My heart was overflowing with gratitude. I looked around at the patio full of trainees and couldn’t help but see a little of myself in each of their smiling faces. Or better yet, I was realizing that they were seeing the real me, all of me, and accepting those parts that I had been hiding for a whole year. I had just come out as a lesbian volunteer to this complete group of strangers, opening up for the first time during my service in rural Oaxaca. I’m afraid to come out, I work in schools and I see how the community regards gays: as if they were something to be detested or made fun of. What if they took my projects away? What if I was reduced to some kind of joke because of my sexual orientation?
The workshop that I helped put on for the trainees was part of an effort to increase diversity awareness among future volunteers. Here was a room full of individuals who were like minded: full of compassion, the drive to serve, open mindedness, and accepting of diversity. These kindred spirits buoyed me up and made me re-evaluate my whole approach to being closeted in my site. Why don’t I give host country nationals more credit? I see these people every day: of course they would accept my sexual orientation as part of me.
Back in the office with my counterpart Maribel and her three year old grandson, Jose, I was still feeling the after-glow of the love and support of peers back in headquarters. Internally calculating the perfect way to bring up my diversity workshop to Maribel, she noticed Jose’s sticky, orange covered fingers. “He’s such a crybaby,” she grumbled wiping his hands and face while he whined. Crumbling slightly on the inside from her harsh words, I tried to shake off the feeling. I was determined to open up to Maribel, and was not going to be deterred.
Jose noticing his stuffed bear on the table, reaches towards it, indicating for Maribel to help him. She passes the toy to him flashing her long, freshly painted green, yellow, orange, white and pink fingernails. He stopped, mesmerized by the colors; “Will you paint my fingernails grandma,” Jose asked.
“Huh?” She demands. “What did you say to me?”
“Will you paint my fingernails,” Jose repeats calmly.
“Are you a woman? Who told you it was OK to paint your fingernails?”
I continued to crumble inside. My heart dropped through my stomach and onto the floor. Brave, proud, gay Trish took a step back towards the closet, recalculating the validity of coming out. In this same moment Jose’s mother, Isis shows up at the office to pick him up. Isis takes a seat, sipping on a Coke and chatting idly with her mother. Jose climbs up into her lap and reaches up to steal a drink. Catching a glimpse of his mother’s equally bright, candy colored fingernails he stops transfixed: “Will you paint my fingernails mommy,” Jose asks.
“Are you a woman? Look at me. Listen to me. Boys do not paint their fingernails, nor do they wear makeup. Only women can do those things, boys cannot. If I hear you talking like that again I will tell your father and he will teach you a lesson.”
Their exchange filled me with fear: fear that I heard in Isis’ voice while threatening to tell Jose’s father about his interest in painted fingernails, fear for what her husband would do if he found out, and fear for my own deep dark secret that ten minutes ago seemed so ready to share. Reality hit hard. Here I was in rural Oaxaca where gender was binary and rigidly defined: where boys didn’t paint their fingernails and women didn’t fall in love with other women. I reluctantly re-buried those dreams of coming out deep inside me. “I can’t do it, not today.”