Becoming a Transman and into the Peace Corps

-A Current Peace Corps Volunteer

 Editors Note:

The writer is a recently assigned Peace Corps Volunteer in Southeast Asia. He hopes to write an article about his experience as a transgender volunteer in a few months.

Although I was unaware of it at the time, around the age of 9, two very important events would happen in my life that would shape the complex path of my future development as a human being. The first: I am allowed to cut my hair for the first time in my life. I get it cut as short as possible- even going back to the barbershop multiple times to have them cut shorter and shorter and shorter. I wind up with a very unflattering bowl cut. I love it. Between that and my new, giant, circular, powder-blue framed glasses, I think I am pretty cool. Until I go to school… where, for the first time in my life, I am asked The Question: “Are you a boy or a girl?”… Pause… wait, I have an option??

For the first time I am aware of myself and my body and how it relates to the forming gender identity in my young mind. … I think I might be a boy… “I’m a- girl?” This interaction starts a chain of thoughts that only build, grow and develop as I progress through this life as a transman. The second event: We are out at the farm of a family friend and the adults are all talking and catching up. It is late fall and I’m jumping around in the piles of leaves that have fallen to the ground. Grownup: “Tell me what’s new in your life Linda!” Linda: “Well most recently I have completed and submitted all of my paper work for my Peace Corps application. I am now in the eternal waiting period while they decide what country they will assign me to. I am excited for the future and what it holds.”

I had no idea what the Peace Corps was at the time, I only knew that my ears perked up at the word Peace and the implication of working internationally. I was hooked, I remember being excited about this Peace Corps thing and knowing that one day I would do… whatever it was that they did. It turns out the Peace Corps was not in the practice of accepting 9 year old applicants into their program. I spent the next several years picking up what bits and pieces of information I could find on the requirements for the Peace Corps, what work was done and the countries where volunteers served. With each piece of information I gleaned- from recruiting booklets to conversations with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to in-depth website research, I was more and more inspired and drawn to this work as a part of my future.

Fast forward about 10 years: I was able to talk about my gender identity with vocabulary and words I had never had before. I was coming to terms with myself as transgender, even if I did not have the faith and courage to have an open and honest conversation with my family. It was a period of difficult questions and introspective thoughts and battles. I had a series of mentors at that time who guided me in coming to terms with my gender identity and, equally as important, helped to guide me into what kind of person I wanted to be in life.

With their direction, and with the values and ethics instilled in me by my parents, I came to realize that helping those who were struggling with homelessness, broken families and a world of other issues, was my passion. I had parents who had been excellent role models for me in this capacity and I knew that I could create my own, similar path with the echo of their footprints to guide me. I started to think again about applying to the Peace Corps. I came to one of the very first questions on the application: Are you a boy or a girl? That question was deterrent enough to keep me from applying, plus it turned out that (at the time), the Peace Corps was not in the practice of accepting applicants without a college degree into their program.

Another 10 years later: I had started hormone treatment therapy nearly 10 years earlier. In this time I also managed to have honest conversations with my family and friends about my gender identity and came to the conclusion: I am absolutely blessed. There were most assuredly challenges along this road along with many difficult conversations. I also lost a friend or two, but those who stuck with me have also been with me and supported me unconditionally through many other significant hurdles that life has thrown my way. My family has proven themselves to be family not only in name but in action, support and love. I am incredibly lucky as I know so many others who have a different story with a much harsher reality. I am proud of who I am and am more comfortable in my body than I ever thought I would be. I have become secure in who I am as a person and how I interact as a transman in the world around me.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” I don’t get that question much these days but, for anyone who is open to listening, I have a long history of a story as an answer. And, after a nine year struggle, I also managed to graduate from college with a good GPA and a degree in Community and International Development.

It was time. I was at that point in life where I would again apply to the Peace Corps. This time it was for real. It also had become much easier to apply; everything was done electronically and through the Peace Corps website. I filled out all of the questions, essays, work history, education history, life history, and managed to find 3 people for references who were willing to go through the epic process of validating my character. I submitted my application with a pounding heart and held breath. Getting to this point had been a long process.

