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”.

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.

Why Not Come Out?

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.”

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.

Best day of my life

It was supposed to be one of the best days of my life. The day my debut novel, The Paths of Marriage, came out. For nearly four years, I had toiled with the 100,000+ words that compose what I consider to be my single greatest achievement. The result was a story that I am supremely proud of, and a message that I wanted to embrace to my core. Much of that message is embedded with my identity as a brown, gay women.

Parallel to my ascent as a writer, my primary professional life of an international development/ICT4D practitioner with the UN dotted my consciousness. How on earth was I going to balance being the author of a book with a gay main character while continuing on work that focuses in not-South-Africa-sub-Saharan-Africa? That was a question for later, I decided.

Later came sooner than I thought.

On 7 August 2014, an email popped up in my inbox with the subject, Votre candidature. I read the first line of the body, « Faisant suite à votre candidature pour la consultance en objet, j’ai le plaisir de vous informer que l’UNICEF Burundi vous a sélectionnée pour ce travail. » The UNICEF office in the tiny central African nation of Burundi had written me, saying they wanted me to lead one of their top projects in the health and nutrition team. The post was to last at least a year. The timing of that email could not have been worse.

I knew for the sheer level of poverty in Burundi, most people were not concerned about homosexuality; there were far more pressing concerns. I knew I had worked in far more anti-gay environments, and had accordingly been careful to separate my personal and professional life. Still, the region and the country are not known for its inclusiveness, and this time, I was faced with a complicated decision – do I out myself online as gay and become the messenger of my novel, or do I continue to separate my queer identify from my online persona?

I opted for the latter, for at this point, I had already turned down several posts in areas I knew to be intolerably homophobic. If I wanted to continue my career in development, I decided Burundi was the best field option I would ever find.

On 1 October 2014, the day my novel came out, I thus found myself back in sub-Saharan Africa. The UNICEF Burundi office is in a compound that resembles the MONUSCO headquarters – semi-permanent structures that can withstand years of use or be vacated with just a few hours notice. The shipping container that had been converted into our office housed just three international staff, myself included. The rest of building belonged to local staff, staff whose views on homosexuality I was not sure and had no clear and safe way of knowing.

“Congrats on the book!” one of my international colleagues shouted to me as he walked into the building. I glanced up, seeing his smiling face staring in my direction. He was a Scandinavian new to the world of development. His congratulatory sentiments of the book and its subject matter were genuine. My reaction was pained.

I flashed a quick smile while stifling cry for the pang in my stomach. In an email, I thanked my colleague for his enthusiasm, but made him promise to not mention the book again in the office. My pride for my work was not worth the risk of being outed to local staff, who ensured my general safety in the field, issued my paychecks, arranged for my travel, and provided powerful links to my counterparts in the Ministry of Health. My well being, my livelihood, my job performance was dependent on local staff.

I decided to leave the office early that day and work from home in the afternoon. On my work computer, I carried on as though today were like any other. On my personal computer, I posted purchase links, blog entries, social media updates, and photos, telling the world how groundbreaking this day was for me. As the congratulatory comments poured in through the web, I felt a thick wave of sadness creep over my body.

Of course, I had to play off being in Burundi during my book launch in a positive light. Indeed, I was aware that as US citizen, I am far luckier than most LGBTQ African citizens. Still, the overwhelming negative feelings of missing such an important occasion continued to weigh on me. A few colleagues came over after work to say their congrats, but there was no party, no hugs, no words of inspiration to mark the day. There was instead paranoia of being outed, anger of not getting due recognition, and helplessness in realizing my life here could only be this. My life in Africa could not include that other life as a queer writer.

Two weeks later, I found out the only teacher to whom I dedicated my novel died, and I made the tough decision to quit my job at UNICEF. There was no extreme violence or assault directed in my way that prompted me to quit. There was no immediate threat of being fired. There was simply an innate frustration that comes with not being allowed to be who I am. There was simply an innate unsustainability created by a lack of effort on our employers – the UN, INGOs, etc. – to create a safe and open environment.

It was supposed to be one of the best days of my life. It is now a day I would rather forget.

Mala Kumar is an international development practitioner and writer based out of New York City.

Our secrets

The first time I realised Zada might actually be a lesbian was in the car. My “gaydar” is pretty useless, it’s difficult to develop when you’ve always lived in countries where passing as straight is the only way for gay men and women to survive. So although Zada’s shoes and vest tops had made me briefly wonder, I did not think too much of it. We were driving to the office and she told me her team was spreading rumours about her and Lina, one of the officers in her team, being in a relationship. Apparently they had sent someone to stand outside her block of flats and see if Lina’s car was parked under it.

I expressed surprise and shock at the rumours and Zada answered with resignation… “I am used to it”. A little light bulb went off in my head and a million questions rushed to my mind, but the driver was there and his English too good for me to hide behind big words. It would have to wait. I just pulled out my phone and excitedly texted my girlfriend, thousands of miles away, to say “I think Zada might be gay”. Continue reading Our secrets