All over the world, folks are marching down streets in spandex and feathers, waving rainbow banners and flags, making gratuitous public displays of same sex affection as they celebrate their Pride of being Gay. And Lesbian and Trans and Bi and Pan and Poly and A and Inter. Except here in the Faso. So I've been doing a little soul-searching, trying to sort through my feelings, discovering my inner child, cause that's what one does in Peace Corps. And my inner child is saying to me, DAMN, philippe, you need to get some asssss! It also came up with the following deep reflections on being gay in Burkina:
AN ABBREVIATED HISTORY OF PHILIPPE
I had a little dilemma when I landed in Burkina almost a year ago. Just after landing, in fact. I had this rainbow pin on my backpack. I'd placed it there when I was in the midst of coming out my freshman year of college four years prior, back when I was becoming a poster-child for gay pride. I was gay, and I wanted everyone to know about it, goddamn it! It was my time to come out and be proud and maybe finally find myself a boyfriend or two. Or three or four. I was gonna come out and get lots of love. I was 18, and my purity score was embarassingly high. I even went on MTV to spread the word that I, Philippe André Gosselin, am gay. [wild, spontaneous thundering applause, and a couple of cat-calls. Work it, honey!] That's not what I said on MTV, but that's the message that got out nevertheless. You'd be surprised how fast the word gets around once you go and say it on MTV.
So, my first semester at college, the modest rainbow ribbon got pinned to my backpack and it'd been there ever since, following me everywhere I went. Now I had landed in Africa, and was pulling out my backpack that had been neatly stowed under the seat in front of me with my tray-table in the upright and locked position and my seatback fully erect. And there was the rainbow. Shit... whaddoIdo, Toto, whaddoIdo? I couldn't just take it off. Well, I suppose I could, but what kind of a statement would that be making? Perhaps this hesitancy needs some explaining.
You see, if I learned one thing in my years amongst the hyper-politicized neo-hippie fascists at Wesleyan, it was that everything you do, whether you mean it or not, is a political statement. The way you dress, cut your hair, who you sleep with and how, who you talk with, who you meet with, the "political spaces" you create, the way you sneeze, tie your shoes, the way you do the things you do, it all implies a political statement of sorts. And you have to be oh so careful about the political statements you make. Thus, the intellectual discourse on campus went something like as follows:
"You offend me."
"No, YOU offend ME!
"No, you are offensive!"
"No, I am offended! And if you respond, that's also offensive!"
"Don't silence my voice!"
"Don't silence MY voice, you straightwhiteuppermiddleclassmalehegemonist OPPRESSOR!"
"Don't oppress me with your labels!"
"You think YOU'RE oppressed?!"
...etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
At Wesleyan I also learned that students at prestigious liberal arts schools are full of shit. So I guess that's two things.
But then why was I so troubled by the statement I'd be making by removing my pin after all these years? I was over those days of gay this, gay that, everything is gay gay gay! (or "queer queer queer" if you want to fit in at Wes) I'd let go of the cause to some extent (though my mom has taken it up in my place). Here I was, embarking on a journey that could be two years of my life... I knew I wasn't gonna be able to be out and proud in Burkina like I'd grown accustomed to since I started college. I knew I was making some sacrifices by coming here. But it was tough, thinking that I would be letting go of a part of me that had come to be as much of me as anything else. Could I really just put it away for two years?
Actually, that's not where the story begins. Why on earth did I end up joining the Peace Corps in the first place? Well, for starters, I'm a saint. That's a given. And joining the Peace Corps is just what saints do. But saints have needs too, you know. This saint first started feeling those needs around the tender, confused young age of 13. You see, back then I was feeling young, confused, and tender...
Ok, we're gonna skip all that and go straight to this summary of my past 10 years:
High school: Nothin. Get into gayest college possible.
Freshman year: Out of the closet and ready for love. Come 'n get me! ...nothin.
Sophomore year: Right then, I'll settle for hookups. Nothin. Well screw Wesleyan I'm going abroad! But first...
Summer in LA: Nothin. But smog. And horrible public transportation.
Fall abroad in Paris: Nothin.
Spring abroad in Madrid: Nothin.
Summer in New York: Nothin.
