A Perspective from a Peace Corps Veteran

– An Interview with Josh Strauss, RPCV Ukraine

Josh Strauss recently left the Peace Corps Recruitment Coordinator job in Boston. Before that he was a recruiter in Boston (2006-2008) and in the New York office (2005-2006) he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. With all his experience as a gay person active in different parts of the Peace Corps for so many years, we’ve asked him some questions about these experiences and his advice on how LGBT people can be successful Peace Corps applicants, nominees, trainees and volunteers.

LGBT RPCVs:

What motivated you to apply for Peace Corps in the first place?

Josh Strauss:

I am actually a product of Peace Corps. My parents were PCVs in Colombia, and were medically separated once my mother had some complications in her pregnancy with me. While growing up, my parents exposed my sisters and me to different cultures by hosting over 10 exchange students, most a year at a time, and also encouraged us to do volunteer work. I did some international volunteer work for a few summers in Latin America with a development organization called Amigos de las Americas while in high school. I continued volunteering during study abroad with the Spanish Red Cross and the Spanish Commission on Refugee Aid in the mid-90s. Peace Corps seemed like a logical continuation of my life experiences and the path I saw myself on.

LGBT RPCVs:

What were some of your initial concerns as a gay volunteer when you started your training in Ukraine?

JS:

I did some research before I arrived at staging, so I knew beforehand that Ukraine wasn’t the friendliest country toward the GLBT community. That, though, was secondary to the initial concerns I think most, if not all, PCVs have like, Will I get sick? Will I be able to learn the language? Will I be able to do the 2+ years? What have I gotten myself into?!?

Peace Corps/Ukraine had incorporated into its cultural training being “different” in Ukraine, i.e. gay, not white, vegetarian, among other topics. This conversation started very early on in the three months of training, and it gave me and the other gay PCVs an opportunity to listen, learn, and to ask questions which put me at ease.

LGBT RPCVs:

Tell us about the support you got from other volunteers and Peace Corps staff.

JS:

Apart from the support in training that I have already mentioned, there was a GLBT Group which formed while I was in Ukraine. It was organized by Peace Corps itself initially, and then handed over to PCVs shortly thereafter.  The meetings were official Peace Corps travel, so it did not count toward our vacation days. Since most of us were completely in the closet at our sites, this group was an opportunity to talk with our gay peers and to be ourselves in a way that was not easy, or in most cases possible, at our sites.

I was in the closet at my site, but I was out Peace Corps staff and to my fellow PCVs, who were overwhelmingly supportive.

LGBT RPCVs:

What was it like going back in the closet when you started your assignment?

JS:

This was something I prepared for. I did some investigation on the LGBRPCV site before I applied to Peace Corps and also did online research to get an idea of what I may be getting myself into. I spoke with my recruiter about the fact that I was gay, and she told me that the odds were very high that I would have to go back into the closet. For me, Peace Corps service was the most important thing so I was willing to enter the closet again. Most PCVs have to modify who they are and how they act while in country. There are places where I have traveled in the US where I had to modify my behavior and not be open, and the same goes for the Peace Corps world.
When I was invited to Ukraine, I did more country specific investigation and learned that although being gay was no longer a crime in this Former Soviet Socialist Republic, it was still not going to be possible to be openly gay as I had been in the US. In Ukraine, the word for “faggot” and “child molester” were one in the same so as a high school teacher, I knew I had to go back into the closet. It was difficult, but I had the support of my training group, the GLBT group, and Peace Corps staff which made it much easier than it would have been otherwise.

LGBT RPCVs:

What was the general climate for LGBT people in Ukraine?

JS:

It depended on where you were. It was easier to be gay in the larger cities, which had some bars that served gay clientele on some nights during the week. There were also a number of underground gay groups which I started to discover as I was getting ready to end my almost three years of service.  I met a few gay Ukrainians this way, but not many. There was one gay oriented publication in Ukraine, Odin iz nas, which came out from time to time during my service, but it was hard to find.

I found it interesting that being gay seemed to be tolerated in the musical artist world with flamboyant men and butch women. Within the last few years, in fact, Ukraine’s entrant to the annual Eurovision contest was a drag queen.  In day-to-day life, though, the tolerance was less.

