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Into Africa...and the closet

Into Africa...and the closet


Out Peace Corps volunteer Philippe Gosselin finds himself reluctantly hiding his sexual identity when he arrives in Burkina Faso. Then the questions about why he's single begin. What's a gay man to do?

All over the world folks are marching down streets in spandex and feathers, waving rainbow banners and flags, making gratuitous public displays of same-sex affection as they celebrate their pride in being

Gay. And Lesbian and Trans and Bi and Pan and Poly and Inter and A.

Except here in Burkina Faso. So I've been doing a little soul-searching, trying to sort through my feelings, discovering my inner child, 'cause that's what one does in the Peace Corps. And my inner child is saying to me, DAMN, Philippe, you need to get some ass!

It also came up with the following deep reflections on being gay in the Faso:

An Abbreviated History of Philippe

I had a little dilemma when I landed in Burkina almost a year ago. Just after landing, in fact. I had this rainbow pin on my backpack. I'd placed it there when I was in the midst of coming out my freshman

year of college four years prior, back when I was becoming a poster child for gay pride. I was gay, and I wanted everyone to know about it, goddamn it! It was my time to come out and be proud and maybe finally find myself a boyfriend or two. Or three or four. I was gonna come out and get lots of love. I was 18, and my purity score was embarrassingly high. I even went on MTV to spread the word that I, Philippe Andre Gosselin, am gay. [Wild, spontaneous thundering applause, and a couple of catcalls. Work it, honey!] That's not what I said on MTV, but that's the message that got out nevertheless. You'd be surprised how fast word gets around once you go and say it on MTV.

So my first semester at college the modest rainbow ribbon got pinned to my backpack, and it'd been there ever since, following me everywhere I went. Now I had landed in Africa and was pulling out my backpack that had been neatly stowed under the seat in front of me, with my tray table in the upright-and-locked position and my seat back fully erect. And there was the rainbow. Shit...whad-do-I-do, Toto, whad-do-I-do? I couldn't just take it off. Well, I suppose I could, but what kind of a statement would that be making?

Perhaps that needs some explaining. You see, if I learned one thing in my years among the hyperpoliticized neo-hippie fascists at Wesleyan, it was that everything you do, whether you mean it or not, is a political statement. The way you dress or cut your hair, whom you sleep with and how, whom you talk with, whom you meet with, the "political spaces" you create, the way you sneeze or tie your shoes, the way you do the things you do--it all implies a political statement of sorts. And you have to be oh, so careful about the political statements you make. Thus, the intellectual discourse on campus went something like this:

"You offend me.""No, YOU offend ME!"No, you are offensive!"

"No, I am offended! And if you respond, that's also offensive!"

"Don't silence my voice!"

"Don't silence MY voice, you straightwhiteuppermiddleclassmalehegemonist OPPRESSOR!"

"Don't oppress me with your labels!"

"You think YOU'RE oppressed?" cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

At Wesleyan I also learned that students at prestigious liberal arts schools are full of shit. So I guess that's two things.

But then why was I so troubled by the statement I'd be making by removing my pin after all these years? I was over those days of gay this, gay that, everything is gay gay gay! (Or "queer queer queer!" if

you want to fit in at Wes.) I'd let go of the cause to some extent (though my mom has taken it up in my place). Here I was, embarking on a journey that could be two years of my life; I knew I wasn't gonna

be able to be out and proud in Burkina like I'd grown accustomed to since I started college. I knew I was making some sacrifices by coming here. But it was tough thinking that I would be letting go of

a part of me that had come to be as much of me as anything else. Could I really just put it away for two years?

Actually, that's not where the story begins. Why on earth did I end up joining the Peace Corps in the first place? Well, for starters, I'm a saint. That's a given. And joining the Peace Corps is just what saints do. But saints have needs too, you know. This saint first started feeling those needs around the tender, confused, young age of 13. You see, back then I was feeling young, confused, and tender...

Ok, we're gonna skip all that and go straight to this summary of my past 10 years:

High school: Nothin'. Get into gayest college possible.

Freshman year: Out of the closet and ready for love. Come 'n' get me! Then...Nothin'.

Sophomore year: By this time I'd have settled for hookups. Nothin'. Well, screw Wesleyan, I'm going abroad! But first...

Summer in L.A.: Nothin'. But smog. And horrible public transportation.

Fall abroad in Paris: Nothin'.

Spring abroad in Madrid: Nothin'.

Summer in New York: Nothin'.

Senior year: Nothin'.By this time I was starting to see a trend. A whole lot of Nothin' can bring a saint down. Even a handsome, ripped saint with the body of an Adonis. What good is a body with nothing to rub it up against? Where did I go wrong? One night, while procrastinating on a piece of paper, the saint had a light bulb go off over the glowing ring above his head. Everybody always says this sort of somethin' somethin' happens when you least expect it, and here I am looking in all the most obvious places! Going to a queer school (if there ever were one), doing summer internships in gay indie film, studying abroad in romantic capitals of Europe--please! How cliche! Why don't I join the Peace Corps? I certainly won't expect it there, doing saintly things somewhere in Africa, sweating in a mud hut. It'll set me up perfectly.

Predeparture summer in San Francisco: Ka-CHING! DING DING DING DING DING DING! (Other than that, it was freezing.) But by this time I'd already accepted the invitation to the Peace Corps and had a one-way plane ticket to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with my name on it. Leaving in two weeks. Paradise gained...paradise lost.

