Challenges to Sexual or Gender Minorities Populations

By Suzanne Marks, RPCV Togo, LGBT RCPV Steering Committee

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as of December 2014, homosexuality is known to be criminalized in 76 countries, including punishment by death in 10 countries (Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, Yemen) and in 3 countries so-called “LGBT anti-propaganda” laws restrict freedom of assembly (Nigeria, Lithuania, Russia). See map of the countries. While many of these laws were instituted during European colonial times and subsequently rarely enforced, there has been a recent resurgence in new legislation (Liberia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe), harassment, discrimination, and violence against LGBT persons or against persons perceived to be LGBT. HRC published a report in July 2014 that lists concerns in Africa: The State of Human Rights for LGBT People in Africa, July 2014.  HRC also reports regularly on recent international news relevant to the LGBT community.  Another resource, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), advocates for the rights of LGBT persons, and provides country-level updates. . For a full listing of human rights practices by country, visit the U.S. Department of State human rights website.

Recent anti-gay legislation in many countries has been promoted by American religious extremists, who have been spreading inaccurate information about sexual and gender minorities and about HIV transmission on five continents, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe. HRC published a report called Exposed: Export of Hate that documents the activities of Scott Lively, Lou Engle, and others who have been instigating these changes. Inaccurate information that the religious extremists have promoted includes: 1) “LGBT persons recruit youth into homosexuality” and “No one is born gay.” In fact, there is substantial evidence that most same-sex attraction and gender identity are innate; 2) “Conversion therapy” can work to make persons heterosexual. All credible health organizations reject the practice of “conversion therapy,” which is ineffective and in many cases harmful; 3) “Gay men molest youth more than heterosexuals.” There is no evidence that LGBT persons engage in pedophilia more so than heterosexuals; and 4) “Same-sex parents harm children.” All credible scientific studies find that children raised by same-sex parents are as well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexual parents. The Southern Poverty Law Center exposes hate groups and provides materials for fighting homophobia to counter the misinformation. A key resource includes Top 10 Anti-Gay Myths Debunked

Some consequences of human rights abuses against sexual and gender minorities and their de-humanization have included: 1) lack of privacy due to published lists, pictures, and addresses of known or suspected LGBT persons; 2) isolation due to laws requiring the reporting of any known/suspected homosexual; 3) police harassment/brutality/abuse including home invasions and raids, 4) forced disrobement and invasive physical examinations, 5) eviction from homes, 6) “corrective” rape of LGBT females, 7) being targeted by mob justice (stoning; bombings, murders), 8) loss of children, 9) accusations of transmitting HIV, and 10) suicide. In Nigeria, where a law (1/7/2014) criminalized freedom of assembly of and association with LGBT persons, there is a report that HIV treatment has declined substantially, as people fear (because of the perception of being gay) going to clinics to receive their medication. (Mother Jones 3/2014). Moreover, HIV prevention and outreach efforts have become stymied. Also see The Economist 2014.

God Loves Uganda

God Loves Uganda Documentary Film

Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) has sued Scott Lively for violating international law by intentionally contributing to the persecution of Ugandan LGBT and seeking to deprive them of their basic human rights. As of January 2015, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals refused Lively’s request for case dismissal based on the First Amendment to the US Constitution, so the case will soon be heard in court. (Slate 2014)

There are a few films that poignantly portray the issues: “God Loves Uganda”highlights motivations for the actions of some religious groups. “Call Me Kuchu” is a film, mostly from the perspective of LGBT Ugandans, showing the impact of LGBT persecution and story of David Kato’s efforts to bring  international support for LGBT rights in Uganda.

“I understand that sexual orientation and gender identity raise sensitive cultural issues.  But cultural practices cannot justify any violation of human rights. . .  . When our fellow humans are persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, we must speak out. . . . States bear the primary responsibility to protect human rights advocates.  I call on all States to ensure the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly that make their work possible.  When the lives of human rights advocates are endangered, we are all less secure.  When the voices of human rights advocates are silenced, justice itself is drowned out.” – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

While the situation for sexual and gender minorities has become worse in many countries, the situation, especially regarding marriage equality, has improved in some countries. As of December 2014, 18 countries permit same-sex marriage according to Freedomtomarry.org. Ireland, Chile, and Taiwan are scheduled to vote soon on marriage equality.

