A Letter from Australia for Couples Considering Volunteer Service
May 2, 1998
-by Michael Tatham, May 1998
Editor’s Note: While we were preparing this issue, which focuses on questions that usually come up at the Gay Pride events, a related e-mail from Australia arrived out of the blue. The author has given us his permission to adapt it as an article.
I came across your web site recently and was interested in the issues you discuss concerning same sex couples and the Peace Corps.
I was a volunteer in Thailand with the Australian Volunteers Abroad Program administered by the Overseas Service Bureau with my partner Peter from 1995 to 1997. The experience was an interesting one. Whereas the OSB was ok about placing us (a lesbian couple was placed in Africa at the same time), the fact we were together was cause for some consternation with our host agency in Thailand. It was not until we received permission to move to separate organizations that we felt we were being treated on our own merits rather than as an oddity. Sometimes it seemed that our host felt obliged to accept us as volunteers in order to maintain an ongoing relationship with OSB.
The fact that we went to the same host organization (albeit different branch offices about 20 km apart) meant we were treated as being the same, having the same values and being stereotyped along the same lines – a fascinating experience, if a little wearing. And, as for the myth of universal acceptance of homosexuality in Thailand, yes it is – a myth.
There were many stresses on the relationship that would otherwise not have been there, and yes one did have a better job than the other, but we also had different attitudes to the placement as well, so coping was an individual as well as a joint experience. We were there for the duration of the two year program, and are still together.
There is a perception in Australia of a “free and easy” sexuality and acceptance of all diversity in countries like Thailand, sometimes perpetuated by Thailand’s own ambiguous tourist promotion as well as our own lack of in-depth cultural understanding. I sometimes feel I have to constantly remind people (including myself) that there is in Thailand, like in all societies, different levels of acceptance. We have wonderful Thai friends of all genders and persuasions. We were lucky to recently invite one friend to visit us who had a great time showing us our town from his perspective.
As far as I know, OSB continues to place gay couples if they can, so long as their skills and positions match. While this may be difficult to do in the countryside, in big cities it should be easy. I would recommend couples who want to be placed together keep trying to get through the discriminatory Peace Corps policy somehow, as ours was an experience unique and exciting in its realization.