They Needed Him to be a Woman, Which Made Him a Better Man
When Lee Kirby made the decision to join the Peace Corps, he didn’t only worry about how he might fit into a community somewhere on the other side of the world, he also worried about how other Peace Corps volunteers might view him. Kirby hadn’t transitioned to being physically male and still presented as female.
Born and raised in River Vale, NJ, Kirby was used to a community that was reasonably accepting of LGBTQ people, or at least wasn’t against it. As a trans man, though, he worried about the potential for judgement by other Volunteers. “Peace Corps picks people from all over the country and Americans are diverse and have strongly-held beliefs. I was worried that some might not be as accepting of people like me.” Kirby knew that the other Volunteers would be his support system when he was sent to Mozambique. “I wasn’t sure it would work,” he says, “But I learned that Peace Corps also picks people who are open-minded and want to learn and be open to new things.” He adds, “I was immediately accepted and supported by my fellow volunteers as well as by Peace Corps staff.”
Going into the Peace Corps, Kirby thought he’d “put this whole gender thing on hold.” He wanted to go and teach and serve and learn and he knew that transitioning while in the Peace Corps would be difficult. It turned out to be something of a gift. “You know, part of my growth into becoming the trans guy I am today was via the opportunity to be that strong woman role model to Mozambican youth. Being able to be that for them—because that's what they needed—allowed me to rethink gender and grow in ways I never thought possible.”
Peace Corps is, in a sense, all about learning. Kirby noticed that almost immediately. “You really learn to do the same things that you’ve been doing your entire life, but in a different way,” he says. “You know, I thought I knew how to sweep the floor, but when my [Mozambican] sister saw me sweeping, she said, ‘No, you have to sweep like this!’ or ‘No, you don’t eat a mango like that!’ For a while it seemed like I was doing everything wrong and that a three-year-old was so much smarter that I was because they already knew how to sweep and eat mangos. I was the child who couldn’t do anything. At times it was frustrating.” Kirby echoes the refrains of Volunteers and Returned Volunteers everywhere when he points out that Americans often think that because we’re “a developed country” we don’t realize how much we can learn from others. “You know, even with all of the people that I helped and all the people that [benefited from] the projects we implemented, I think you really gain what you put in, and if you go in with that mindset of, you know, ‘I'm there to teach them,’ you're not going to learn anything.”
The sentiment didn’t end with mango-eating and floor-sweeping. “At first I thought, you know, if America doesn't accept me and we're supposed to be this developed, progressive country, how would this little community that doesn't have electricity or a formal education (in the sense that we have a formal education)…even begin to tackle a concept like [being] transgender?” But part of how Kirby found acceptance was via the fact that, as a Caucasian American, he was already so different from his Mozambican community that the added difference of being transgender was simply seen as yet another “weird American thing.”
Since Kirby still presented as a female, the first challenge he met was the gendered nature of the language—Portuguese. The language has feminine and masculine nouns, so Kirby was constantly miss-gendered. “That was exhausting and really wore me down at times,” he says. “I did not come out to my community until later in the game; not until I was very integrated, and knew for sure they already accepted me.” About a year into his service, Kirby told his girl’s youth group who he was. “I was definitely the closest with them, and when I decided to come out, I introduced it like a joke. I would mess around and joke with them all the time and so I wanted to introduce it like that in case they freaked out, then I could be, like, ‘Haha, just kidding.’ I’m happy to say I didn’t need to do that.”
As part of his public health work, Kirby taught family planning, including appropriate use of condoms. “During pre-service training, one of the older volunteers said that they used bananas for condom demonstrations.” Kirby says the volunteer later heard that one of their students dutifully slipped a banana into a condom each time, assuming that was the trick for family planning. Kirby didn’t want that happening in his community, so he used a more anatomically designed, lifelike prop for his demonstrations. “I wanted to be as realistic as possible, so there wouldn’t be any miscommunications or confusion and the kids would be safe” he says. When the girls in his group saw the prop—after giggling and laughing for a bit—one student jumped up and yelled with joy, “Brother Kirby really is a boy!” Kirby had talked about gender in a previous class and shared that he felt more like a guy than a girl. “They seemed ok with it,” he reflects, “but I wasn’t sure they fully understood what I had confessed, until that moment. My eyes filled with tears—both from laughter and from the complete acceptance I received.” His girls called him “brother” instead of “sister” for a month or so. It felt good, Kirby recalls. As a bonus, the condom demonstrations became wildly popular, with the community crowding under the shade of a mango tree to watch them every Wednesday.
The openness to difference was a welcome thing. “In America,” Kirby says, “or other big cities, there is already these preconceived notions of what it means to be trans, or what it means to be any kind of LGBTQ—and typically they're negative. So, you have to fight against those preconceived notions and say, like, ‘No, that's not true. We're just like you and everyone else.’” But in Mozambique, Kirby had a different experience. “You know, when you go to these tiny communities who've never heard of any type of queer, or LGBTQ anything. They're just like, ‘that's a thing?’” Kirby recalls that, often, that was the extent of the conversation. “I’d answer, ‘yes, it is,” and they’d say, ‘okay.’” He clarifies that other times there would be follow-up questions or that people would say things like, “Oh, maybe in America they have that, but not here. I don't know anyone like that.” This often led into talks about bullying, and about how maybe people were lesbian or gay but wouldn’t speak up for fear of being teased or worse. Mostly, Kirby says, the reaction was more one of enlightenment than of negativity. The community simply hadn’t considered the possibility that LGBTQ people existed and lived among them. “We had some really productive talks, and I’m really proud of that work.”
Kirby has advice for trans people considering Peace Corps. “Don’t assume. If you're having a rough time in America, don't think it will be even worse somewhere else. It could be completely better and different. My Mozambican community had never heard of trans, so they didn’t have any negative assumptions about it. I never fought against negative sentiments about trans or queer people. It was honestly very refreshing and better than many of my American experiences.” Kirby takes a lot of positive away from his time in the Peace Corps—and one thing in particular that surprised him. “A lot of the work I did was with young girls—helping them become strong independent women because, you know, globally, it’s rough for women. I wanted to help them. If I was a biological male or a fully transitioned trans guy I wouldn't have been able to connect with them in the way that I did.”
Kirby says that he never imagined he’d think of himself as proud to be a woman. “That’s not something that happens with me. But I wanted to be what they needed. If they needed me to fill the role of a strong and independent women, then I'm happy and proud to have helped them grow by filling that role.” Kirby points out that his experience, “allowed me to realize that it doesn't matter. After all, gender is a construct and it doesn't make me less or more [of who I am as a person]. I wouldn’t have wanted my transition to be any other way. It’s helped my rethink gender, and it’s made me a better man.”