Gay and lesbian aid workers often find themselves working in countries where homosexuality is illegal or widely condemned. Below, a lesbian aid worker employed by a large humanitarian agency talks about some of the dangers and dilemmas. She asked to remain anonymous.
Which countries have you worked in and what were the laws?
I was aware from the start that most of the places I would end up working would not be very comfortable for someone who was openly gay. I’ve been working in humanitarian aid since 2005 and have worked in southern, west and east African countries, south Asia and the Middle East. I recently looked up the legislation and, as far as I could tell, there were laws against same sex relationships in all these places except possibly one, where I’m not sure. But it is the cultural taboos, rather than the laws, that are probably going to really affect your day-to-day life.
Do you feel you can be open with colleagues?
In terms of national colleagues, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve told over the years. I might have done some people a disservice, but when you go into a place where the prevailing social and cultural attitudes are not positive towards same-sex relationships, then you make an assumption that your colleagues are probably not going to be comfortable with it. And from a professional perspective, particularly if you are managing people, it could certainly make things very uncomfortable or potentially impossible.
When you are working with people every day you can feel dishonest in not being open with them, but you have to work with a large degree of self-preservation and I guess that has dictated how I’ve had to behave. With the colleagues I have told they were definitely friends as well and I knew it was not going to be problematic for them. But I can only guess what the general attitude would be if that information had somehow got out and become generally known.
Have you had relationships during your postings?
I’ve been in the same relationship pretty much the entire time and I have lived with my partner in several countries. Expatriates frequently share accommodation so it doesn’t raise eyebrows. And we’ve always been very, very discreet so it has never been in anyone’s face.
But it can be tricky sometimes because obviously colleagues ask you about your life, as is normal when you spend a lot of time together. It gets difficult to talk about things because how do you refer to your partner? At some point you have to say “he” or “she”. I use “they” an awful lot, which is kind of ridiculous. Now we are engaged I say “fiancé” which is wonderfully gender neutral. When we get married that will be a new conundrum.
Have you ever found yourself in any dicey situations because of your sexuality?
No - I’ve obviously done such a good job of being incognito! I’ve never felt at risk because I’ve never felt it was something publicly known. I suppose sometimes gay men may be more exposed in some respects. I know of someone who was spotted after being out for an evening with a local person and there was a physical attack - not serious, but enough to shake them up a lot. If you live in a place for a long time and are single there will be a compulsion to go out and find someone, and obviously there are risks involved with that because you don’t know who you might be talking to. But no gay aid workers I know have been required to leave a place. Most people become pretty good at knowing how to behave, what to say and what not to.
What do you think would happen if you did tell your colleagues?
I find it quite scary to think about it. There are people I work with every day and really get on with and like and there’s the prospect that things could turn fundamentally if they knew.
It would also depend where you were working. There are certainly places I’ve worked where it would have been profoundly risky. In some places the risk is a degree of alienation and exclusion. In other places you are really risking physical harm.
But one of the things you sometimes worry about more is the potential for blackmail, particularly in a country where it is illegal because that’s quite a lot of leverage.
I suppose in this type of work you have to prioritise what can enable you to work effectively. Having people know would undermine your ability to manage people and to get on and focus. Good team spirit can be really critical, particularly where you are in an intense situation.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always had at least one colleague I can be open with. Otherwise, I can imagine it could be quite lonely.
It must be a strain not being able to be yourself – what affect does it have on you?
I think it isn’t necessarily healthy in the long term. With this sort of work it can often be so intense you don’t have time to think about everything until afterwards. But I have been aware that when I go home on holiday I come back and there is a stepping back into the closet. So psychologically, there is a certain strain. But it’s work I want to do and enjoy doing, so I will keep going.
However, I’ve been aware for some time that there might come a point where we couldn’t continue living in the sorts of places where you normally do humanitarian work if we want to have a family. If you have two girls living together in an apartment no one gives it a second thought. If it’s two girls and a couple of kids there might be questions. And then obviously bringing children into that situation could put a lot of pressure on them. There’s a point at which you have to make a compromise.
Do agencies do enough to support lesbian and gay staff?
Only once has an organisation directly addressed the issue during any of the inductions I’ve had. They basically said, ‘You have to be discreet - for your sake, and for ours as well’. There’s only so much support an organisation could give you if your position became untenable because you didn’t have the support of colleagues or were being threatened or blackmailed. I don’t know what my current employer would do if there was a staff member who was arrested, charged or beaten up. I don’t know exactly what their position is. There is probably a lack of clear guidance for managers in headquarters, so I think there’s definitely work that can be done on that.
Are there any countries where you wouldn’t work?
I’ve never been told there is any place I shouldn’t work, but I definitely wouldn’t choose to work in Uganda. There’s a certain level of homophobia I can manage, but it seems to be so virulent there that I would find it nearly impossible to manage. I wouldn’t even go there on holiday.
What would you say to young gays and lesbians hoping to go into aid work?
I don’t think people should be put off or think that it’s untenable. Clearly there are certain compromises that have to be made and there is an issue of whether you are willing to make them. I’m quite sure I get criticised in some quarters – there are people who would say, ‘Why are you hiding yourself, why aren’t you campaigning for gay rights?’ But the fact is that’s not what I went to these countries to do and by doing that I would be undermining my ability to do the job.