Why I’m an Ally
The below piece, with its accompanying introduction, ran recently in the Post newsletter’s “Get Bent” column, a dedicated space in each month’s issue reserved specifically for issues related to LGBTQ volunteers serving in SA. Hope you enjoy.
Hello SA PCVs,
Attached and pasted below is the August Get Bent column, from our hetero hero Matt Kertman (SA22), about why he chose to become such a fierce advocate and activist for LGBTQ volunteers in South Africa. All of the achievements we’ve had this year started with him, and we’re proud that he’s chosen to share his reasoning for that with all of us as he prepares to COS. Enjoy. – Sean and Piper (SA23)
Why I’m an Ally
How one PCV got tired of waiting for justice and became an ally.
By Matt Kertman (SA22)
It feels like I’m always waiting.
I listen for the wind to surge, to signal the approach of wolfish clouds roiling low over dark mountains. I wait for the smell of wet sky, for the anvil strike of thunder. I wait for the seasons to change. I wait for water.
I wait for my counterparts to complete their share of a project, for Post to answer a question, for the happy double-ping of an SMS from another PCV. I wait for taxis to take me to town to buy food at month end and for the electricity to return to cook it.
I wait to feel like I’ve made a difference.
Early on, I concluded that if I couldn’t be as effective in my service as I had hoped, I would find a way to enable other volunteers to achieve more – not a grand mission, but a just one. Along with the Newsletter and VSN, I chose to focus my energy on helping to create a support system for queer volunteers.
I can’t say with certainty why supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning volunteers has become such a lodestone for me. Maybe it’s that, as a heavy kid, I was pushed around too much, and still identify fiercely with the underrepresented and heterogeneous. Perhaps it’s because, like many straight men, I had homosexual experiences growing up and today count among my friends many queer men and women. But more likely it’s as simple as this: thuggery and bigotry are alien to my sense of what it is to be human, especially when committed in the name of morality.
It’s difficult to miss. As any PCV can tell you, most South African bigots – black or white – miss every good opportunity to keep their mouths shut. The lame, “He’s a gay,” is used so often (and so often inaccurately) that it could be forgiven if it weren’t so dangerous. Try inserting “Black” or “Jew” instead and see what it reminds you of.
Queer South Africans live risky lives. Last week, a 23-year-old resident of Crossroads township outside Cape Town was attacked and stabbed while returning home from work with her girlfriend. Last April, Nokolo Nogwaza was raped by eight men near Johannesburg and then stabbed to death with a piece of glass, but not before the men disfigured her face by stoning it. She was 24. Then there was Vuyisa Dayisi, a trans woman found dead, stripped from the waist down, with signs of molestation. Two days later, a gay man who lived nearby was found shot in the head – his wallet and phone still on his body.
For queer PCVs, the danger is at once greater and lesser. The odds are high that being out in their communities will, if not endanger them literally, neuter their hopes of being effective at site. That’s unconscionable. “The insistence that gays and lesbians live like heterosexuals, or stay in closets, is not only a demand for uniformity,” Amartya Sen wrote, “it is also a denial of the freedom of choice.” A world away from their family and friends, queer volunteers don’t just need the support of straight PCVs, they deserve it. And I was bored to death of waiting for others to provide it.
I’m proud to be an Ally to queer volunteers, to be the “A” in LGBTQA, and for the goals we’ve accomplished in the past year:
- Created the Peace Corps South Africa LGBTQA Facebook page. It’s a safe space for queer and allied PCVs, wholly private, designed to encourage discussion and foster support for each other.
- Launched the Get Bent column. Since it’s debut in the Newsletter over a year ago, the column has moved quickly to cover a lot of ground, from gay bar reviews to serving as the platform for one Volunteer to come out. Above all, it’s a tool for asserting our right to have a presence in the PCV community.
- Lobbied for LGBTQA Training for Staff. Since July, we have conducted in-depth sensitivity training for all staff members at Post, South African and American, including the crucial PST team.
Allied volunteers have a responsibility to support queer PCVs in whatever manner we can. We can wait for the change to come, for the hatred to die, or together we can tackle Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s question that, “If you desired to change the world, where would you start? With yourself or others?” And most of all, why would you wait?