PCV Suzanne Capehart tackles tough issues with her students in a discussion about homosexuality and homosexual rights
By Katrina Shankle
In Benin there are plenty of misconceptions about homosexuality. For many volunteers, it is a subject we want to broach but a difficult one as these conversations are not always welcome in our communities. A volunteer in the Alibori North of Benin, Suzanne Capehart was able to take on the subject with her homologue and a group of students and has shared her experience.
To open the session, Suzanne started by simply just explaining to the group of students homosexuality as basically as possible: the concept of men being attracted to men and women to women. During this portion of the session she spent a lot of time emphasizing the point that being homosexual is not a lifestyle choice nor a disease- two commonly believed myths- and instead something with which you are born, like a personal trait. Students had much to say about this as many came in believing that it was a disease. A handful of students were concerned that not only was homosexuality a disease but that it was a contagious one, and as Suzanne came from a place they knew homosexuals to come from, they feared she was a carrier that could potentially infect them. This idea is not uncommon. In many countries across Africa, homosexuality is seen as an import of colonialism. People believe nonheteronormative sexualities did not exist before Europeans came to Africa.
Students were also generally confused about the sexual nature of homosexual relationships and some were confused about reproduction in regards to same sex relationships. Some students believed that someone could still produce a baby in a same sex relationship. Suzanne explained that there are many ways for a same-sex couple to become parents but that a baby could not be produced without an egg and a sperm. In this part of the conversation she explained briefly the nature of same-sex sexual relationships. Interestingly, she found that students were far more comfortable accepting and understanding the nature of women engaging in a same sex relationship but when discussing male same sex relationships the students were much more disbelieving and disapproving.
Finally, Suzanne addressed gay rights and gay pride in the United States, sharing experiences of gay pride days with the students. She said this was an interesting subject for the students as Benin has a “don’t ask don’t tell”- like culture, the idea of people being so public about their sexual orientation and expressing a pride in their community was surprising to them.
These conversations are so important to have. While some or even most students may ultimately reject what Suzanne explained to them, it is important to share a different perspective and encourage, the youth in particular, to be more inquisitive and accepting. That being said, it is not an easy thing to do and it can come with consequences. For Suzanne, many of the students she held the session with believed she was gay for discussing it with them. This raised concerns for her with dealing with students’ families that may not be accepting of their students having a gay teacher or even a teacher who teaches them a view on homosexuality that is rejected by society. She and her homologue had to work to try to dispel these misconceptions about her personal life to protect her ability to continue to work in the community. There is obviously a tricky balance with much of the work we do in respecting beliefs and pushing forward thinking, but Suzanne’s story is ultimately one of success. She has reported at least some members of her community trying harder to at least be respectful despite their personal views when referring to homosexuals. Despite having to explain her own sexuality, the community has moved on and she managed to be a very effective volunteer while still being able to push the envelope with her community through sharing her own opinions and experiences.