Returning to Honduras

Elizabeth Fuhrman, RPCV

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 80’s, we didn’t have a lot of tools to capture and share our experiences.  No video camera or cell phone to record and upload images to the internet for family and friends.  All I had was a 35mm camera. It would only become apparent later that this system was pretty inadequate for capturing the real-feel of the biggest adventure of my back-then young adult life.  Just imagine, as volunteers in those days, we would have to hunt for film in the capital city or wait for a care package with film. I remember sending my film off to the cheapest company in America to get processed because we didn’t trust the quality of film processing “in country”. Even still, my negatives or slides would arrive with streaks or scratches, leaving me with spotty prints and memories.

Also, the people in my village rarely got the chance to view my “take” on things even though I tried to get double copies of pictures and gift these.  

Long story-short, over the years, the images of my two year stint in Honduras as a volunteer faded and disappeared under my subsequent life journeys.  So in 2006, when handheld video cameras evolved to the size and weight of what we have today, and I no longer had to worry about loading it with big cassettes, ha-ha, I said “adios” to my spouse for a few weeks and took this journey back to my village in Honduras.  My number one goal was to resurface that rich Peace Corps experience, and record it good and proper so I could relive it and share it with loved ones. And I can say that this journey turned out just as I dreamed; this video    “Que Le Vaya Bien”   is now my proof that it was amazing.  Never will I forget my Honduran village or friends now.

I’d like to add that once I finally posted my video on Youtube and shared it via Facebook with family members of Dona Iris, they started me daily.  The girl who is twelve in the video now has a three year old child.  I count on the tone in my voice (in the video) to convey my affections for the island and its people.  Gotta love how technology helps us not only rekindle friendships with our host country friends but also spark new relationships with the next generation.  I pray that the violence and corruption preventing travel between our two countries comes to an end with Godspeed because I hope to return.

Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps

The following is the introduction from Jim Kelly’s thesis on gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps, “Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps.”

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I was born on June 29, 1947 in a country hospital in a tiny southern Minnesota farming town.  The complicated and dangerous delivery almost cost both my mother and I our lives.  For the first 15 years of my life, every Sunday after church the ugliest, kindest nurse in history would, without invitation, give me a huge hug and say, “How’s my miracle baby today?”  If someone tells you often enough that you’re special, you’ll come to believe it yourself.

However, I kept the most “special” thing about me fiercely protected from discovery.  As far back as I can remember I knew that I was different: I felt about boys the way boys were supposed to feel about girls.  I also instinctively knew I was in danger if my secret got out.  At great psychic cost, I protected that secret for 21 years.  I was a college senior when I said out loud for the first time to another human being that I was gay – my academic advisor.

I don’t regret growing up in a small town.  Many values I still hold were developed there – values that I believe ultimately led to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer..My parents belonged to just about every board and organization in town.  From them I learned the values of community service and civic engagement.  I learned what unremarkable people can accomplish when they work together and acknowledge their interdependence.  I experienced the power of generosity, and the empowering effect of respect for others.

The darker side of human nature in a small town is that those values really operate only within a sphere of sameness – by and for people who look alike and act alike.  My town was at the northern end of a migrant route of Mexican summer farm workers.  Over the years, a small permanent community established itself.  They were the “other,” and that’s how I learned about prejudice and the impact of marginalization.  It helped me realize that I was “in, but not of” that sphere of sameness.  I was also an “Other!”  Difference is dangerous!  Theirs’ was obvious, mine was hidden; but the impact on me was profound.  I had learned to empathize.

“Otherness” and the preoccupation to avoid discovery was the driving influence in my life for years to come.  Yet, as my world expanded in college during the late 60’s, I realized there were movements everywhere to restore peace, celebrate differences and work on behalf of justice.  In my senior year, a woman in my friendship group who had graduated the prior year was sending us letters about her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador.

I was mesmerized and felt called.  Peace Corps was still in its first decade and the ideals on which it was founded were inspiring.  I applied.  About half-way through that endless application, I crashed into this question: “Do you have homosexual tendencies?”  In that instant I remembered my PC friend in El Salvador remarking that after she applied, FBI agents ran routine background checks and interviewed people who knew her.