Senior year: Nothin. By this time I was starting to see a trend. A whole lot of Nothin can bring a saint down. Even a handsome ripped saint with the body of an adonis. What good is a body with nothing to rub it up against? Where did I go wrong? One night, while procrastinating a paper, the saint had a lightbulb go off over the glowing ring above his head. Everybody always says this sort of somethin somethin happens when you least expect it, and here I am looking in all the most obvious places! Going to a queer school (if there ever was one), doing summer internships in gay indie film, studying abroad in romantic capitals of Europe... Please! How cliché! Why don't I join the Peace Corps? I certainly won't expect it there, sweating in a mud hut doing saintly things somewhere in Africa. It'll set me up perfectly.
Pre-departure Summer in San Francisco: Ka-CHING! DING DING DING DING DING DING! Tika Tika Tika Tika Tika! (also, it was freezing)
But by this time, I'd already accepted the invitation to Peace Corps and had a one way plane ticket to Ouagadougou with my name on it. Leaving in 2 weeks. Paradise gained... paradise lost.
Lest I leave a less than honest impression, I'll admit that I wasn't entirely innocent before I reached San Francisco. And I must say I was very fortunate to have experienced all these places despite finding myself hard up in all of them. But folks have had better luck, too. I joked to myself, Sure, you're probably gonna have to be celibate for two years, but it can't be any worse than Wesleyan! One year later, I find myself eating those very words, because I've got nothing better to eat; furthermore, they were untrue. Oh, how very naive I once was.
DANCIN' IN THE MOONLIGHT
Within our first week of training we had a session detailing the risks of coming out in Burkina, or accidently outing other volunteers. It's a small country, word could get around. And since the country is heavily Christian and Muslim, the only logical thing to do if you discover a man prefers men is to ostracize and possibly beat him. I mean, what else is there to do? Go on with your life?
This said, nobody will ever suspect you to be anything but straight. People have heard of homosexuality before, but they assume it's something only freaky frenchmen do. It's perfectly acceptable for same sex buddies to walk around holding hands in public, cuddle and caress, and to do some heavy and obscene bumping and grinding on the dance floor. Just as long as you don't seem to enjoy it TOO much. On the other hand, for opposite sex couples to do the same in public is considered quite scandalous and inappropriate. Amen to that, I say! Keep the breeding in the bedroom, you perverts!
It's a little disconcerting at first to see two young men walking hand in hand through the market, or sitting with their hands on each other's thighs, or leaning a head on a shoulder, or making out in a corner. I find myself wondering, Where am I?? Ok, so there's no making out. But the rest is perfectly common. And how refreshing! Nobody could get away with that at home. Men have to keep a 5 foot radius between themselves and other men, watch how they dress and what music they listen to how they speak and be sure not to bleach their hair, or they set off a gay alarm. (*krchshshs* We have a suspected code Pink, please call for backup. Confirm that. Man with tight jeans and excessive hair gel listening to Christina. Designer underwear label showing. That's code pink, over. *krshschsch*) That's why it's so liberating to just come out and forget about all the bullshit. I feel sorry for the straight men in America, all the self-censoring they have to do lest they raise suspicions. Here you do anything, wear anything (or possibly nothing) and nobody blinks an eye. All that registers is: LOOK, A WHITIE!
One evening during training while I was living in a host family in Boussouma, I was hanging out with my host brothers and some of their neighborhood friends, sitting on a bench outside of the courtyard, by the millet field. The moon was shining, the millet stalks waving, and there was a crackling radio playing some slow jazz. My oldest host brother, around 19, is a tall handsome guy, and that night looked rather like Tiger Woods, wearing a baseball cap and a polo shirt tucked into khakis. Barefoot of course. He took the hand of one of the smaller more raggedly dressed neighbor boys and started to twirl him around to the music. They laughed as they twirled, and then they settled into each others arms into a swaying slow dance. The radio, the moon, the stars, the breeze, two boys just dancing out in the field as the rest of us sat and watched. I was mesmerized. I'll be damned if it wasn't the most romantic thing I've ever seen.
[pause for reflective sigh]
[deeper, slightly melancholy sigh]
[sharp, conclusive sigh]
It didn't matter that I didn't get a turn. Just watching was enough to fill this deep, longing hole in my... if only for a moment... I'm sorry, I can't go on. [blows nose into microphone] Can we turn the cameras off? Can we get someone to come fix my makeup?
