All things being relative, it’s probably fair to say that life isn’t really “easy” for anyone.  It’s true that grass always seems to be greener from a distance, but up close there are weeds, without fail.  Even a king can get cancer or be overthrown; the most pampered, bonbon-eating bimbo knows pain.  We wouldn’t be human without the experience of adversity.

So it’s easy for us gay people of a certain age to look at the generations coming along behind us and wonder at the “ease” with which they are allowed to live their lives.  They’ve never experienced the social opprobrium, backed up by officially-sanctioned violence, that inspired the Stonewall riots.  The twenty-somethings among them only know a world in which gay people serve openly on state and national legislatures and where gay and lesbian cultural icons are welcomed by mainstream society with open arms.  People my age, on the other hand,  have one foot each in vastly different worlds.  We embrace today’s more accepting atmosphere with gratitude (we fought for it, after all!), but have strong, life-changing  memories of when it was not OK to “just be yourself.”

So while I may envy the clear path my younger gay and lesbian colleagues may see before them as long as they stay within the liberal societies of the West, I tremble for them when they decide to do something like joining the Peace Corps.

The standard Peace Corps recruiting interview is one of the most intrusive imaginable.  Potential recruits are asked and encouraged to be frank about very private issues in their lives: recent divorce or loss, for example, or where they stand on the spectrum of sexual orientation.  They’re encouraged to talk about these things so that recruiters can then counsel them about the realities PCV life in regard to these issues.  How wonderful that these questions are even asked!  They certainly weren’t when I applied to the Peace Corps, back when homosexuality was still regarded as a mental illness and was grounds for immediate separation from service.  But of course, back then, our radar was extremely fine-tuned to safe or unsafe situations, and most gay people knew when to slip, chameleon-like, into ersatz “hetero” personas.  It became almost  instinctive; when we first discovered the need for this dissimulation there must have been some psychic cost, but it was so habitual by the time we reached our twenties it was as natural and reflexive as breathing.  Because of all this prior social conditioning, then, a lot of Peace Corps counseling wasn’t really necessary.  Official–and non-prejudicial–recognition of our existence would have been nice, but we were used to keeping our own counsel.

How must it be, then, for young gays and lesbians, out to the world, perhaps even active in gay politics, to be told that they may have to “go back into the closet” when they get to their sites as Peace Corps volunteers?  Even that choice of words is probably inappropriate, since many of them have no closets to return to–they’ve never known a time when total self-expression wasn’t acceptable.  They get plenty of counseling on their way to staging, from a country-specific mentoring service of the LGBRPCV organization, a gay/lesbian email list-serv, and countless other sources, so intellectually they can prepare themselves.  But the reality of living in a Senegalese mud-hut village must be brutal for them.  Their world is suddenly attenuated, unimaginably.  They are so completely accustomed to just being who they are.  How can they possibly make close host-country friends if they must hide such a huge part of themselves?

In response to this discovery, I can only say (and I mean no irony here):  “welcome to the world.”  Gay and lesbian Peace Corps volunteers are unique in having to decide, early on, which is more important:  their overall impact as  volunteers and the entire experience of living in that world, or their own self-expression?  At their sites, the choice is literally that stark.  It may be unfair, tragic even, but it’s true.  If you insist on coming out, you may be disruptive, you may never gain anybody’s trust; by extension you could damage the entire program in your country.  That’s quite a chunk of reality to absorb, and it’s all about simply expressing who you are.  It’s a wonder any gay PCVs decide to stick it out, and a testament to the deep, personal meaning of the overall Peace Corps experience that they do.

Whatever else they may accomplish, all Peace Corps volunteers learn one central lesson and bring it home to enlighten the rest of their countrymen.  The lesson is that  most of the rest of the world lives far differently from what we are accustomed to here in the dear old, fix-it-or-forget-it USA.  Gay and lesbian volunteers are no different; indeed, for them this lesson is deeply personal.  Their host-country gay and lesbian brothers and sisters may live literally in fear of their lives.  Peace Corps volunteers may be in no position to change that sad fact, but the memory of it will inform their own lives forever.  In the end, all of us, straight or gay, come home better people for what we have learned through the lives we’ve touched. Our diverse backgrounds and expectations going in are squeezed through the Peace Corps sausage grinder and we come out citizens of the world; then our diversity takes over again and we spread that hard-earned wisdom where we may.  Not a bad, bargain for our country, I’d say, and I’m proud that gay and lesbian volunteers are still such an important part of it.