by: Katie Vota
Last May, I was awarded a Fulbright Grant to live Peru for 10 months to study Andean Backstrap Weaving and Natural Dyeing with the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. As a textile artist, this was a dream come true: a large block of time to devote to travel and research for my art.
However, it meant leaving everything I knew for a place completely unlike anything in the States. I expected the challenges, like learning a new language, but one thing I hadn’t anticipated being challenged was my own identity as queer.
I keep thinking about the invisibility of queerness in here Peru. Specifically, with my being bisexual and feminine in my gender presentation, it always feels like a vital part of me is being masked. This invisibility, it wasn’t something I realized I’d have to face until I got here, and I didn’t realize not being able to express my queerness mattered so much to me until I couldn’t.
Between the machismo and the Catholicism, the average Peruvian I encounter is not okay with queerness, so I don’t say anything. I feel like I betray myself not saying anything. I feel like I betray everything I’ve fought for in my identity when I play it safe, telling people I “have a boyfriend” back in the States.
“Having a boyfriend,” this isn’t technically a lie. My girlfriend is gender queer. She doesn’t have a real gender affiliation, fluxuating somewhere between, and often aligning herself towards a more masculine definition of identity. There are plenty of days where she wants nothing more than to be my very own personal gentleman, and assures me it’s okay I tell people here, who will never meet her, she’s my boyfriend. It’s this androgyny that first attracted me to her, and it’s this androgyny that allows me to tell partial truths instead of throwing my reality in their faces.
I tell myself it’s safer this way, and as I write this, I remember the pro-life rally that happened the other day, how hundreds of people were massed together in their fervor, were ready to grab the nearest girl who’d had an abortion and make an example of her. All my friends from the States and from Europe tell me it’s safer. And really, I don’t want to assault people with my sexual orientation; most of the time it’s none of their business and who cares.
However, when it boils down to it, it’s the silence that’s the problem. This is something I can’t be silent about anymore. Silence was something I allowed when I was younger and confused and scared in a small town. I’ve been out and open about my bisexuality for years now. Here, however, my queerness sticks in my throat. The fear is blocking it.
And it’s not just me. I don’t know a single queer person here, not a single one. I know better than to think they don’t exist, but they’re silent as well. It makes me sick, thinking about the underground queers in Peru who are forced to deny themselves and conform to the rigid gender roles here, to the expectations of their families, their church, that they place on themselves. In this, I’m the lucky one. I get to go back to a country where, while there are plenty of people who hate gays, there are also plenty of people with whom I can just be myself, whoever I choose to be that day.
I don’t know that I am able to do anything about my situation here, other than wait it out, but I think it’s time to try. Time to tell my friends and take my chances that our friendship is stronger than our differences. Time to tell the family I haven’t yet that my girlfriend will be coming with me to Thanksgiving, Christmas and any other family gathering where I will be in attendance. If I’ve learned anything here, it’s that silence isolates and subdues, and it’s a place I cannot exist, not if I want to flourish.
Katie Vota is a textile & paper artist, Fulbright Scholar, and short queer person. She has a BFA in Fiber from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and since graduation, has exhibited her work both nationally and internationally. Vota is a PR Assistant and designer by day, and in her free time she dances salsa (so much salsa), travels, makes art, and writes articles for various small publications. She is also preoccupied with her upcoming installation at the Krasl Art Center’s ArtLab space in St. Joseph, MI, which opens July 27th.