Gays, Lesbians and the Peace Corps: Should I or Shouldn’t I?

-Dick Lipez, RPCV Ethopia

WHY?, a lesbian or gay man might reasonably ask, should I join the Peace Corps when there’s so much important work to be done at home? The gains of the gay movement in recent decades and the larger cause of American social justice are under constant threat from the right, so wouldn’t leaving the country for two years be copping out? And on a purely personal level, after surviving the ordeal of coming part or all of the way out of the closet with my faculties more or less intact, would I then perhaps have to go back in again. Might the Peace Corps send me, say, to a country where the penalty for homosexual acts is being flung off a cliff? What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my country? What’s in it for somebody else’s country?

One good answer to these fair questions is, gay people should and do join the Peace Corps for the same reasons straight people should and do. All the propaganda about the Peace Corps being the toughest job you’ll ever love is true. Plunging into an endeavor so complicated and then discovering that you can survive or even master it is exhilarating. As a liberating experience, it ranks up there with coming out. What’s more, a gay persons joining is good for the United States in the way it presents our best face to the world – helpful, caring, democratic – and in making you a wiser citizen when you get home. The 140,000 former PCVs are a great national asset. As for the good you’ll do overseas, the Peace Corps tries to place volunteers in useful jobs where they can help solve problems in societies that are even in bigger trouble than ours is, and surprisingly often the Peace Corps succeeds at this.

It can be argued that lesbians and gay men especially should join the Peace Corps. Trying not to sound too much like a gay chauvinist, let me nonetheless assert that many gay people possess, in abundance, skills and qualities that the Peace Corps badly needs. Technical and linguistic skills are important in Peace Corps assignments, but adaptability is the essential trait. Are gay people adaptable? Oh yes. Otherwise many of us wouldn’t have survived past seventh grade gym class or that painful first high school dance. Oddly – and sadly – one of the satisfactions of Peace Corps life is feeling like a stranger in society because you actually are one. But you can learn to be the best kind of stranger, one who’s helpful, appreciative, and appreciated.

The Peace Corps is nondiscriminatory and welcomes lesbian and gay volunteers. But it also respects the mores and values of the societies it works in, so sometimes sacrifices are involved. Just as you might have to give up some physical ease for a larger cause, being lesbian or gay in the Peace Corps can mean living a life of greater discretion than you might be used to. Still in some places, gay volunteers can hook up with fledgling gay groups and serve the cause that way. Or they can serve it more quietly by coming out with their most trusted colleagues in and out of the Peace Corps. We are everywhere, and its good for people to know this.

Any lesbian or gay man who flies off to remotest Tirana or Dembidollo for two years needn’t feel guilty about abandoning the struggle at home. You’ll come back with coping skills you never dreamed you had, and with renewed commitment to the cause of human rights. And while the Peace Corps is not primarily a dating service, the chances are you’ll meet more like-minded gay people in the Peace Corps than you will through the classifieds or at the local watering hole. Gay men and lesbians who light out for real watering holes for a couple of years are nearly always thankful they did. For gays and straights, the Peace Corps comes as a revelation. So many countries, so little time. ©Dick Lipez.

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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