A Commonsense Approach to Issues Facing LGBT PCVs
November 21, 2006
– Jay Davidson, RPCV, Mauritania
“Commonsense is as rare as genius.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The process of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer is multi-leveled. I see the transformation from applicant to PCV as similar to the metamorphosis that takes place when a caterpillar magically becomes a butterfly. The caterpillar has a long period of isolation in a cocoon, but it emerges from that solitude as a totally different being altogether. Similarly, many Peace Corps applicants transform from having a solely American cultural perspective to being truly multicultural in their outlook.
The purpose of this article is to help identify some of the issues to consider as an LGBT person making her or his way through the process. For the sake of expedience, I will use the word “queer” to refer to this spectrum of people to which we belong. As much as possible, I will use my personal experiences as a frame of reference for explaining the concepts I explain.
Applicant: One of the first questions many applicants ask is, “Should I tell my recruiter that I am queer?” Good question! Many of us define ourselves, at least in part, by our sexuality. It would seem like we were going back into the closet if we hid this aspect of ourselves, especially after many of us have been out to our friends and family.
When I was an applicant, I arrived at the San Francisco Regional Office a few minutes early to meet my recruiter for the interview. That brief extra time allowed me to take a look at some of the literature that was on display. One of the periodicals I saw was this newsletter produced by the LGBT chapter of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
“If this newsletter is on display in the Peace Corps office,” I reasoned, “then it must be okay to be queer and in the Peace Corps.” True enough. In fact, since the Peace Corps is an agency of the United States government, it would be illegal for it to discriminate against queer applicants, volunteers, and employees. Our most recent past director, Gaddi Vasquez, was a supporter of Gay Pride Month that was celebrated throughout the Peace Corps headquarters building every June during his tenure.
Emboldened by having seen that newsletter, I told my recruiter that I am gay. She registered no reaction – positive or negative – that I could discern. It was later in the interview, however, when she asked me, “Are you, by any chance, a vegetarian?”
When I answered yes, she responded by getting out of her seat and going to a file cabinet, from which she withdrew a form that I needed to sign as an indication that I would not refuse to eat any animal that had been killed in my honor, for to do so could potentially cause great harm to the image of the Peace Corps in the country where I may be serving. In the eyes of my recruiter, it was evident that my being a vegetarian was much more problematic than my being queer. This was my first indication that I was going to be seeing the world in a totally different perspective for some years to come!
Nominee to Invitee: With the ease of finding information on the Internet, it is not uncommon for Nominees to various parts of the world and Invitees to specific programs to find each other and make introductions. Questions abound, from what kinds of mosquito net tents that everyone is purchasing to specific advice being handed down about various counties by everyone who has a cousin’s neighbor’s girlfriend who has served in Country X and is willing to share information.
A few months before I set out to Mauritania in 2003, I learned about a listserv of Invitees who were going to be in my training group. There were only a couple dozen of us of the 56 Trainees who eventually went together to Mauritania. When somebody suggested that we introduce ourselves, I began with the short statement that I am a gay Jewish vegetarian. It seemed like a simple thing to do: direct, out, and informative.
Within a very short time of our arrival in Philadelphia for our staging event, everyone seemed to know who I was. A few people asked me why I had to describe myself that way. I told them simply that I was just saying who I was. By the time I got to know everyone in my group, I found out that there were fellow trainees with queer sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and friends. I never got the sense that I was being avoided or labeled in any negative way because of my sexuality.
Trainee: You’ll find very few people who describe their Pre-Service Training as a wonderful experience. It is emotionally draining and culturally disorienting. Fellow Trainees form alliances quickly. They are a finite number of people with a common cultural and linguistic history. In my experience, the group was a safety net for each other – a refuge from the rigors of the daily reminders that we were strangers in a strange land.
In Mauritania, where I served, we had to demonstrate an intermediate level of French in order to be sworn in as Volunteers. In order to determine our incoming level of French achievement and our progress, we were interviewed by Mauritanians who served on the training staff. The facilitator who conducted my interview asked me a wide-ranging number of questions in order to engage me in conversation so that he could assess my French. His final question was, “If you were the President of the United States, what is the first thing that you would do once you take office?”
I don’t know what possessed me to answer this way, but the first thing I could think of was to tell him that as President of the United States, my first action would be to sign an Executive Order that made it legal for gay people to marry just like everyone else. A bit taken aback, he asked me, “Wouldn’t you be concerned about what the church would say about that decision? I told him that as President, my concern would be to do what is right, not what is popular.
As far as I could tell, this reply to him had no long-term negative impact against me in my training. He continued to be jovial in his interaction with me. After all, I was not coming out myself – just showing my open attitude in regard to my outlook on human sexuality.
Volunteer: Among PC staff, including Host Country Nationals who have worked for the PC for a long time, many have been to the USA, and have worked with a wide variety of Americans for a long time. They have a different perspective about the USA, its culture, and its values than the typical HCN. In any event, your Country Director will be an American. Remember that you have every right to expect complete support from her or him.
One day, one of my fellow Volunteers, a lesbian, came to me rather sheepishly and told me that she had something she had to tell me. She had just been talking to one of our training directors, had come out to him, and had blurted out, rather impulsively, “Jay is gay, too.” As far as I could tell, I suffered no adverse effect of having been outed to this person. He continued to relate to me in the same friendly way that he had prior to his having this information.
As you acclimate to the new society in which you are living, be on your guard. First and foremost, you must use your common sense as you deal with people whose culture is likely be totally opposite of your own. Learn the realities of your situation. In Mauritania, for example, under the law, homosexuals are to be put to death if discovered. At the same time, a Mauritanian human rights speaker to Peace Corps Volunteers informed us that this has never been enacted. He told us that the Mauritanian people and government are much more accepting than the law.
One of the aspects of Mauritanian life that threw me off is that same-sex affection in public is standard. This does not necessarily indicate the presence of homosexuality, however. I became friendly with any number of men who expressed their affection for me by holding my hand, both in private and in public. That expression of friendship did not always lead to sexual acts.
What I had to do, as a means of protecting myself and testing the waters, was to hold back and let them make the “first move” if there was going to be one. If they did not, then I accepted the fact that they were behaving within their own socially accepted manner.
I learned so much about myself and other people in this process. Most significantly, I see that people in different parts of the world have a different, and more fluid, perspective on sex and sex roles in society. It seems to me that my most valuable asset was my willingness to be open-minded and flexible about life in a place where society’s rules are so different and opposite of what they are at home.