“Serve somebody.” – Andrea Balt
July 18, 2014
I recently came across my copy of The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to make it part of your library. Rather than running away, denying or hiding, this Buddhist nun encourages us to go to those places that scare us, feel the feelings that terrify us, have the conversations that make us uncomfortable, find compassion for those who seem unworthy, touch those dark places in our lives, have patience with others who attempt the same. It takes courage, it can be daunting. We may flounder over and over in our attempts. She didn’t say it would be easy. She does say it will be worth it.
With these thoughts swirling in my head today, it seemed fortuitous that I came upon this post written in January but somehow never posted. It’s too precious not to share as it was perhaps one of THE best discussions of the year with a host country national.
My adult English student, one of the most intelligent, curious and progressive Paraguayans I’d met, was completing his law degree and learning English in preparation to live in the US someday (after being Paraguay’s next President…I love his gusto). Part of our English class involved an hour of cultural discussion and my topic this day was homosexuality, chosen specifically after witnessing his negative reaction to it in a prior session. What ensued was enlightening yet heartbreaking, curious yet disturbing.
He explained the machismo attitude in Paraguay that prevents people, especially men, especially in the campo, from discussing the topic, befriending a gay individual, supporting gay marriage or adoption of children to gay parents, or defending gays in any way. He says it’s custom, it’s in Paraguayans’ blood to feel this way. I called bullshit. He talked of how gays have no friends and are regularly harassed. I asked if he would feel the same if his brothers were gay. Would he desert them? Turn his back on them? He said it was more complicated than that; that children of gays would be harassed and completely unsupported in the school system and have terrible lives. He reiterated that gays have no friends. I asked if he felt gays were “bad people”; no, not at all, it’s just custom not to like them (my jaw dropped for a moment, and I had to recompose myself.) I asked if he felt all people in the world were equally human. Yes, yes he did. With feelings and the same needs to want family, friends, love, acceptance, and community? Yes, absolutely. Then… why? “It’s custom,” was the reply. “We don’t break custom.” I asked how he would feel about this type of treatment from others if HE were gay? Eyes lowered. No answer.
We argued over the Paraguayan viewpoint that being gay is a choice. I insisted otherwise and asked why anyone would CHOOSE a life of harassment, no friends, secret love, and limited options in life? He then understood. I suggested that, because of his education and career path as an attorney and community leader, he will ultimately be more influential than many here, and perhaps he could start changing the custom by changing his perspective, and then implementing those changes little by little, especially when he becomes President (it was time for a little humor by now).
While he didn’t feel capable of breaking custom or habits himself at this time, he understood my points and promised to teach more tolerance to his child when the time came. At least the seed is planted. If I make no other noticeable contributions during my service, planting this seed in an individual capable of running with it and instigating the conversation with others will be a worthwhile contribution in my eyes and hopefully someday in the progress of this country and those suffering from a nation that lacks understanding and compassion in this area. This topic is a Place that Scares people. Fortunately, it doesn’t scare me. In fact, I want to do everything I can to light that dark place with love and understanding, one seed, one conversation at a time, if necessary.