Conquering Homophobia Through Vegetarianism



This deleted scene is one of my favorites. It highlights the lighthearted relationship I had with my four closest colleagues and friends: Gulzhahan, Assem, Gulzhan, and Tolganay.

Here we are at Tolganay’s apartment for dinner in early June. I would leave Kazakhstan in just two days.

Each time I read it, it not only brings back a wonderful memory, it reminds me how fun loving, accepting, and gracious my Kazakh friends were. Not just to me, to everyone.

The reputation for hospitality among the Kazakh people is well-deserved.

PCV, btw, is shorthand for Peace Corps Volunteer.  We never used the long version. They knew me as a PCV (not to be confused with PVC, as in piping).

NATEK stands for the National Association of Teachers of English in Kazakhstan and serendipitously has the same acronym in Kazakh as it does in English. It’s your basic teacher’s conference and a good one.


After a time, I got back in the conversation, interrupting them. “You’ll get a new PCV in November.”

The laughter stopped immediately.

“No one will ever replace you,” Tolganay said with such seriousness.

They murmured agreement and I allowed a fleeting sense of pride in what we had accomplished. We’d had an extraordinary two years and I wanted them to have another just-as-good experience with the new volunteer. An “almost-just-as-good” would be even better.  The idea made me smile.

Knowing them, I knew they’d accept whomever they got and make that person feel welcome, just as they had welcomed me. But, I’d spent a few weeks teaching Oscar Wilde with Tolganay and knew the prevailing view of homosexuality in the country. Missing the earlier frivolity, I used this knowledge to tease them.

“I think you need a gay man for your next volunteer.”

They giggled at this and I added before they could respond, “Yes, I think I’ll have Peace Corps send you a pretty, gay man.”

They’d had no experience with homosexuality, except to hear it demonized, and I knew the best way to conquor prejudice is to conquer ignorance. I also knew I had no say in whom the Peace Corps would send next. But they didn’t.

I pushed on, enjoying their nervous giggling, adding, “Maybe a gay vegetarian.”

Suddenly the atmosphere turned serious. The giggles stopped as one and they gasped, in chorus, “Oh no.” Curious, I continued.

“Which would you rather have,” I asked, pushing into the next part slowly, “a homosexual … or … a vegetarian?”

“A homosexual,” they chorused without hesitation.

“We wouldn’t know how to feed a vegetarian,” laughed Assem.

How I loved hearing them laugh; I would miss them dreadfully.

Many of the Peace Corps volunteers that Assem and Gulzhahan had met at NATEK were vegetarians. Eating with them at the conference, they were as flummoxed by vegetarianism as I was by bride stealing.

Although homophobia was rampant and, in some villages, dangerous,  a vegetarian volunteer would present a greater challenge for them.  Kazakhs must be able to feed their guests.

Guests are, after all, gifts from God — no matter their sexual orientation.

Heck, as another Kazakh proverb promises, they’d feed them before they even asked their name.


My Teachers and I
Tolganay, Gulzhahan (holding Tolganay’s little one), Gulzhan, me, and Assem.


Friendship is such a powerful force in life, or it can be if we are among the lucky. What’s your favorite friendship memory?  What makes it a good memory? Does it make you smile? Does it remind you you’re cared about?  Are you still in touch with those old friends?


10 Responses

  1. Diana Beebe
    | Reply

    What an interesting perspective! I love this deleted scene. Thanks, Janet!

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hi Diana,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. It is one of my favorite memories, and now I get to live it again. Hoping my former colleagues will drop in and say hello.

  2. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, What an interesting and delightful window into your PVC world and the special friends you made there. It is so interesting to hear of the cultural factors you had to consider. The warmth of your friends comes across so vividly. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Janet
    | Reply

    Hi Kathy,
    I’m glad you picked up on the warmth and friendliness of my friends. The Kazakhs I met were among the most generous people I’ve ever encountered. I felt totally accepted and appreciated. So glad they were MY friends.

    Thanks for stopping in.

    I noticed your post doesn’t mention your latest blog posting, at
    I use Commentluv and if you put in your website, it should pick it up. Curious.

  4. gulzhahan
    | Reply

    It was very interesting and impressive to read this chapter. It took me to those sweet days that we all had had together. Having you as a friend is such a pleasure for me. You’ve been a teacher, friend, mother not only for me but for my whole family since I met you. It was you who contributed to change my life, my job, my life style and even my moving to Astana. Thank you for being such a great friend. I hope we will stay friends forever.
    All the best.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hi Gulzhahan, You write here a very traditional Kazakh toast, I think. Very flattering and I thank you for it. It is also a good example of our different cultures. I believe your people are more easily generous with their feelings and thoughts (as long as they are positive). There are so many opportunities for expressing these things. It seems as though Americans can be much more open with their more negative thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the positive ones make us uncomfortable, just as the negative make you uncomfortable. Would that be accurate? What do you think?

  5. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Hi Janet,

    I’m working on the commentluv issue with my tech people,

  6. Gulzhan
    | Reply

    I still remember this day on this picture.It seems only yesterday.I am so lucky that I met you.You are an amazing person and teacher.You invited me to show your country and your family took me into their home like it was my own. You treated me like a daughter.You are always welcome in my home!

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Gulzhan, Hello. How nice, really nice, to have you visit my website and blog. I’m so glad you did.
      I remember your visit to us here in Vermont as well. Woody, my mom, and I often talk about how much we all laughed at your stories when you were here. You are so creative and funny. Even in English! 🙂 I expect you to come back some day and to bring your niece with you. Shall we plan?

  7. Gulzhahan
    | Reply

    Thanks for your reply. Yes, negative ideas always make you uncomfortable. Positive thoughts make you happy but sometimes you feel uncomfortable. I think it depends on the matter or a person. If you hear the positive words from one person all the time may be you are irritated by this. If the child is good at something and his teacher says about it every time, may be he feels uncomfortabe before his classmates.

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