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

Don’t Need to Be ‘Out’ to Change a Mind (part 3/3)

Part 1: Breaking into Cameroon’s Gay Community

Part 2: Harsh Realities of Being Gay in Cameroon

Throughout this whole ordeal I felt extremely vulnerable yet insulated. On the one extreme I had committed a crime according to the laws of Cameroon by having sex with a man and feared punishment, while on the other I felt authorities would not risk the negative attention that could result from prosecuting an American citizen for homosexuality, due to already existing contentions between Cameroon and Western countries concerning Cameroon’s anti-homosexuality laws. However, prosecuting an American for homosexuality could be seen as a way to stand up to Western countries. Regardless of whether or not prosecution was a far-fetched scenario it was clear that any Cameroonian man I would date would always be in much more danger than me. Should our relationship be exposed I would always be able to leave but he wouldn’t and part of me feels selfish for putting anyone in a situation that could have had such inequitable consequences.

Despite what happened with Desmond and Clinton, the friendships I made within the Cameroonian gay community added richness to my time there. I was able to ‘come out’ and confide in a few close friends, that I still keep in touch with, who helped me better understand the day-to-day fears that many gay men around the world live with. One friend was lucky enough to move to Dubai where he has made friends within the gay expat community and sounds truly happy when I speak to him. Recently, another friend traveled to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa after fearing for his safety. Too afraid to return and risk further persecution, he made the difficult decision to seek asylum in the U.S. without knowing if he would ever be reunited with his partner he left behind. When we were in Cameroon he told me how he hoped to immigrate to a more accepting country where he could experience freedom before he was too old to enjoy it and that he hoped to get there through a merit-based job rather than resort to use his sexual orientation as grounds for asylum. When I learned he would stay in the U.S. my thoughts went to the group of younger gay men he left in Cameroon who he stepped up to befriend and support when no one else would, but I understood and supported his decision. Other friends I kept in touch with never had the chance to experience true freedom. Within the first few months of returning to the U.S. I learned that one friend had abruptly passed away after a series of illnesses while another unexpectedly committed suicide. Even though I only knew both these men a short time an overwhelming sadness struck me when I heard of their deaths and checked their Facebook pages hoping the news was wrong, only to discover posts left by Friends in mourning.

Serving in the Peace Corps truly changed my life’s trajectory. In addition to the long-lasting friendships I met my partner, a Cameroonian man, and we recently got married after he arrived in the U.S. following a yearlong visa journey. The Peace Corps offered me the space to learn, grow, reflect and build friendships that the rigors of a more formal development job abroad probably would not have allowed. Toward the end of my service I felt compelled to pursue a career in the field of human rights with the ultimate goal of working to correct the social injustices the gay communities in homophobic countries face and that I witnessed first hand. To that end, I began an M.A. in International Affairs upon returning to the U.S. from which I will soon graduate. Throughout my studies I have been drawn to the humanitarian sector and refugee rights but the plight of gay men and women around the world will always remain a forefront issue to me. As I begin to think about finding a job in the humanitarian sector I consider ways my career could impact my marriage and if there will be times when my partner and I will be forced to choose between being together and my career should I be offered a job in a homophobic country where he could not safely and openly join me. While I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my career in a country that would be hostile to both me and my relationship I must acknowledge that I do have a masochist side that is excited to do it on the short term. The challenge of intentionally forcing myself outside my comfort zone pushes me to become more empathetic, humble and appreciative and ultimately evolve in ways that always ‘playing it safe’ would not permit. Having had the lived experience of a gay man in Cameroon allows me to reify the horrendous acts perpetrated against members of the gay community in homophobic countries and not assume that all aspects of my life in that country, as a gay development worker, would be equally horrendous. Instead, I appreciate the rewards that come from my willingness to make the small short-term sacrifice of ‘living in the closet.’ Cultural value shifts that make life more just for LGBTI individuals don’t occur over night but rather over generations and one mind at a time. I understand that my overall impact on that cultural shift may be miniscule but I take pride in knowing that my conduct and my words may ultimately help change a mind, and I don’t need to be ‘out’ to have that effect.

Harsh Realities of Being Gay in Cameroon (part 2/3)

Part 1: Breaking into Cameroon’s Gay Community

I was in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, a few days before Christmas with a few hours to kill so I decided to call a local gay Cameroonian friend, I’ll refer to as Clinton, who I had met online a few months back and spoken to on the phone a few times but never met in person. Clinton brought his gay friend, I’ll refer to as Desmond, to the bar where we met and spent the evening mostly discussing the challenges of gay life in Cameroon. Desmond and I casually flirted throughout and exchanged numbers, much to Clinton’s disapproval (Clinton deleted my number from Desmond’s phone when he wasn’t looking and weeks later told me it was because he didn’t trust Desmond). Over the next few weeks Desmond and I developed a casual dating relationship that involved sex. During this time Desmond began moving emotionally too fast for my comfort and it became clear that he expected what I viewed as casual dating to grow into something long-term and serious. This, combined with a number of unattractive personality traits made me decide to break things off with Desmond sooner rather than later.

