Alumni Post–On Being a Queer Fellow, Five Years Later

Lily Shaffer - Ecuador


April 19, 2016

I’m going to try to tackle a challenging, sensitive topic, both for myself, for other LGBT folks, for families, and for Global Citizen Year. Please know that this is a narration of my personal experience as a Fellow in 2010-2011, and I am not claiming to represent the entire queer community. I hope that by talking candidly about the unique challenges of being a queer Fellow, I will open the conversation further, spark confidence, shed light, and maybe help support a future Fellow along the way.

First let me tell you a little bit about me. I identify as a human being who likes other human beings. Sometimes those humans are anatomically male. Usually they’re anatomically female. Sometimes they’re neither. I identify as “queer” rather than gay or bisexual. For those of you reading this who only understand queer as a derogatory word, let me try explaining it for you a bit. The process of reclaiming queer as an inclusive word of empowerment is fairly recent, within the last decade.  People can identify as gay or trans* or whatever else without being queer. It is an umbrella term that individuals self-identifywith. According to PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, “…it includes anyone…who feels somehow outside of the societal norms in regards to gender or sexuality. This, therefore, could include the person who highly values queer theory concepts and would rather not identify with any particular label, the gender fluid bisexual, the gender fluid heterosexual, the questioning LGBT person, and the person who just doesn’t feel like they quite fit into the societal norms and wants to bond with a community over that.”

To me, queer is a way of being. It means I do not narrow my romantic preferences to one sex or another. It means that I embrace feminism beyond a 1960’s first wave “women deserve equal pay” perspective. It means that rather than declare that same-sex couples have a right to marry, I instead ask, “why marriage? What about going deeper into systemic inequality and change health care policies, tax benefits, visitation rights, and parental rights?” As a queer identifying person, I am not satisfied with obtaining “rights” within an already fractured system. I recognize that my gender expression, sexual preferences, and interactions with the systems and people around me are not stagnant.

When I went to Ecuador, five and a half years ago, I identified as “gay” (though I always hated the term lesbian, and cringed when people used it to describe me). I was expressing my sexuality openly for the first time, and adopted a stereotypical gay female style and presentation—short hair, boyish clothes, backwards caps, and a flounced gait. I was “out” for the first time of my life, and my LGBT identity was young, bold, and naïve.

Only in the months before flying to California had I “come out.” I’d told my mom and a few friends from high school, but pre-departure training was the first time I was completely open about my sexuality to a group of people. Those two weeks of training were total bliss, and in so many ways I felt more “me” than I ever had before. Nobody cared about who I liked to kiss! Nobody needed time to reconstruct the vision of my identity they’d created for 18 years prior. I wasn’t afraid to correct people when they assumed I was straight, because it was Global Citizen Year—of course other Fellows would be understanding, accepting, and non-judgmental! I felt nothing short of invincible.

 

Then I arrived in Quito.

 

*****Side story:  We got in late at night, and we were all exhausted from the travel. Shannah had a lovely array of Ecuadorian fruit, bread, and spreads at the hostel, and we all nibbled giddily, hardly able to believe that we were in Ecuador. Her husband asked how we were feeling, to which I replied “Bien, pero estoy un poco méricada.” He and Shannah started laughing at me, and she explained that instead of saying “I’m a little bit dizzy,” I said, in a bit of a derogatory way, “I’m a little bit gay.” Oops (it’s okay, you can laugh. I certainly did).*****

My first host family in Quito consisted only of Juanita, a total firecracker. She was a single older woman, with three grown children, who ran a quimbolito business (literally, “little crazies,” but actually the most amazing little cakes you’ve ever tried). She was veryreligious, and I was concerned to reveal my Jewish identity to her.  One day, I came home from school and heard what sounded like Klezmer music wafting down from her bedroom. I quietly climbed the stairs and saw her dancing around her room while sewing muñequitas. We made eye contact. “Hola! Lily! Te gusta esta música? Mi hijo pasó un año en Israel y me llevó esta CD. Sabes los Judeos? Me encanta los Judeos!! (Lily! Hey! Do you like this music? My son spent a year in Israel and he brought me this CD. Do you know the Jews? I love the Jews!” (I later discovered she was a Jew for Jesus).