Lest I leave a less-than-honest impression, I'll admit that I wasn't entirely innocent before I reached San Francisco. And I must say, I was very fortunate to have experienced all these places despite finding myself hard up in all of them. But folks have had better luck too. I joked to myself, Sure, you're probably gonna have to be celibate for two years, but it can't be any worse than Wesleyan! One year later I find myself eating those very words, because (1) I've got nothing better to eat and (2) furthermore, they were untrue. Oh, how very naive I once was.

Dancin' in the Moonlight

Within our first week of training we had a session detailing the risks of coming out in Burkina or accidentally outing other volunteers. It's a small country; word could get around. And since the country is heavily Christian and Muslim, the only logical thing to do if you discover a man prefers men is to ostracize and possibly beat him. I mean, what else is there to do? Go on with your life?

This said, nobody will ever suspect you to be anything but straight. People there have heard of homosexuality before, but they assume it's something only freaky Frenchmen do. It's perfectly acceptable for same-sex buddies to walk around holding hands in public, cuddle and caress, or do some heavy and obscene bumping and grinding on the dance floor. Just as long as you don't seem to enjoy it too much. On the other hand, for opposite-sex couples to do the same in public is considered quite scandalous and inappropriate. Amen to that, I say! Keep the breeding in the bedroom, you perverts!

It's a little disconcerting at first to see two young men walking hand in hand through the market, or sitting with their hands on each other's thighs, or leaning a head on a shoulder, or making out in a corner. I find myself wondering, Where AM I? OK, so there's no making out, but the rest is perfectly common. And how refreshing! Nobody could get away with that at home: Men have to keep a five-foot radius between themselves and other men; watch how they dress, what music they listen to and how they speak; and be sure not to bleach their hair--or they set off a gay alarm. (*krchshshs* "We have a suspected Code Pink--please call for backup." "Confirm that. Man with tight jeans and excessive hair gel listening to Christina. Designer underwear label showing. That's Code Pink, over." *krchshshs*)

That's why it's so liberating to just come out and forget about all the bullshit. I feel sorry for the straight men in America: all the self-censoring they have to do lest they raise suspicions. Here you do anything, wear anything (or possibly nothing), and nobody blinks an eye. In fact, the only thing that registers to natives is LOOK, A WHITEY!

One evening during training, while I was living in a host family in Boussouma, I was hanging out with my host brothers and some of their neighborhood friends, sitting on a bench outside of the courtyard by the millet field. The moon was shining, the millet stalks waving, and there was a crackling radio playing some slow jazz. My oldest host brother, around 19, is a tall, handsome guy and that night looked rather like Tiger Woods, wearing a baseball cap and a polo shirt tucked into khakis. Barefoot, of course. He took the hand of one of the smaller, more raggedly dressed neighbor boys and started to twirl him around to the music. They laughed as they twirled, and then they settled into each others' arms into a swaying slow dance. The radio, the moon, the stars, the breeze--two boys just dancing out in the field as the rest of us sat and watched. I was mesmerized. I'll be damned if it wasn't the most romantic thing I've ever seen.

[Pause for reflective sigh]

[Deeper, slightly melancholy sigh]

[Sharp, conclusive sigh]

It didn't matter that I didn't get a turn. Just watching was enough to fill this deep, longing hole in my.... If only for a moment...

I'm sorry, I can't go on. [Blows nose into microphone] Can we turn the cameras off? Can we get someone to come fix my makeup?

There's a Tiny Heterosexual Deep Inside Every One of Us Bursting to Get Free

So began my rebirth as a straight man. Sometimes volunteers make up stories about a "certain someone" back home to stave off overzealous suitors or the inevitable questions that arise. But I wanted to retain at least a modicum of honesty, so upon arriving in village I began with a tactic of subtle evasion:

ARE YOU MARRIED? No. WHY NOT? 'Cause I don't want to be. Look, a goat! WHY NOT? 'Cause I don't have a girlfriend. How 'bout this heat? WHY NOT? Jesus, I dunno...women are too complicated! Sure is a hot one, huh?

Of course, such answers, like claiming you don't have a religion, just make no sense to the villagers. And so they nagged and nagged until I finally decided, OK, I'll just say whatever it takes to satisfy them. I never bothered to make up a story, so I can never keep my answers straight...erm, consistent.

DON'T YOU WANT AN AFRICAN WIFE? I've already got a wife. YOU SAID YOU WERE A BACHELOR. Did I? Sometimes I forget...she's so very far away. SO YOU HAVE A WIFE IN AMERICA--WHY NOT A WIFE IN AFRICA TOO? She's a jealous, jealous wife. SHE'LL NEVER KNOW. YOU HAVE NEEDS! Lord, don't I know it! HOW ABOUT A GIRLFRIEND? Already got one of those too. You know Imane? WILL YOU MARRY MY DAUGHTER? Your daughter's 6. SO? You know what, you're right. Age is an arbitrary thing. I'll marry her after these other four girls that have been bestowed upon me.

When I went to visit my neighbor Imane's village in the beginning, we made a show of our separate sleeping arrangements: Imane actually does have a fiance back home, and it would be no good if her villagers thought she was some kind of slut. (Look, people! He's sleeping on the porch!) But of course, as far as any romantic or physical involvement, deny it as we might, people will assume what they want to assume. So now, if somebody asks if there's anything between us, the answer is "No, we're just fucking." What other reason could we have for seeing each other?

Unfortunately, because I can't be open and honest, in the village I feel like a horribly lame version of myself. When I can't make comments about hot guys or complain about not getting ass, what is there left to talk about? The weather? Goats? It just isn't any fun. Not to mention I'm one lonely and randy rabbit.Read Part 2: Awkward in Africa

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Philippe Gosselin