Ornithological fielwork as a gay man in gay-illegal countries
World Parrot Trust and The Parrot Researchers Group
Hi! My name is Sascha, I am gay cis-man and I am an ornithologist having developed a passion for the smartest among the birds, parrots, and their conservation in particular. Admittedly, there are other smart birds, but hey, we all know parrots are the coolest 😉
I come from a liberal European country, Germany, where you might assume there is no problem with being gay. However, growing up in a rather conservative, small catholic town, I experienced homophobia growing up there. There was no other person openly gay within my circle of friends nor within my family’s circle of friends. On the contrary, it was openly discussed as gay being “abnormal”. This led to me growing up as an introvert, going with the flow, fitting in society externally, but internally creating my own world. I focussed on studying, was smart and able to get my bit of appreciation by having best grades during school making up for the hurt of listening to or avoiding homophobic conversations.
But this blog post is not about my childhood. I hope to explain how I am getting on now as a gay adult. I have always had this passion for nature and a curiosity of why things are the way they are. My grandparents were raised explaining everything unexplainable by putting god into the picture. I did not want to accept this and wanted to see how the world works. That’s one reason I became a scientist.
My passion for parrots started with the first pet cockatiel I was given as an 8-year-old. I came to realise that these birds seem to be much smarter than all the German birds and I absorbed as much literature as I could in order to learn more about them, their needs and requirements. Parrots are social. They really need company, and preferably an outside aviary where they can fly. There are many different parrots – different breeds and different colours. After building that aviary and getting more birds and different parrot species, I was ultimately interested what would happen if my blue-white female budgie produced young being mixed with my yellow-green male budgie.
I also learned about Mendels’ laws and evolution in my biology high-school class. Wow! Now this was really fascinating. I dived into learning, observing and caring for my parrots so much that I almost ignored my interest in men. It created a safe place for me in which I could ignore being hurt by comments of my father regarding that “faggot” on TV they were showing in an afternoon talk show.
My strategy of choice was escaping and soon after high school I decided to escape to the furthest place possible. In 2008 I went on a one-year language, work and travel trip to Australia. Of course, I could not wait to see what my cockatiels, budgies and rosellas I was keeping for years are doing in their natural habitats. I was saving money working in my father’s small business being able to afford the flight, visa and first days’ accommodation. However, despite being in another liberal country, I did not come out to anyone and continued to focus on learning about my environment rather than my feelings.
I was travelling with my best friend who I grew up with and am very close with and see as my sister. She is homosexual as well, but we never told each other until after we came back to Germany and went studying together in the same city. During our Australian trip, as well as when studying we got to know people from different backgrounds and our lives started to diversify. I studied biology, was focussing on my studies, but also opened up personally. We happened to find gay friends of the same age who went through similar childhoods in Germany.
Opening up, admitting being different and seeing the world around me still moving on gave me more confidence. I attended my first pride event in Hamburg and was no longer the introvert that I had been during my childhood. The support I had found helped me build confidence and I stopped being quiet when my heterosexual friends were talking about who they would find attractive or about their sex lives.
During my BSc I also had found my first relationship, which ended after three years when I had already started my MSc. I was heart broken, but it had given me even more confidence and led to me feeling accepted. My MSc thesis was approaching, I had followed through the MSc with ornithology courses, wildlife assessment, GIS and so on, and now was looking forward to starting my own project.
One of my professors in conservation, who gave the wildlife assessment course, was planning on a field trip to Cameroon. My MSc program was excellent with a huge range of opportunities and possibilities to develop a career in conservation biology. Cameroon lies within the Guinean forests of West Africa, which is considered a biodiversity hotspot and I was directly hooked thinking of the African Grey Parrots there and how I could set up a project around these birds. One day after class I went to talk to my professor about my thoughts. He is a passionate ornithologist himself and was directly impressed by my idea counteracting habitat destruction these parrots face by installing artificial nest boxes, equipping one of them with a camera and studying Psittacus erithacus breeding biology in the wild. He added the fact that we should simultaneously do a density assessment due to high trade and demand of wild caught birds in these parrots, because habitat destruction might not be the main threat for them. What an adventure and what a great possibility for me to work in African parrot conservation.
