I moved from the United States to Botswana in 2011, as a Peace Corps Volunteer serving a two-year stint. The hardest part of this was going from a place where I was out and proud to one where I had to hide my sexuality. Going back into the closet, which I had not been in since I was 14, I found it incredibly cramped and horribly decorated.
Nevertheless, should you find yourself in such a position, here are some tips for successfully shutting that door.
I was located in a very rural village, with only 500 people for company. In a place that size, everyone knows everyone else's business. I could tell you what my neighbor had for dinner three nights earlier, although that may be because I got them to cook for me. Hard to say.
But either way, I was deeply in the closet. Being with so few people, there was no choice. This can be extra challenging when the third or fourth question a new acquaintance always asks is, "Do you have a girlfriend?" Some days I lied and said yes, but most of the time I simply said no and tried to move the conversation somewhere else. But rarely did I get to talk about homosexuality. And I never told anyone in my village that while they were looking at the new teacher, I was checking out the male nurse visiting from the next village over.
Sadly, a village full of people constantly on the hunt for food and water meant a village with no reliable wingmen.
What's interesting is that I had friends in the Peace Corps in Botswana who were also gay, but were placed in larger cities -- thus, they got to talk about it more. Of course, rhapsodizing about last night's hookup to a stranger is bad form anywhere you go, but they could at least broach the topic, since they wouldn't see the same person for weeks at a time. Where I was, they didn't have TV -- they didn't even have the electricity that is somewhat necessary to turn on a TV -- so they were a lot more culturally closed. Of course, they also didn't have Two And A Half Men, so maybe there was something to the tradeoff.
Warner Brothers Television Distribution
If there were any men I was perfectly fine with having to give up, it would be them.
Even in villages the size of a Sub-Saharan Lego set, it's not like the topic of homosexuality was off the table. Believe it or not, it came up quite often. For someone like me, your first instinct is going to be akin to splitting up teams for gym class: "Pick me! Pick me!" Well, you can't do that anymore. But you can talk about homosexuality -- just in the abstract.
For example, if you wanted to mention how awesome Pride parades are or how important it is to you that gay people have equal rights, you could frame it in terms of a friend. Instead of you being gay, you have gay friends back home. This way, you can claim some ownership of the issue without having to personally defend yourself.
Max Whittaker/Getty Images News/Getty Images
You'll risk giving yourself away by insisting that your friend is absolutely packing down there.
This strategy can still get you in trouble. Sometimes, people would question why I would want to be friends with someone who was "unnatural." One fellow teacher advised me to cut all ties with my "gay friend," since he was evil and corrupted. Apparently, they think of gay people kind of like sexual werewolves.
We have better hair, and are in favor of silver bullets.
Unfortunately, I couldn't bring any porn with me, because that's not something you want to have in your bag when they check upon arrival, so I asked some friends to send me porn when I was in Botswana. Thankfully, they are the coolest straight people ever, and they sent me three magazines (in case you were wondering who was still buying those). Since I lived without electricity and had to charge my computer at the school, the magazines were great. However, magazines can be stolen. Which mine were.
I had been away from my work site and my village for a week training in the capital, and when I got back, I found my windows were open, dirt on the floor, and some things missing from my counters. I also found the padlock cut off my suitcase. I called our Peace Corps Security Officer, who sent the police over. I told them what was missing, but a few hours after the police had left, I found out that something else was gone. Missing from my suitcase was one of the magazines.
"Crap, and I had five articles left to read!"
Now, I had no idea who had my dirty little secret stashed under their mattress. The Peace Corps had already invited me to stay in the capital after my house was broken into, so I spent the whole night building Legos by candlelight to keep myself awake and ducked out of town the next chance I got. For about a month, I ended up living in a hotel near the Peace Corps office because there was no other space for me at the time. Eventually, I got a new work site and things started to look up.
My new village was much closer to the capital, Gaborone. Underground gay communities exist everywhere, and we had one in Gaborone that I found out about when my friend, who went to parties catering to LGBT people at least twice a month, invited me along. Contrary to popular belief, not all gay parties are manic sex raves set to Lady Gaga soundtracks. That is a gross misconception. I'll have you know that every fourth song, we actually put in some Rihanna.
There is definitely a leather bar with this exact motif.
Needless to say, it was Heaven. After a year of being trapped in the closet, I was finally in a space where everyone was gay and no one cared. Imagine walking outside to find a new Corvette parked in the driveway the day you got your license. Then, imagine you could potentially bone that Corvette.
This one looks like someone put it up the wrong tailpipe.
Besides the attendees of the somewhat-regular gay bashes (Note to self: Think up a better term), there were other people whom I thought were gay. But there was no way to approach the topic without creating a catastrophe. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid talking to them for safety's sake. It wasn't anything they did that outed them; it was what they didn't do that tipped me off.
Like women. They didn't do women.
In Botswana, it's customary for men to hold hands while chatting and walking. (No, the irony of such a homophobic country being filled with men skipping down the street holding hands was not lost on me.) There's no way to be certain, but I was suspicious of men who seemed uncomfortable with this custom, quickly breaking away and looking around nervously after someone held their hand. Maybe I'm making too much of that or, considering that being gay is thought by many in Botswana to be a Western phenomenon, maybe their failure to pick up on these cues was merely blissful ignorance.
That willful ignorance had its advantages. It meant I could give subtle signals without tripping the gay trap. For example, I didn't have to hide my tastes in music, which in the West is considered the equivalent of an "I HEART DICK" tattoo. I didn't even have to hide my boyfriend, whom I met at the gay underground party. He came to visit me for a weekend in my tiny village, and no one seemed to notice or suspect anything unusual about two dudes quietly holing up in a house together and sweating a lot. They must be great friends who love to work out!
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"A clean and jerk is always better with a spotter."
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