At the tail end June, Gay Pride Month in America, five other volunteers joined me at the Thiès Training Center to deliver a day-long seminar on sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles. Our target audience was a group of local staff members whose job it is to provide language training and cultural support to Peace Corps Trainees. Also in attendance were other key members of the Peace Corps Senegal staff, including the Training Director, Safety and Security Coordinator, and the Medical Officers. This training (called Safe Zone Training) was originally put together by volunteers in The Gambia, the small country that cuts through the middle of Senegal, and was shared at our Gender and Development Summit back in February. It focuses on increasing the staff’s awareness of different sexual identities and instructs them on how to support volunteers that come to them with personal issues. Homosexual acts are not only considered immoral by the religious leaders here, but they are also punishable by law. In 2007, 96% of the Senegalese population surveyed said that homosexuality should be rejected by society and, in the past 3 years, 14 Senegalese men have been arrested and 5 imprisoned for illicit homosexual behavior. Just two months ago, several of my friends and I were stunned upon reading a front page news article declaring a “jihad” on homosexuality, wherein one of the most prestigious religious leaders suggested that those found guilty of this heinous crime be stoned on the streets.
They say that serving in the Peace Corps is the “toughest job you’ll ever love”, but when that job comes with the challenge of masking your true identity for fear of personal harm or imprisonment, as it did for 14% of the volunteers who swore in last year, that makes the job even tougher and, frankly, this just didn’t sit well with me. I was raised to be open-minded and accepting of people’s differences and I include in my “circle of love” many people whose lifestyles differ from my own. My mother recalls a phone call she received from me in college after I’d witnessed a KKK march where little kids stood next to their parents holding signs with anti-gay slogans. I was livid at them; she was proud of me; and yes, I said KKK, as in Ku Klux Klan. I’m not blind to the fact that discrimination is still alive and well in our great nation, but I’ve never been one to tolerate it. When I arrived in Senegal, and realized that many of my friends who had been “out” at home had to go back into the closet here in order not to offend their host families or, worse, subject themselves to possible danger or arrest, it made me feel as uncomfortable as they did. Living in this this foreign culture is hard enough without the added burden of trying to change who you are. So, I took matters into my own hands and pushed to have this training.
The SeneGAD (Senegal Gender and Development) Board met at the beginning of May and approved my proposal. Shortly thereafter, we had full support from our Country Director, and we formed a Safe Zone Committee of interested volunteers from around the country to review and modify the training materials we’d gathered. In less than 2 months, we conducted our first day-long session to 12 attendees. We covered basic vocabulary, issues faced by homosexual volunteers, current gay rights around the world, the stages and difficulties of coming out, testimonials shared by current volunteers, and anti-gay behavior. We spent the last hour of the session discussing the definition and role of an “ally” and how our staff can be supportive of volunteers who have issues related to their sexual orientation. At the end, we passed out the “queer quiz”, which was really just an evaluation form, asking attendees about how their perceptions may have changed from the beginning of the class. Across the board, the participants demonstrated an increase in understanding and a willingness to discuss these issues. We had lively and open discussion throughout the day and everyone agreed that this was an topic that no one had felt comfortable broaching before and that this training was long overdue.
|The SeneGAD Safe Zone Team|
|Our Country Director opened the session to show his support.|
|It was an interactive training day.|
|We even had role-play scenarios.|
We may not have changed a nation’s attitude, last month, but we connected with a room full of people who provide daily support in the lives of future Peace Corps Volunteers as they struggle to understand a new language and acclimate to a new culture. We “helped promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”, which is the second goal John F. Kennedy defined for the Peace Corps. Even though most of our participants still hold strong to their religious/legal beliefs regarding these matters, they're open to accepting and supporting others whose beliefs are different from theirs. Like all countries where Peace Corps is present, Senegal is a developing country with a young democracy, so, of course, there is room for improvement when it comes to many rights and the concept of equality.
Even we, in America, don't quite have this right yet, as we were reminded by the late Coretta Scott King--but we're trying. “We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say ‘common struggle’ because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”