Clarifying values

I’m squatting down against the wall. Hiding behind a handful of colleagues. I will cry later, in my bare hotel room, but for now I squat. I pretend to be tired of course, it’s been a long day of workshops and we only have about 20 minutes left for the Value Clarification Exercise. Yet, I am scared someone will notice, how this affects me, how shaken I am, how unprepared I feel.

There are about 70 of us, colleagues working for an international organization, an institution you might say. Seven of us are standing on this side of the room, under a taped-up signed stating “Disagree”, and about 60 people are on the other side; they agree. Seven of us. Four of us are white. Two are expats from another African country. Thank goodness, Viola is there, my mentor, the person I am learning everything I know from and who I run to when I have a bad day at work. One of them, one, is a national staff, a Ugandan. “It must be because she lived abroad in South Africa” I find myself thinking.

The statement we are asked to agree or disagree with is simple: I would change my children’s school if I found out that one of their teachers was gay. Sixty of my colleagues are standing under the “Agree” sign and explaining why they would immediately move their children, report the teacher, protest with the school management. They are indignant, they are shouting, they are horrified at the suggestion. They use strong words. I will not remember them one day, self-preservation I guess.

Over there is Mary, the admin assistant I share an office with. We get along; she is a great office roommate, quiet and considerate. Sometimes her children pass by to pick her up at the end of the day. I guess she would not let them come anymore if she knew. There too is Fred, the friendly IT guy who is studying in Sweden part-time. We have drinks sometimes, I went to his house once to swap techno and trance CDs and watch Formula 1.

I have lived and worked with these sixty people for almost two years now. I care for them, they care for me. They like me, I am pretty sure. I think they respect me. They seemed happy when I extended my contract for another year. But today I let myself realise, probably for the first time, that they only like me because they do not know. If they knew they would not want to share a desk with meor invite me to their parties. They would not respect me.

I am gay. I came out to myself, my family and a small handful of friends, only a year ago or so. In Uganda (what a brilliant idea!). I am still learning what it means to be a lesbian, nevermind what it means to be a gay aid worker. Today, at our annual staff retreat, I am learning a new lesson. How it feels to be completely alone, rejected, reduced to squatting against a wall, to make myself invisible, by the simple power of words. Words of hatred and disgust hovering all around me.

There are words of support, too. A few people on our side of the room speak. It’s like a breath of fresh air that is quickly dispelled by the power of numbers; indignant comments hitting me like a giant wave. Later, there will be Shawn, my best friend, holding my hand as I cry in my room. Telling me those who hurt me are hurting him as well. Making me feel that I am not alone after all. Pushing me to join dinner in the garden, with all the other colleagues who will not understand why I am not dancing around the fire, why I am so quiet.

I will go to bed early tonight.

There will be a small earthquake in the morning, so that everyone has better things to talk about around the breakfast table. The last 20 minutes of the second day of the retreat will be quickly forgotten, a nuisance really, what did that all have to do with our organization or our work anyway?

I will not forget. It’s been four years now and that remains one of my most haunting memories. I cried. I talked about it with friends. I even called my ex girlfriend in the hope she would understand. I emailed our director, with inexperienced and tentative words, trying to explain what was wrong with the Value Clarification Exercise. Trying to explain how it could hurt someone like me, without of course admitting that I was in any way personally affected. She probably guessed from my unusual incoherence and my blushing.

None of the hate-ridden homophobic comments were challenged that day and to those sixty people the silence of the facilitators confirmed that their “Ugandan values” were right, especially since everyone who dared voice a different opinion were foreign or had lived abroad. I can still hear the excuses: we were running out of time, there was no time to have a more in depth discussion, the important thing is to start the conversation, we were never going to change people’s minds with such a brief exercise. No other organization would even mention homosexuality in Uganda. It was Uganda after all.

To this day, I am grateful to those who thought talking about homosexuality in the workplace in Uganda was important, although I do wish they had access to better resources to do it well. I am grateful to those who stood under the “Disagree” sign, allowing me to hide behind them and giving me a small glimmer of hope. It’s not that I did not know or I did not expect my colleagues to be homophobic. I had heard them talk about it during lunch-breaks, making jokes during meetings. But hearing the violence, the disgust and the depth of their loathing for me (and anyone like me) was still a surprise and an indelible reminder that no matter how close I would get to my colleagues and “friends” during shared coffee-breaks and weekend trips, no matter how hard I tried to be nice to the people who I spent my days with, I would never be able to be myself. Never.

