Regarding the Closet: Reflections from a Gay Ecuador Alumnus

Kevin Pham - Ecuador

March 4, 2016

Growing up as a Catholic, Vietnamese, and the son of immigrants, I was always expected to fulfill heterosexual gender roles – to be a man. When I was nine, my mother refused to let me take gymnastics lessons. “Gymnastics was just too girly of a sport for a boy like you,” she recalled to me when I was a bit older. Instead, my parents signed me up for soccer and kung-fu so that I could play out the manly role that society intended for me. In this hyper-masculine, heteronormative environment, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my budding attraction to men. During a youth group retreat, I asked my pastor if being gay was a sin. “No, as long as you don’t act on it,” he replied. I was thirteen, and I believed him.


Thus, after years of suppression, confusion, and anxiety, I finally decided to come out of the closet as a gay man my last day of high school. I was fortunate to grow up in a liberal Maryland town, and all my friends supported me wholeheartedly. I did not experience a single incident of explicit homophobia back at home. In this nurturing environment, I was able to contemplate and experiment with how I viewed my sexuality and how I wished to present it to others.


The thing about coming out is that you can never fully escape the closet. People will always assume you are straight until proven gay. So, as I began my Global Citizen Year, I found myself in the same predicament as a few weeks prior. I questioned whether the other fellows would treat me the same if they knew that I was gay. I entered pre-departure training in the Redwoods with skepticism.


On one of our first days at pre-departure training, we formed a giant circle. The icebreaker was an exercise in diversity and privilege. Every time the facilitator read off a statement that we identified with, we could take a step into the circle if we felt comfortable enough to do so. Statement after statement, steps after steps, the facilitator finally asked us to move forward if we or someone close to us had any affiliation with the queer community. My heart skipped a beat, and I immediately froze up. Would I dare make a move and potentially “out” myself? To my pleasant surprise, nearly all the fellows walked into the circle, and I hesitantly followed suit. I realized that my fear was misplaced. Most of the fellows knew someone who was LGBTQ, whether they were raised by two moms, had a bisexual uncle, or were queer themselves. They could empathize with my marginalized community.


I found solidarity and support amongst my regional cohort in the province of Napo after this realization. Fortunately, I was placed in the same host community as another queer fellow. During our weekly dates, we would rant about machismo culture and misogyny over chocolate ice cream.  She even introduced me to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has a huge cult following in the queer community.


Thus, at home and within my regional cohort, I had locked the closet door and thrown the keys away. But I found myself retracting back into this dark, isolating space when I interacted with Ecuadorian nationals. My host mother in Quito was a loving and nurturing person, but she was also an ardent Christian. I did not feel comfortable coming out to her. My host family in Napo province were also phenomenal. My dad Neil was a school principal. My mom Floreana worked odd jobs for the local government. I had four younger siblings who were students at the local elementary and high schools, but machismo culture invades even the most well intentioned households. My host brothers would jokingly call each other maricon (faggot). My dad inquired about my “girlfriend” in the States. Having to conceal my true self from people that I cared so deeply about left me frustrated with and confused about my predicament. One moment, I was catching some fresh air outside the closet and the next I found myself cowering in its deepest corners.


Hiding my sexual orientation from my host family was one of my biggest regrets. Because we have maintained contact over Facebook, I worry that this part of my identity will strain our future relationship. Despite this fear, however, I have found a powerful support network within my cohort. There was always a fellow who was willing to actively listen to my complaints about homophobic comments that I heard on the streets and in my host community. And for that, I will always be grateful for my Napo-teers.

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog post. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of Global Citizen Year.


Kevin Pham