Out and About in Panama
November 29, 2003
-Janice Jorgensen, Country Director & Karen Rosenbaum, Partner
Editor’s note: In 1997 Janice Jorgensen and her long-time partner Karen Rosenbaum went to Panama, Janice as the Country Director and Karen as the “partner of.” They stayed five years. Here’s their story.
I had the fortune to be a “straight” Peace Corps Volunteer and an “out lesbian” Peace Corps Country Director. I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic between 1966-68. My group was tight like many of Peace Corps groups. In 1996, a fellow member of my group working for Peace Corps at the time asked me…”Have you ever thought about being a CD?” I replied…”Of course not, and I can’t remember what a CD does.” He remarked, “Well, Peace Corps is looking for women managers with business backgrounds.”
Talking to Karen, my partner of ten years, I said, “What would you think of going overseas with Peace Corps?” She looked shocked. (Karen: I thought to myself– ‘she must be crazy – leave our home – my dog, my cat, my garden, my friends, my security…. I do not want to turn 50 overseas!’). That ended the conversation and processing. Two months later I said to her, “You know I need to respond to my friend. “ This time Karen said. “Go for it.” (K: I had a bad day at work).
Once the interviews in Washington started, I knew that I would come out to the Regional Director. At 50, I had been out most on my work life. No way would we go to a country where homosexuality was illegal – or our lives were in danger. Coming out to the Regional Director, I told him that we needed to go to a country where homosexuality was legal. He took in the information and replied he didn’t have that information but that he would inquire and look for appropriate countries where there were openings for a Country Director. Panama fit the bill – others seemed more “iffy.” While I was being cleared for security, I had my final interview with the Peace Corps Director – again I “came out.” I stressed I did not want any problems with my appointment – no surprises, and that I would work as a professional as I have done all my life. He called me 10 days later to offer me the CD job in Panama.
I felt really great that everyone was in the know, and was confident there would be no problems with Peace Corps because of my partnership with Karen. And there weren’t.
Working in Panama was super. At various times I came out to everyone on staff. No one said anything derogatory to me ever. No offhand comments, nada. I felt they loved Karen maybe more than me. (K: Hmmm…. I doubt that. But staff became good friends to both of us. We still e-mail.) Karen is a psychotherapist and trainer and staff would casually consult with her on personal issues. (K: Sometimes someone would stop me in the office and ask about their four-year-old. Or their anxiety. Or their boyfriend.) She also volunteered several hours a month working with PCVs. (K: I loved it all. It kept me in the loop and I got to meet dozens of PCVs.)
I came out to PCVs just by mentioning something about myself and Karen – what we were doing that weekend, or where we were going to have dinner, or to invite them to a party at our house. I truly never felt that our partnership was an issue. Beside PC business, PCVs talked to me about just about anything – boyfriends, fiancés, girlfriends, should they get married, should they go on vacation, you name it. A few spoke to me about “coming out” in Panama and the U.S.
Being a lesbian couple living overseas but tied to the U.S. was fascinating. (K: Interesting choice of words…. I might say challenging.) I was unable to get Karen on my travel orders, which meant she had only her tourist visa, her plane ticket was not paid for and our baggage allowance was for one person. So we go from a long-term couple to a non-couple. That was very difficult. Karen had no status, didn’t have a focus when we arrived, knew no one, didn’t speak much Spanish, and was living in a city for the first time in her life. (K: As a workingwoman who had strong bonds to my family of friends – the impact for several months was overwhelming. I was not at all prepared for the hours Janice worked and the isolation I felt.)
Karen would go back to the States to renew her tourist visa. (K: At our expense.) At one point we were able to get a one-year working visa. (K: Oh my, that is a story in itself…a hoot to tell, but not much fun to go through. Later in our stay the tourist Visa was extended from one to three months with a three month extension and by them my good lesbian friend helped me get through the process – previously like most foreigners I paid a “lawyer” 50 bucks to get me through the process.) Peace Corps was not able to help us, so we were on our own.
While in Panama there were two different U.S. ambassadors. Both of them and their wives always included Karen and me as a couple. Embassy staff who I worked with were friendly – a few couples and individuals became friends. There were times when Karen was not included in the official invitation to embassy functions when the other spouses were. This depended on the individual in charge – specific people had issues and let it be known by not including Karen. (K:The first time, frankly I was relieved that I didn’t have to go to another function. The second time we both were annoyed – on principle. Janice refused to go to one party after calling and asking why I wasn’t I invited …I don’t remember the answer – but it was lame.)
My Panamanian co–workers always recognized us as a couple. (K: I think they were frozen on the spot at first – there we were – a real couple – the fact that we were in our early 50’s, educated, open, and fun helped a great deal. A few times, when Janice was on PC business in the countryside, staff called me at home. “Karen,” they’d say, “Do you know when Janice is coming back?” I’d say something clever like, “Gee, No I don’t.” They’d say, “Well, why don’t you? You should. You’re her partner, aren’t you?” I’d say, “yeah. You’d think I would know.” They’d say, “When I see her, I’m going to tell her that she has a bad partner.” And we’d laugh ourselves silly.)
For me, it was the most difficult time in our relationship; we were unprepared for our struggles. We were no longer equal. Every person Karen met through the Embassy would ask, “What does your husband do?” She’d say, “She is the Peace Corps Director.” It was not easy on her. (K: I believe I “came out” at least four times a day for a while…. Once I went two weeks without announcing my “lifestyle.” Because I was a foreigner, people were curious why I was in Panama – I developed a little repertoire of responses – based on age, nationality, ethnicity or maybe religion. I enjoyed telling my story and expanding people’s points of view. I think I am probably that, “I have a lesbian friend,” in a few people’s lives.)
In Massachusetts, we left our community behind. It was not easy developing friendships. We were our own best friends. (K: This was a bit more intense for me since I didn’t have steady work relationships.) We met some gay professionals and gay contemporaries. But it took a long time to develop close lesbian/gay friends. We loved telling them about Provincetown and Gay Pride Parades, – lesbian/gay babies, domestic partnership insurance, public places filled with “la familia.” (K: Whenever talking about people – the ‘code’ was always “ Are they de la familia”? We laughed a lot. Hearing their stories in turn took me back in time – fear of losing jobs, coded words for lovers, biological families who didn’t “know” or who abandoned them.)
I know my greatest contribution was that all those Peace Corps Volunteers, some of their families as well as our staff and their families, learned about queer couples in a very positive way. I could never have educated that many people in any other work.
If you’re thinking of working overseas with Peace Corps go for it. I had some personal requirements. Figure out what yours’ are. You can make an impact by just being yourself. There are lots of GLBT staff in DC. The Peace Corps needs more “out” staff overseas. Know that it will be the toughest job you have ever had and possibly one of the most rewarding. It was for us.(K: Yup. I agree.)
By the way, there have been policy changes that let embassy staff (including Country Directors) with domestic partners enjoy more household member rights. It’s called DMOH (Designated Members of Household).
Janice Jorgensen has just returned from a short term Peace Corps staff assignment in East Timor and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Karen Rosenbaum has been busy reestablishing her professional life and their American domestic household in Massachusetts. You may contact them at Janice Jorgensen to email@example.com and Karen Rosenbaum to firstname.lastname@example.org