Nearly immediately after I hit the “submit application” button, I received an e-mail telling me that I was now required to fill out the Preliminary Health History Form. Ok, no problem, I can do it. First question? Are you a boy or a girl? Seriously?? It took me more time and more uncertainty to answer this question than it did to fill out most of the general application form. I had no idea how to electronically answer such a complicated question. There was no “both” or “neither” type of option and no person on the other end to explain “it’s complicated” too. So I did what I couldn’t do as a 9 year old: I made up my mind, gritted my teeth and hit the circle next to “male”.

Thus began what was, for me, the most grueling and time consuming portion of my Peace Corps process so far – The Medical Assessment. I was immediately assigned to the Head Peace Corps Nurse due to the “special circumstances” of my medical application. She was amazing and an incredible support during the medical clearance process. She did not always know the answers to my questions, but she made it clear that she would do whatever she could to advocate for me and find the answers I needed. She empathized with me as I was required to submit document after document after document. There were many times where I had to step back and remind myself that this medical process was part of what it took to apply for a government job. I reminded myself that the nurse was not trying to make this personally hard on me; she was simply doing her job.

Perhaps because the Peace Corps has not had many transgender medical applicants, there did not seem to be any protocol on how to handle my medical application. I essentially went through the process of submitting both the “male” and “female” health forms. I also had to go through a significant psychological evaluation not required by most applicants. I believe this is more than likely due to the fact that being transgender is still considered to be a mental health issue with a diagnosis still present in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). There were personal statements on how, when, where and why I gave myself testosterone shots along with the storage requirements, chemical composition and effects of testosterone. There was also an incredible amount of blood work that was analyzed. Without the support of the Peace Corps Head Nurse, the task of navigating through medical clearance would have, at minimum, been greatly prolonged and, at maximum, would not have been an achievable task. She has my gratitude and respect for making a painful process slightly less so.

Summer, slightly over a year from the initial application process; after several months of wading through paperwork; tiring out many doctors with my panicked calls and visits; saying farewell to friends and family, I left the United States to start my own, unique Peace Corps experience. In many ways, I had the same application process as many of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Each of us had struggles in our own right with various portions. Some struggled writing the essays, others struggled through the medical portion for reasons due to age, medical history or current medical ailments. What I have found as I meet more and more of the wider Peace Corp family is not only acceptance, love and genuine connection, but also that each of us has our own personal experience with the Peace Corps from the moment we apply until the moment we conclude our service. My experience happens to be wrapped intrinsically around my gender identity, but my hope as I continue on this journey, is to remember that throughout struggles I can always find those that will support me- and the excitement and happiness on the other side of that struggle is well worth the wait.

The writer can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Challenges Facing LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer

Editor’s Note:

Our listserv has over the years provided a forum for applicants, nominees, current and former PCVs to advise and support one another. A few months back a current volunteer posted a message asking for some advice about handling  feelings of isolation and alienation. There were six or eight responses from recent volunteers offering their experiences and excellent advice. We have chosen three of them that seem to summarize the best of all those responses. They are very slightly edited to removed location and other personal identity information. You can subscribe to the listserv by accessing lgbrpcv-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

The initial post:

Throwing a bone out to you all, because I’m starting to hit a wall. Perhaps that wall is the door of the closet slamming shut right in my face, all over again. I’m four months in country, homosexuality is illegal and it’s considered so unquestionably wrong in this culture that it’s not even thought of. I guess I identify somewhere between bisexual and queer – suffice to say I’ve loved men and women and find both attractive. But it didn’t really come up…or out… in my training and there isn’t an active LGBT support group in-country.

So, here I am attracted to the local population but realizing I could never have a real discussion about who I truly am with them, so feeling alienated. Feeling comfortable and supported by some PCVs but like I regressed back to high school and am afraid to tell the truth, so feeling alienated.

I just want to talk with someone about this and I really don’t think there’s much save for one or two in country so here I am. How did you keep your sanity during round two in the closet? And, to also get your ideas about how I can improve this situation and work on creating a safe space for LGBT PCVs in my post.

Thanks for the listening ear.

The first response:

I felt for you when I read your e-mail.  I vividly remember thinking, “What the f— did I get myself into?” Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer for you.  I did develop strong relationships with a few supportive PCVs, though that didn’t relieve the stress of the feelings of being alienated from my community – because, in fact, even though I had a few supportive relationships, I did remain alienated from my community. It really sucked, primarily because I was an alien to my community, and the only thing I could do was learn to live with the feelings of alienation. The good thing was that I discovered an inner strength I never knew I had. The bad thing was that I discovered an inner strength that I know I never wanted.

