“A desert wasteland next to the beach.” That is how my guidebook described Arica, a small city in the middle of nowhere Chile. It was 2001, and I was looking up the place where I would spend the next two and a half years with the Jesuit Volunteers Corps (JVC). Fresh out of college, I agreed to live anywhere in the world. They sent me to Arica, Chile.
While JVC and everyone at home knew I was gay, I could tell right away that I would not be able to come out to my Chilean colleagues. At the time in 2001, divorce was not even legal in Chile due to the overwhelming influence of the Catholic church. There was certainly no open conversation about sexual orientation.
My host family was a typical blue-collar Arica household where traditional family values were taken seriously. My Chilean papa, a retired military officer, ruled the household. When I entered their family, he told me “You are my daughter now. I don’t want you having any boyfriends until you bring them to meet me first, ok?” My Chilean papa is a man not to be messed with. Think Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents.
My first assignment was in a girl’s residential home for a Chilean Catholic non-profit. We had a volunteer program where I spotted two women who I thought could be lesbians. Their short hair, baggy jeans, and (of course) bad clunky shoes showed the signs of my people. After a couple of visits, the Director asked these two androgynous women to no longer volunteer with our program, saying that we already had too many volunteers.
But knowing that we needed all the help we could get, I pressed the Director on her decision. She ultimately admitted that she worried these “marimacho” women could have a negative influence on the girls. I was shocked by this response. Still with long hair at the time, I tried to blend in and not appear too masculine. I knew that I would likely lose my job if someone found out that I was a lesbian.
For the next two and a half years, I lived like a nun. Now there are plenty of benefits to the virtues of a spiritual life, but for an out-of-the-closet 22-year-old from San Francisco I struggled. My other American collegues dated their way through Chile. Why couldn’t I also have a Latin lover? Celibacy sucked.
While I wanted to come out, I knew my role in this country at the time was not to lead a revolution. I came here to do social work, and the truth was that I enjoyed my work. I kept quiet and looked forward to my mom’s packages which included The Advocate magazines, my only outlet to the gay world. After two and a half years, I happily returned to San Francisco.
But today, the revolution has finally come to Arica. Tragically, it took the brutal beating and murder of a 24 year old gay kid, Daniel Zamudio in Santiago, to hit the press and force the nation to look at the consequences of homophobic hate crimes. An anti-discrimination law in the memory of this young man protecting LGBT individuals is now working its way through Congress.
In response to this news, four young Chileans came together to start Arica’s first LGBT group. Two of the founding members are age 16. They led a small but proud parade made up of 16-20 year olds down Arica’s main street. I joined them in their parade, following behind the 16 year old who was just 6 when I last lived here.
The parade visibly lacked adults….my handful of Chilean gay friends over 30 still aren’t completely out. In this socially conservative country, they worry about their job security, their families’ reaction, and their personal safety. But the youth aren’t as afraid. They’re connected online to the outside world. They aren’t afraid to talk about sexuality, to hold hands in the streets, and to stand up for themselves.
My Chilean host dad caught me on TV during the nightly news walking in the parade. I had come out to him a week before returning back to the States (at the very last minute) ten years ago. While he was surprised by my coming out, he supported me. I asked him this week if he thought it was better that I stayed in the closet when I had lived in Arica back in 2001. He told me at the time it was better because I would have had problems in my job. “But as for at home”, he said, “I would have killed anyone who tried to hurt you.”
If my conservative, macho, military dad can have this protective attitude, anyone can. Seeing this change in my old Chilean hometown, I feel more hopeful than ever about the global gay movement. I now believe that we really are hitting every corner of the world.