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.
The tenets of machismo – aggression, strength and manliness – define what it means to be a man through the subordination of women and homosexuals
By Katrina Shankle
Machismo means manliness, chauvinism or virility. When describing a culture it is referring to a societal ethos of exerting aggressive masculinity with a dogmatic view of what manliness means; it is the by-product of a paternalistic society. These kinds of values are often troubling for women and homosexuals as gender roles are inflexible, and a divergence from the norm is viewed as taboo.
Generally when using the word machismo to describe a culture it is in reference to Latin American countries (with the word’s origin in Spanish). In reality, the number of countries with elements of a machismo culture is vast, with the key ingredients to this kind of culture only being a male-dominated society with very traditional views of gender roles.
In these societies, a variance from a typical “strong” male character is a weakness. The stereotype of homosexual men perpetuated by these societies is that they are all effeminate, weak or submissive, and in this manner are viewed as a second class.
So powerful is this idea of an aggressive male in some Latino cultures, that they have adopted a view that even a man who takes on a relationship with another man is not necessarily homosexual. In Colombia this is characterized by the expression “soy tan macho que me cojo otro hombre” (I’m so macho that I fuck other men). In this way, in Latino cultures, the concept of machismo hasn’t only created a hierarchy among the gay and straight but also among the gay community.
These attitudes are very obviously detrimental to society. The stigmatization of what it means to be homosexual fuels violence against individuals and the gay community as a whole.
According to Avert, in 2005 it was estimated that a gay man was killed every two days in Latin America because of his sexuality. These attitudes force people to conform to heteronormativity, keeping people closeted, even participating in heterosexual marriages to avoid suspicion. These views impact people’s social lives, professional lives and their ability to participate in society. For a gay man, his sexual orientation becomes his sole identifier.
The prominent role of machismo tenets in the demonization of homosexuality among men has had an interesting effect on gay women. Not being affected by the same constraints of machismo ideology in relation to their sexual orientation, it has been seen in particular in Latino cultures, that gay women are far less visible with less misfortunes of a reactionary community. Suspicions of a woman being a lesbian are far less common than suspicions of a man being gay, a woman can remain unmarried, she can live with another woman and the perception is generally that she is frigid. However, women do not get off unscathed, the constraints of a machismo culture put women gay or straight in a secondary role making it harder to find jobs and exert independence.
Machismo ideals are not typically at work alone. In most cases the dominance of a religion with damaging views toward homosexuality further limits the support network of those ostracized by their community. While in most Latino cultures these systems of values are only embedded within social norms and values, many African nations (37) still outlaw homosexuality and in a very few the “act” of homosexuality can lead to life imprisonment or the death penalty, in these societies the homosexual community finds little reprieve within any corner of society. A machismo ethos only points to the malady of a society perpetuated in both its religious tenants, social norms and in some contexts the laws.
Despite the legality of homosexuality, Beninese members of the LGBT community face discrimination and homophobia as part of their daily lives.
By Emily Becker
As a member of the LGBT community in Benin, Jean* is used to hearing the horror stories about being gay in a country where, although technically not illegal, homosexuality is generally not accepted. As the president of the Hirondelle Club, an association of LGBT Beninese that meets every Monday in Cotonou, Jean has met individuals who have been driven out of their homes after being seen kissing another man, individuals who have been victims of assaults both physical and verbal and in extreme situations, individuals who have ended their lives over their sexuality.
“We do not choose our sexual orientation,” said Jean. “They did not choose to be straight. We did not choose to be gay. This is our life, our identity.”
Despite the fact that neither homosexuality nor homosexual acts are illegal in Benin, laws rarely change the opinions of individuals. In Benin, like many other countries in Africa, homosexuality is seen as an abomination by churches, or as an import from the colonial influence of Europe.
“Many people believe homosexuality is either an act of witchcraft or it is imported from the Western world,” said Jacques, a member of the LGBT community in Cotonou who relocated to Benin from France in 1990. “The strong religious influence is also a challenge to face, as many preachers still reject homosexuality during their speech at churches or mosques.”
For those who feel comfortable coming out to others or who are looking for a safe place to meet other members of the LGBT community, several organizations and support groups exist in major cities like Cotonou and Parakou. More than ten meet on a regular basis, and the French Cultural Center hosts a monthly discussion in order to reduce ignorance and homophobia.
Unfortunately, Jacques believes that, for now, the safest way to live as a gay man in Beninese society is not attract attention to oneself or sexuality.