THERE'S A TINY HETEROSEXUAL DEEP INSIDE EVERY ONE OF US BURSTING TO GET FREE
So began my rebirth as a straight man. Sometimes volunteers make up stories about a "certain someone" back home to stave off overzealous suitors or the inevitable questions that arise. But I wanted to retain at least a modicum of honesty, so arriving in village I began with a tactic of subtle evasion: ARE YOU MARRIED? No. WHY NOT? Cause I don't want to be. Look, a goat! WHY NOT? Cause I don't have a girlfriend. How bout this heat? WHY NOT? Jesus, I dunno... Women are too complicated! Sure is a hot one, huh?
Of course, such answers, like claiming you don't have a religion, just make no sense to the villagers. And so they nagged and nagged until I finally decided, ok, just say whatever it takes to satisfy them. I never bothered to make up a story, so I can never keep my answers straight. ...erm, consistent.
DON'T YOU WANT AN AFRICAN WIFE? I've already got a wife. YOU SAID YOU WERE A BACHELOR. Did I? Sometimes I forget... She's so very far away. SO YOU HAVE A WIFE IN AMERICA, WHY NOT A WIFE IN AFRICA TOO? She's a jealous jealous wife. SHE'LL NEVER KNOW. YOU HAVE NEEDS! Lord, don't I know it! HOW ABOUT A GIRLFRIEND? Already got one of those, too. You know Imane? WILL YOU MARRY MY DAUGHTER? Your daughter's 6. SO? You know what, you're right. Age is an arbitrary thing. I'll marry her after these other 4 girls that have been bestowed upon me.
When I went to visit my neighbor Imane's village in the beginning, we made a show of our separate sleeping arrangements. Imane actually does have a fiancé back home, and it would be no good if her villagers thought she was some kind of slut. Look, people! He's sleeping on the porch! But of course, deny as we might any romantic or physical involvement, people will assume what they want to assume. So now if somebody asks if there's anything between us, the answer is No, we're just fucking. What other reason could we have for seeing each other?
Unfortunately because I can't be open and honest, in village I feel like a horribly lame version of myself. When I can't make comments about hot guys or complain about not getting ass, what is there left to talk about? The weather? Goats? It just isn't any fun. Not to mention I'm one lonely and randy rabbit.
In a way though it's easier here. Sure, the desire is still there, unrequited as always, but I came without expecting to find anything or anyone. And how nice it is to have my expectations met, for once in my life! Whereas usually my thoughts have been along the lines of: This sucks! I can't believe I can't even find me a man in Paris! Now I simply think: This sucks! It's a subtle difference, but you see, finding a man here is beyond my control, and therefore I'm completely justified in whining incessantly while making no efforts to rectify the situation. There's simply nothing I can do. Which is actually quite a relief. Or possibly a releif. No, relief.
Ok, I admit that while I fully expected the gay scene in Burkina to be about as barren as the landscape, I secretly hoped Peace Corps would be teeming with progressive homosexual studs like myself. What young gay man wouldn't want to leave behind the gyms, the clothes, the clubs and the hair gel to come live in poverty in the remotest place on earth? Apparently not quite as many as I thought. Instead, I find myself in the company of a group of straightwhiteuppermiddleclassheterosexistmonogamist OPPRESSORS. But they're Ok once you get to know them.
These hopes dashed, I was no longer expecting love. (You hear that love? I'm not expecting you! Look at me, twiddling my thumbs, reading a book. I daresay, this is probably the moment in my life where I've expected you the least! ...) But nor did I expect to arrive in Africa and be consumed by lust! All we ever hear about Africa back home is genocide, famine, disease, poverty. Am I missing anything? Exotic wildlife. So of course, I imagined I'd be living amongst poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, war-torn starving folks. And elephants. Does the news ever mention that in addition to all these things, there are also hot men in Africa? Never. News flash! There are some seriously hot men in Africa! Not just because it's 110 degrees! And some of them even have damn nice teeth! This all came as quite a surprise to me. Perhaps the growing attraction is a natural part of acclimating to new people and surroundings. Or maybe it's due to a condition I've developed known as "desperation." I don't know. All I do know is when I go play shirts and skins soccer, my eyes aren't on the shirts. Nor are they on the ball. Rather they're glued to the many topless muscly torsos writhing and twisting and flexing under smooth black sweat-drenched skin glimmering by the light of the setting sun... And then I get hit in the face with the ball, which has happened enough times that I've taken to just sitting and watching with the people on the sidelines. Lust hurts, man. Ouch... Or as they say here, "WHYYYYYYY!"