I was high on endorphins, which eliminated thoughts about the political situation in Cameroon and the problems I could potentially face there being homosexual. We quickly wrote the proposal, the budget was calculated, time schedule set up and my application for funding successful. I received my research permits, the flight was booked, and all of a sudden, I was in Cameroon. in the middle of the rainforest. Again, I found myself immersed in my passion for parrots, pushing my homosexuality aside. I was by now an openly and confidently gay man in Germany, but in Cameroon I could be arrested for who I was. There was also a German PhD student from my university who was to accompany my first weeks of the trip and who would work in the region for several years. I got along with him very well and eventually I confronted him with my dilemma. To my surprise he turned out to be gay too! What luck. We could talk to one another and ask each for advice.
Like me he was openly gay only in Germany. Whenever a Cameroonian asked him private questions, he would make a “girlfriend” out of his “boyfriend” that he had for eight years. He advised me to do the same and not talk about my homosexuality. Wow! I had come so far in recent years in gaining confidence that I find myself again in a situation in which I had to lie in order to progress my career. In all honesty, I felt miserable, small, and being suppressed again.
Again, I had to push a big part of myself aside and try and fit in. This time not to simply please anyone or because of a fear of being excluded, but because this time my sexuality was illegal in the country I was in. This was not the man I wanted to be, but I surely did not want to end up getting arrested in a foreign country and I wanted to successfully finish my research project. So, I played along with the “fitting in game”. I had long and interesting conversations with Cameroonians, also mentioning my gay friends in Germany, but whenever I talked about my ex-boyfriend, I turned him into an “ex-girlfriend” as advised by the German PhD student. Socially this felt horrible and all the hard work of earning confidence in recent last years was gone at that moment and I just felt angry.
I had learned to deal with this kind of anger calming me down by thinking about it and my thoughts lead me thinking about positives. What positives could I think about in that situation? I thought about how lucky I actually was having grown up in a country, in which you are openly allowed to fight for your rights and in which you do not have to fear legal action when being yourself. But hey, what a world are we as humans still living in? I was thinking about the Cameroonian LGBTQIA+. I was thinking about the fact how privileged I am and what little this concern of hiding your sexuality for a finite period of time is compared to someone from there. Even though it helped in that moment knowing that I would eventually return to my home country and I would have the same rights as any heterosexual person, experiencing and knowing that there are countries in which LGBT citizens have to fear legal actions in being themselves, is against my understanding of humanity. It was hard understand that some countries have such discriminating laws.
After this experience, and after successfully graduating with my MSc, I started my first job in another African country, the Seychelles. There, I did not have to fear legal action as LGBT rights in the Seychelles are quite progressive compared to many other African countries, even though gay marriage was not allowed. I did not make a secret of my sexuality there and the subtle homophobia present there by some colleagues was similar to what I now experienced from some in Germany.
I am now living in South Africa, which has the same LGBT rights as Germany and the big cities here are progressive in terms of LGBT rights with yearly pride events. Here, the big challenge society faces is how to overcome the traumatic experience of the years of apartheid. I am planning my PhD project, and of course it is on parrot conservation in Africa. In terms of field work, I will be working in countries in which homosexuality is illegal. However, I do not want to run away from the challenges it might bring, but rather want to face it and make a change as big as I can with human rights being always being my side project apart from focussing on nature and bird conservation. In the same breath I am aware of my own security and the challenge will always be to weigh this up against times of fieldwork in countries where LGBT people face legal challenges that non-LGBT people do not.
I was lucky to have had a person by my side guiding me through this, but also think pretending to be straight cannot be the solution. I am happy there are now groups such as the Rainbow Lorikeets to which LGBT ornithologists can register and discuss such topics.
If anyone else has had similar experiences or have advice on this, or you are an ornithologist facing similar challenges, I will be more than happy to get in touch with any ornithologist facing similar challenges and help as far as I can.
About the author
Sascha Dueker is currently affiliated with the World Parrot Trust and The Parrot Researchers Group focussing his research activities on the conservation priorities of the African Lovebirds, Agapornis spp. He previously worked for the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) as their Black Parrot Conservation Officer. He was also a team member of the Georg-August University Göttingen’s Korup Rainforest Conservation Society where he contributed to the African Grey Parrot conservation project. Sascha completed both his Bachelor of Science, Biology and his Master of Science, Biodiversity and Conservation at the Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany, with part of his studies at Université de La Réunion, France. He is currently living and working in Pretoria-Tshwane, South Africa.
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