Needless to say, she and I became very close. My grandmother passed away a week later, and she consoled me as if I was her own daughter. We’d cook meals together in her four-foot kitchen, crashing into one another and bursting into hysterical laughter. She tried to teach me to sew (to no avail), to salsa dance (also, a total failure), and showed me off as la gringita to her friends at their weekly tea party. We adored one another.

On one of my last days there, I made her supper and we were watching Donde Esta Lisa? while chatting away. Someone had cheated on someone (it was an Ecuadorian soap opera), and then told his wife he was gay. “Disgusting,” was her response. “What?” I asked. “The gays! They’re disgusting! They should all be sent to an island and left there, far away from everyone else.” “What? You really think that?” “Do I really think that?! They’re a disgrace to humans. Unnatural. I would never let one near me, or live with one. That poor woman was living with a gay all these years!” “So if I was gay you’d send me away?” “I’d send you right back to Shannah. I wouldn’t have a gay here in my house. But you’re not gay so there’s nothing to worry about, my sweet Lily.”

I choked down the rest of dinner in silence and went to bed early that night. How could someone who I cared for so dearly, who welcomed me and cooked with me, consoled me, warned me which taxis were safe and what fruit stands were cheapest and called incessantly if I was a minute passed curfew—carry such a visceral disgust with who I was? It’s cultural, I told myself. If this ever happens again, I will tell the person exactly who I am. I’ll be honest.

Those last few days were tiring and quiet, as I prepared for my six-month homestay and grappled with my feelings for my host mom. I still loved her, and I knew she still loved me. But would she if she knew the truth? Could I change her mind by becoming the unexpected gay person she already loved? Did I have a responsibility to do so? I tried to let this experience dissipate, and it was shadowed by the excitement of moving to Ibarra, where I met my new host community.

The first day with my new family, we went on a huge family outing to Tulcan, a city several hours north of Ibarra—two cars with cousins stuffed in the trunk, and a camioneta (a truck with a loose structure over the bed where we’d all sit) full of cousins, aunts, uncles, my 84 year old abuela, host siblings—there were probably 20 of us. We ate lunch, walked around, shopped, and we were on our way out of the city when two young women walked by, holding hands. Then they stopped and kissed. The car erupted, with cousins shouting a lot of Spanish slang I still didn’t understand. I did, however, catch snippets of “whaaaaaat?! DO IT AGAIN DO IT AGAIN! Lesbians!” Then my cousin turned to me and quite seriously asked, “Lily hay muchas lesbianas en tu pais?” or, “Lily, are there a lot of lesbians in your country?”

I don’t remember exactly how I reacted. I’m sure I stumbled over the words, considering my heart was in my throat. English letters weren’t lining up together to form sentences, never mind Spanish. It seemed like a life-or-death moment. I swear time slowed and some eerie music bellowed from a creepy orchestra while the possible scenarios flashed across my mind.

If I told them, “Yeah! One in ten of us is gay! And guess what? I’m that one! A real live homosexual! It’s totally normal, and we don’t discriminate against LGBTQ people, and you can’t necessarily know someone is gay just by looking at them,” I may have avoided most of those attempts to set me up with an Ecuadorian man, or the questions about whether or not I had a boyfriend back home. On the other hand, if I told them “nah, not really” and kept my mouth shut, it seemed like I would be doing a disservice to half the point of Global Citizen Year. Weren’t we supposed to represent our country? Share awareness and listen and understand one another across cultures, grow and change, respect and learn together? Also, I’d be lying! I just came out to all the Fellows and it felt amazing! I don’t want to go back into the closet and pretend! That first month was terrible! But what if I told them, and they returned me? What if they didn’t want a lesbian in their house?

“Yeah, there are some. I know one or two.”

“Oh, okay. Weird.” A song they all knew came on the radio. My youngest cousin tried to sing along and they laughed at him, then bantered about what to eat for dinner and whether or not Stefi would get back together with José. I’m sure no one else remembers that moment.

