Out of the closet, and into the rainforest?

I’m writing this from Tzawata, the small Amazonian community in which I’ve been living for the past 3 weeks. We are going back to Quito tomorrow, and then the program is ending and I’m going back to the United States. I feel a strange combination of relief and excitement to see my family again and to go back to all the comforts of American life like fast wi-fi and being able to use my credit card everywhere, but also a certain amount of unwillingness to leave and dread to go back to what I would consider “my real life.” Although in some ways life here is much more real than my quite privileged existence in college. Ironically even though there have been so many times where I’ve felt stifled and frustrated here, I also feel like I’ve been able to live more freely than I’ve been able to in a while. And maybe I haven’t been myself in the same way I’d like to be in the US and I’ve missed that, but I also have had the opportunity to be the “normal boy” that I never was and that I never really can be with people who’ve known me all my life.

In every Ecuadorian community I’ve lived in during my approximately four and a half months here, including the city, the rural countryside, and the Kichwa Amazon community where I am now, gender roles have been very strict, and Spanish, a language where almost everything has to have a gender, enforces that. People use terms like papito, jovencito, señor, mijito to refer to me (diminutives are very popular here) every descriptive adjective ends in the masculine 'o' instead of the feminine 'a'. The assumption is that I have an interest in women and that I grew up and was socialized as a boy, which is still the usual assumption in the US, but I guess that here it is much more uncommon to be open about it if you’re “different.”

A performance about gender and sexuality that we did in our Theater for Social Change class in Quito

Today I was playing with some kids from the community and they decided to draw a portrait of me and my girlfriend (after I told them I didn’t have one) they assured me that I would find one and that we would have blue-eyed babies together. Now normally I would be upset by an interaction like this, which to some extent I still was because I wish that these frankly restrictive ideas about gender weren’t taught to kids literally from the moment they are born. But, the thing I’ve realized is that people here live in such a different context than I do that it’s not really fair to impose my own opinions and values. The interesting thing is that I am not sure how much of the beliefs around gender here are a result of colonialism and the imposition of Christian values; for example, the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman and sodomy is a sin, etc, etc; and how much is part of their ancestral culture and Andean cosmovision, which has a binary set of roles and visions that are different for men and women. For me, this meant that I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries or perpetuate any harmful Western ideology, but it kind of cost me a lot because I could never be completely honest about my past and I think that impacted the relationships I was able to form.

Experimenting with the power of eye contact in our Projects class in Tzawata

La lucha (the struggle) here in Tzawata is to continue living on their ancestral land, continue speaking their native language and teaching their kids their ancestral traditions, which is very different from the struggles I have faced. The people here in Tzawata are some of the most strong and humble I have ever met; they have been through so much, but they still keep fighting. There’s some part of me that wishes I could be honest with them about my past; about my own struggle of being transgender, but I’ve realized that it’s possible to relate and be friends with people without them knowing my history. And part of me really loves that I can just be “normal” here and not have to deal with weird invasive questions, disrespect for my identity, or outright hatred for who I am.

Something that has been a relief I didn’t expect is the way identity politics doesn’t exist in the same way here. This is not to say people are completely unconscious of how their words affect others. But I feel like we’ve had much more of a space to explore questions that might not have been broached in a classroom at Brown (University, where I study) in the workshops here because people don’t worry about saying something “wrong,” they just say exactly what they think, which sometimes is really hard to listen to. For example, in our class about hip hop and gender, there were men explaining that the abuse and discrimination that women face is avoidable, and straight people saying that being gay is a “condition” rather than a valid identity. And these things were not necessarily challenged, which was unfortunately quite difficult for me, as I am used to spaces where there is usually a very different consciousness of “being offensive.” It has definitely felt isolating when people talked about “the gays and the transsexuals” as though there weren’t any of us in the class. (by the way most of us don’t like to be called that). But the thing that I do appreciate about this environment is that there isn’t a fear that keeps people from asking questions.

View from the beach in Tzawata before breakfast

Frequently in my university there is a culture of calling people out and refusing to engage again if they mess up. The “social justice elite” spend a lot of time and energy calling out people who really are genuinely kind and well-intentioned, but have made a mistake, and usually publicly. There’s obviously a difference between accidentally using the wrong word and then making an effort to correct yourself, and then actively manipulating someone with intentions to hurt them. But I can say I also have been guilty of this; having trouble interacting with someone after they did something that rubbed me the wrong way and didn’t apologize. However, I haven’t really done that here, because I came with an open mind and more of a willingness to forgive than I have in the US. I’ve learned a lot about my classmates and host families/communities and they have done or said some things that have hurt me. For example some of my friends in one of the classes we did liked to use the word f*ggot as an insult, and I’ve never addressed it. Maybe it’s out of fear or maybe it’s because I am just tired. I guess I’ve just accepted that if I want to fit in here I have to put up with a certain amount of feeling uncomfortable, even the bad kind of that doesn’t just put me out of my comfort zone but actively hurts me.

Picking wild blackberries with my host mom in Pintag

None of them know I’m transgender and I have kept it that way intentionally, partially out of fear but also because I really have wanted to see what it would be like, being treated like a “normal” cis man. And I’ve been feeling super guilty about that lately, because something I did a lot at Brown was emphasize the parts of my identity for which I have experienced discrimination. Somehow within that culture, a lot of times your opinion is valued by how many oppressed identities you hold, so I thought it gave me more credibility. But the more time I spend away the more shallow it all seems.

Accompanying friends from the A'i-Cofán community of Baburé when they visited Quito

So ironically, even though I’ve felt more invisible here than I have since before my transition, I’ve also felt the most free to not care about looking ridiculous in front of a crowd, or trying something new that I’ve never tried, even if I’m scared, because no one knows my story. It’s given me such a different perspective on what I should value in life and what is worth spending my time fighting for. I’m so grateful for my time here and what living with different Ecuadorians have taught me about the importance of valuing your family and loved ones and appreciating where your food comes from. But I guess the biggest thing that I’ve realized from being here is that I don’t owe anyone an explanation. I can just exist as I am, and I don’t have to justify it to anyone and it honestly is such a relief. I’m not ashamed of who I am, but I guess what I’ve realized is that every single aspect of who I am doesn’t matter to the people here because we share much more in common than we don’t.

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