LGBT RPCVs:

What were some of the important things you learned as a gay Peace Corps Volunteer?

JS:

That all one gains from the Peace Corps experience more than makes up for the necessity I had, and many other gay PCVs have had, of going back into the closet. Most, if not all, Volunteers have to modify behavior, the information they share, and adapt to the culture they are in. Some PCVs do it based on their religious beliefs, others on their own culture, others on sexuality, etc. In other words, it’s not just the gay Volunteers which have to make sacrifices in order to integrate into the culture so as to be a better Volunteer. Since many GLBT Americans have been in the closet, in whole or in part, at some point in our lives, this modification of behavior actually seemed to come more easily to me and to the other GLBT PCVs I knew in Ukraine and elsewhere than it did to our straight counterparts who also had to modify. Who knew it would be an asset!

LGBT RPCVs:

What did you do right after you left Ukraine?

JS:

I began graduate school shortly after I completed service. I attended the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. When I matriculated, I was told by the head of admissions that I submitted a very memorable application. I applied while I was in Ukraine. They preferred an online application, but the Internet cafes in my city often had connectivity issues so I requested a paper one. Since all typewriters I had access to were in Cyrillic, I had to handwrite my application instead of type it, and when I went to the post office to mail it in, they had run out of large denomination stamps so I had about 35 giant sunflower stamps on the envelope. Sometimes, being memorable is a good thing!

LGBT RPCVs:

What got you interested in the Peace Corps Recruiting job after you left graduate school?

JS:

Peace Corps has been a large part of my life, as I mentioned before. I gained so much from my almost 3 years as a PCV, that I really wanted to give back to the Agency, to get as many qualified people to apply and into the field as I could, and to share my experience with others.  The Peace Corps Recruitment position seemed like the best way to do it.

LGBT RPCVs:

Did you interview many LGBT applicants? What sort of questions did they ask?

JS:

I interviewed a few, yes, but I also spoke with a number of other recruiters’ applicants and with prospective applicants as well.  Most of the questions LGBT applicants are the same that most any other applicants would have. For example, almost everyone asked about my experience, what an average day was like, how I had to modify in order to integrate, how Peace Corps helps keep you safe and healthy, how the application process worked, how the medical process worked, how program selection was made, and how long it would take. Many of the gay and lesbian applicants, or potential applicants, I spoke with had similar questions, just with more of a GLBT focus. For example, I was often asked if I had to go back into the closet, if it was safe to be gay in Peace Corps, and if being gay or lesbian influenced placement.

I was also asked how supportive Peace Corps was of GLBT volunteers. I explained that the Agency itself is very supportive, as are most fellow Volunteers and Peace Corps staff. Peace Corps has a very strong anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation. In the US, not everyone accepts “the gay lifestyle,” and the same goes with the Peace Corps world. However, staff members are expected to be professional and to follow this anti-discrimination policy to the letter. If there is an issue, there are ways Volunteers and staff can formally report the issue and resolve it.

LGBT RPCVs:

What sort of advice are you able to give LGBT Peace Corps applicants?

JS:

I would like to encourage them to be open about their sexuality throughout the application process. There are great support and information systems in place which recruitment, medical, and placement staff can provide. But this same staff can only provide them if they are aware. If someone does not want to be this open, that is his/her prerogative and of course I respect that.

I would also give the same advice I give to all Peace Corps applicants. Keep your expectations realistic, keep your mind open, and keep your enthusiasm high. The application process, like Peace Corps itself, can be challenging, have periods of inactivity, and times where you won’t understand everything that is going on. Be patient and flexible, but also feel free to ask questions!

LGBT RPCVs:

Tell us about your move to the Recruiting Coordinator job in Boston? How is that different from a regular Recruiter?

JS:

Recruiters interview applicants, travel to different colleges and communities to give information sessions, and they nominate applicants into tentative assignments.  The Recruitment Coordinator serves as the Peace Corps headquarters liaison coordinating and evaluating the day-to-day recruitment process for the Regional Recruiting Office. I screened all new applications from the Boston Region (RI, MA, NH, VT, and ME) for basic eligibility and minimum qualifications. I assigned applicants to recruiters, provided guidance related to working with applicants and planning recruitment sessions, and reviewed and approved all nominations recruiters made. I also worked on overall recruitment strategies and procedures. Finally, I coordinated all initial and on-going training for new recruiters in relation to recruitment planning, processes, and methodologies.

