There are times during the day where I find my brain composing something, linking sentences, detailing upon some mundane task while the rest of my body carries on with some other chore, telling a story to a contained audience: me. It’s not to say that the inner storyteller and the other inner audience don’t clash from time to time. Strange, I know, but alas, I tend to feel with my audience and lead with my storyteller and when the two started communicating with one another this post practically wrote itself.
Over the past two years I have done my best to be open with you; to capture all aspects of my life here, the happy and the sad. My service has been punctuated with moments of euphoric highs and decimating lows. Normal for Peace Corps volunteers around the world. Yet, of the threads that have connected my service from beginning to end there is one that I have kept hidden from you.
Six months after coming out to my friends and family in the states I arrived in arguably one of the most homophobic countries in the world. A place where gays face an aggressive population armed with anti-gay legislation and reproachful religious beliefs handed down to them from the West. The fact that the vast majority of Cameroonians believe that their country is empty of any person matching a LGBTQ classification does not negate the reality that every year people are imprisoned, tortured, and murdered on suspicion of homosexual activity. It’s a sad truth. And this is where I found myself in August of 2011, still in the process of taking my next step out of the closet and unshackling the Shane that I had kept hidden away for so many years.
How I was going to make this adjustment was something that terrified me. I can remember the extreme emotions I felt prior to flying to Philadelphia for staging. Two months of tears. I was convinced that I was going to die in Cameroon. Not because of my sexuality but because for some twisted reason I thought the universe was about to pull the rug out from underneath me just as I felt like I was becoming the person I was meant to become. I would never have a boyfriend, I would never fall in love, I would never live my happily-ever-after. But I got on the plane and I arrived in Philadelphia. I remember asking our American staging director if there were any support people I could talk to once arriving in Cameroon. Her response, though warm and well-intended, was basically an “Awww sweetie, just talk to the Country Director once you land.”
That didn’t feel like the right thing to do at all – immediately meeting the woman who would be my boss for the next two years and telling her that I was gay seemed like an inappropriate (and aggressive) action to take. So instead I just held it in. I repressed my emotions and my fears and my anxieties. In many ways, I suppose, I pressed rewind.
Initially, I wasn’t as open with my peers as I was with friends in the states. Maybe I was nervous about the environment I was in or maybe I was just unsure of how to handle my sexuality with fifty-three strangers. Either way, if it came up in conversation I was honest. But the thing was it didn’t come up too often in conversation…and I guess my honesty was somehow cloaked because I definitely broke some hearts. After a few girls contracted feelings for me (classic) it was time for me to bring it up more in conversation. And thus began coming out, part two. Press fast forward. I obviously became more at ease with the Americans around me and as we grew as friends in a foreign place, I also grew more comfortable with me – one of the most rewarding aspects of my service.
One’s Peace Corps service challenges him or her in different ways; no volunteer faces the same obstacles. Whether personal, work-related, stuff in the states, health issues – whatever – there’s always something. You might think that for me my obstacles were centered on my post change tri-fecta. The first dud, then the evacuation, the subsequent displacement, and then the reentry into life as a PCV in a third post. But that wouldn’t be completely true. My biggest struggle as a Peace Corps volunteer has always been being gay. And looking back, am I surprised? Well I shouldn’t be.
A dear friend and a returned Peace Corps volunteer herself told me that it would be a challenge. She told me of one of her friends she served with in Costa Rica who had a really hard time during his service. I heard the words she was saying but it was hard to imagine myself in that position of struggle. How could I? A bright-eyed idealist joining the Peace Corps doesn’t have time to dwell on future emotions of longing and exasperation. The moments where the sadness would rest in me like a stagnant pond, where I would feel like I had jumped off a train leading me towards my desired destination only to hit the ground hard, alone, and disoriented.
When asked to describe my service in one word, what would I say to you? Resilient. I’ve overcome in so many ways and, perhaps, most notably, I’ve grown into a man comfortable in his own skin. Definitely more confident, courageous, and mature than I felt when I stepped onto the plane carrying me to Africa 27 months ago. Why? Because “…it takes a special kind of courage to live as gay people do every day…There is a certain grace required to successfully navigate such an unforgiving milieu. One must be socially savvy and psychologically intuitive…” (shout out to Jake McMillian). He is right. It takes courage to walk down the streets of a place where you know people could kill you if they knew about your homosexuality. It takes grace to sit in a room full of your adopted family members and know they would never allow you to enter their home or play with their children if they found out you were gay. It takes intuition to have lunch with your best Cameroonian friend and know that you can never tell him you like men, although you feel pulled to, because he would turn his back to you and never speak to you again.
The million dollar question: would I do it all over again? Absolutely. And I probably will. In another decade in another country in another point in my life. I’ve had an amazing experience here in Cameroon and I would not trade that for anything. It’s the advice my best friend, Rachel, told me when I approached her about feeling like I had been living a lie the first 21 years of my life. I wish I had climbed the ladder of self-comfort requisite to come out years before I had. But she reminded me that that was an impossible wish. Why trade the cumulative experiences of my early years for something that I can now cherish for the rest of my life? And it comes full circle.
As one chapter ends and another begins I cannot help but feel genuinely excited for what’s to come – life as a young, single, male looking for his next step in life. It’s not going to be an easy adjustment back. One of the few certainties, however, that I can cling to in the ever shifting, choppy sea that will be my readjustment to the United States is the crowd of people – family, friends, cute guys – waving towards me from the imminent horizon welcoming me back to a place where I am accepted as the person I am and where I am encouraged to be the person I was always meant to be.
Cameroon, it’s been incredible. To my peers who continue their service, good luck, and to those of you who join me in our reentry into life on the other side, ashia and du courage. Family and friends back in the States, thank you for your continued support throughout my whirlwind of a service. Your letters and words of encouragement have kept me going over these past two years. I’m not sure I would have made it to today if hadn’t been for the perpetual positive reinforcement you offered me.
As I wrote six and some change months ago in a very different place in my service, “Here we are – despite the delays, the confusion, and the shadows en route – at last, or for the moment, where we always intended to be.” I think you’ll agree that it sounds better today than it did then.
I accomplished what I set out to do. I completed my 27 months. I survived in every sense of the word. I succeeded. I failed. I laughed. I cried. I saw. I learned. I taught. I made friends. I made memories. I ate. I ate some more. I experienced. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. And now I exit the arena. A victor with more life to live. America, here I come, full of emotions, with an imprint of Cameroon branded onto my heart.