Shortly after making this decision Desmond took the day-long bus ride from Douala and surprised me late one night with a visit. Because I had decided to break things off with him I was highly irritated, however, this would give me the opportunity to talk to him face to face. That night as I explained I wasn’t comfortable with the serious direction he was pushing things he told me he loved me, which I doubted for two reasons. First, we had only known each other a short time and I felt we had no real connection. Second, because Desmond seemed overly eager to be with me and constantly reminded me he was struggling financially I felt that he may be viewing me as a potential replacement for the Frenchman he had dated previously who used to regularly send him money. I gently told Desmond that I didn’t love him and apologized for the misunderstanding but his demeanor told me the issue was unresolved.

The next day I left Desmond at my house while I attended a meeting. Upon returning both Desmond and my computer were gone. I was incredulous and immediately called Desmond. He explained that he felt extremely betrayed and angry that the sentiments he expressed to me the night before were not mutual and that he would return my computer if I sent him a money transfer of 2 million CFA (approx. $3,000.00). If I refused to send the money he said he would go to the police and tell them that I drugged and raped him and show them the gay porn on my computer that I now clearly regretted showing him. Banking on the fact that Desmond would not following through with his threats and risk also ‘outing’ himself, and wanting to at least try to get my computer back before Desmond left the village making it much more difficult, I went to the police for help.

There was only one road leading out of the village and expecting Desmond would try to escape on public transportation I went to the village checkpoint with the police officer and for the next hour checked every passing vehicle. After this was unsuccessful I worked with the local money transfer center to send a fake transfer hoping to trick Desmond into meeting me and returning my computer. This too failed. The next day he called me and reiterated his original threat and I tried once more but failed to reason with him. I don’t remember if our conversation formally ended or if I hung up on him but either way, I permanently removed the SIM card from my phone so he could never contact me again, and moved into a new house within the week to decrease the chances of anymore surprise visits.

In retrospect, I regret going to the police that day. If Desmond would have been caught the situation could have quickly exploded resulting with Desmond being beaten by the police and potentially jailed while making it unsafe for me to stay in that village if he told the police I was gay. At that time I naively thought that physical abuse at the hands of the police was the exception but would later come to view it as the rule and decide to only involve the police in the direst of circumstances. I also naively thought that if Desmond were caught the police would let him go if I didn’t press charges but would later learn that the law would have viewed his crime as being against the state, meaning that he could have been prosecuted regardless of what I wanted.

The weeks that followed were extremely stressful. I began stress smoking while my mind played through every scenario that could possibly transpire. I went so far as to look up U.S. and Peace Corps policy concerning U.S. citizens abroad who violate country laws and read that they would be subject to the country’s judicial system. However, I was unable to find any case concerning a U.S. citizen charged with homosexuality and therefore had no real precedent. While I never feared for my physical wellbeing I feared that the police, despite their inefficiency, would come knocking on my door any day to question me. I longed for anonymity but being the only ‘white man’ in the village, there was no hiding. Reaching out to the Peace Corps for support was never an option because, based on another similar case, I believed the Peace Corps would have pulled me out of the village and likely the country.

Throughout this period Clinton kept me updated of his conversations with Desmond but no good news came. Clinton told me he had tried to reason with Desmond but he was too angry to hear reason. Desmond was in revenge mode and after unsuccessfully blackmailing me his revenge sought new targets. Clinton told me that Desmond began to threaten him and did in fact go to the police but instead of following through with his original plan to incriminate me he accused Clinton of essentially running a gay sex tourism ring of which Desmond was a victim. I think Desmond knew the police would willingly believe this story because Clinton was gender non-conforming and therefore an easy target for this type of accusation.

After a couple weeks of no phone calls from Clinton I received an email that he claimed to be sending from his sister’s phone while she was visiting him in prison. He said that after Desmond accused him the police put him in prison where he was physically abused. He included pictures of himself wearing a hospital gown sitting on a gurney with a severely swollen eye. Clinton’s email was angry and accusatory but he was also afraid. He wrote that his family now knew he was gay because of me and that they wanted nothing to do with him.

