In my past few months
in Benin, I have gotten to know many of the local Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) who are serving in the country. Besides being a nice introduction to quasi-normal social life, I have heard remarkable stories about the courage, patience and endurance it takes to work and live in this country as a volunteer.
One story in particular left me with a new found respect for those who have not only the courage to be themselves in a hostile environment but who, maybe without the intention at the start of their service, take a stand for a silenced community: LGBTQs (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer, for those who don’t know the acronym.)
Marcus Kendrick, a 24- year-old Seattle native, came out slowly to his friends and family in his late teens and early twenties. When I asked him how his parents responded to his sexuality he replied, “ It was a shock to them both, but with time they came to be very supportive and today we enjoy a relationship where I’m open about my sexuality and my boyfriends. Last year my dad asked me for a HRC bumper sticker! And my mom is pro gay marriage too.”
Marcus with the sacred pythons of Ouidah in Benin
But when Marcus initially joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Zambia, fighting for the rights of LGBTQ in Africa was far from his mind. But he explained that he changed his mind in August of 2010, a few short months after arriving in Africa:
“I had no idea I’d be taking a stand for gay rights in Africa. After my first three intense months living in my village, I went back to the capital, Lusaka, for two weeks of training in the month of August 2010. In one of the Peace Corps sessions a Canadian social worker, whom Peace Corps sends volunteers to for counseling, came to talk with us about coping mechanisms and he told us one way he copes as a gay man living in Zambia is by hosting meetings in his home for the only gay rights organization in the country. I had no idea that this organization existed. I wanted more information! I asked him after the session if he would give me the contact information for the organization.”
Little did Marcus know that this one small step would turn into both the best and worst part of his time in Zambia. He was put in contact with Lundu, a leader of the local gay rights organization. Marcus noted, “He was a well-educated, brave young man who I admire very much. I have yet to meet anyone here in Benin that can match his or his colleagues’ courage. And Lundu was interested in working with me.”
Marcus set up a time to go to the organization’s office. Marcus explained that the org, Friends of Rainka, ‘officially’ marketed themselves as a NGO that advocates for minority populations at a higher risk of contracting HIV, not a gay organization, because it was the only way that could become an official organization recognized by the Zambian government.
Aware that gay rights were a sensitive subject and knowing that he was representing Peace Corps, Marcus checked in with the acting Peace Corps Country Director to make sure it would be okay for him to go to Friends of Rainka. Her response was that as long as he kept out of public demonstrations and did not meet with official government ministers, she would allow it. Marcus agreed and moved forward with the organization.
“I asked them if they’d like for me to work with them to help them build capacity and better reach the LGBT community and engage in gay rights advocacy. They said yes, so I prepared a document with a few ideas for them to consider.”
But little did he know he wouldn’t get any farther with his plan to assist gay rights advocacy in Zambia.
“After my visit to the organization’s office I went to the physical therapist I was seeing at the time
. Peace Corps contracted with this lady, Musonda, and I had seen her maybe five times at this point. She asked me how my day was going and what I had been up to. Not feeling it necessary to lie, given my faith in doctor-patient privilege, I told her I had visited—nothing more, nothing less—the offices of a gay rights organization. And she was not pleased. This led to a 20 minute debate between the two of us on the topic of gay rights. I was very level-headed the entire time, and tried encouraging her to look at the subject from various different perspectives. She said she had gay friends in New York, whom she had visited, and supported ‘that’ there, but not in Zambia. Ultimately I asked her if we could agree to disagree. She didn’t understand what I meant by that and tried pushing the subject further, but I insisted we stop talking about it.
“I learned later that she had reported me to the office of her friend, the Zambian President, for my involvement with a gay rights organization. Despite my saying nothing of the like, I believe she came to the conclusion that Peace Corps had sent me to Zambia to promote gay rights—which was absolutely not the case. Not that that would be a bad thing, it just wasn’t the truth. ”
News got back to Peace Corps officials who told Marcus that he should to lie low for a while. Marcus’ response?…”But how could I possibly not share this crazy story with my Facebook friends? So I did, and I maybe used the words ‘I feel badass’ for having stood up for something I believe in.” (Personal kudos to Marcus for this one.)