I checked the “no” box, fully aware I was lying.  Moreover, I was obligated to ask my academic advisor to collude with me in this lie if he got asked that question by the FBI.

For longer than Peace Corp’s first decade of existence, applicants aware of being gay or lesbian had to perjure themselves to the federal government to even be considered for this opportunity to serve others and represent the best America has to offer.

In 1969 I completed pre-service training and began my service in a rural village in El Salvador.  Almost 47 years later, I still view my Peace Corps service as one of the most transcendent experiences of my life.  Nevertheless, camouflaging my sexual orientation while in the Peace Corps caused me considerable psychological and emotional pain.  During my training and Volunteer service I never experienced permission from trainers, other Volunteers or Peace Corps staff to be open about who I was.  I believed the Peace Corps assumed all Volunteers were heterosexual.  The cross-cultural adaptation training we received about male and female roles and interpersonal relationships was directed at heterosexuals.  The men and women had separate training sessions about sexual mores, do’s and don’ts.  I clearly remember a trainer reciting to the men names of brothels that were on an unofficial “hygienically approved” list.

In spite of the cost of my silence, I succeeded.  I extended my service until 1972.  No one ever knew about my profound sense of alienation induced by fear that my “secret” would become known.  No one in Peace Corps ever knew that eventually I did discover the El Salvadoran gay subculture and was able to develop a wonderful friendship and support network.  Although never regretting being a PCV, I also never forgot how I felt during training and Volunteer service about the omission of attention to some of my most fundamental gay-related needs and concerns as they related to my ability to serve Salvadorans.

Quite serendipitously, about five years after leaving El Salvador, I became associated with Peace again, first as the Training Coordinator for Peace Corps Chile’s pre-service training center.  That experience led to a referral in 1981 to CHP International, an Oak Park, IL company which, under contract to the Peace Corps, staffed and operated pre-service training centers in countries of destination (eventually managing centers in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa).  I remained with CHP until my retirement 25 years later.

My work with CHP kept me in constant contact with our Peace Corps training centers, curriculum development projects, the evolution in Peace Corps’ training philosophy, Peace Corps staff, and with networks of serving and returned PCVs.  The anecdotal accounts of many gay and lesbian friends I made in the informal networks of Peace Corps staff and RPCVs made me wonder how much had really changed in the Peace Corps’ understanding as an institution of the special challenges that Volunteer service presents to gay and lesbian Volunteers.

Towards the end of my first decade with CHP, I decided to obtain an advanced degree in cross-cultural training – acutely aware that I’d already I’d been called to serve again by conducting and publishing this research.  As the thesis dedication says:

To the gays and lesbians who have served
as Peace Corps Volunteers
1961 – 1991
We have a voice now


Click Kelly, James B (1991) to read complete copy of Kelly’s thesis on our website.

LGBT RPCV National Coordinator on the “Listening Tour”

by Manuel Colón, 

In my new role as National Coordinator for LGBT RPCV, I decided to make it a point to reach out to each of the continuing Steering Committee members and have a chat. I’ve dubbed this my “listening tour.” I wanted the conversations to serve not only as a time for me to engage with each of the members one-on-one, but also to tap into their individual and collective knowledge of the group’s history and their thoughts on our future. I’m nearly complete, with only two or three more committee members to go, and I cannot be happier with the results thus far.

The conversations I’m having have  been so informative, insightful, and, quite honestly, enjoyable! The knowledge and experiences that each one of our Steering Committee members brings to the table is absolutely great! However, there is a particular incident that has truly surpassed my expectations of what these chats could have produced. LGBT RPCV produces a newsletter that is shared with our followers and supporters on a quarterly basis and done so digitally. However, as you might imagine, when the group first started in 1991, the newsletter was print.

Dennis Gilligan, fellow Steering Committee member, informed me that he still had all the original print newsletters that the group had produced. In fact, he had been meaning to scan and digitize them, just never got around to it. Since our conversation, Dennis has sent me over 70 digitized pages of LGBT RPCV’s newsletters from its early days of inception. I was only two pages into the inaugural newsletter when I was stopped dead in my tracks to learn that in 1991, an RPCV named James “Jim” Kelly wrote a master’s thesis titled “Diversity’s Hidden Dimensions: Gays and Lesbians in the Peace Corps.”

