Ruhamaiah Bradley, 130 TESS
Most days, I wear black slacks with a Peace Corps polo. Sometimes, I mix it up and wear navy blue, khaki, or light green pants. These are usually accompanied by a polo (non-Peace Corps) or one of the many button up shirts I own. Clearly, aesthetic matters to me. My go-to shoes were my black Toms – alas rainy season has claimed those because they are now moldy due to all the moisture. I have now started wearing my black Nike running shoes to school. I couldn’t be more comfortable.
In all my fits (some NYC slang blessing your day, it means outfit) I always strive to be comfortable. Comfortability is key and it helps me function. What I had never taken the time to think about, was how uncomfortable clothing could make me feel. That was until I became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand.
We all received the packing list suggested on the Peace Corps Thailand website. What none of us could have predicted was how that list barely applied to our actual needs, changed depending on if you are TESS or YinD, and that women would have to pack way more skirts than listed.
As for me, I packed one black skirt. I was under the impression that I could get through training wearing the same skirt every day. It’s quite possible, but I like to switch up my fits. Besides that, it was hot, I was sweating profusely, and I was probably smelly. I ended up investing in more skirts than I would have liked and was gifted a few by my host family during Pre-Service Training.
Wearing skirts was quite possibly the most uncomfortable and difficult thing I had to do during training. You see, I haven’t had to wear a dress or skirt since elementary school. It was part of my school’s dress code but even then, I opted for pants when they became available. The pants just had to align with the colors of my school uniform.
Coming to Thailand and having these restrictions was a surprise. I know the rules meant well and were put in place to prepare us for life outside of the bubble of PST, but it all feels archaic. Yes, because I’m coming from a culture where we take pride in being individuals, but also because Thailand isn’t as old fashioned as we make it out to be. Of course, I understand that one’s location in Thailand greatly influences that.
What I’m trying to say is that I never realized how important my gender expression, my style, pieces of clothing and how I put them together, mattered to me. Those things, however little they may be, are integral to who I am.
The only other country I have taught English in was Morocco. I was expecting it to be way more conservative since it is a Muslim country but I was still able to retain the parts of me that mattered most. I could add to them as well. I bought a leather jacket while in Rabat and a djellaba (a long outer robe made of wool) while in Chefchaouen. I wore these items because I loved them but also because they made me feel comfortable in an unfamiliar environment.
Dressing in Thailand has done the opposite. Which surprised me because it’s basically illegal to identify as part of the LGBTQ community in most parts of Africa. However, here in Thailand there are representations, although not many, of LGBTQ men and women in the media.
Despite all of this, I found ways to have fun with my predicament. I posted photos of myself in skirts and dresses with funny captions on social media, and sent photos to friends and family for a good laugh. These photos are no longer available on my social media.
Now, having been in Thailand for approximately six months, things are better (I think). I’m teaching at a small school where most of my teachers are fashion savvy, in their own unique way, and I have a young Paw Aw (school director). Pants are part of my everyday life here. A teacher or two may joke about me wearing a skirt but they all have said, they understand it is not my style. They accept me for the person I am and they haven’t once outright assumed my sexuality. Which does come with some mixed feelings because I’d much rather prefer to stop being asked if I have a boyfriend.
I don’t believe I’ll ever be out at site. I haven’t added any of my teachers or people in my community on social media because it shows who I am in my purest form. I don’t plan on cleaning it up for anyone. I find being closeted at site isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I must thank my fellow PCVs for the ongoing support and helping ease that struggle. This is also partly due to weekend trips which are accompanied by the freedom to wear what I want and be entirely myself.
However, I hope Peace Corps Thailand gets to a point where LGBTQ volunteers are better represented and advocated for. Where we won’t be told to adjust who we are to thrive. When we should be able to thrive as we are. Of course, there’s also this understanding that this is what we signed up for. In the future, I hope more LGBTQ individuals apply. That more masculine centered and androgynous women apply. Peace Corps is a cultural exchange program in many ways. Tasting the rainbow, and being as unique as we are, is part of that. To the future PCV that may read this. Keep being yourself. Things will fall into place.
HAPPY PRIDE FOLKS!!