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6 thoughts on “Clarifying values”

  1. My first though is, YOU ARE IN UGANDA, what did you expect? This is not an attack on you, it’s entirely based on misconceptions, shadows that are long in the low light (low knowledge) these people have of gays (I use this term for both genders).
    Over there, all they know are nasty stereotypes of homosexuals, portrayed as pedophiles, child molesters, they don’t have a singular clue what a real gay person is. They could not identify one if their life depended on it. So of course they reacted this way. They don’t know you’re gay. It would shock their stereotypes in the most amazing way to learn it, though I don’t recommend it since for some the stereotype will be stronger than the knowledge they have of you (for some the inverse will happen as well).
    Again, you must forgive them – they don’t know what they are talking about, they are NOT judging you, they are judging some ghost they have been led to believe… it’s sad… Perhaps some day, probably just before you leave, you can come out, to challenge their stereotypes, but to do so while you are there would be quite unbearable.
    Stay strong. I am sure you’ve heard some bad things because you are a foreigner there, and in the same manner you will certainly hear more bad things about gays.

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    1. Hi Belcat,

      thanks for your comment and your encouragement, it means a lot.

      To answer your question, I did not expect anything different, I was fully aware of the perception of homosexuality in Uganda. However, living it on my skin, hearing it out loud, was still a deeply unsettling experience. As someone who had only recently come out (to myself, my family and a few friends), feeling so hated and despised made me truly question my life choices and my options. I have no choice in being gay, that is who I am, but I did wonder at the time whether I would be able to continue to do the work that I loved and live the life I had dreamt of. It was a painful moment.

      It has been a few years now. I did not come out when I left Uganda, although I did consider it. I guess I did not have the guts. I have since come out to some of the people I knew in Uganda, a few of those colleagues, and most reactions have been positive and supportive.

      I agree that challenging stereotypes is one of the most powerful tools we have to combat homophobia around the world. Hopefully one day I will be brave enough to come out to all of my colleagues wherever I am. I do not however excuse my colleagues in Uganda, nor anywhere else, for their hatred as much as I do not excuse people in the UK or in my own country. Yes, they are ignorant, yes, they are fed lies and disgusting stereotypes by media. It is however their choice not to inform themselves, not to challenge what they are being told and seek alternative viewpoints. There are amazing and brave LGBTQ activists and organizations in Uganda, it is not that hard to seek information and learn more about the issue, if one wants to. I have extremely supportive straight friends in Uganda, and they are not all foreign-educated. So, especially for those men and women who work for international organizations meant to protect human rights, I do not see any excuse for their ignorance.

      Let’s stay strong together!

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  2. Thanks for sharing this story. Really, really touching. I am a gay man and worked for over six years in Mozambique. I know that there are immense differences between Uganda and Mozambique regarding homosexuality, but I do too struggle to come out to my co-workers. Initially, all other expats working with me knew about my sexual orientation and I was really glad to join an organization that stand up for sexual rights. Part of my job was to promote/advance understanding on homosexuality and health in the country. Thus, I was pretty much sure that the rest of my co-workers would wonder about my own sexual orientation, being a single man with no children close to my 40s. I’ve debated about what would be the best approach to deal with potential gossip and eventual discrimination in the workplace, and decided that it would the easier ways would be to come out in the office. So, I did. Initially to a female co-worker, who at the time reported to me. We were waiting for the driver to come pick us up after a training session. She was genuinely surprised and during the next days she posed a lot of questions that I responded very naturally. After this episode, and excited for how well the whole thing came out, I decided that I would use a bit of humor to let the rest of the office know. So, I would once in a while adopt a more flamboyant gesture in a social moment, or even discussing about “partners” and relationships in after work conversations. I never faced any direct discrimination and/or disrespect by any of my co-workers, and I feel so privileged for it. After a while, three other co-workers found a way for us to meet (either during work or outside of work) to come out at LGBT. This was the most powerful thing for me and I feel so proud of having contributed to those people to think about their own sexuality and find ways of living it safely, although sometimes not openly.
    After reading your touching story in Uganda, I felt compelled to share mine. I hope you (us) will contribute to advance this discussion in our industry.

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    1. Hi Marcos,

      thank you so much for sharing your story and experience. We also hope this blog will just be the starting point for a broader discussion in our industry.

      It is great to hear you had such positive experiences in Mozambique and you inspired me to write a new blog post (coming up soon!). It is definitely not all gloom and doom. It can be fun and moving and exciting.

      If you ever want to write a post for the blog, please do get in touch, we want to make sure there is a variety of voices and viewpoints represented here.

      P.S. I love Mozambique!

      Like

  3. Hi there! I’m a female aid worker in a same sex relationship about to be posted to Islamabad with my partner (wish us luck). There’s a lot of us out there, and more and more accepting people as this upcoming generation begins to join the workforce. Keep up this blog – it’s lovely to hear another voice like mine out there.

    Liked by 1 person

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