Some Perspective for Gay Couples Considering the Peace Corps

-by Joe Terteling, RPCV, May 1998

Editor’s note: Joe Terteling, former volunteer in Sri Lanka, gay man, and former Peace Corps recruiter in Seattle, gives his views of questions most frequently asked by gay domestic partners considering Peace Corps. He offers suggestions and undermines some myths.

I fear domestic partners considering Peace Corps are down on their luck for a number of reasons.

Peace Corps doesn’t accept unmarried couples of whatever gender combination. Go figure. But even if Peace Corps did, the first strike against gay/lesbian domestic partners serving would be the same difficulty Peace Corps has in placing married couples overseas. Married couples have a notoriously difficult time landing a volunteer assignment, because Peace Corps must find some village on the planet with two official Peace Corps jobs waiting, one for which each spouse is qualified, and with housing for the couple available in the same location. Although meeting the job and housing criteria may sound easy, it isn’t. Couples applying to Peace Corps endure a wait easily twice as long as do individual applicants – if an assignment ever comes. Even spouses possessing red-hot degrees or experience in, say, agronomy and nursing, are going nowhere with Peace Corps unless some country has need of a couple possessing these skills.

Unable to serve, gay couples frequently ponder ways around the marriage barrier. Here are common schemes I’ve heard repeatedly from gay couples, and occasionally from unmarried straight couples, too.

We’ll both secretly apply for the Peace Corps at the same time, hoping we’ll be placed together. Please dismiss any dream of being assigned in the same place; much less the same country; much less the same hemisphere. If you’ve got different skills and interests and educational backgrounds, you’d be matched to different jobs. Some countries ask for certain skills, others don’t. Different programs start at different times. Programs get canceled. A volunteer pulled out of one country due to instability may be reassigned to the job “promised” to you: so you get bumped to a program leaving three months from now to Kazakhstan. Meanwhile your lover has a ticket for Ecuador in her hand.

Our love is so strong we can serve as volunteers in different places. I watched Donna and Alan, old sweethearts, serve in Sri Lanka and Kenya, respectively. In the first year Donna visited him in Kenya. He visited her in Sri Lanka the next. They’re now raising kids in Pennsylvania. But I imagine two years on different continents might strain any relationship.

I’ll just do Peace Corps while my lover waits for me back at the condo. Keep in mind that people of whatever sexual orientation in romantic relationships of whatever sort are statistically more likely to quit Peace Corps and come home early if they’ve left a love behind. It’s a human thing.

I’ll secretly fly my lover over once I’m settled in my village. I can’t recommend this approach due to lack of a job for your partner, lack of Peace Corps preparatory training and health care, possible social stigma, unavailability of housing, and the like. Every anecdote I know of a volunteer importing a lover ends in disaster. My friend Maggie brought her lover Richard to Nepal. They were married there, as the striking photos of Maggie in a red sari and dripping with gold jewelry attest. But Richard left after a few months. They soon divorced. Another thing that can happen is that an intimate relationship can impede language and culture acquisition. Instead of “getting into the culture” the partners spend more time “getting into each other.” And sometimes one partner bonds with the culture, and the other doesn’t.

Until Peace Corps accepts gay domestic partners, you do have avenues to working abroad, but you’ll have to research each thoroughly.

Ask your nearest Peace Corps recruiting office for its most recent list of alternative international agencies doing development and volunteer work abroad. There are many dozens of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) doing remarkable work overseas. Ask the Peace Corps office about volunteering for the United Nations. Consider short jaunts with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, thereby building up your resume of overseas experience. Check the library for books on how to work abroad.

Consider working overseas for a gay-friendly corporation which will support you both.

Bone up on a language together, travel to a place interesting to you where its spoken, and look together for some serious long-term volunteer work. The South Pacific might be ideal, where people are usually less shackled with sexual stigma than here. Our LGB RPCV Mentor Program can put you in touch with former volunteers who worked in parts of the world that interest you.

Attempt In-Country Admission. This is a real long shot, but possible. People wishing to be placed in a particular country can travel there and petition the Country Director, but success depends on positions available, your skills, availability of language and/or cultural training, available sites, your medical histories, discretionary Peace Corps Country budget, and many other details. In other words, you’d have to be extremely lucky, and the couple (gay, straight, or any combination) would need a wad of cash to live on while they wait to see if it works out. But strange things happen, even in the Peace Corps.

I regret the dour overview, but these are the realities as I see them. There are occasional stories of gay domestic partners assigned to different places in the same country and their impassioned weekend meetings, and there are anecdotes of gay volunteers who somehow partner-up in remote and isolated areas. But these happy tales seem much the exception.

I think it’s vital for gay domestic partners interested in Peace Corps to let Peace Corps know you’d apply if you could. I want the Peace Corps to know of the presence and interest of gay couples, for without a constant tap on the door I fear the agency will never consider such a possibility.

Finally, I want to note that as an individual your sexual orientation is a non-issue for Peace Corps. There are tons of gay people in the Peace Corps at all levels of the organization: in Washington D.C., the regional recruiting offices, staff overseas, and as volunteers in the field. You’re welcome as a gay person.

I encourage you to call or visit your nearest Peace Corps recruiting office and get a second opinion on my views. Good luck, and, as they say in Sri Lanka, “May the Triple Gems Bless You.”

Joe Terteling was a volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1984 to 1986.

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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