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