Take it one day at a time.  Try to maintain an objective perspective – the reason it feels challenging is because it is challenging.  And don’t forget to breathe!

Good luck!

Another response:

Congrats on making it four months into country so far. I’m sure you’re doing well. 4

Four months in can be a good moment of general existentialism, self-doubt and major loneliness/disconnect. It’s hard. But, I think that bringing up your feelings honestly to this listserv is a good start. I think one of the most difficult parts of PC is coming to realization that your value systems is just so different, conflicting with the people you’ve made a commitment to help.

I think the key will be to just hold out. I don’t think you’re betraying yourself if you’re keeping yourself safe. And don’t feel bad relying on using your supportive PC friends to talk about these issues. I was the only gay guy in both of my trainings and it caused me to have a mild freak out in regards to that. I felt whiney being like nobody understands how hard it is for a gay volunteer, but it’s a legitimate feeling. I felt even crankier when my lesbian friends started dating guys.

But, I guess I’ll say the main reason I made it was because I did rely on my friends who were supportive, not local people and I patiently waited to hear what local friends and colleagues would say. I did come out to a few of them, but not until the end of my time in each country (I was in two different countries).

As for creating a safe place in PC as an organization, I know that there are safe place trainings that take place. I would suggest speaking with someone who you trust about it. I think a lot of Country Directors are open to this. I found a lot of support through PC staff both local and American. from HCN staff and American Staff.

Also, to help your sanity: journal and make art about it. Have friends from home visit, get out of the country for a, shall we say, vaygaytion. But, please don’t be afraid to send messages back to people you know support you in PC.

I hope this helps and isn’t too rambling. I really hope you can find a way to process these tough feelings. But, I’m sure you’ll find resilience and a creative way to make this situation dealable and possibly better for others in your situation.

Best,

And Another Response:

It sounds like you are going through something that just about any LGBTQ Volunteer has experienced at some point during their service. I had taken it for granted that I lived my life as an openly gay man in the States before I went to my host country and found I had to hide that part of myself to the locals. While I knew I would have to do it, I found it took much more of a toll on me than I had anticipated over the course of my service.

I never came out to any local people, and I chose not to come out to any PC staff, American or not. I did, however, come out to other volunteers in my training group and eventually most other volunteers that I met throughout my service. I found everyone to be very supportive and that was crucial to my success and sanity as a Volunteer.

Additionally, in my country of service we had what is called a Peer Support and Diversity Network (PSDN) which is a completely Volunteer organized group that trains a selected group to deal with any personal issues that may come up with volunteers that they may not want to go to PC staff with directly. I was a member of this group, as well as an officer. It was very rewarding as we were able to help fellow volunteers as well as provide some diversity training for PC staff. If this does not exist in your country, I suggest you look into it and possibly start to organize such a group there. That may help you to take what you are feeling and put it into some positive action. A quick Google “psdn Peace Corps” didn’t come up with too much, but it might get the ball rolling, and someone on your country’s staff will probably be able to get you some more information.

Take care and good luck,

Atlanta Area RPCVs March at Atlanta Pride

Fifty-five AARPCV members and guests showed their pride by marching with Peace Corps host country flags for the annual Atlanta Pride Parade on October 12, 2014. An estimated 300,000 people lined up on the streets to watch the event. It was AARPCV’s first time marching with our new country of service flags, and our first time marching in the Pride parade. After a dreary, wet morning, the clouds opened to reveal sunshine and blue skies. AAPCV was joined by special guest, Angie Harris of the Tennessee RPCVs. Angie, RPCV Papua New Guinea, serves as the Southeast Regional Representative on the National Peace Corps Association Board. Other AARPCV guests came from as far away as Chicago and New Jersey. The parade was streamed live online by 11Alive, who gave AARPCV an enthusiastic shoutout as we passed by.

See more photos from Atlanta Pride on their website.

October is the gayest of months in Atlanta, starting with the LGBT Out-on-Film festival, followed by the Atlanta Pride festival, AIDS Walk Atlanta, and Halloween celebrations. The LGBT community is organized and active, working to connect people to fun, philanthropy, and services. Nearly every major company in Atlanta has an LGBT organization, and there are many LGBT-specific organizations. Atlanta is in many ways an oasis for LGBT persons living in the Bible Belt South.