After months and months of being heterosexual, I found my beautiful gay rainbow flower slowly, sadly wilting inside of me, with no Diana Ross to rejuvinate it. I needed to know I was not alone on this continent. So when I found myself on an unexpected extended medical leave in Dakar, I decided to do some snooping around. Senegal may not be the land of plenty, but like almost every other country in the world, it's got way more going for it than Burkina. Because Senegal, and Dakar in particular, is so much more developed, internet cafés are more popular and widespread and allow for gay folk to find their fellow family (not to mention fornicate). After some google forays, I sent off an e-mail to the head of Dakar's underground gay organization explaining who I was and how I was hoping to learn about the gay community here. Surely enough, he responded and we set up a rendez-vous for an informal chat. It wasn't til later that he told me he'd had to ask special permission from the board of the underground organization to meet up with me, an outsider, and share his story, with the hope that I could provide some help... I'd stumbled across some deep shit, man.
I arrived by taxi at the appointed hour and place. We were to meet at a busy intersection. I wasn't sure how I'd be able to pick this guy out, cause all I knew was that there was a good chance he'd be black. And in Dakar I wasn't the only whitie walking the streets. But I needn't have worried: The man had a flame brighter than the African sun. He had the lisp, the wrist, the swagger, the look. You work it, sistah! I was nervous and excited as he led me to a more private spot, a nondescript restaurant/bar/club down the street. This was my first contact with family in Africa...! I wanted to know all about it.
We were seated in a private corner. My contact--I'll call him "Deep Throat"--or better yet, Z--told me that the server was safe, aka in the loop, and the server sat in on parts of our conversation. We ordered beers and I asked away. Turns out the situation for gays in Senegal is much more precarious than in Burkina. The gay identity there is much more salient, and the government officially condemns it. Men in Dakar don't hold hands or bump and grind on the dance floor because of the possibility they'll be labeled. Gays have to be very careful how they meet up and be very discrete in their appearance, which I realized must make life awfully tough for guys with flamboyant traits like Z.
He formed the group about 5 years ago, with a goal of providing a social meeting space for gays in Dakar. They've since expanded their mission to include HIV/AIDS education for its members and political activism, trying to reverse government persecution and abolish a law forbidding homosexual relations. Since they're officially banned from meeting, it all takes place in secret, communicating through word of mouth, email and phone. It started out with 50 members, but now has over 1000, 400 of whom live in the capital. Z told me the membership includes gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians. Many of them are married, some are sex workers.
Because of his position as head of the organisation and his efforts to get support from various non-governmental organizations, he inadvertantly became something of a public figure in Senegal. A couple years ago, he was attacked and severely beaten by a group of people on the street. He went to the hospital, but they refused to treat him after they discovered his identity. He had to go into hiding and managed to escape to France for 6 months.
The law used to persecute gays, Article 219, was put in place by the French during colonial times, and it still exists in all of their former African colonies, though somehow not in Burkina. It's actively enforced in Senegal. Z gave me the example of two of his friends who were arrested on trumped up charges of public sex while they were sitting together in a park that had a reputation of being a cruising spot. The possible punishment is between 1 month and 2 years in prison, and they were both condemned to 2 years. They weren't even allowed to speak in their own defense at the tribunal. Z told me that nobody bothers to refute the judgements because the society's attitude is, "They're gays, they deserve it." Z's organization also helps its members who are AIDS patients find people who will agree to treat them, because they're often refused treatment at local hospitals or clinics. Even organizations like Amnesty International have offered nothing but sympathy for these injustices, claiming that if they help the gay community it would sully their relations with the government would harm their capacity for addressing other abuses. Other NGOs have refused help and funding for similar reasons. For instituting all this homophobic discrimination and persecution, we've got the Frogs to thank. DAMN THOSE DIRTY FRENCH AND THEIR TOAST!
