Same-Sex Couples and the Peace Corps
May 2, 1997 Leave a comment
-by Kevin H. Souza, May 1997
Since 1994 I have been coordinating a project that connects returned gay and lesbian Peace Corps volunteers with Peace Corps applicants and invitees. Most of the requests for an RPCV mentor come through our web site and the most common question is, “Can my partner and I join Peace Corps together?” The answer is no. Peace Corps does not currently place same-sex couples. Peace Corps only places legally married couples when they can match the couple’s skills with positions in the same or nearby locations.
Now having said that, let me add that it is not impossible for same-sex couples to serve together. If a couple can show that hey have carefully thought about their decision; if they have skills needed by the host country; if their recruiter, medical staff, and placement officer are aware of, and sympathetic to their situation; and if the Peace Corps can find a posting suitable and safe for a same-sex couple, it could happen. These postings are rare, and if all of these elements came together they probably would not stay in place for long. Most Peace Corps staff are limited to five years of employment and without a change in placement policy, such postings would continue to be unusual.
It seems to me that Peace Corps’ policy on the placement of couples is not the real issue. The bottom line for couples, either opposite or same sex, is that the Peace Corps experience is not usually couple-friendly. It is difficult to find a geographic location where both individuals can utilize their skills. It is difficult to find countries that will accept couples, and it can be difficult adjusting to life in the Peace Corps. Couples who apply must be flexible – very, very flexible. It’s usually not hard to match the skills of one person to a specific site, but it is uncommon to equally match the skills of both partners to one site. Usually one partner receives a “good job” and the other “a not-so-good job.” This leads to dissatisfaction on the part of the poorly matched volunteer and the couple often decides to terminate their service. Approximately 500 couples served in the Peace Corps between 1990 and 1994 and about 35% left service before meeting their 27 month commitment. Their reasons included job dissatisfaction and health issues.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and their were seven couples in my training group, all married. One couple had married the day before they arrived at pre-service training. Others were joining Peace Corps after longer marriages, even retirement. The newly married couple lasted six months. Their young marriage was strained by the new and difficult surroundings and he was bored by his Peace Corps assignment. Four other couples left during the first year for similar reasons. One couple split up, geographically speaking. The husband, a computer programmer, went home early because there were no computers to program, while his wife stayed on to finish her remaining eight months. Only one couple completed their full commitment, a retired couple. None of these couples were faced with keeping their romantic relationship a secret in homophobic southern Africa.
What lies ahead for same-sex couples in the Peace Corps? Some think the same-sex marriage issues winding their way through the courts and the legislature in Hawaii might dramatically change the rights of same-sex couples, including their treatment by the Peace Corps. That seems a speculative position. I believe Peace Corps will not make any moves to equate same-sex and opposite-sex married couples until the Supreme Court or the Congress rules favorable on these issues. This is unlikely to happen soon. In light of my experience as a volunteer, and the statistics of early termination of married couples, I see the difficulty of placing couples in Peace Corps assignments. But might there not be another approach to this issue? Why not open placement policies to include married, affectionate or non-affectionate couples in Peace Corps assignments if the skill match is there. This broadened placement policy could include members of traditional families like parent and child, siblings, or other relatives. It could include close friends, business partners, and of course same-sex couples. And this would be the case only if the couple placements were appropriate to the project/program/ site situation. A policy like this might even make it easier to place some couples and open the Peace Corps to a wider variety of talents, skills, and placement possibilities.
Kevin H. Souza served in Malawi from 1989-91 and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.