In-Country Support Groups for LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers
May 4, 2008
-Mike Learned, Editor, RPCV, Malawi
There have been support groups for LGBT PCVs in countries around the world for at least 15 years. The first I knew of back then was Cuates, organized by PCVs in Guatemala. It has functioned on again, off again since. We have published at least five stories in our newsletter noting or announcing these efforts in Guatemala, Kenya, Ecuador, Romania and Tanzania. I have heard of many more. The purpose of this article is to pull together the experiences of the many volunteers who have set up, organized, and perpetuated such groups.
Setting Up an LGBT Support Group
During Pre-Service Training (PST) in-country two different occasions emerge that can initiate the information and support needs of LGBT volunteers. The first is that part of training that describes the societal and cultural values of a country related to gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. From what I’ve heard information about sexual orientation varies from barely mentioned to being dealt with in an understanding and sophisticated way. Peace Corps is a large and de-centralized organization. Training around social issues ranges widely depending on the experience and sensitivity of the Country Director and her or his staff.
If an LGBT trainee is not getting enough information about LGBT issues in the local society, ask for more. This suggests you identify yourself as LGBTQ or whatever, but there may be more subtle ways to get that conversation going. If you are dissatisfied with the information you are getting, let the staff know in a positive and constructive way. They won’t improve their training if you don’t give them feedback.
In the beginning, test the waters, particularly if homosexual activity is illegal in a particular country. The PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) staff might be a good place to start. You could ask current PCVs and American staff which of the HCN (Host Country National) staff might be more sensitive and knowledgeable about issues of sexuality.
Another thing that usually happens during PST is the formation of Peer Support Groups. You and your PCV colleagues are new to the country. You will be living in the community, often in isolated circumstances. You are encouraged to use one another for social and emotional support. Often times you will be able to identify other LGBTQ trainees, either because they reveal themselves, or old fashioned gaydar just kicks in. It’s possible that some of the straight trainees will not be that supportive of their LGBT colleagues, or that some in the LGBT contingent may chose to remain discrete about their identity.
In at least one country, Kyrgyzstan, a Peer Support Network apart from PST was set up that involved trainees, more experienced volunteers, and some relevant PC staff (such as the Peace Corps Medical Officer) to support volunteers experiencing challenges during their service, including issues around sexuality.
An existing LGBT Support Group may already exist, particularly in countries with long years of Peace Corps presence. There may be LGBT volunteers already in country who have made themselves available to trainees for information and counseling.
Sexual Orientation: One Slice of the Diversity Pie
Peace Corps makes a great to-do about the diversity of its volunteer force – reflecting the face of America – gender, race, ethnic identity, age, geographic distribution, and more subtly sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is included in Peace Corps equal employment and non-discrimination policies. Peace Corps Directors have routinely declared June Gay Pride Month at Peace Corps. This means that LGBT volunteers should expect and get support from in-country Peace Corps staff.
In-Country Homophobia and Discrimination
On the other hand there is the existence of laws outlawing and providing criminal punishment for homosexual activity in many countries where Peace Corps serves. And if it’s not illegal, there’s still plenty of homophobic attitude. Even in countries like South Africa (where same-sex marriage is legal) and Thailand, various forms of homophobia exist. Within a given country there may be significant differences in understanding and acceptance between urban and rural people.
Regardless of accepted norms of sexuality in any given society, Peace Corps staff has to take into account the safety and security of all volunteers. Safety and security concerns for LGBT volunteers may be greater if a volunteer’s sexual orientation is revealed in the community where she or he serves. Although an unusual occurrence, lesbian and gay volunteers have been harassed, ostracized, intimidated, and even suffered physical harm when their sexual orientation was suspected or revealed. There is no evidence however, that LGBT volunteers have suffered such negative experiences at a rate higher than Peace Corps volunteers in general.
Activities, Training and Social Opportunities
What will keep an LGBT Support Group going is becoming involved in activities. Here are some that various groups and individuals have been involved in:
- Taking part in the Pre-Service Training for new volunteers, explaining the realities of being LGBT PCVs in a particular host country.
- Being part of on-going diversity training for host country national staff, so that this staff is in a better place to support and understand the circumstances of LGBT volunteers.
- Conducting “life skills” training as part of a health education curriculum where topics such as sexuality and HIV/AIDS education can be raised. Peace Corps has developed a Life Skills Manual that is available to any interested Volunteer through the local Peace Corps Center’s resource department.
- As secondary assignments identifying and working for Human Rights or NGOs who focus on HIV/AIDS education, prevention, care. Individual PCVs in some countries have been able to work with such groups because they are providing particular HIV/AIDS education and prevention for men who have sex with men, and for women who have sex with women.
- As a secondary assignment, one volunteer translated information in English into the local language for in-country Gay Rights organization. Another actually ran a small Gay Rights organization on an island nation, because host country nationals felt such a role would be unsafe for them. Both of these assignments were taken with the OK of the local Peace Corps Country Director. The volunteers did their work and kept their heads down.
- Social events – the whole range, visits to gay bars or discos where they exist and are safe to visit, sports, hikes, camping, organized visits to local places of interest.
- Do PCVs in such support groups ever get “involved” with one another? It’s happened.
If a support group is going to be successful, there has to be someone who takes on the role of leader. In one case I recall, two leaders, a man and a woman. I always recommend someone who has party planning skills. We all know people like this. There the ones who get things going. If you can plan a party, you can plan any kind of social, cultural, or training event.
Peace Corps’ Policies Regarding Political Activities
Peace Corps Volunteers may not become involved in local political activities. This is explained pretty extensively during training. The question then becomes – is being involved in local Human Rights and particularly Gay Rights groups seen as political? It depends on the country and how the power structure in the country views such groups. In some places involvement in such groups is definitely political, in other places not.
A Written Purpose Statement or Mission
Developing a written purpose or mission statement can give focus to an LGBT PCV Support Group, and clearly identify to in-country PC staff what it is about. It can also act to perpetuate the group if there is a lag in leadership between groups, or in countries with smaller numbers of volunteers. Purpose/Mission statements can always be revised to reflect new realties.
A Mission or Purpose statement might answer these questions.
- Who are we?
- How do we interact with PC staff and other volunteers?
- What activities are we involved in as part of Peace Corps?
- What activities are we involved in as members of our communities?
Here is an example of a written Mission/Purpose statement put together by an LGBT PCV Support Group in Ecuador in December 2006.
A Special Thanks:
I acted as a compiler and editor for this article. I got input and ideas from so many people. So let me say thank you to Aida (who was one of the first to lead such a group), Eric, David, Craig, Danielle, Adam, Claudia, Jim, Connor, Lena, Jesse, Erin, Kevin, Daniel, Laura, Benjamin, Jeffrey, Tony, Jay, Molly, Steven, 2 Johns, and to everyone else I’ve talked with about this topic.
Mike Learned can be contacted at email@example.com