Serve As a Peace Corps Volunteer Where I’m Illegal?

- Mike Learned, RPCV, Malawi, Editor

A couple of months ago there was a very interesting conversation on our listserv. About ten participants responded to a question/comment from a recent gay applicant. He said that he told his recruiter that he would not serve anywhere where he was illegal. I and the respondents assumed that this meant in countries where homosexuality is illegal. I immediately thought. “Does that mean where homosexual acts are illegal or something more?” I was prompted by the many new and proposed laws, particularly in parts of Africa, that would also criminalize support for human rights for LGBT people and gay marriage, speaking out or writing about such support, actually being or acting as a homosexual (What? Cruising?), and other troubling situations.

Our listserv does have a good search capability. Alan Silverman, our International Communications Board Member, purposely places the country name involved in the subject line of his posts. So, a listserv participant, perhaps an applicant or a nominee for a position in a particular country, could search by country name and see the posts that had been posted about that country by date, and learn about any current LGBT issues there. But posts by topic are not always so easy to find because the searcher might not guess the right “search” word or phrase. So, I decided to summarize these posts as an article on our website where it would remain and could more easily be found.

The responses to the applicant’s comments were interesting. A couple of posters said that they had told their recruiters or placement officers that they were concerned about their security in a country where they had been nominated because of homophobic laws and cultural values. In these cases the posters said that they had been offered and posted in countries where they felt more secure. This jelled with a couple of other cases I’ve heard about over the years where concerns about security for LGBT applicants did affect placement. I am also aware of a few other cases where LGBT volunteers were placed in urban areas by local country staff, usually because the volunteer could be more anonymous and secure in such a setting, rather than in a small village or town in remote areas where everybody knew everyone else’s business.

There were several posts that encouraged the applicant to be more flexible and take the chance and go to one of the countries he wanted to avoid. The argument being that many LGBT volunteers had really had successful times in such locations, and came back home with a much keener sense of what our LGBT brothers and sisters in much of the developing world have to cope with. Many LGBT volunteers and their straight colleagues over the years have been active in coming to know local LGBT and related Human Rights groups and worked with them, often below the horizon.

As an organization we have always urged LGBT volunteers to come to know their local societies and the situations of what we identify as LGBT members of their communities. Articles on our website describe how many LGBT PCVs have been able to come out to trusted members of their host country communities. After taking the trouble to come to know their local friends and the details of their lives, these local friends have shown acceptance and respect when volunteers tell about theirs.

Recent and current PCVs have developed Safe Zone and related training materials in Latin America, Africa and the Mideast for their local host country national staff to make them more aware of the concerns of LGBT volunteers and ways of supporting them. These sessions, within the local Peace Corps family, have been very successful.

One of our posters was a Peace Corps employee. She reminded all of us of some the of the core expectations that Peace Corps has of all volunteers, including, “Serve where Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service.”

There is another expectation that directly applies here. “Recognize that you’re successful and sustainable development work is based on the local trust and confidence you build by living in, and respecting integrating yourself into, your host community and culture.”

You can see all 10 Core Expectations for Peace Corps Volunteers here:

http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/about/pc_core_volunteer_expectations.pdf

I think this last mentioned expectation is one that many volunteers have the most difficulty with. What if the host community and culture is profoundly homophobic or transphobic? What if the host community and culture is highly patriarchal and treat women unequally or even worse? What if the local community is strongly anti-Semitic or anti-Christian? Situations like this would pose challenges for a wide swipe of volunteers.

After a chat with a couple of Peace Corps staff I did find out about some current realities. If an applicant is adamant about serving in a particular country or region, that person usually isn’t considered. If an applicant is concerned about serving in particular countries because of personal security issues related to gender, sexual orientation or religion, the application might be moved forward, particularly because of the skills and experiences of the applicant. But in these cases, by reducing the number of possible placements, the applicant is reducing her or his chances of an assignment. This is particularly true now (late 2011). There are so many applicants for the few places that are still available in 2012. Part of this is because of the economy and the unemployment rate. Many people getting out of college or graduate school think that a couple of years in the Peace Corps will enhance their job seeking skills after they return from a challenging assignment to a hopefully better job market. Also Peace Corps is concerned about future budgetary limits that may cause it to reduce the number of country programs and the volunteers it places.

So what should LGBT applicants say when they have concerns about homophobic laws and culture in countries where volunteers serve. The posters on the listerv did say that it was a valid point to bring up to recruiters and placement officers, but the general suggestion was flexibility and exhibiting a genuine desire to serve. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article that seems pretty up-to-date about LGBT rights (or lack of them) in countries around the world.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_by_country_or_territory

And this link identifies the countries where Peace Corps serves.

http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.wherepc

You can reach Mike Learned at learned_mike@yahoo.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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