Gay in the Peace Corps – Patrick Driscoll, Senegal 2014-2016
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Homosexuality is illegal in Senegal. When Patrick Driscoll found this out before he departed for his Peace Corps service, he was immediately a bit nervous about the next 2 years of his life. Patrick had come out during his senior year of college and was generally accepted by everyone and was quite content. Then, he was moving halfway around the world to essentially “jump back in.”
Photo from Patrick’s Story
Patrick Driscoll’s Peace Corps Story
My name is Patrick Driscoll and I served with the Peace Corps in Senegal from 2014-2016.
It took me a while to come out to my fellow American volunteers. I still had a boyfriend, Manuel, and we had decided to do the long distance thing. Around the end of training, I finally told a small group of some of my closest friends, and news traveled pretty quickly. By the time I got to my site where I would serve for 2 years, I think every volunteer in the country knew that I was gay and had a boyfriend. The gossip in the Peace Corps knows no bounds.
During our 3 month language, technical, and cultural training, the topic of being an LGBTQ volunteer was addressed. We were essentially told that we should stay in the closet for our own safety. The safe haven of volunteer events was to be the only times that we could express ourselves. Over the course of my service, the other LGBTQ volunteers and I all got together pretty frequently to express our frustrations and to hang out. Without them and my straight ally peers, I don’t think I could have made it through the entire 27-month commitment.
In Senegal, we live with host families. Mine was truly wonderful. They accepted me, helped me with language, and treated me as part of the family (as much as they could). They were Muslim, as is 92% of the country and the topic of homosexuality was rarely discussed in the household. My host brother, Malick was around my age and we quickly bonded. He was the only local person I ever thought about telling about my sexuality. However, my mind changed right after marriage became legal in the States. Malick made a comment about goor-djigeens (man-woman), the derogatory term for homosexuals, and how the states could ever let this happen. In this moment my mind raced as I tried to come up with a response that would dispel his negative viewpoints. I thought about coming out to him, but quickly remembered that another volunteer had just been evacuated due to his community finding out that he was gay. The Peace Corps deemed it a threat to his safety.
I decided to ask him how he would feel about one of his family members or closest friends telling him that they were gay and in love with another man or woman. He told me that was impossible as that did not exist in Senegal. I asked him, then why was it illegal in Senegal if it does not exist? He responded that it probably does exist, but only in the large cities. We went back and forth for a while and I do feel like I normalized the concept a bit for him, but I was concerned that the second I left at the end of my service he would revert back to his prior thinking about homosexuality.
A few months before this conversation with Malick, my boyfriend, Manuel, came to visit. In Senegal, it is very common for people of the same sex to share a bed. This worked in our favor throughout our cross-country travels and our stay with my host family. Hand-holding is also normal between two men or two women. I spent many evenings walking hand-in-hand around town with the mayor of our small community and with Malick. Unfortunately, I was far too nervous to hold hands with my boyfriend while we were there. I was too terrified of being found out and jeopardizing the town’s perception of me. I was just beginning to make good friends and earn the trust of my neighbors.
My Senegalese family loved Manuel during his visit. After he left, he was the only one that they continued to ask about throughout the rest of my service. It was almost as if they knew how important he was to me, but the topic of our true relationship was never broached. I had several other friends and other volunteers visit me over the two years in my town, but my family still only ever asked about Manuel.
Fast forward to today. Malick has a smartphone and a Facebook profile. We chat fairly frequently about life and to check in with each of our families. Malick very clearly sees that my now fiance and I are way more than friends on my social media. We hold hands in photos and generally look like a normal adorable couple. Now he asks about him all the time. He tells me that his mother also wants to know about him. Even our neighbors ask about me and my “friend” from Colombia. In a superbly strange way, I never really had to come out and yet my Senegalese family accepted me anyway. Now I just have to send them invitations to their first gay wedding… 🙂
What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?
One of the top three is meeting the Queen of Sipo Island with several other volunteers. We went camping on a small island in the Delta Sine et Saloum. When we arrived, we set up camp and began swimming and relaxing before the inevitable mosquito incursion that would come once dusk hit. When we began moving back to land and our campsite, we were greeted by a very old woman. She greeted us and welcomed her to her island, Sipo Island. I had heard of some remnants of monarchs in the Delta, even specifically about Sipo Island, but I thought it was a myth used to spur visits to the various tiny villages scattered throughout the delta’s islands.
She spoke Sereer which was a local language that some of the other volunteers translated for the rest of us Wolof speakers. She said that she walked all the way out from the village to welcome us and now needed to rest under a Baobab tree before she could return home. To this day I do not know how someone as old as she could have made the walk and we felt honored to have her greet us. I later found out that she is a local celebrity and a former griot.
What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?
There was a 17 years old boy that was kicked out of his house in my town for being gay. He fled to Dakar in order to try and make a life for himself. While he was away, his father passed away and his death was attributed to the gay son. When he came back to visit he was immediately ostracized for killing his father with his homosexuality. As a gay man, this was incredibly difficult to see as people that I respected in the community and I considered my friends hurled insults at him and about him. It definitely led to a feeling of isolation, one of the most profound feelings of loneliness I have ever felt for both myself and for the boy.
What do you miss about Peace Corps?
I miss the people. My host family, my Senegalese friends, my PC friends, and the cultural dynamic in general. Also, one of the coolest aspects of my service was learning how humor can be used as a conflict resolution strategy. Different ethnic groups or families in Senegal that may have political, religious, or cultural disagreements literally just make fun of each other. It normally just led to laughter. Sometimes it did not work out, but for the most part, it was remarkable to see. In today’s constant barrage of us vs. them, I really miss that part of Senegalese culture.
What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?
Sometimes sitting under a mango tree is a perfectly acceptable thing to do all day. Before the Peace Corps, I lived a very regimented life filled with school, work, internships, gym, social outings, volunteering, etc. In Senegal, there were stretches of time where it was too hot to do anything besides sit in the shade with your host family the entire day. Learning to be with myself in that regard was a great lesson to learn. Now I do not need as much structure to be happy. I also realize how stressed I was before the PC with my crazy schedule.
Do you have a favorite quote or local saying?
Ndank ndank mooy japp golo ci naay – Slowly the monkey gets the fruit from the tree. Basically, it means that good things will happen with time. It’s one of the first phrases you learn in Wolof since it pertains to language and cultural learning.
Want to learn more about serving as an LGBT volunteer in the Peace Corps? Check out the LGBT RPCV group. They promote Peace Corps ideals and the legal, political and social rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world.
June 12, 2018 @ 11:36 am
Thank you so much for sharing your story Patrick. It’s been such a treat to get you more and more over the years. I loved listening to this and excited to see more Pride content, thanks a bunch!
June 12, 2018 @ 5:00 pm
A very engaging narrative about judging how to balance being Out with being yourself. I enjoyed Patrick’s tale, and especially the evolution of his relation with the host family son, Malick. In everything, there is a season…
Brian V Guse
June 20, 2018 @ 6:23 am
Fantastic narrative. As an out gay man who retreated to the closet to serve in Mali from ’90-’92, I can totally relate. Regardless, Peace Corps service was the best thing I have ever done with my life. Sounds like Patrick loved and learned from his experience as well.