James “Jim” Kelly and Manuel Colón

James “Jim” Kelly and Manuel Colón

In my excitement to find Jim and his thesis, I looked in our university’s database, scanned what Google produced, and even searched Facebook. While I was unsuccessful in my digital search, all I had to do was scroll over to the next page to find Jim’s home address and phone number (as research would have been done in 1991, obviously). I wasn’t 100% positive that the number listed would still be active 24 years later, but it was! Jim answered the phone, was more than happy to chat with me, and, since we are both in Illinois, made time to meet in-person later that week.

I’ve invited Jim to contribute a piece to our website; so that he can expand upon his experience with Peace Corps and his dissertation work. Jim was also gracious enough to provide us with a digital copy of

his thesis (a task he, also, had been meaning to do, but hadn’t until I requested) and we’ll share the full report when we get his written story.

In the meantime, I was able to record our chat. I tried my best to edit it and have shared via SoundCloud. If you have about 45 minutes, CLICK HERE to  take a listen.

Why gay marriage matters

by Philip Rodenbough

Originally posted on Peace Through Chemistry: (Mis)Adventures in Guinea and Burkina Faso (philgoestoguinea.blogspot.com)  on  Friday, April 29, 2011

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” – Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in New York City“Ouvrez les frontieres, ouvrez les frontieres…” [open the borders, open the borders…] – Tiken Jah Fakoly
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined this for myself. The cultures are just too different, the language barrier is just too high, the potential just isn’t there, I would have said. But if my time in the Peace Corps has proven anything to me, it’s that life is full of surprises.

I would like to make a formal introduction. Readers, I present to you: my boyfriend, Norbert. He was born and raised in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. When he was 18 years old, he won a scholarship to study fashion design in Paris. He has since worked successfully in the fashion industry throughout West Africa and in France. His most recent project: creating and organizing Ouagadougou’s first ever fashion week (brush up on your French and read about it here under “promotion de la mode”).

Norbert is fun, thoughtful, charming, and vivacious. He understands Western culture to at least the same degree that I understand African culture, probably even better. We are comfortable navigating either culture, but both of us still have much to learn. We communicate exclusively in French; Norbert doesn’t speak a word of English.

We met through friends of friends while I was working in Ouagadougou in August. At the time, I knew I was bound for Conakry, so the sparks that flew were somewhat dampened. We saw each other a few times before I left for Guinea, but we didn’t think we’d see each other again.

Then I finally arrived in Guinea, only to get stuck in the strife there. I had the option to take a temporary leave of absence from my Peace Corps service. But where would I go? I took a chance, went out on a limb. I asked Norbert if he could host me for a while, if I came back to Burkina Faso. He considered it, then said yes. So I flew back to Ouagadougou.

We spent day after day together, week after week. We ate together. We travelled together. We lived together. We learned about each other’s lives, and we fell in love with each other.

Agreeing that what we had was too valuable to throw away, we started to discuss our future. Although I didn’t know what the immediate future held for me and my Peace Corps service, I knew that when my service was finished, I wanted to live in New York City and study at Columbia University. The idea of living in America had never before crossed Norbert’s mind, but it was now enticing. If he could move to America and learn English, that would open up a whole new world for his fashion work. After some reflection, he agreed that he wanted to come to New York with me. It made sense for both of us. After my studies there, we could move anywhere in the world.

And then, for the first time ever, I started researching immigration. For a citizen of Cote d’Ivoire (or of any African country), getting just a temporary visa to come to the United States is very difficult. Citizens of developing countries have to overcome the assumption of immigration intent by demonstrating significant ties to their current residence, and this is completely up to the discretion of officers at US embassies. The other option is to try for a long-term immigrant visa or green card, but that can be even harder. Marrying an American is one of the very few reliable paths to permanent residency.

Earlier in my Peace Corps service, I had attended the marriage of a woman Peace Corps volunteer to a Burkinabé man in Gaoua, Burkina Faso. Their plan was to move to America shortly after the marriage. At the time, I never imagined anything of the sort for myself, but I was very happy for them, that they could share their lives together in the place of their mutual choosing.

