Safe Zone: Making Peace Corps Havens for LGBT PCV/Ts Worldwide

-Grant Martin Picarillo, PCV, Guatemala, 2008-2010

Overview:

“Safe Zone” is a LGBT sensitivity, acceptance and awareness training exercise designed to promote understanding and promote ally development among our straight peers. Subsequently, the mission is simple. By facilitating a better understanding of LGBT issues among Peace Corps staff, LGBT trainees and volunteers will feel more supported, comfortable and accepted in their individual interactions with staff members and thus in their service as a whole. On a recent Monday early in the New Year, Peace Corps Guatemala completed an all staff Safe Zone training. Sparking dialogue, engaging questions and presentation of new and real facts about LGBT people, Safe Zone in Guatemala was a great success. Here’s how and why we did it.

Why Safe Zone in Peace Corps is Necessary:

An inclusive and accepting environment of mutual support and acceptance is vital to relationship building between PCV/Ts and PC administration and staff. This fact can be particularly true when it comes to LGBT issues such as “coming out,” personal sharing, feelings of safety and security, self-esteem, and mental health. Dealing with a LGBT identity can be hard in the United States, let alone in a different and often more “conservative” culture of Guatemala. All this is going on while dealing with the other adjustments that being a PCV entails. Speaking from personal experience, I found dealing with my sexual orientation identity in this new environment to be one of the hardest adjustments in my transition from American to Guatemalan living. One of the mediating factors to this challenge has been my interaction with Peace Corps staff. While I can’t say I have ever felt discriminated against or unsupported there have been moments of uncertainty and doubt. For example, questions such as “Is it OK if my APCD knows that I’m gay?” “Can I openly talk about my boyfriend with a Spanish teacher when we share stories in language class?” “What if I have to ask the nurse a question that “outs” me?” While some of these questions are applicable to my own case and others not, I can promise that all of these and more have been concerns to countless volunteers. The negative ramifications of these feelings and hesitations can be harmful to the volunteer and to her or his ability to thrive in their community. Compounding this situation is the sad reality that we non-straight identifying volunteers (for the most part) must live a lie in site for two years; acting as heterosexual for the sake of our safety and integration. To have few obvious outlets to be open and honest, neither on site nor in our interactions with staff could be extremely damaging to one’s Peace Corps experience.

Therefore, it is my strong belief that should the general knowledge of LGBT issue be raised and should any number of staff members sport the “acceptance symbol” (see attachment as a model to one we could design on our own) on their door or in their office as a symbol to say “I’m a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues,” the PC community in Guatemala would be healthier, safer, and more inclusive. Note: as is also outlined in our safe zone script, PC-Washington also states that all PC-Centers must be supportive and accepting places for volunteers. So from the PCV community up and the Washington headquarters down PC Posts worldwide have little excuse not to engage their LGBT volunteer community.

How We Did It:

Starting with a proposal from our LGBT representative on our Gender and Development – Committee (GAD), the Safe Zone idea was presented to our Peace Corps Training Officer (PTO) and Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO). While they were initially receptive to the idea, I followed up by modifying and combining various LGBT centric resources I had, including a Safe Zone training script I received while at college from New York University’s LGBT resource center, to create a Peace Corps Specific Safe zone module. From there, GAD presented the proposed 2-hour agenda of activities to the aforementioned staff contacts. Impressed, our PTO and PCMO gave me the green light to present our “Safe Zone” training to staff. Seeing the importance of this training, our staff liaisons coded the upcoming Safe Zone training as a mandatory event for all staff (they rightly assumed that should this not be mandatory some staff would choose not to attend because of the subject matter at hand…which is exactly the point of the training! To raise staff “comfort level” with LGBT issues). From here, our organizing committee reached out staff members we already knew to be allies to as them to facilitate parts of the workshop. With buy-in from various staff members – Guatemalan and American – and not just the token gay volunteer and socially liberal American staff, we were able to communicate before even starting that it’s OK… “cool” even, to be an ally.

With our safe zone script finalized and sticker logo printed (see attachments) it was game time. Coming together, myself, our GAD chairwoman, PTO, PCMO, Country Director (CD) and 2 other Peace Corps Alphabet soup facilitators executed the 2 hour safe zone training on Monday the 25th of January, 2010 to a captive, curious, and willing to engage (SUCCESS!) audience.

Conclusion and Follow Up:

An important part of Safe Zone for Peace Corps Guatemala was ensuring the change was not just internally processed staff member to staff member…but that PCT/Vs were able to more obviously understand and see that our PC center was a place of total acceptance and support. Therefore, as a concluding part of our training, we allowed staff to take our in-house safe zone logo (circle of rainbow colored hand prints) and stick it up in a visible place somewhere in their office or workspace. Low and behold, the majority of attendees took not just 1 but two stickers to hang up, as did they take all copies of other LGBT/GAD resources I had previously created: “How to fight homophobia in site,” “What to expect as an LGBT PCV,” and our fall 2008 “Gender Blender” newsletter containing upwards of 5 articles about homosexuality in Guatemala. With stickers in place our Peace Corps office and training center is a visible safe zone, with more staff then not sporting their rainbow stickers implicitly saying “I’m an ally… a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues.”

We here in PC-Guatemala are hoping to have some follow up dialogue about the many questions raised during our session. Most pressing of all, were perhaps the many questions from APCDs concerning either: a) how to select a site for a LGBT volunteer and b) what to do when they believe the volunteer is struggling with sexuality issues in Guatemala but has yet to come out to them. These are all good questions that GAD and our PCMO are working on addressing more concretely in the near future.

While many hours of work were involved in “making this happen,” I have been thrilled with the immediate results and ongoing dialogue. We all have unique PC experiences and challenges and while helping LGBT volunteer mitigate some of the potential landmines of service is just one step in the right direction, it is an important step, and one we must take. Saludos from Guatemala!

Workshop Materials:

Contact Grant regarding any questions about the Safe Zone training, accessing Spanish translations and/or implementing a Safe Zone at your post at gmpicarillo@gmail.com.

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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