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.