Marcus feeding a baby monkey in Parakou
Little did he know, Marcus’ self-confident Facebook post rocked the boat more than he intended. Shortly after he got a call that a chauffeur was on the way to pick him up and take him directly to the
Peace Corps Country Director’s Office. “Apparently another volunteer saw my status and copied it in an email to the Director. The Director lacked an understanding of Facebook and thought that I was cockily blogging about my having been reported to the Zambian goverment despite the administration’s insistence I lie low, when in reality I was just telling my friends about what was going on ; I had strict privacy settings on my feed.”
Peace Corps agreed to send Marcus home citing “safety concerns out of his control”, instead of firing him.
“I was devastated. Zambia had become my home—more so than Benin will ever be my home (I really don’t like it here very much). I appealed the Country Director’s decision to send me home to the Regional Director for Peace Corps Africa, Dick Day. Dick replied to the Country Director that he was not accepting my appeal and that he thought my actions did ‘not meet the basic standards of professionalism and maturity.’—despite my asking for permission to work with the organization—”
And so ended Marcus’ volunteer service in Zambia. He had only been there seven short months. While Marcus grew—and still is—
disillusioned with Peace Corps bureaucracy, Marcus did not want to give up on serving overseas and enjoyed the Peace Corps experience so he asked for another placement. The woman who reassigned him gave him one choice: Benin. He was also more or less told that he would have to suppress ‘that part’ of who he was if he wanted to serve abroad with Peace Corps again, meaning no more standing up for gay rights.
When I asked Marcus if he was happy with his choice to come back to Africa, he said, “In Benin, the people are much ruder. Aside from Benin being ranked by the UN as the second unhappiest country in the world, it was among the worst countries they could have sent me to, given my history of engaging in gay rights advocacy. Venezuela, Mexico, and Southeast Asia are much more accepting than Africa. But here I am.”
Since returning to Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Marcus has found a way to keep his commitment to gay rights in a way that is acceptable to his sponsoring organization. He has helped found the Peace Corps Gay-Straight Alliance. Along with two other PCVs from Benin and the Peace Corps Benin’s Training Manager (a Beninese LGBTQ ally), he was invited to Togo by Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. to attend a workshop to create and edit materials that will soon be distributed worldwide and aim at making all Peace Corps programs more inclusive for LGBTQ volunteers. Marcus and his colleagues returned to Benin with a passion to start a Gay-Straight Alliance modeled on that of Peace Corps Togo. The Gay-Straight Alliance will support volunteer and Beninese staff education on LGBTQ issues and it will seek to network with local Beninese NGOs in hopes of building their capacity to better support LGBTQ people and their human rights.
Marcus and his fellow Environmental Action Peace Corps Volunteers in Benin
I asked Marcus if he had seen hate crimes in Africa. I have personally heard stories about the mob mentality that is seen as justice. For example, stealing is very highly criminalized here. One volunteer confirmed a story I had heard where a man accused of stealing was hunted down by a group of people that lived in the area. After pouring gasoline down his throat, they set him on fire. The Regional Security Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Benin also reported that he’s seen the mob mentality first hand in cases where people get robbed, and one criminal was tracked down by a group of people that lived nearby and was beaten to death.
One can imagine if that kind of brutality occurs when people steal, what would happen to a person for being openly gay in such a closed minded society.
Marcus responds, “Being Gay is outlawed in 38 African countries. While I have not seen a hate crime against a gay in Africa, I know human rights groups document its prevalence.”
My last question to Marcus was, If you could accomplish one step or action here before you leave that would leave the gay community better off, what would it be?
“I would teach the LGBT people whom I know the importance of identity politics. It’s through identity politics that groups like gays and lesbians rise up as a community and raise consciousness of the struggles they face, who they are, that medical and psychological experts agree that homosexuality is a natural human behavior, and that homosexuality can and should be embraced and is not going to tear apart the threads of African society. I know of at least one gay man in Benin that wants to adopt children. Considering African society is built around family, it will be stories like his that will help bring greater acceptance to the LGBTQ community.”
I am in awe and have so much respect for who Marcus is and what he stands for. He has reminded me of the importance of standing up for what’s right, especially when it’s not popular, because that is the only way the world is going to change for the better to become a more tolerant place for all of humanity.