Finding the freedom to come out in Morocco

By Waldemar Robles
July 15, 2019

Usually, when people think about their coming out story, it doesn’t involve being in a country where your identity and actions are punishable by law, but for me, it was the place where I felt most liberated.

I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco from 2013-2015 in a village in the southern region of the country. When I boarded the plane from JFK to Casablanca, I was still not sure of my identity. Parts of me still wanted to conform to the traditional Latino lifestyle in order to soothe my family’s angst over having a gay family member, but I quickly learned how the gendered norms that once put me in an emotional box were blurred.

Two men, one in a raincoat and the other in a purple face covering, look at the camera while one looks away.
Waldemar poses with community members at a basic health surveying and check-up event.

When I arrived in Morocco, the sense of brotherly love was similar to what I felt when I lived in Jordan a couple of years before. However, what was so distinct about male-to-male relationships was the level of intimacy everyone shared constantly. That was the first difference I noticed: there was no shame in two male friends holding hands or bathing together. There was always an undertone of love and admiration for your fellow brethren. For me, that meant I did not have to put on the masquerade of being an alpha-male Latino with a machismo approach to life. Moroccan men were very tactile with each other. When they greeted me, it was always with one kiss on the cheek, another kiss on the other cheek, and phrases of endearment, warmth and constant hospitality. Immersing myself in these aspects of Moroccan culture was the first step I took toward being disarmed with strangers, and in particular, with men.

Coming out as gay to my Peace Corps colleagues was the first step I took that made me feel like I was living my truth. At first, there were some skeptical people who would not believe me, partly due to how I presented myself, but the majority of people I told embraced me with open arms and spoke about how we would go to pride parades in New York and gay bars in Philly once we returned to America. It was around this time that I learned my parents were coming to visit me.

This was BIG news! My mother had never left the country, and my father hadn’t traveled internationally in decades. I knew this was going to be the turning point in my life for which I was preparing. For a lot of people in conservative communities, coming out is an act of rebellion. In order for me to confront my parents and tell them my truth, I had to build up an arsenal of confidence and professional development to fall back on in case the conversation went south. When they landed, I took over everything. I negotiated a rental car, coordinated hotels and tour guides, and brought them with me to the graduation ceremony I coordinated for the International Youth Foundation’s Passport to Success, which was held at the Dar Tiqafa or “cultural house.” My family saw me not as their child, but as a man. Someone who was protecting them, showing them another part of the world, and introducing them to different sounds, scents and tastes. I needed to make sure there was going to be no doubt in their minds as to whether I would be successful in life.

Six men sit at a long table. Five listen attentively as one speaks.
Waldemar (center) at the 2014 ErRachidia International English Education Conference, the conference he and his counterpart organized.

When I told them I was gay, I was a mess, crying and sobbing in the hotel room, my dad quiet and my mother in shock. They did not want me to be sad, so they hugged and kissed me and told me how much they loved me and how much I meant to them. Once their visit ended and I returned to my host community and jumped back into the routine I developed for myself. I was biking to the Dar Taqafa, helping the women at the Nadi Naswi (Women’s Club) and helping my neighbor’s 10-year-old son with his English. The weight that was lifted after speaking with my family allowed me to execute my responsibilities within my community more efficiently.

The thing about the Peace Corps is the experience provides you with the tools needed to be successful in your professional life and personal life. I learned so much from my host community, the Peace Corps staff and my fellow volunteers. I have created unshakable self-confidence that could not have developed outside of my time in Morocco. My community taught me how to love unconditionally. My fellow Volunteers taught me how to embrace all walks of life, and the Peace Corps staff taught me patience and understanding.

Having built up a refined version of myself while serving, I was fearless. I came back to America able to to live my truth with a vast and deep appreciation for all of the relationships I built while serving in the Peace Corps.

A man sits outside of a white ice cream shop. He is looking off camera and smiling.

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