Speaking of toast, by this point in the conversation the beer had reached my head, and I was feeling a little toasty. It was wonderful to finally be in the company of somebody I could relate to on a deeper level than the weather. I felt my supressed activist tendencies boiling back up, and I had saintly visions of myself taking these people under my wing, getting them condoms, books, funding for an office, helping them form a network with other gay groups in Africa, publish a website, educate the gay community about AIDS and STIs, get them treatment. Maybe I could even help a group in Burkina get on its feet. In Peace Corps I've gone between feelings of being mildly to completely useless. But now here was something I could be passionate about, working with people I have a connection to, who I care about, and who I can possibly help, somehow, and maybe get laid doing it... We've got a whole big family in Africa who are struggling to find their own sense of pride, and if only we could all get together and hold hands and sing Kumbaya, it would be so beautiful...
Then the server brought over the bill for the 2 beers, and that brought me out of my buzzed idealistic stupor awful quick. I'd invited Z, so of course I was paying. The bill was for $12. Two beers in Burkina cost about $2, and in Dakar it's normally only a little more. Maybe it doesn't sound like much, and to any other whitie in Dakar it wouldn't be, but $12 was my entire day's living allowance, and I still had taxis and food to pay for. This for a volunteer who's looking to help you? Z, perhaps noticing the look of shock on my face, said he'd already paid up a bit to ensure we wouldn't be disturbed, put he offered to put in $2 as I laid down a ten. We said goodbyes, and I left with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I realized, though, as I was going away, that this was just another hurdle Z and his group had to deal with, paying dearly for the privilege of being able to meet and speak openly without trouble.
Z told me he has a contact with Burkinabé doctor who was trying to establish a group in Ouaga. Unfortunately, my attempts to follow up with him have gone unanswered, and so, to this day, I'm left high and dry in Burkina.
AN INDECENT PROPOSAL
After returning from Senegal, I started wondering, is there really nothing I can do, no way to find these people? They've gotta be out there. Probably even in my village. I set my gay-dar on high alert, but didn't pick up anything. I did note some suspicious activity one day, when I spotted a group of three young guys taking turns showering in a cement brick shower out in the open near the clinic. The ones who weren't showering were hanging around, chatting, leaning against the shower wall, and, I dunno, man, it looked like the dudes were checking each other out as they took their turns getting nekkid! Unfortunately there was no way to go verify this nonchalantly.
One evening, around this time, I was chilling with Souleymane after he'd given me a Mooré lesson. We were sitting around, shooting the shit, staring off into space, casually nudging each other's arms. As you may already know, I'd developed a bit of a crush. Souleymane holds hands and gives affection along with all the other boys, but unfortunately, since I'm a Nassarra, I'm not generally included in these displays. (Nor have I ever been a participant in the dance-floor bumping and grinding. Well... unless you count that one drunken night down in the south...) Souley and I have graduated to an occasional hand on the knee, though, which I'm happy for. On this particular evening, we're sitting silently, I'm trying to detect signs of sexual tension, and then he blurts out, "Have you ever slept in a mud hut?" Umm, no... (my house is made of cement bricks and a tin roof--not technically a hut) "Well then you'll have to come over and we'll spend the night together some time." Well! Whoa there, Souley! Nobody's ever tried that pick up line on me before. Could this be the love connection I'd been waiting for? I mean, not at all expecting? I was skeptical of course, but amused by the possibility that his invitation was something more. And so were other parts of me.
As I got up to leave, my backpack carefully positioned in front of me, one of the wives in his family said something to me, which Souleymane translated. "She asked if you were going to stay the night and sleep with me. She'll feed us Tô." And then one of the dads asked, "Aren't you going to sleep here?" So his family was in on this too? I was a little taken aback, though this probably meant the whole thing was an innocent sleepover. But who knows? Maybe this sort of thing happens all the time. Maybe his family obviously saw the tension between us and thought, please! Just sleep with him already! It could happen. But I figured, well, the least I'll get out of the deal is some innocent cuddling. And I could sure use it. Anything more would be just a pleasant surprise. A very pleasant surprise.
