Peace Corps’ Equal Opportunity Policy

-Mike Learned

On March 24, 1994, Carol Bellamy, former Peace Corps Director, signed Peace Corps’ current version of the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy statement – which for the first time includes sexual orientation among its non-discriminatory criteria. What has the Peace Corps done since then to assure that applicants, volunteers and staff understand the policy and include non-discriminatory actions as part of their day-to-day job activities?

Conversations and correspondence with straight and gay recruiters, placement officers, volunteers, overseas staff and the top management team at Peace Corps indicate strong organizational support for the new policy. However, the agency is still struggling with practical ways of communicating the policy to applicants and being realistic with them about the attitudes lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers may be confronted with in their host countries.

The new gay-inclusive EEO statement is being printed on applications and other Peace Corps documents only as old supplies are diminished and new materials have to be ordered. The Placement Staff is including attitudes about sexual orientation in each country’s Volunteer Assignment Description (VAD) when this information is available. Current staff diversity training now includes issues raised by the inclusion of sexual orientation in the EEO statement.

One openly gay recruiter in a large metropolitan area told me that although some lesbian and gay applicants were open to him about their sexual orientation, he assumed most applicants did not discuss such issues with recruiters. Anecdotal evidence had indicated that when the subject did come up, many recruiters were unsure what to tell lesbian and gay applicants about what to expect in host countries.

Conversations like this were instrumental in getting our LGB RPCV recruiting resource project off the ground. We now have more than 60 RPCV members of our organization who are willing to advise LGB PC applicants about our experiences overseas. Starting with this issue, we’re sending our newsletter to each recruiting office. We’re asking that it be placed along with other Peace Corps related materials. Within two months we’ll have our LGB RPCV applicant resource project operational. Placement of openly lesbian/gay applicants causes some concerns with the Placement staff. Although there may be a few countries where a volunteer’s sexual orientation would not interfere with his or her success as a volunteer, there are strong indications that an openly gay volunteer would have difficulties in many traditional cultures. Several current LGB volunteers and two Associate Peace Corps Directors have described to me the extreme homophobic environments in which they work. A few PCVs who get our newsletter have specifically requested that envelops not include the word lesbian or gay because they fear harassment (we also get the same request from RPCVs who live in this country). To cite one extreme situation, a current volunteer described a very intimidating experience that involved the murder of a local gay couple and the police’s lack of zeal because of the victims’ sexual orientation.

The social/cultural issues which lesbian and gay volunteers may confront are in some ways not so very different from what other PCVs have faced. Certainly, African-American, Asian and Hispanic volunteers have experienced racial prejudice, bias or indifference in certain countries. Women have often had to deal with another culture’s limited view of a woman’s role. Volunteers have been known to bite their tongues (I was one of them) over issues of political and worker rights, and other expressions of personal freedom in situations where these freedoms were not valued or respected.

What’s critical here is that the lesbian, gay, bisexual volunteer and staff member have support from within the Peace Corps organization. We’ve heard many examples of this happening. Wayne Hill’s article last issue that mentioned the Peace Corps Director in Guatemala is a case in point. We’ve heard from current volunteers whose assignments have been made easier by the support of their Country Director, APCD and other gay and straight volunteers. Unfortunately there are still volunteers and staff members who do not experience this kind of support. This is an area where we urge the Peace Corps to improve its performance.

Helping to create a positive environment around sexual orientation in the Peace Corps and supporting lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers in threatening and homophobic environments are major goals of our organization. We intend to regularly cover these issues in our newsletter.

About LGBT RPCV
We are an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and others who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends. Founded in Washington D.C. in 1991, we have several hundred members throughout the country and around the world who have served in Peace Corps since its beginning in 1961. We're made up of a national steering committee, together with regional chapters. We are an active affiliate member of the National Peace Corps Association.

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