by: Dipesh Patel
Should I uncross my legs? Should I wear longer shorts? Am I gesturing too much? Would facial hair help? These questions never go away for people like us; in fact they only become more defined. These are the strict gender norms that won’t bend, but for the sake of our service we change ourselves.
I’ve been able to change myself to fit into my community, but of course my community is always changing as well. One day I was talking to my neighbors about the global economic crisis when, unexpectedly, a man dressed in a skirt and a tight blouse walks past us. I was shocked. It wasn’t long before I saw looks of disgust. I tried to explain that we were all alike, and that everyone needed respect. I was immediately disputed. It is impossible to have a discussion in a place where the conversation doesn’t exist. It wasn’t long before I saw a motorcycle with two men follow the man. God, I thought, I hope it’s just going to be harassment. My ethics have been challenged on an on-going basis in the Peace Corps, but nothing has conflicted me more than my ability to do nothing that afternoon.
“I hope it’s only harassment?” Had two years of service made my ethics this “flexible?”
If I had done something, I would have been labeled as a sympathizer in my community. This would have severely damaged my reputation as a volunteer. However, I’ve thought about the incident over and over in my head. I thought it could have been possible to make a stance, but in a country where homosexuality is still punishable by jail sentences I didn’t want to make any inclinations. Still, this incident and many others like it have plagued my time in Morocco.
The line between what’s acceptable and what’s disrespectful is thinner than people can imagine. I can wear a tank top one day, and shorts on another day, but never together. It’s life, and we accept it.
It’s only when volunteers are together we get to be ourselves. Female Peace Corps Volunteers get to wear whatever they please without the fear of sexual harassment. We can cook over-cheesed hamburgers and drink terrible wine. We get to talk about any topic we please, sex, politics, science, interpreting dreams. These are family values, and it is this family that has kept me going.
But even with an incredibly supportive family, this time of the year gets depressing for us more “fabulous” volunteers. Pride celebrations are absent from most of the Middle East and Africa. There might be a couple of underground happenings, but even those exist under a veil of fear. Fear that just by stating that you exist governments will punish you in the most severe of ways.
Well sir, I exist.
This year for Pride weekend I sat in my sweatbox, wiping my forehead and spraying my body with a spray bottle – hoping the heat would be forgiving. It wasn’t. I watched as my newsfeed became flooded with pictures of go-go boys in tight Speedos, marchers with vibrant rainbow outfits, tall, lustrous drag queens, simply a celebration of life. I had forgotten about Pride. Sometimes you get so used to life in your small Peace Corps town that you forget that there’s still an entire world beyond the surrounding mountains. Other years before starting service I was too busy or preoccupied with other pressing matters to bother. Now I sat, Facebook stalking my friends’ photo albums, how embarrassing.
Do Pride celebrations provide something bigger than visibility? Can I call dancing around in my Peace Corps house with loud house music a Pride celebration? Or teaching a seminar on women’s rights a Pride celebration?
The same “we can change the world” ideas that exist in Pride celebrations around the world exist in the work of the Peace Corps. Never have I met such supportive people as the volunteers and staff of Peace Corps, and never have I been able to do such innovative work in my life. While my friends back at home were wondering where their places were in a struggling economy, I was getting firsthand experience in projects that I had designed, planned, and implemented. Sometimes they would work, but most of the time they didn’t. Still, I’ve obtained a world of knowledge and a rolodex of friends.
I can only hope that one day we will see LGBTQ rights as human rights. Not Western ones.
As a child of immigrants I’ve always wondered how my life would be if my parents had never left India. As if there’s a copy-cat of me in India wondering what Dipesh Patel would be like if his parents had immigrated to America when they got the chance. I wonder, would I finally cave to family pressure and put their wants and needs over mine? Would I deny myself the right to live truthfully and instead live in accordance to societal norms? How would I push through day to day life knowing that I was living a lie? In the Peace Corps I’ve had nothing but time to think about things, a lot of things.
I can only presume that some things would remain the same no matter where I would have been raised. I hope that I would have fought hard for recognition. I hope that I would of ran around with the same people as I do now, artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, rebels and disrupters. I hope that I would have taken the time to travel the world and finally end up in a career path that would have let me be creative, innovative, and exceptional. Finally, I hope that I would have demanded the freedom to live my life in the way that I saw fit. But I know that before all of this would have been possible, I would have been forced to become silent for a very, very long time as I’ve been forced to become silent now.
The staunch reality is that my community here will never know about my real community back at home, but at least I can add another community into my life. But who knows? Perhaps one day our communities will meet.