Souley was building himself a new hut at the time, and it was still missing some things, like a door, so he said when it's finished he'd invite me over. It was finished a couple weeks later, and he took me on a tour. It wasn't a very long tour. But we sat on his bed, and he said, "See, my new hut is a little distanced from all the other ones. So we can have fun without being bothered by all the kids." HOLD UP THERE! What did he mean by "have fun"? Because where I come from, that would be a blatant come-on. But what do I know? I stuck to my policy of zero-expectations, but I was a little giddy thinking about it. And so were other parts of me. That backpack comes in handy.
Eventually, with a little prodding from myself (remember...? when you told me...?) the day came that he invited me to stay. We'd gone out into the bush for our Mooré lesson, out to a spot where the crocodiles are. We didn't spot any, but we took pictures and had perfectly romantic time of it. We went back to his family's courtyard, I watched the kids play while he bathed and walked around without his shirt. He cooked me beans, and we ate, and it got dark and we sat and talked. "So, do you want to sleep inside the hut, or outside on a mat?" Well... inside, of course! "Allright, in that case I'll sleep outside on the mat." I was too flummoxed to respond... WHAT? Aren't we at least gonna cuddle? Cuz dude, I really need to. You have no idea how much I was looking forward to it!
He brought me inside, lit a lamp as I stripped to my boxers, and asked if I needed anything, like a good host. Aren't you gonna come sleep inside?, I finally asked, trying not to sound terribly disappointed or forward or needy. "Why, are you scared?" Ummm... yeah. He laughed. "Don't be scared. I'll sleep outside until it gets cold and then I'll come in and we'll sleep together. Don't worry." Ok then. Was this a good sign? Maybe he was sleeping outside just for show, and then at the stroke of midnight he'd come inside and strip down and he would rock my world. Or at least hold me close. Ah.... I tried to fall asleep.
I got up a couple times in the night to pee. Midnight, he was fast asleep outside the door. I made as much noise as I could coming back, but he didn't stir. 2am, same. 4am, I was fast awake. Dude, it's gonna be dawn soon. Should I wake him up? Would that be obviously desperate? Well, I wasn't gonna get another chance, so I opened the door and called to him. Souley, aren't you gonna come inside? "Oh... yes, ok." He put away his mat, came in, and crashed on the bed fully dressed with his back to me. He was on the very edge, leaving a good 6 inches between us, and he stayed that way. NOOOOOOOOO!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Well, shit.
Souley was up with the sun 45 minutes later, along with the rest of the family. I got up and dressed after stewing in my disappointment a little while longer. "So how was the night?" Souley asked, smiling. Amazing, Souley, just Amazing. He asked if I wanted leftover beans for breakfast, but I declined. "You're gonna invite me over to your place one night, right?" Ha ha... Sure, souley! Let's see... Now it's way to hot to sleep inside, but I got this one-man tent... Of course we can both fit! Please, this is Africa! I'll take your clothes. All of them. Now you go ahead and crawl in. I'll just lube up and...slide right in on top! I'm sorry, there's really no other place to put my hand. Now, let's see... Put your arm here... move your leg around this way... slide my arm here... slip on this condom... and there we go! Comfy?
Would you believe a few days after our Night of More Nothin', I saw Souley all over a guy in the market. They were holding hands, leaning on wooden posts together, hands around the back... He even did the "ha ha ha, you said something funny and now I'm leaning in and touching your chest" move. Souleymane, you bitch! It didn't help that the guy was incredibly handsome and dressed better than me. I asked Souley the next day during our lesson who the guy was. Oh, just the son of the new chief. I've given him the cold shoulder ever since. But I still grab his knee sometimes.
And so, my gay life in burkina faso canned be summed up in a word: zip. Will it be so for yet another year? Will I manage to stay that long? Stay tuned.
Would you believe it, I just had a beer with a gay former volunteer who's returned after 2 years away to visit his Burkinabé lover. So there's hope after all... But I'm not expecting it. Nope. No siree.
Oh, I almost forgot. What about the pin? Well, I took it off just before we deplaned. And stuck it on the inside. Not that it would have made a difference, as I discovered. I could go marching down the street waving a huge rainbow flag with spandex rainbow shorts and glitter and pink feathers in my mohawk and NOBODY KNOWS I'M GAY painted across my chest and no one would have a clue. So maybe I will. My Ouagadougou Gay Pride for one.