Even after seeing the photos I didn’t want to believe that Clinton’s story was true. I considered that Clinton and Desmond were ultimately colluding to get money out of me and that the photos were somehow faked. If Clinton really was in prison it wasn’t my fault but it was because of me and I wanted to help but I had no idea how. Soon after, I received a couple more emails from Clinton and was relieved to learn that his family had bailed him out of prison and everything seemed to be returning to normal.

I never kept in touch with Clinton after this because I felt so horrible about what had happened and thought that there was little opportunity for redress. About a year and a half later I learned that Clinton had been seen out at a gay party where he was recounting the whole situation with Desmond and my computer. Upon hearing this I felt relieved to know he was okay but I also felt a rush of negativity come over me as memories of the event came rushing back. To this day I have not heard from either Desmond or Clinton.

Part 3: Don’t Need to Be ‘Out’ to Change a Mind

Breaking into Cameroon’s Gay Community (part 1/3)

As a result of growing up in a rural and devout Christian community I was exposed to the work of missionaries at a young age. They traveled to my family’s church from far-flung regions of the world to account for the outcomes of their church-funded missions and present on traditions and cultures that captivated my imagination. As I grew older and developed secular perspectives I knew missionary work wasn’t for me but the impressions their presentations left on me would remain influential throughout high school and while trying to find myself in college.

One evening as I lay on my friend’s living room floor listening to music she told me she had applied to the Peace Corps but wasn’t accepted. I had never considered joining the Peace Corps but thinking about it now evoked the same curiosity as the missionaries’ presentations from my childhood. The opportunity to live in a different country among a culture drastically different from my own and possibly learn a second language seemed like exactly what I needed. The next day I researched the Peace Corps’ entry requirements and learned that I needed at least a bachelor’s degree to be accepted so I buckled down over the next three years to finish college with the goal of joining the Peace Corps upon graduating. However, it would still be two years after graduating before the Peace Corps would finally accept me and subsequently send me to Cameroon to teach Information Communication Technology for three years. The excitement I experienced in the months leading up to my departure overshadowed any concerns I had as a gay man about to embark to live in a country where homosexuality was criminalized.

By the time I departed for Cameroon I had just begun seriously coming out to longtime friends and family and was still very familiar with life ‘in the closet.’ Because of this, the thought of being ‘closeted’ for my safety while in Cameroon didn’t seem like much of an issue and I was glad to do so after arriving and encountering so much anti-gay sentiment. Homosexuals were seen as pedophiles and presumed to be connected to black magic cults while the idea that homosexuality was ‘un-African’ was buttressed by the notion that it was wholly a Western import. Stories of homosexuals being thrown in prison, beaten up or killed were common. It was clear that any gay community that existed would be strictly underground and I felt that seeking it out was beyond what I could safely do.

My fears surrounding finding the gay community were assuaged after speaking to my gay Peace Corps friend about his experience dating Cameroonian men. Motivated by the obvious reasons but also curious to understand the dynamics of gay dating in a country where homosexuality was an anathema as well as a crime, I logged onto a gay dating site I had used in the U.S. and to my surprise found many Cameroonian men. Most of the active profiles were in Douala or Yaoundé, Cameroon’s two largest cites both a day’s bus ride away from me, where Internet access and computers were much more ubiquitous and bandwidth much faster. I was able to make a couple friends who I would chat with regularly online or on the phone and with this experience I began trying to meet gay men offline as well. On a few occasions I befriended men who I suspected of being gay and later if the circumstances were right would flat out ask them or ‘come out’ to them myself resulting in my suspicions usually being confirmed. After I had made a few gay friends online and offline others came as a result of simple networking within the gay community, some of which led to dating relationships.

Making friends, and much more so gay dating, in Cameroon were hard. In addition to cultural and language barriers my white skin was associated with wealth and privilege in a way that would always draw attention to the fact that I was an outsider. Often strangers would approach me on the street and ask me for money, connections to jobs or schools, and many times visas to my country without showing much concern for which country that might be. On one occasion a straight man I considered to be a good friend told me he ‘loved white people,’ while two gay friends told me they were ‘attracted to [my] white skin.’ Rarely did anyone mention negatives associated with white people but surely there had to have been many. For the first time in my life I was consciously aware that I was white and began considering how that influenced all my interactions. I began to believe that my skin color was a greater influence on Cameroonian’s perceptions of me than my conduct and became suspicious that those overly eager to be my friend, and especially to date me, were motivated by the assumed benefits of being associated with a white person. Despite these barriers mutual respect and genuine friendship were not impossible and in fact all my experiences in the gay community were extremely positive except one.

Part 2: Harsh Realities of Being Gay in Cameroon

Part 3: Don’t Need to Be ‘Out’ to Change a Mind

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.”

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

Clarifying values

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.