LGBT RPCVs:

You were involved in a number of informational and recruiting events that targeted the LGBT community (Gay Pride Festivals). How successful do you think they were from both a recruiting and public relations perspective?

JS:

I participated in recruitment events at Pride in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island over the last 5 years. People were often surprised to see us, but also very happy to see us. Many commented that they did not think Peace Corps would be a good idea for them because they were GLBT, so I and other GLB RPCVs let those who stopped by know it was definitely an option. Peace Corps is working very hard on increasing the diversity of its Volunteers and staff members, and we have received applications from people who spoke with us at Pride events, which is great! Race and age are relatively easy to track, but we do not track the numbers of GLBT applicants/Volunteers because we don’t ask anyone his/her sexual orientation on an application as we do race and age. We have seen an increasing number of gay and lesbian applicants come through our office in the last 5 years because they say they are gay in essays or in interviews, and that visible number is something we are very proud of!

LGBT RPCVs:

In certain parts of the Peace Corps world homophobia and anti-gay discrimination have increased (particularly in Africa, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe). What advice and words of caution can you give LGBT volunteers posted to such countries?

JS:

Once again, I would recommend being open in the application process so Peace Corps can give you as much information as possible before you decide to accept an invitation or not. Pay attention during your training and ask lots of questions. Gay Volunteers have served, and continue to serve, in every Peace Corps country in the world—which is 77 right now.

LGBT RPCVs:

In the last few years Peace Corps has been more open to placing transgender volunteers and HIV positive volunteers who are healthy. Peace Corps is now preparing to place same sex couples? What additional challenges do these volunteers face?

JS:

The biggest challenge is probably the “guinea pig” status of these Volunteers. Peace Corps does do a really good job at trying to think through changes and processes so that there are no bumps in the road. In fact, some would say that the Agency is overly cautious much of the time.  Of course, it’s impossible to plan for every contingency, so until the there is some experience with these new scenarios, there may be a lot of unanswered questions and some confusion. These pioneers in Peace Corps will need to be especially open-minded, flexible, patient, and willing to work with Peace Corps to find solutions and to make the experience better for similar applicants/Volunteers down the road.

LGBT RPCVs:

After almost 8 years in Peace Corps as a volunteer and then recruiting staff, what do you now know that you didn’t before starting your Peace Corps life?

JS:

While going through the application process and serving as a PCV, I thought I had a general idea of how things worked, why I ended up in Ukraine, and why Ukraine ended up with me. I have learned that there is a great deal of effort that goes into every step of the process, i.e. recruitment planning, application screening, interviewing, nominating, medical screening, placement screening, staging planning, passports, visas, site development, pre-service training, swearing in ceremony, in service training, and so on. Each of these steps has numerous people working behind the scenes that most applicants/PCVs/RPCVs never even know exist. It’s an extremely complicated operation…which is part of the reason everything seems to take so long.

LGBT RPCVs:

Do you have any advice to current or recent volunteers who might be interested in working for Peace Corps in some sort of staff capacity?

JS:

Most Peace Corps positions are posted for only two weeks and can be easily found by going to www.peacecorps.gov/jobs. Peace Corps has what’s called the Five Year Rule, which means that most positions in Peace Corps are limited to a maximum of five years, broken into two 2.5 year tours.  Because of this rule, positions are constantly opening. If you do apply, just make sure you show very clearly how you meet all the mandatory requirements and also clearly show the preferred requirements you also meet. Peace Corps is a great springboard into a career in the federal government, too, with many Peace Corps staff moving to other agencies. The application process for most paid positions with the Peace Corps can take a while, meaning months not weeks, from application to start date. The long process is due to the high number of applications most job announcements garner and the security background checks which must be run and passed if someone is selected for the position before the person can begin work. I would recommend applying to jobs if you are interested in working for the Agency and if you qualify for the position. Overall, it is a great place to work!

Josh Strauss left Peace Corps in May 2010. He can be contacted at jgstrauss@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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