***

I wish I could provide some magic equation that explains what it’s like to be a queer Fellow. Should you come out? Better to stay quiet? There are so many complicating and contributing elements–outness at home, openness of host family, openness of host community within the dynamics of host country, physical safety, ability to pass, emotional wellbeing of being out but potentially frowned upon, emotional wellbeing of being closeted for a year, whether or not a Fellow has the energy to be the “teacher” and “spokesperson” for a queer identity ON TOP of being a representation of the US; I could keep going and going.

Living in a world that assumes you’re straight is hard. I don’t care if you live in the most liberal neighborhood of San Francisco or if you have two same sex parents or if all three of your older siblings came out before you did.  Reforming your own identity in response to the harmful assumed identities society places on us before we’re even born ishard. It takes time—maybe even a lifetime—of self-acceptance. There are a million battles to pick; when it’s appropriate to correct pronouns, or language, to critique assumed identities, and stand up for our larger queer brethren, and when it’s safest to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes being queer feels like it’s a full time job, and even  if it’s not the apex of your identity, it can seem that way. It can be exhausting, yet it’s more difficult when you are an obvious foreigner and some days feel like you’re blindly walking in the dark, reaching for any hand to hold on to. So be kind to yourself. Be patient and gentle and understanding.  Ask for help.

Reflecting back, five and a half years later, I’ve realized there are some guidelines that can assist.

Evaluate your needs. Ask yourself how challenging it will be to stay “closeted” about your queer identity to some or all members of your in-country host communities. Would you prefer to “pass” and avoid the issue of gender or sexuality all together? Respect where you are on your journey. You are perfect exactly as you are, exactly where you are and you also always have the ability to change.

Some Fellows will arrive in their host country shouting, “I’m here! I’m queer! I’m fabulous! Get over it!” They will have no issue addressing their identity on the first day. It will be more damaging for them to be quiet during their time abroad than to try to pass as straight or cisgender. Others will only be questioning their identity, which becomes even more challenging when placed in an environment where you are a cultural alien. This is okay. You do not need to be a teacher. You are not failing the queer community by protecting yourself. You have no responsibility to anyone but yourself and you must do what is best for you.

Wherever you are on this journey, you have support within the GCY cohort and from GCY staff. Shannah has a gay sister. Talking to her about outness, being pursued by Ecuadorian boys, pretending to be straight when I so clearly was not, the constant comments that “I was such a pretty girl and should let my hair grow!” and all the other challenges provided me with a sense of affirmation.  Just vocalizing my feelings and experiences offered relief, and Shannah provided me with advice, reassurance, and antidotes about her experiences with her sister.  Talking to other Fellows about my experience helped, too. If you are grappling with your identity, these people are your allies, friends, and supporters. They will care for you. They will listen to you. Even if they cannot relate to concerns around sexuality, they understand what it’s like being 18 years old living in your host country. They have their own individual challenges, that may relate to gender, religion, family structure, body image, (dis)ability, or a whole other slew of the many unique traits that form an identity. And, by being open in a safe environment, you may find that someone you didn’t realize was queer is, or is questioning—you might help them find solitude and support without even meaning to.

If you ever feel unsafe, say something.

You don’t have to be a martyr. I remember feeling like I was failing my queer community by keeping my queerness quiet during my year abroad. But your physical and emotional safety are of utmost importance; if you feel unsafe, speak up.

If you’ve just decided to partake in Global Citizen Year, research the countries you may travel to. Talk to someone in the office about your concerns, needs, questions. Ask alumni about their experiences. I know Fellows who have been placed in communities with openly gay members, or working with LGBT youth. If I could do it again, I would have explored LGBT meet-ups, hangouts, or support groups in the area I lived in. If you know you need to be out, consider living in an urban area with a larger population and larger community resources.

You’ve been accepted into Global Citizen Year. You have an excellent head on your shoulders, and you are a mover and shaker, a changemaker, a zealous, passionate, promising young person. You know what you need, and you’ll figure out how to get it. But my number one piece of advice is to ask for support (this is my number one piece of advice for all Fellows, gay or straight, or anywhere in between).

You can always get in touch with previous fellows, and you can always get in touch with me. I’m happy to talk more about my experience and to listen to yours. Global Citizen Year taught me more than I can begin to express, and I continue to learn more about myself in relation to the experience daily.

Lily Shaffer