By ITA alumna Laurence.
Ecuador is one of those South American countries in which almost all taxi drivers in the capital have a rosary hanging from their rearview mirrors. It also happens to be the South American country where I realized I was very much attracted to people of the same gender. As an eager, non-religious, and naive North American student studying abroad for the first time, living with an extremely Catholic host family was an experience that shifted my preconceived notions of “acceptance” and taught me how to reciprocally embrace differences we are warned to be wary about.
I embarked on my yearlong study-abroad adventure in September of 2015 through my Canadian university. I lucked out big time, and was placed in the largest, most loving host family I could have ever imagined. Thanks to them, I became fluent in Spanish, participated in cultural events, and gained a whole lot of indispensable insight into who I was. I enjoyed living with them so much, in fact, that I returned the next May for a month-long visit. When deciding where to teach English with friends in 2018, Ecuador was an obvious choice.
Did I mention that I may or may not have accidently fallen in love with one of my female host cousins during my study abroad year, and only realized about six months in? Let the unraveling begin.
During my eight months as a student in Quito, I spent most of my time with one of the 20+ people from my host family and extended family. Let’s call her Mariela. She introduced me to her friends, took me to parks and museums and bars, and did it all while being a great Latina dancer who I was unknowingly crushing on for months. How was I oblivious for months? Well, society does a damn good job at indoctrinating the bisexuals of the world that they MUST be straight, and I clearly fell into that category, especially after having recently ended a three-year relationship with a guy. Turns out my subconscious gay-denial meant diddly squat one February morning in Quito when the realization hit me like a freight truck. Retrospectively, I felt like a total doofus. Looking to the future, I was terrified.
The crush on Mariela didn’t take long to fade, which I was extremely grateful for several reasons. 1. She was part of my incredibly religious host family. 2. Her long-term boyfriend and she were getting pretty serious (in fact, three years later they now have a baby). 3. She was hopelessly heterosexual. After the shock wore off, coming out became a fairly natural, albeit somewhat annoyingly repetitive, no-big-deal process with people I knew and trusted. However, let’s remember I was in Ecuador when this happened, which made things trickier when deciding how much I wanted to tell my Ecuadorian pals.
Religion was imbedded in my host family’s daily life to a degree I was totally foreign to. When I first arrived, I counted 63 religious articles scattered around the house, including a number of Jesus statues and angel paintings. My foreigner friends living in other families shared similar experiences, though perhaps they didn’t have the impressive shrine my host family had upstairs. One day, after coming back from my morning classes to eat lunch with my adorable host mom, I encountered a full-on mass going on in the living room. The priest was across from my host grandma in a circle, praying with a dozen other nicely dressed elderly folk. He blessed me. God knows I needed it.
I’ll be honest with you. I was skeptical at first. Before getting to Ecuador, the thesaurus mind-map in my brain placed “Catholic” and “religious” near the words “closed,” “uptight,” and “inaccessible.” I didn’t think I could have a real meaningful discussion about my own undefined spirituality—much less my liberal feminist political views— with anyone who blindly pointed to a bearded man in the sky as the voice of all reason. Looking back, I’ll admit this wasn’t fair. My preconceptions were turned on their head with this family, who opened their home to foreigners with different belief systems, danced until the sun came up, and engaged in interesting discussions about race and gender. I learned how close-minded I had been by thinking they would be close-minded!
Perhaps I am painting the picture too brightly. There is no denying that homophobia is widespread in Ecuador, even if it might be camouflaged. People might say, “I’m totally okay with the gays!” but follow it up with, “as long as they don’t flirt with me” or “but I won’t have them around my children,” or “as long as they aren’t too overt.”
I hate to break it to you folks, but these are all homophobic things to say, regardless of the intentions behind them. I was shocked to hear grown adults in Quito using the word “maricon,” the Spanish equivalent for “fag,” when teasing their friends or describing an under-performing athlete. It was reminiscent of middle school days riddled with the uncreative “that’s so gay” insult, but the phrase was no longer only being used by prepubescent bullies. This is probably part of the reason I continued to fervently defend the LGBTQ community at host family reunions while hypocritically denying my own sexual identity when I was put on the spot. I suppose the entrenched language blurred the pride I was longing for.
I believe that there are two main sources for homophobia in Ecuador. 1. Traditional Catholicism is imbedded in daily life. 2. Machismo culture cements gender roles into place. Religion impacts what people attribute to “family values” and has heavy political sway, as in the outlawing of gay marriage. Machismo refers to an invisible organizing principle held in place by perpetuating societal structures. Women loving women, men loving men, and the reality that the strict gender binary is a myth all put into question the fragile nature of masculinity. I asked my female host cousins at one point if they would ever ask a guy out on a date, and they responded with a chorus of “absolutely not!” Sara, my hippie marine-biologist host cousin, admitted that it was silly, but men had to make the first move. The gender roles became ever more clear when someone asked if my friend was lesbian based solely on the fact that she could keep up with the guys playing soccer. Just for the record, she was not.
The generational gap in the acceptance of sexual identity is clear in Quito, perhaps due to the growing frequency of local campaigns combined with global media awareness. During my month-long visit in May of 2017, I casually mentioned I’d been on dates with girls to a few of my closest Ecuadorian family members, and the response was enormously positive. Mostly, they were just curious. I knew it probably took less than a day for the whole family to find out—talk travels fast—but I wasn’t explicit about it with the more conservative bunch. However, when I moved to Quito in 2018 to teach English, hiding the truest essence of myself in fear of affronting a conception of “how things should be” no longer made sense.
Last month my current girlfriend visited me in Quito, and I proudly introduced her to everyone. After being accepted and loved as part of the host family for about two and a half years, I suppose I knew deep down that everyone would continue to accept me regardless of who I loved. I couldn’t have been more correct. My adorable host mother, who casually watches live-streamings of pope visits, served my girlfriend and I pastries and told her that she was as welcome into her home as I was. Perhaps I’m the one being old fashioned, but I think this is remarkable.
What can we takeaway from this story, then? A few things. First, questioning our ingrained prejudices can lead to cross-cultural acceptance and understanding. In a nutshell, my host mother debunked the myth I believed that every very religious person belongs to a group of close-minded bigots who hate the gays. In return, she learned from me that sexual orientation is just one facet of a person, and doesn’t need to define them. To be clear, I still think virgin-births are as ridiculous as Greek mythology, and my host mom still thinks I’m unreasonable for supporting abortion. This brings us to our second takeaway point, and that is that it is completely possible to form deep friendships with people who share completely different perspectives as long as there is mutual respect. I attend church with my host mom because I know it is important to her, just as she serves my girlfriend pastries. We both know that the common values we share are more important than the few issues we disagree on.
Perhaps the story would be different if I had been transsexual, or if my appearance had been less feminine, or if I had been openly gay since the first encounter. By the flip of the coin, perhaps I would have been less willing to bow my head during prayers if my host family had been more ardent believers. Maybe the stigma on both sides would have run its path differently. What I know for certain, however, is that mutual respect and understanding is possible across belief systems, political views, and cultures. I just returned from teaching there, and I’m already looking forward to going back to visit.
About the author: Laurence just returned from teaching English in Quito, Ecuador after she fell in love with the country during a yearlong study abroad.
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