For sexual and gender minorities living, working in, or visiting countries where homosexuality is criminalized, it is important to be aware of the current situation for LGBT persons in the country. While the decision to be openly LGBT is left to each individual. Many persons choose to be discreet or not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity with foreign-country nationals. However, being out to your Peace Corps and other U.S. governmental colleagues is encouraged so that you can obtain needed support in talking about your family and social life. Becoming involved in advocacy for LGBT rights is welcome after you return to the U.S., but doing so while overseas as a PCV would likely need to be approved prior to any activity and might be discouraged because of security reasons.

Serving as an LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia

- Krista M. Mastel, RPCV 2011-14

I thought serving as an LGBT volunteer in Mongolia would be difficult. Sure there were challenges, but it turns out serving in Mongolia was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Already at staging and on the flight over I connected with four other LGBT trainees. We were nervous of course, but glad to have found each other. We weren’t sure what arrival in country would bring, but we were excited.

Training was intense. All the usual pressures and challenges and frustrations were slamming us. But we also felt overlooked. Sessions on health, safety and relationships focused on heterosexual relationships. Could we ask about LGBT circumstances? And to whom could we ask? We knew hardly a thing about Mongolian culture, much less about the status of LGBT people in country and how our staff would react. Then an ally piped up, asking what we weren’t sure we could. The floodgates opened.  Others chimed in.  Mongolian staff urged caution and tactfulness. American staff self-identified as allies and provided safe zones. We were thrilled. And in that moment, an idea was born.

Together with two other LGBT volunteers, we founded the Peace Corps Mongolia LGBT Task Force. Our goals were three-fold: to support fellow LGBT and ally volunteers, to conduct staff trainings so they are better prepared to support LGBT trainees and volunteers, and to raise awareness about LGBT issues in our communities.

Our first goal was born out of our feelings of isolation and confusion during training.  We knew we didn’t want any incoming trainees to feel as we had.  Instead, we wanted a welcoming, visible group to let future generations of volunteers know that no matter where they were in their process, they had support and resources around them. Part of trainees’ arrival schedule now includes a dinner for LGBT and ally trainees to interact with currently serving LGBT and ally volunteers and learn about life as an LGBT volunteer in Mongolia.

The second goal also came from those feelings during training. Because we weren’t sure who we could turn to on staff, we also weren’t sure how we’d be supported during service. We didn’t know how much our staff knew about LGBT issues or how they felt about it. With the support of our Director of Programming and Training, we facilitated the first-ever Safe Zone training for staff. Staff welcomed the training just as much as we welcomed their participation. They were hungry for information about the LGBT experience and how to best support volunteers. The training has been facilitated thrice more at the time of writing this article, as staff has changed or upon staff request for more information.

Lastly, the third goal came from discussions of Peace Corps’ Second Goal and how to best represent the diversity of America. We developed contextual, respectful and collaborative (with a Mongolian LGBT NGO) materials that volunteers could use to talk about, even champion LGBT issues in their communities while remaining apolitical. We attended LGBT art exhibitions and film festivals, the first-ever Pride, and networked with international organizations like the United Nations Population Fund to develop inclusive initiatives. Turned out, the climate in Mongolia wasn’t as un-friendly as we may have thought and worried about as trainees.  With little in the way of religious objections, we soon learned that LGBT people and issues were more misunderstood or even unknown, rather than feared or hated.

But in addition to all that, it was the personal experiences I had that defined my time in Mongolia. At the gay bar in the capital I was free to be myself. I was not afraid to come out to the staff of the LGBT NGO. I developed a network of LGBT-identifying Mongolian friends. And after over a year and a half of friendship and assessing her tolerance (thanks to Adam Lambert), I came out to my best Mongolian friend in my community. We cried and hugged and she thanked me for telling her about the “real” me. It was the relief and release I needed.

Then something unexpected happened. I had extended for a third year, moved to the capital, taken on a new role within Peace Corps and was looking forward to starting work with a new agency. I wasn’t looking for it; it never even occurred to me that something like this could happen during service. Wasn’t I going to be in the closet and celibate the entire time? But there she was: a fellow volunteer. Before we knew it, we fell in love.  It’s nearly two years later and we’re happily together in the US with great jobs and acceptances into graduate school. Serving in the Peace Corps in Mongolia gave me more than I ever could have imagined. I am forever grateful for the relationships I built and the experiences I had. Are you ready for the experience of a lifetime in Peace Corps?

The writer can be contacted at krista.mastel@gmail.com.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 129 other followers