Imagine

Robert Sykora
By Robert Sykora
June 11, 2018

Sometimes, the things you imagine come true.

Celebrating Pride at the Embassy.
Celebrating Pride at the Embassy.

Imagine an ideal LGBT Peace Corps story. It might sound something like this: 

An LGBT Volunteer nervously arrives in her newly assigned village. She’s aware that (like all Volunteers at first) she’s an alien, an outsider. She knows she’s being scrutinized in every exchange at work, at the local market, at home. Will people like her? Will people respect her? Should she be out or closeted? What if she pretends to be straight and has to face the awkwardness of people trying to set her up with opposite-sex partners? What if she’s open and people are hostile to her? She worries that, at the very least, her effectiveness in the community will be diminished if someone has issues with her queerness.

This Volunteer’s new work and personal relationships begin to regularize. She is relieved and delighted as she makes one new friend and ally after another, each just as supportive and enthusiastic as the one before. People she talks to about her sexuality accept her with a shrug, or with friendly curiosity. One day, she feels herself relax. “My community likes me for who I am,” she thinks. “My sexuality is not going to be an issue here.” She’s then able to invest all of her psychic bandwidth to meet the needs of the people she serves, rather than fearing rejection and fretting about secrets.

Saying goodbye to students isn't easy
Saying goodbye to students isn't always easy.

This ideal story is close to my own. My husband Paul and I just returned from two years’ service together. Our experience was tremendous, but I must admit that the scales were tipped in our favor.

How?

First, we chose to serve in Thailand, a country that seemed to us quite tolerant of LGBT people. Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, a belief system with few hard mandates other than, simply, be kind. Our friends, our work colleagues and people in the community were so very kind to us from our first day to the last.

LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers in Thailand were invited to Pride celebrations each year. This was a big deal as Pride events are not easily found in the places where many Volunteers work. We felt overwhelming support, love and affirmation from Peace Corps staff and from U.S officials at the local embassy.

Demographics also helped. We served in a culture with a deeply ingrained respect for old people, and we were conveniently old: I was 59 and Paul was 60. We were intensely aware of the privilege we carried with us. It caused us daily to reflect on the extra measure of courage required by Volunteers serving in Thailand who faced challenges because of their age, race or gender identity.

Volunteer in Thailand with students
At a celebration with students

While LGBT Volunteers had to grapple with coming-out issues, Paul and I were hard to miss as being a gay couple. Everybody in our community saw that we shared the cooking, shopping, bicycle-fixing and laundry duties, and everyone visiting our house, which was everyone in the village, saw that we shared one bed. Our arms were around each other a lot, though this gesture has less meaning in a culture where men do not fear physical contact with other men.

Occasionally, we ran into someone who hadn’t heard our story. One day there was a guy in the next village who was hanging out in a store. We introduced ourselves and told him we were teachers. As we bought a couple of beers, he asked us if we had wives. Mai chai, I told him, Kruu Paul bpen sami kawng pom – no, teacher Paul is my husband. The guy figured that my Thai speaking accuracy had failed, not a bad assumption considering my remedial abilities. A game of charades ensued – an awkward situation for everyone involved, but remarkably effective in clarifying the situation. Chai, I responded simply, yes. He nodded, then shrugged.

We didn’t meet any other gay couples in rural Thailand. Transgender people, though, were visible in just about every small village. Thai people generally have an easy place in their minds for transgender people. When someone isn’t interested in a conventional opposite-sex relationship, it’s common for everyone to assume they’re trans. My strong impression was that, before we arrived in our village, there was no model for what a same-sex couple could look like.

Part of our ideal Peace Corps story is feeling that maybe we opened our Thai friends’ minds to what “gay” is. At least, that’s what I imagine.

Robert Sykora

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