AARPCV recently added an LGBT Liaison to its Board: Suzanne Marks, who also serves on the National LGBT RPCV Steering Committee

The Atlanta Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (AARPCV) is a group of 300+ people who served two or more years in the U.S. Peace Corps. AARPCV’s goals are to make a difference in the lives of people here through quarterly service projects, to make a difference abroad by funding overseas projects, and to educate and socially engage its members.   Find out more at www.aarpcv.org.

AARPCV recently added an LGBT Liaison to its Board: Suzanne Marks, who also serves on the National LGBT RPCV Steering Committee (our board). The national group mentors currently serving LGBT PCVs, facilitates communication about LGBT issues faced by PCVs through its newsletter and website, informs people about international issues facing LGBT persons through its Listserv, and advocates for U.S. Peace Corps’ policies that are supportive of LGBT PCVs and staff. Find out more at  lgbprcv.org, join us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @lgbt_rpcv.

The Atlanta Regional Peace Corps Office had a booth, this year which AARPCV helped staff, in the Pride marketplace to recruit potential new PCVs. At least 50 interested individuals signed up for more information on Saturday alone; Sunday’s interest was even greater. The Peace Corps has had a booth at Atlanta Pride nearly every year for the past 17 years. This year 2014 was the first year that AARPCV participated in the Atlanta Pride Parade. Fifty-five plus people marched in the parade carrying flags from their Peace Corps countries of service. A local television station, 11 Alive, live-streamed the parade, including our flags’ display. AARPCV also is planning an all-day film festival, which will feature “Call me Kuchu” a film about being gay in which the National LGBT RPCVs has sponsored.

Editor’s Note;

This article is based on input from Amber Davis Collins and Suzanne Marks.

Exploring the Arco Iris: The LGBT Experience in the Americas

WASHINGTON, DC – On Friday, September 26th Peace Corps staff, RPCVs, and community members celebrated Hispanic Heritage month with the event “Exploring the Arco Iris: The LGBT Experience in the Americas” which featured a panel discussion. The event was hosted  by HALO (Peace Corps’ Hispanic Association for Leadership and Opportunity)and Spectrum (Peace Corps’  LGBTQA Employee Resource Group) in participation with the Human Rights Campaign and the Latino GLBT History Project.

L-R: Daniel Hinkle, David M. Pérez, Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, Alex Elizabeth Rodriguez,, Alicia Barrera. Not pictured Manuel Colón who joined by teleconference.

L-R: Daniel Hinkle, David M. Pérez, Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, Alex Elizabeth Rodriguez,, Alicia Barrera. Not pictured Manuel Colón who joined by teleconference.

Panelists included Manuel Colón, RPCV Paraguay 2010-2012, and New Volunteer Coordinator for the LGBT RPCV Association (joined via teleconference), Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, Director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives at HRC, Alexa Elizabeth Rodriguez, Founder of Mi Nueva Familia – a working group for people living with HIV and transgender women in El Salvador, and David M. Pérez, President of the Latino GLBT History Project. Full profiles can be found HERE. Panelists introduced  their unique experiences being Queer and Hispanic, exploring the nuanced perspective of where and when their identities intersect, diverge, and, at times, conflict.

The panel discussion was guided by Daniel Hinkle, Co-President of Spectrum, and Alicia Barrera, President of HALO. The group conversation focused on a variety of topics including, but not limited to,  the major challenges facing the LGBT community in Latin America, specific challenges to the success and advancement of the transgender community, and the role Peace Corps Volunteers can play in advancing the rights of LGBT communities in countries we serve.

The event concluded with questions and comments from the audience regarding their interest in the steps any and every person can take to actively work to advance the Hispanic Queer community. Panelists were also available for additional conversation and networking.

 

LGBT Peace Corps Alum Wins 2014 Franklin H. Williams Award

For Manuel Colón, Peace Corps service was about more than gaining skills and helping others overseas – it was about sharing his experience with people back home and inspiring others to consider making a difference. Even while he was still a volunteer in Paraguay, Chicago native Colón kept in touch with friends and family and used Skype to chat with prospective applicants at a recruitment event. While home on leave during his two-year service, he was the featured speaker at a 200-guest send-off event for new volunteers in Chicago.

