Follow My Dream: Letters from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania
October 20, 2012 Leave a comment
– William M. Trunk, RPCV
Imagine having a well-paid career as a Finance Manager at a large multinational industrial company for 17 years. And then you leave the company to join the Peace Corps to pursue a dream. Everyone is shocked and amazed at your decision. But does your experience in the Peace Corps actually live up to your dreams?
That is what I did at the age of 43 in 2007. Shortly after arriving in Albania to begin my two years of service as a Peace Corps Community Development Volunteer, I decided to send monthly email letters to my family and friends. Those monthly email letters helped me remain connected to my family and friends after moving to Albania to begin Peace Corps. It was also a tool that I used to implement goal #3 (i.e. to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people) for Peace Corps.
The feedback from my monthly emails letters was very positive. Many individuals suggested that I even write a book about my Peace Corps experience. So that is what I did. Overall my experience in the Peace Corps truly was a dream come true for me despite the challenges in my personal life as a gay volunteer in Albania. And I hope that you consider purchasing my book and sharing it with others.
This article summarizes some key points related to my experience as a gay volunteer in Albania that are incorporated into the book. The other two Albanian articles from 2008 and 2009 on this website provide more details about my experiences.
My search on the internet for the LGBT community in Albania began even before I left the US for Peace Corps in Albania (March, 2007). Although I was disappointed to find virtually no information online, I did find a postal address for a gay NGO (non-governmental organization). So I mailed them a letter. And after about five months in Albania, I met the director of this gay Albanian NGO.
After this NGO received funding for a project, I took on the role as its Finance Officer for the first year of the project’s funding. My responsibilities as Finance Officer centered on preparing the budgets and monthly financial statements and then advising the director about the implications of the NGO’s programming activities. During the second year of the project, the funding level was severely reduced. As a result, the activities implemented by the NGO had to be cut back. In addition, the NGO was required to hire an Albanian as Finance Officer. So my role in the second year was limited to a financial advisor.
At the same time that I was working with this NGO, I collaborated with some other LGBT PCVs and Peace Corps staff in Albania to create a LGBT Committee for PCVs in Albania. It was a peer group of LGBT volunteers and their supporters. Our main goals were:
- Provide peer support for existing LGBT volunteers.
- Provide advice for new volunteers about realities in Albania and identify coping strategies.
- Work with Peace Corps staff to provide diversity training for Peace Corps staff and volunteers on LGBT issues.
- Do outreach with LGBT organizations in Albania.
The LGBT Committee met each quarter to support one another. Just getting together periodically to share the challenges that we face was very beneficial to each one of the committee members. The committee also provided written advice for new LGBT volunteers coming to Albania. But the biggest accomplishment of the committee was probably having a different committee member “come out” to the staff and new volunteers each year as part of diversity training and sharing our story of what it is like to be a LGBT volunteer in Albania.
Given my limited role with the gay NGO during the second year, I began to do more outreach to the gay community in the capital city, Tirana. I met some individuals with another gay organization through an American NGO consultant whom I worked with previously. However, this other gay organization was basically inactive as well. Nonetheless, I learned more about the gay community in Tirana (capital city of Albania) by meeting some representatives from this other gay organization.
So what did I learn about the LGBT community in Albania as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2007 – 2009? The good news is that from a legal perspective, homosexuality in Albania became legal in 1994. Therefore, Albanian gay or lesbian individuals cannot legally be imprisoned for their sexual orientation. However, do not be misled by the legality of homosexuality. Generally Albanians are sadly, deeply homophobic and generally never discuss the topic. The LGBT community in Albania is very underground and there are no gay bars in any city in Albania including the capital city, Tirana. The code word they use for gay is “communist.” Although homosexuality exists in Albania, few individuals have a “gay” identity similar to what we find in the United States or other developed countries. Given the social stigma to being gay in Albania, it was very important for me to be discreet about my sexual orientation.
During my outreach to the gay community, I also met an American lesbian couple who lived in the capital city. One of the women worked at the US Embassy in Albania. Shortly after I met them, the US Ambassador to Albania asked the American lesbian couple to meet with him to discuss their recommendations for what he should do as the US Ambassador to Albania to support the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. When this couple told him that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been working with the gay community in Albania, he asked them to invite me to the meeting.
At our initial meeting we agreed upon some actions to address the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. The highlights of these actions were for the US Ambassador to include sexual orientation when he spoke about human rights in Albania. In addition, the Ambassador supported conducting some type of roundtable meeting regarding “human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania.”
Shortly after this meeting, this advisory committee attended the First Albanian Human Rights Debate Conference in Tirana. It was sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN’s declaration of human rights. The topics covered were human rights for women, children, and sexual minorities. It was the first time that a human rights conference in Albania had included the topic of sexual minorities.
During the sexual minorities’ panel discussion, the panel members from several organizations made a strong case for why human rights of LGBT were important. Despite the success of the conference, a major problem was that there were no representatives from the Albanian LGBT community at the session due to their fear of disclosure.
After the sexual minorities’ session, I spoke with some of the individuals leading it. The moderator of the session was the director from an Albanian NGO called Albanian Human Rights Group. I was very impressed with her commitment to this issue as a straight woman. I shared with her my experience in Peace Corps working with some Albanian gay NGOs plus starting the LGBT Committee for volunteers. I also suggested that the key method to change people’s acceptance to LGBT issues in Albania was to have LGBT people share their stories anonymously (because they feared negative ramifications from disclosure).
Shortly before I completed my Peace Corps service, we had a meeting at the US Embassy with the organizations working on LGBT human rights issues in Albania. Most of the participants at the meeting were individuals whom I had met during the First Albanian Human Rights Debate. This first meeting focused on brainstorming about the possible activities these various organizations could implement and collaborate together to support this initiative. I shared with others my recent experience of providing diversity training for new volunteers and Albanian staff and how we could utilize Peace Corps volunteers around the country to share LGBT educational materials in their communities.
Prior to completing my service, I introduced the new chairperson for the LGBT Volunteer Committee from Peace Corps Albania to these organizations. Therefore, Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania were able to continue to collaborate on this important project to improve human rights for LGBT in Albania after I completed my Peace Corps service.
Overall I was very pleased with my unique opportunity that Peace Corps gave me to advocate for the LGBT community in Albania.
You can contact Bill Trunk at email@example.com.