“We give advice to the most extravagant members of the community (mostly effeminate) and ask them to go out dressed normally and change their clothes while they are in a closed area,” he said. “However, this advice is hardly followed as many think they want to live their life, come hell or high water. [As a member of the LGBT community] I must always remember that I can be the subject of rejection, mockery or insult. I therefore always pay attention every time I go out with friends, making sure we should not be the subject of general attention.”
*Names have been changed
And we made it. At 10:15 in the morning, after 21 days and 620 km, volunteers Sandy, Jannah, Taylor, Betsy and two girls, Adele and Michelline, from Taylor’s village rounded the turn into Porto Novo, our final stop our the Tour. Spirits were high; the runners sang songs from Camp GLOW throughout the run.
The mayor of Porto Novo, American embassy representative Todd Whatley, deputy chief of mission, a representative from the Beninese Ministry of Sport and Youth, Beninese partner Father Guillaume and 70 volunteer and community supporters greeted the runners at the Porto Novo Community Center.
On our second-to-last leg of the tour, volunteers Katie and Michelle together completed the 40 km between Bonou and Misserete. The girls finished up strong on this overcast day, and everyone on the team was feeling the excitement of ending the journey in the capital of Porto Novo tomorrow morning.
On this, our penultimate day of cross-country run, we here at the blog are concerned that we have, in fact, made this all look too easy. Or have given the impression that all we did during the run was, well, run.
There was also plenty of eating.
And plenty of time taken to relax afterward.
And definitely, a few rests a long the way.
Volunteer Danny, who tooka break from the bike support team, and volunteer Taylor shared today’s 35 km leg from Zangnanado to Bonou.
Unfortunately, it’s part of the reality of living in a foreign country, eating a foreign diet and encountering foreign viruses that volunteers get sick. Every volunteer has their horror stories that may be too graphic to share here, but volunteer Taylor started the day out rough: waking up with a cold after just battling an intestinal parasite giardia.
But, as bike support team members Danny and Lynsey found out while passing through this village with the same last name of one of our Peace Corps doctors, care is never far away.
Future coordinator of the GenEq committee Betsy took on today’s 7 km run between Cove and Zanganado. But don’t doubt her commitment to the program just because she was scheduled for one of the shortest legs of the tour. Betsy has served the past two years as an English teacher in a public middle school and has seen first-hand the impact that programs that focus on females can have on a village at large.
“Women and girls are the heart of the community,” she said. “Starting with them leads to empowerment and development throughout all genders and age groups.”
Betsy hopes to continue to focus on empowerment through athletics next year, including collaborating with the national Ministry of Sports and other community partners.
Volunteers Kristy and Julie went off the path most taken in today’s 45 km leg from Ajanoudoho to Cove. Despite this being the only day we spent completely off the national highway, dirt roads, known as terre rouge, are actually much more common here than pavement. Most volunteers live in villages where the only streets are dirt that turns everything it touches the color of sun-bleached bricks. During the dry, windy season, most things in the country, including volunteers, are constantly covered in a thin coating of the stuff.
Volunteer Mark took on the route between Dassa and Adjanoudoho, starting with 15 km on the national highway and finishing with 10 km on unpaved roads, known as terre rouge here.
Mark, the coordinator of the GenEq committee, has been with us since the run began all those days ago on the Burkina Faso border biking alongside the runners each day and organizing events in the towns through which we pass. Our bike support team, composed of three volunteers who rotate duties each day, take care of our runners with snacks, water and moral support on the route. Their saddle bags, which carry anything a runner may need, can weigh upwards of 15 pounds. Today, Mark traded this:
Each year, with funds collected by the GenEq committee, Peace Corps Benin volunteers are able to host camps, informational sessions and development projects. But, as it goes, the time that each volunteer gets to spend in Benin is limited. Through the involvement of members of the community outside the Peace Corps, the lessons taught and impact made are able to continue after each volunteer’s 27+ (potentially) months. We are only as good as the host country partners we are able empower.
On today’s 27 km leg of the run from Savalou to Dassa, volunteers Drew and David (who is making his third appearance on the tour) was joined by five special guests: two community partners who have been friends of GenEq for several years now and three girls who participated in last year’s Camp GLOW: Savalou, a one-week empowerment camp focused on middle school girls.
Father Guillaume traveled the four hours from Parakou to run with Drew, but he’s no stranger to long runs. Every year, his organization hosts the Parakou marathon and various other programs in the area to empower women through sports.
Second, Paterne left his motorcycle at home today and pedaled his way with the bike support team to Dassa. Paterne has served on the organizational committee for Camp GLOW Savalou for three years.