Increasing understanding of other cultures in the U.S. is one of Peace Corps’ original goals dating back to the agency’s founding, and Colón embraces it more than ever since completing his service. Now, that commitment has brought him national recognition from Peace Corps.

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet honored Colón and five other returned Peace Corps volunteers with the Franklin H. Williams award on Wednesday, Oct. 8, during a ceremony at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The award honors returned Peace Corps volunteers from ethnically diverse backgrounds who exemplify an ongoing commitment to community service and Peace Corps’ Third Goal of promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

 

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet with Manuel Colón

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet with Manuel Colón

“In memory of Franklin H. Williams, we honor some of the brightest stars in our Peace Corps family who are incredible champions of our mission at a time when the Peace Corps has never mattered more,” Hessler-Radelet said. “These extraordinary individuals embody what the Peace Corps is all about – a lifelong commitment to service, social justice and cross-cultural understanding.”

As an environmental education Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay from 2010-12, Colón carried out sustainable tourism development work, youth group education, and cultural exchange activities. His most successful project was a national environmental youth group workshop conference called “Paraguay Verde,” which fostered youth interest in environmental stewardship and is now in its fifth iteration with current volunteers in Paraguay.

“I’m beyond honored to be a 2014 Franklin H. Williams award recipient,” Colón said. “As I explain the three goals of Peace Corps to people, it’s very clear that the first two are constrained to your 27 months abroad, while in service. The beauty of Third Goal is that every volunteer, at any and all stages in their life post-service, can engage in it.”

Now pursuing his Master of Education in Human Resources Development and working as an Undergraduate Recruiter at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, his alma mater, Colón continues to assist with Peace Corps recruitment there. He also serves as the New Volunteer Coordinator for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteers association. In that capacity, he works closely with Peace Corps’ Office of Diversity and National Outreach to engage prospective, current, and returned volunteers, in addition to promoting recruitment and Third Goal activities to the Queer community through the group’s social media.

Both in his everyday life and while working, Colón never misses an opportunity to share his personal Peace Corps story with diverse audiences. At his alma mater high school, Whitney Young in Chicago, Colón recently spoke to students about the way Peace Corps could, one day, transform their lives, as it has transformed his. In the summertime, he enjoys drinking tereré (Paraguayan iced tea) and listening to music from Paraguay, sharing the country’s culture with his friends and co-workers in the U.S. This year he waved the Peace Corps flag at multiple Pride events, inspiring countless LGBTQ Americans to serve.

Colón’s commitment to bettering his world also extends beyond Peace Corps’ Third Goal. He currently volunteers with the University’s Intensive English Institute as a conversation partner, helping students from South Korea and Saudi Arabia improve their English and learn more about American culture. “The parallels to Peace Corps pre-service training are so strong, so I’m glad I can give back to visitors to our country the same way I was so warmly received by the people of Paraguay,” Colón said.

About the Franklin H. Williams Award: Franklin H. Williams was an early architect of the Peace Corps. He worked at the agency from its inception in 1961 to 1963 and helped Sargent Shriver, the first Peace Corps director, to promote the agency and its programs to the world. Williams’ exceptional public service career included positions as Peace Corps Regional Director for Africa, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and U.S. Ambassador to Ghana.

Since the first Franklin H. Williams award ceremony in 1999, 107 outstanding returned Peace Corps volunteers have received the award. For more information on the award and bios for all awardees, please visit: http://www.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/staycon/williamsaward/?from=hps 

About the Peace Corps: As the preeminent international service organization of the United States, the Peace Corps sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Peace Corps volunteers work at the grassroots level with local governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development. When they return home, volunteers bring their knowledge and experiences – and a global outlook – back to the United States that enriches the lives of those around them. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to foster a better understanding among Americans and people of other countries. Since then, more than 215,000 Americans of all ages have served in 139 countries worldwide. Visit http://www.peacecorps.gov to learn more.

As the preeminent international service organization of the United States, the Peace Corps sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Peace Corps volunteers work at the grassroots level with local governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development. When they return home, volunteers bring their knowledge and experiences – and a global outlook – back to the United States that enriches the lives of those around them. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to foster a better understanding among Americans and people of other countries. Since then, more than 215,000 Americans of all ages have served in 139 countries worldwide. Visit http://www.peacecorps.gov to learn more.

This story was reproduced with permission of the Midwest Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Association.

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