References

They were exciting times. I was about to move back to Europe to finally live with my girlfriend after five years in the field and almost two years of long distance. I also seemed to be very close to a job offer.

After three rounds of challenging interviews including a presentation on a topic nobody seemed to have researched before and an automated interview where I had the unpleasant task of talking to myself on a screen for about an hour, I received the hope-inducing email requesting contacts for my referees.

In the next couple of days I started hearing from my referees, making jokes about whether I was being interviewed for a CEO job as the reference process seemed to be as complex as the interviews. And then, one morning, I got an email that made my heart sink and flare up with rage all at the same time. Clearly, in the long list of questions they had sent to all of the referees, they had forgotten to include one: Who does Martina like to sleep with?

Had I – one of the referees asked – informed my prospective employers of my sexual “preference”? If so, how had they reacted? She seemed to be worried that, if she failed to mention this fact in the references, they would one day get back to her and, I don’t know, sue her.

Where to start? Within seconds of reading the email I had already contemplated yelling, throwing my laptop out of the window, crying, curling up in a ball, calling a lawyer and changing careers completely.

Let’s break it down. Here was someone I worked with closely for two years. Someone I had enormous respect for and who had a significant influence on my life and career path. Someone who actually reached out to me when I got together with my girlfriend to say that she was so very happy I had found love.

Someone who supervised and appreciated my work while I lived in Uganda, one of the most homophobic countries in the world, and since then had seen me be promoted and be successful at my job in other not so gay-friendly places like Iraq. Somehow however, this did not seem to matter. This person thought that my sexual orientation had such a significant impact on my ability to do a job (and a job based in a European capital at that!) that not mentioning it in the references could represent an act of negligence on her part.

The email also implied that my prospective employers would of course be completely in their right to use information about my sexuality to make a choice on whether to hire me or not. So, where to start?

After a few hours of ranting and mulling over, I set out to write my response. First things first, we don’t call it sexual “preference”, because it is not an ice cream flavour. No, I had not informed them about my sexuality because it did not in any way affect my capacity to do the job. I had lived in rabidly homophobic countries and, while I never enjoyed that, I did survive it and managed to remain competent and successful in my job throughout. Finally, I felt worth mentioning, it would be illegal for any employer in this particular European country not to hire someone because of their sexual orientation so this type of information was completely useless to them.

I received a very gracious email back, full of apologies for not using the correct terminology and for not knowing much about these things. She understood now and felt relieved. After all, a great educational moment. One of those moments where I felt that by just being gay and letting people know about it I had made a small change. I helped someone think about the issue for the first time and probably talk about it with her husband, maybe her friends. Who knows where those ripples of change will end?

But after all of that “silver lining”, this experience remained a punch in the stomach for me. Another reminder that none can be trusted, because even those who seem to be your allies can hurt you and put you in danger with a careless word or a misjudged attempt to be helpful or honest. Most importantly, and sadly, yet another day in which I was made deeply aware of the fact that my sexuality still was a big deal in this sector, still was something that people would use to judge me and to assess whether I am the right person for a task or a job. And that for many, the answer to that would still be “no”.

LGBT Aid Workers start networking

I remember when I got my first job in aid work. After three years of failed attempts I officially got my dream job – a random aid work job in the field (that’s the dream, right?). I had a few misconceptions about what my work life would be like, as I’m sure we all did. At 23 I thought I would go into the field, be unnaturally fantastic at my job, fall in love with a fellow aid worker, and we’d live a life of happy, gay aid work bliss traveling the world. That’s how it works, right? Not exactly, I guess.

When I was in Houston waiting to fly out I got a little antsy and started to do some “preliminary research”. I did a simple Google search: “lgbt aid workers”. Nothing. I Googled, “gay aid workers” and I found a couple of links, one was an article from 2008 and another from what seemed to be a now shut down aid worker dating site. I started to get a little nervous.

I have lived in the Middle East before but never with the prospect of living there for years. As my flight approached I started thinking of the issues that could pop up. Would being gay in the Middle East cause professional issues? Could I be out? What about working with colleagues who had issues with homosexuality? Was I protected if something happened? These questions wouldn’t leave me alone and as a new aid worker who didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know anyone who I could ask and I didn’t know anywhere I could look for resources. I thought to myself, “this is fine, once I get to Jordan I’ll connect with the humanitarian community and they’ll help me if I have any questions”. Wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I made great friends during my first mission and I met people who would end up being great mentors. Just not any gay ones. And despite how much I cared for my colleagues, they didn’t always understand or have a frame of reference for how being gay could cause issues in the field. I got comments ranging from, “how big of a deal could it be?” to, “you should just say you’re straight to not cause any problems, ok?”.

