Their legs grew more hair and their chests flattened; some even had top surgery to remove their breasts. Staff members’ faces seemed surprised and attentive as I told them this. Another staff member asked “If the goal of our work is to help volunteers practice their Spanish and make them feel welcome, how do you tell if someone even is gay?”. We mentioned that the most important part is to explicitly state that you are welcoming of people of all sexual orientations and identities, but that you should never force anyone out of the closet. If you create a safe space, then all you do is wait for the queer volunteers to be comfortable enough to come out to you, if they want to. I may have been the only openly queer woman in my group of 42 volunteers, but it would have been nice to just hear it from a Nicaraguan staff member that my identity was acknowledged. When you ignore a group of people, you exclude them, even without knowing it.
Why wouldn’t staff bring sexuality up in the first place? Well, it’s a touchy subject. One staff member shared that they were uncomfortable bringing it up because it was against the rules to talk about sexual relations, just as it is against the rules to talk about politics or religion. Another staff member clarified that talking about sexuality is okay, but talking about sex is not. I never would have thought to make this clarification, since I’m used to knowing the difference between these two different topics, but it made sense to emphasize the distinction for the staff members. Another fear from facilitators was that there could be tension between a queer volunteer and a homophobic volunteer in the class. We answered that it’s different because if we come from the same culture, then we are more likely to defend ourselves and demand respect from that person. The Peace Corps also does not allow discrimination against queer volunteers. I hadn’t thought about this concern before, mostly because I came out to everyone in my group without any homophobic backlash at all. Everyone was understanding and supportive, at least on the outside.
Throughout this four-hour workshop, I was blown away by the staff members’ engagement and openness to the discussion. They were curious and respectful, and they appreciated our personal anecdotes. It’s not always easy to come out to a roomful of people from a different culture, but in this case, it was totally worth it. The fact that I’d been through 3 months of training with them also helped me establish the confianza (trust) I needed to talk about these issues with them.
We ended our session with two role plays. In the first, I played the role of a facilitator who began the Spanish class by asking the volunteers when they kissed their first boyfriend or girlfriend. I assumed all of them were straight, so when I asked the gay male volunteer when he kissed his first girlfriend; he ended up being so uncomfortable that he made up a story about how he kissed his first girlfriend while watching Spiderman at the movies. The staff laughed at our interpretation of this situation. We asked them “Was it the facilitator’s intention to make the gay male uncomfortable?”. No, the facilitator just wanted them to practice their Spanish. One of us suggested that instead of saying “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”, a facilitator could use the word “partner” instead. I mentioned, however, that heterosexual couples have “partners”, too, so I would prefer a facilitator asking me “when did you kiss your first boyfriend or girlfriend?”. Little changes in language toward volunteers like these seem so trivial, but can make a big impact of how comfortable a volunteer is around their facilitator. This comfort level in turn affects how they learn Spanish, which affects their service.
Our last role play touched on the theme of “outing” a volunteer. We pretended to spread the rumor that a volunteer was gay. Our goal as presenters was to make it clear that just because a volunteer comes out to someone does not mean that their identity should be shared with everyone. One facilitator made it clear that it was not their business to be sharing this information anyway. Gossip is a form of entertainment in this culture as in almost every other culture, so this was another relevant and useful role play for us to perform before closing the session.
My biggest takeaway from this session was this: there’s nothing as powerful as the human connection. People aren’t convinced by logic; they are convinced by emotions. By putting myself out there to these people I know and trust, I was able to open up their minds and make them feel comfortable enough to talk about something they might not get the chance to talk about in a constructive way. Throughout the whole workshop, it was clear that the staff’s priority was still the same: to make volunteers feel welcome and supported. One of my facilitators thanked me afterward for my hard work, and she showed me her notebook. It was full of notes she had taken, along with a picture of the “genderbread man”. I also loved reading the comments from our “suggestions” folder. Someone said that they felt empowered after this workshop, and thanked us for all of the hard work and thought that we had put into this presentation. It was an inspiring, productive day.
Before this workshop, Don Howard shared one of his favorite quotes with me: “Tell the truth, and don’t be scared”. Today, the volunteers and I told the truth, and I’m positive that our stories will help generations of lgbtq volunteers feel more comfortable serving abroad. I really enjoyed facilitating this workshop, and I’m excited to make the next one even better. I could definitely see myself focusing on these types of diversity trainings as part of my future career. Today I felt like I was in the right place at the right time. Being a Peace Corps volunteer can make you feel as if you are a fish out of water sometimes, but moments like these make me feel as if I have a truth that must to be heard.