And now I thought that I could do a similar thing for myself. Of course I couldn’t marry Norbert anywhere in West Africa, but I could bring Norbert to Massachusetts, get gay married there, and that would be that. We are totally ready to make that commitment. But then I researched more, and was surprised at what I discovered.

Although gay marriage is legal in several states in the US, these marriages are not recognized in any way by the federal government. That’s because in 1996, the US passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This act set the national definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, no matter what other legislative bodies say, be those legislative bodies outside the US, or inside the US. So same-sex couples who are legally married in Canada or South Africa or even Connecticut have no recognition of their marriage from the US federal government. That means they have no recognition of their relationship from US immigration law. But there must be some other options, right?

The fact of the matter is that although many countries in the world offer some legal avenue for same-sex couples to sponsor each other for immigration purposes, the US offers none. As far as the US government is concerned, my relationship with Norbert is nothing.

I had no idea.

I joined the Peace Corps for a lot of reasons, and pride for my country was an important one among them. I was excited about the cultural sharing, and to educate others about the land of the free and the home of the brave. Although I was deeply disappointed after learning about this bigoted immigration policy, I am still proud that I can raise my voice against it.

I could pick any single woman off the street and get her a fiancée visa to the US by simply declaring my intention to marry her. No matter who the woman is, the legal avenue is there. But because Norbert and I are both men, I have no legal standing to help Norbert immigrate to the US. That is wrong.

This is why gay marriage matters, to me. This is why the US needs to legalize gay marriage nation-wide. It’s the right thing to do.

There is reason to believe that DOMA will reach the Supreme Court, where it will be struck down. But things like that are slow, and my Peace Corps service is finishing soon. Even if congress passes the slightly-more-politically-appetizing Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would simply allow same-sex couples to sponsor their partners for immigration purposes, it probably won’t do so in time to alleviate our immediate worries.

Norbert is currently paying me an extended visit in Guinea. We know he is incredibly lucky. He applied for a US tourist visa in Ouagadougou, and it was granted. He is now allowed to travel to the US for a short amount of time. What will we do when that time is up? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. It frustrates me that our relationship has no recognition from my country.

But if enough people learn about this issue and take a stand, I am confident that, one day, we can achieve marriage equality for all.

~
Norbert and I in Ouagadougou

Norbert and I in Ouagadougou

“La Dame du Mali,” a mountain that looks like a woman’s profile near my village.

Norbert and I atop the Dame du Mali

Norbert and I atop the Dame du Mali

Norbert and I aren’t the only ones. Learn more about the struggles of same-sex bi-national couples by reading this Human Rights Watch document Families, Unvalued.

This movement needs as much exposure as possible. Get involved in the fight for immigration equality at immigrationequality.com, especially their action fund blog, and atstopthedeportations.blogspot.com.

Too many couples are being hurt through discriminatory US immigration policy. Call your congressperson in support of UAFA today.

Note since publication on “Peace through Chemistry”: 

Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was struck down by the supreme court on June 26th, 2013 in United States v. Windsor. Today, the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages for all purposes, including immigration. 

Click photo to view their wedding photo in the National Peace Corps Association Facebook Wedding Album. 

You can view their wedding photo in the National Peace Corps Association Facebook Wedding Album.

Share Your Story at Peace Corps Connect June 2015

LGBT RPCB PCC-BerkeleyThe LGBT RPCV Association wants to share more voices during its Peace Corps Connect session in Berkeley. This is the annual gathering of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, and it is the first conference session we have hosted in many years. (The actual session time is TBD but likely Friday, June 5, 4:30 – 5:30PM)!
At our conference session we will lead the audience through a sample Safe Zone Training session, as well as give an overview of the work of LGBT PCVs through the years. We want to include you!
All are welcome, but we are especially looking for recently COS’d (last 3-4 years; or currently serving!) — and extra-especially anyone who participated in a Safe Zone Training while in service.
We invite you to participate by attending our session live*, or coming live via Skype, or emailing in your thoughts for us to share. If interested or for questions, please contact Hale Sargent @ lgbtrpcv@gmail.com.
*You do not have to pay the conference fees if you are serving as a presenter and only coming for our session. To learn more about Peace Corps Connect, visit http://www.peacecorpsconnect.org.
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