I dealt with it though. Most of the international staff knew I was gay but for the most, my Jordanian colleagues didn’t. It was fine until 7 months into my job I got an email from a colleague. One of our national staff was outed, some of his coworkers refused to work with him, and refugees we were interviewing complained he was “acting too flamboyant”. She was asking me for help. A woman, who I consider one of the best people I’ve ever worked with, with over 10 years of experience was asking for my advice, an aid worker of less than a year, simply because I was gay and there was no where else to go. I didn’t know what to do, but what’s worse, I didn’t know anyone to ask either. I didn’t know any experienced gay aid workers and our (small and stretched) HR department seemed silent on the issue. I thought, “is this really happening? Are there literally zero resources to help with these situations?”.

Afterwards, I was talking to a friend who also gay and worked in Washington D.C. about all these issues. I remember saying I wanted to think about making a network for gay aid workers and she responded, “why think about it? Just do it”. She was right. It was a gap that needed to be filled. And that, folks, is how LGBT Aid Workers was born.

I started messaging every gay person who worked in aid that I knew. I talked to UN GLOBE, I talked to GLIFAA, and I talked with any others who had mentioned similar problems and concerns. Our mission became apparent pretty quickly. First, we needed to connect gay aid workers to each, to let each other know we’re not alone (which happens in the field enough already) and to be there for each other when someone has questions. Second, it was time we started adding our voice to the aid world. It was time to create HR policies for same sex couples, it was time to discuss protection issues, and it was time to think about possible training on LGBT sensitivity.

We created a private Facebook group which grew quickly simply by word of mouth. Questions like, “Anyone in _____ country?” and “Anyone have any experience being gay in ____ country?” started popping up. People talked to each other, people gave each other tips when traveling, and people became friends.

For me, aid work can be isolating and lonely enough sometimes. Why not create a community where we can support each other? That’s what we’re trying to do and I’m happy to say, we’re not doing such a bad job.

Ryan Delafosse, @RyanDelafosse

#GAYdWorker

Online identities

In the last couple of weeks , my list of friends on Facebook has kept growing steadily, a couple of new friends every day. Unfortunately , that’s not because I have been making a ton of new friends in my new city. It all started waking up one morning and finding a friend request from L., someone who I supervised until a month ago or so, during my last mission.

Since my poorly-timed coming out in Uganda, I have had a very strict rule on never adding people I work with on Facebook, or at least that’s what I would say to anyone who asked me for my contact details. In reality, I have had a very strict rule about not adding anyone who does not already know I’m gay. It’s an imprecise science and one that has become more and more difficult with the proliferation of social media platforms and services. Back in the Uganda days, all I needed to worry about was indeed Facebook. My girlfriend at the time changed her name so that she wouldn’t have to “hide” on her profile. That seemed a little extreme to me so I opted for caution in what I posted, avoiding any references to my sexual orientation. It wasn’t that hard since I knew about two gay people at the time and I tended to see them every day. On the day that David Kato, a prominent Ugandan gay activist was killed, I remember raging and feeling deeply shaken, but unable to post even the blandest reference to the event on my wall. All of my straight friends did, but I was too scared that people would see that and somehow guess that my pain and shock were due to a deeper connection than just caring about the assassination of a human rights activist.

A few years on, my Facebook wall is currently a bright shade of rainbow. Covered in photos from gay pride last weekend, articles about LGBT activism all around the world, congratulatory messages to my Irish, American friends and many, many pictures of my girlfriend and I, looking stupidly in love and very happy. I estimate it takes about 1.4 seconds to realise the profile you are looking at is that of a proud lesbian, even if you have never heard the word lesbian before. So I try to stick to my rules and make my privacy settings stricter at every opportunity.

But whenever I leave a country, my former team figures out that the “rule” doesn’t apply anymore and I’m inundated with friend requests. And that’s when the debate starts in my head. Do I accept or ignore? Will this person, who until a few weeks ago respected me and considered me a role model, be disgusted to find out that I have a girlfriend? Will they write me insulting messages or worse, post biblical references on my wall? Will they stop believing in everything we have built together as a team in the past year or two?

I have ignored a few people, but in the vast majority of cases I have accepted friend requests and I have never regretted it. V., my former mentor from the Kampala days, emailed me shortly after I started seeing my current girlfriend to tell me how happy she was that I had found love. .

