My first memory of my friend CJ is pretty vivid: a suitcase fell out of an overhead cabin and directly onto him. I watched the entire thing.
CJ’s first memory of me was an awkward moment during our staging event in Philadelphia. The facilitator asked the question I was equal parts dreading and very well prepared to answer.
“What is the policy in Togo in regards to people who are [a famous four-letter acronym in regards to who they are and whom they love]?”
My hand shot into the air. “Well,” I began bloviating, “It’s technically illegal, like as far as laws go. But no one’s been arrested for three years. So it’s not like they’re going to kill you or anything. But it’s also not a good idea, like you shouldn’t do it just because you’re not going to like die or anything.”
The facilitator boiled my verbose response into a much more well-packaged takeaway: “Yeah, it’s illegal.”
A little bit about me: In pre-k, I organized a group of rag-tag toddlers to play a game of Brady Bunch. Eschewing typical gender roles, I bravely chose to play Jan. (For a few reasons: my voice wasn’t changing so I couldn’t be Peter; I didn’t suck so I couldn’t be Bobby; no one had ever thrown a football at my face, so no Marcia; I couldn’t be Alice because I didn’t own an apron and I never talk back to my employers; and my sister had just entered the world and was so clearly a Cindy that even putting myself in the same category was irreparably an error)
A few days later, my mom got a telephone call on our landline. (To my young readers, this was the 1998 equivalent of getting a Snapchat with the bitmoji that says “we need to talk”)
“Judy,” the mother on the other line said, “my son told me that your Daniel organized a game of The Brady Bunch and made my son be Marcia. Why would he do that? Doesn’t he know that that’s… well, you know!”
My mom, in a harbinger of a retort that demonstrates how phenomenal and compassionate she has been to me in every walk of my confusing journey, responded, “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Anyway, my circuitously-presented* point is that I’ve always been who I am. And although I so desperately fought against it until I was almost 19, I love how God made me.
Fast-forward to October 2016. My life-long goal had been achieved! I was accepted into the prestigious Peace Corps!
A cursory Google search answered a few of my most pressing questions about Togo!
- It’s a country! At the time, this was news to me.
- Peace Corps has been serving here for 55 uninterrupted years, even as the country has grown and faced myriad challenges
- It is a crime to… well, you know, follow the advice in that Macklemore song
So, the million CFA question (~$1724 USD): Can you be a Volunteer in a country that doesn’t accept who you are?
The answer is a resounding YES! It’s difficult, but there are good parts and bad parts:
For starters, Peace Corps is an unbelievably supportive organization. Every staff member I’ve talked to has helped me in whatever way I need, both the Togolese staff and the Americans (and our doctor, who is from Kenya). Never once have I felt uncomfortable about who I am; on the contrary, I feel unbelievably safe.
There is a community of Volunteers across the world who identify under the same umbrella as I do. Peace Corps has resources for everyone. I’m not the first Volunteer like me, and I certainly won’t be the last.
A few months into our service, I was asked in front of our cohort to share a good thing about being a Volunteer that identifies with a special, more colorful, flag. I deadpanned, “Wow. There are so many to choose from.”
But in reality, there is a nice perk about being in a country that hasn’t really grappled with this issue. Bear with me as I poorly try to explain it.
You all probably have a semi-factual, semi-stereotypical mental image of people like me. I like to tell the story of when I told my friends my truth during the first week of college. The punch line is: They were so surprised… that I hadn’t already told everyone.
We all make these judgments every day. Most of us don’t mean it maliciously. Because of the way I talk, because of the things I like, it’s safe to assume that the famous episode of Ellen resonated with me and also instilled a fear of supermarket loudspeakers. (Obviously, it should go without saying that plenty of people who identity a certain way don’t even kind of fit this stereotype.)
But in Togo, this connection isn’t made. I can act the way I want to act without fear of being seen as “fulfilling a stereotype.”
And on a similar note, male friendship here is expressed in a way that is so much more tender than how we do it in The States (that’s what I call America now!). Close friends will hold hands when they walk together. That’s okay. And it’s not weird at all, it’s actually very nice. I wish men were that comfortable in the States!
The bad things are a little more obvious. First, after 18.5 years of pretty strong turmoil, I finally let myself be who I am. It was a long journey, and a difficult one, as anyone who went through it should know. I will say though that my family was nothing but supportive, from my mom, to my amazing aunts, to my inspiring cousin Eli, to even my Republican stepdad. Acceptance isn’t a partisan issue.
After four years of being me, it was hard to, in a way, revert to how it was before.
And there are times here where I’m hanging out with the friends I’ve made in my village and I just want to scream, “I AM [redacted]! I PREFER [redacted] INSTEAD OF [redacted]!”
After four years of having almost free reign to be me, this change has been difficult.
So how do I survive?
- I remind myself why I came here. I’m not a missionary; I didn’t come to impose my values. I came to support the Togolese people, to encourage the amazing kids in my village, to offer them the little help I’m able to offer. Focusing on an aspect of my identity would ruin what I came here to do.
- I use my Peace Corps support system! The staff, the other Volunteers, people that have already served… there is no shortage of help.
- I eat a lot of popcorn. Like, a lot of popcorn. Not really for a reason related to this blog post. Gandhi once (apocryphally) said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and I wish to see more popcorn.
- I practice love and kindness to everyone I meet. Some things are just going to take time. I don’t have the power to change it, and that’s okay.
I know what some of you might be thinking. At first, I thought it too. How can I live in a country that doesn’t support who I am? This isn’t a good answer, but here’s something to keep in mind about the land of the free and the home of the brave:
- In 28 states, you can marry your partner on Sunday and legally get fired for it on Monday.
- President Trump is currently trying to ban capable and heroic soldiers from defending their county because of who they are.
- And if these things sound bad, don’t even click on this link that details the horrors the trans community has to live with, especially transwomen of color.
I don’t say these things to justify Togo’s treatment or to disparage America. I don’t do it either to create a false equivalence (i.e. just because it’s bad here makes it okay over there). It’s just to show that we all have our problems, and we need to keep working together to solve them.
If you’re a prospective Peace Corps Volunteer and you’re worried about this aspect of Peace Corps life, I would encourage you to consider applying all the same! Some Peace Corps countries are more friendly toward these issues than others, and Peace Corps has a great number of resources to help you make this decision.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, thank you, not just for reading, but for your support. Together, we can change the world 🇹🇬❤️
*You may be wondering why I’m using rather vague and idiomatic expressions to substitute for the real thing. It has nothing to do with shame. I love who I am. It’s just that I have quite a few Togolese Facebook friends and want to ensure that this post doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. I’ve taken steps to protect the privacy of this post, but you can never be too careful, right!