I am speaking today from the perspective of a volunteer who is gay. When I started Peace Corps I was at a time in my life where I was just beginning to come out to the people in my life. Before arriving in South Africa I felt it would be the right time and place for me to finally be completely open about my sexuality. I thought that, at the very least, I would be ok with being out within my group of volunteers.
Within my group of PCVs I did not feel comfortable announcing that I was gay. For many reasons, perhaps mostly to due with my comfort level with being open amongst strangers, I felt it was not the safest place to do that.
I was also surprised that I was, quite obviously in my opinion, the only gay man in my group. Although there are a few lesbian women in my group they have also chosen to remain in the closet. This also encouraged me to stay in the closet.
As time went on, it became comfortable for me to 'out' myself to specific volunteers. This proved to be a great support. I still however believe that I don’t need to out myself to anyone, that there is a lot to who I am as a person and being gay just happens to be one part of who I am.
At my first site, I encountered a lot of homophobic comments. I was not open and the comments were not directed at me, but were still very hurtful and made me very afraid to be open. I have also encountered some homophobic language within PCVs. This is few and far between and never directed at me but has continued to be very hurtful.
At my current site, I live in an extremely rural and conservative village. I am 100% in the closet and question my safety if I were to come out. If not my safety my reputation and respect would, I feel, be diminished. I do not blame any one person in my village for this, and regret that I must be so presumptuous, but ignorance about homosexuality in this country and especially in rural areas is extreme. I do not posses the language ability to educate about homosexuality in a foreign language, either.
I do not hear any homophobic comments in my current village. I do however get asked weekly if I have a girlfriend, if I am married (something I can't do in my home state), if my Gogos can come to America to cater my wedding, if I want a Zulu wife etc. This has been an issue my whole life, but seems to be more and more frustrating in this setting.
Having said all of this, I have had the chance to be openly gay in this country. I have been to the Johannesburg Gay Pride festival, gay bars in Joburg, Pretoria and Durban, and am excited to see the gay scene in Cape Town –the San Francisco of the African continent. I was also in a relationship with a South African for about six months. I have met many gay South Africans, of all races and social classes, but the more rural one gets the less people seem to identify or acknowledge being gay.
I have found that fellow PCVs have been my biggest support system for this aspect of my life. They provide me with the outlet to just be who I am. I have accepted that I can't be open in my village and this is ok; I am here to work as a volunteer and the social aspect of my life can wait.
As I said, I have only been openly gay for a few years and most of that has been amongst a select few friends here in South Africa. This is the first time I have spoken about being a Peace Corps Volunteer who is gay to a large group of people. Thank you for this opportunity.
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