I’m sure there are a few shocked ones out there, but mostly there are a lot of new “likes” under photos of me and my girlfriend. Best of all, a (straight) friend of mine in Uganda keeps re– posting LGBT rights news and hopefully others in the Middle East are thinking about what it means to be gay for the first time. In the end, Facebook has become for me an easy, powerful and less confrontational way of coming out to all the people I care about, but I’m too scared to tell face to face.

So why did I ask my girlfriend to change her profile picture yesterday, to something that did not include me and a sign saying “love is love”? Why did I spend an hour at work deleting twitter posts and fiddling with my username? The answer is simple: I’m waiting for a visa, for my next technical support visit. A visa for a country where homosexuality is not only illegal, but carries the death penalty. I’m pretty sure the visa authorities will be a little suspicious of my job title, which includes the word “equality”, and I’m pretty sure they will at least google my name. As they do that, they will find my innumerable online identities which have mushroomed since the simple days of Facebook. They will see my twitter account and see my posts on women’s rights and LGBTQI issues (well, not anymore), my Airbnb reviews where my “friend” Elisabeth is regularly mentioned, my signature under petitions to stop the Anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda. Hopefully their technology is not advanced enough to track down my old online dating profile.

And so it goes again, taking a small step back into the closet, towards the fear I had back then the day David was killed. I am now surrounded by loving people who accept me for who I am and that group keeps growing wherever I go, but I better not forget, in the dazzle of online opportunities to connect, share and meet, that I am still unwanted.

How this blog came to life

I wasn’t afraid of the crowd. A hundred people can easily be erased by a blinding bulb shining on your face. Concentration and a mental trick could do the rest. What I was terrified of, were the thirty eyes who two days prior to the real event, were going to be staring at me for five minutes. In full light. I was going to be on a stage, but less than a couple of meters away from my public, willingly exposing myself and unsure of whether I would have enough strength to face their reaction. Having already endured some discrimination at work during the previous three months leading to the event, my mental strength was nearly depleted.

I was called on stage twice. I refused to go twice. I wasn’t ready. Not yet. I felt unprepared to face my work colleagues. We had had a full day of fun with team and trust building games while learning how to tell a story and the day was being too beautiful to spoil it. We were a good mix of national and international staff members with a balanced representation of gender, religion (including lack thereof) and socio-cultural backgrounds. Some of them knew, but most of them didn’t.

The end of the day approached and I had no choice other than taking a deep breath and hiding my courage under my nails. My turn had come. Refusing to go for good would have meant a personal failure. I started to speak and the whole room went immediately silent. I saw from the corner of my eye how the photographer, who had been taking snapshots of our games during the day, stopped what he was doing and made himself comfortable on a table in order to listen to me. I swept the audience with my pupils while I was talking. Higher up, it was easy to scrutinise my public. Their eyes wide open, holding their breaths, anchored to their seats, they were listening to my words with astonishment, surprise and even affection.

I finished my talk. I felt vulnerable so I sat down on the stage as they started clapping. I didn’t collapse even if it seemed as if their clapping had brought me to the floor. This storytelling exercise had left me mentally exhausted. I was burning inside. I’m sure I was bright red too. My heart was beating violently. Everybody was smiling, clapping enthusiastically. A spontaneous session of Q&A followed. Some personal questions were asked.

My work colleagues spoke back with messages of love, respect and reassurance. I was the same person to them. As far as they were concerned, nothing had changed. Coming out seemed not to have made any difference to them but it made a huge difference to me. From now on, I could be the real me in front of them. I wouldn’t have to hide anymore who I am or be evasive when asked questions about my dates. Only those who have been prisoners can truly understand what it means to be free. I felt blessed with wonderful work colleagues. Supportive, respectful and understanding. Why would it have been otherwise?

My talk was selected for Spark Talks in Beirut, a highly inspiring event with the aim to bring together different actors from the Lebanese civil society and the international community in order to find new approaches and trigger new ways of thinking in humanitarian action. The overwhelming positive response I had from donors, NGO staff, my own colleagues and other members of the public gave me the push I needed to start this blog, a space of sharing and exchange in order to create awareness about LGBTQ+ aid workers around the world and spark a debate about how our rights can be acknowledged and protected without having to sacrifice our careers.

“Your talk made me realise how easily we forget that gay people exist” – a donor told me.

Visibility is key if we want to be taken into account. Our voices need to be heard, and we hope this will be a safe space to do so.

Do you have a story to tell? Maybe a coming out story which also went well? Or not so well? We would love to hear from you! Leave us a comment or write a blog post for us.