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.

Survey of LGBT RPCV Followers

LGBT Follower Survey 2015To take the pulse of what LGBT RPCV followers think about our mostly virtual organization, a survey was announced through our listserv as well as via Facebook and Twitter. Seventy-seven (77) people responded to the short survey (12% of our listserv membership).

Of the 77 respondents, just over 80% are returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), with about 13% being current volunteers.

The feature of our organization most appreciated is the listserv (62.5%) followed by Facebook (51.4%) and our webpage (37.5%).

For the listserv, the top 2 postings appreciated are Learning about Peace Corps-related news and events (73.5%) and LGBT world news (67.7%). Also appreciated were learning about job postings (38.2%) and countries of assignment (30.9%).  65.7% of respondents judged that the number of listserv postings is about right, with 22.4% saying there are too many posts and 11.9% too few. When asked how we can improve the listserv, the top suggestion was to consolidate the postings into either a daily or weekly summary to cut down on the frequency of posts, and possibly including questions for discussion about the posted issues. Many suggested adding more stories of LGBT PCVs and RPCVs and to include links to all that is posted, although a current PCV asked for the opposite: to post full articles since Internet service is weak and opening links can be a challenge. A few comments commended what we are now doing.

On the mentoring program, 58.2% of respondents didn’t know such a program existed, but would be interested in participating. Very few had participated in the program either as a mentor or mentee. The few notable comments were that people had tried to participate but were never contacted and that it may be worth considering having current volunteers mentor one another. It was also suggested that RPCVs who had served in specific countries could be made available to share their experiences with those who may be going to those countries.

Key suggestions to improve the Facebook group, Twitter posts and our webpage were to close the Facebook page because having it open to the public may compromise current volunteers where host country nationals can see that they are members and to increase the number of job posts.

Other things that followers would like to see LGBT RPCV doing that would be useful:

  • Enable more connections among RPCVs such as organizing more local and regional events of interest to LGBT RPCVs, including social events and job fairs and pride events.
  • Make links to more external groups that share similar interests to ours, including working with US-based LGBT organizations to support projects.
  • Make more efforts to reach potential PCVs.
  • Explore having RPCVs visit current LGBT PCVs.

When asked about interest in becoming more involved in LGBT RPCV in leading our community, 9 people stepped forward with their contact information. No one had a specific idea about what they wanted to volunteer to do, but one respondent who has already been very active noted that he has taken part in LGBT RPCV events such as Pride celebrations and Peace Corps anniversary occasions. He said that he is “proud of our organization and its ongoing supportive involvement in Peace Corps. I consider my own service as a pivotal point in my own life that keeps me closely connected… Surely PC’s own evolving comfort and active support of LGBT volunteers has much in our organization’s existence and work…”

LGBT Follower Survey 2015

Serving as the First: A Same-Sex Couple Perspective

By Jessica and Khayla

My partner and I knew that we always wanted to join Peace Corps. Like all those who have come before us, it was a dream. We didn’t want to become another person in their aging years proclaiming “I should have… I would have…. I could have…” So we did. Knowing we couldn’t serve together we tried in our interviews to at least get placed on the same continent. As we received our invitations our hearts broke. Africa and South America. It doesn’t get much farther. With one of our staging dates coming 6 months before the other, we were going to be apart for 32 months. Thirty two. Even now the number is hard to grasp. But this was our dream, how could we not take the leap? So I went off to staging first, and that was the first time I truly felt my heart break. It wasn’t for another 16 months that my heart would be whole, when thanks to the wonderful staff of Peace Corps and Peace Corps Ecuador that I was able to put my pieces back together.  I am incredibly grateful and proud to be a part of one of the last couples that will ever have to feel the pain of being separated.  The pain that comes only because I fell in love with someone who checks the same box as me on forms. Female. It’s a huge and scary leap that Peace Corps is taking into the new age, but if you spend 10 minutes with my partner and I, and see our relentless love and gratitude to be serving together, you’ll know it’s the right choice.

Jessica and Khayla share their success story as a same-sex couple in the Peace Corps.

Jessica and Khayla share their success story as a same-sex couple in the Peace Corps.

First, let’s touch on the challenges that come as a same-sex couple serving abroad. With regards to being out at site, my partner and I have made the decision to not tell any host country nationals about our relationship. The decision was a personal one, and ultimately was made to maintain our safety in country.  I work with three wonderful women, whom I’ve witnessed talking positively about homosexuals in Ecuador, but I still have reservations about telling them because of the gossipy nature here. I don’t think my coworkers would ever maliciously tell anyone about our relationship, but everyone I’ve met separately in Loja seems to know each other in one way or another. So, one small piece of gossip could become a universal truth in less than a week. We each go to the other person’s organization/school to help when we have the day off from our prospective jobs (Health and TEFL are our respective programs) and each of our colleagues loves the other. Any time either has an after-hours event or social gathering, they make sure we are bringing our lovely roommate and friend. Keeping this secret is absolutely a challenge; finding new reasons for why I don’t want an Ecua-boyfriend, dodging blind-dates from host family members, and above all having to watch as men make passes in cafes or bars at my partner and not being able to tell them that not only is she taken, but that she’s with me!, can be trying.

Another challenge is not being treated the same as married couples, with staff and other Ecuadorians. When my partner and I are booked for a hostel room in the capital city for medical purposes, the hostel staff is just doing their job when assigning another female Volunteer to our room or requesting that we move into a room with another female Volunteer, because that is their standard procedure.  But if we were a heterosexual couple, no one would ever be added to the room. We wouldn’t have to worry about acting “normal” in front of strangers, or explaining when we slip up and call the other one “honey”. This can be helped by the Peace Corps staff by keeping the couple in mind and making sure the hostel puts them in a double room. I know it’s an extra step, but being treated as a normal married couple will gain the unyielding respect of your future same-sex couples. When we encountered this situation for ourselves, Peace Corps Ecuador handled it quickly and professionally, something we appreciated and a feeling of support that we will never forget. Additionally, if a same-sex couple puts in a reimbursement for the cheapest double room they could find on their way to mid-service, when they could have spent less if they had stayed in a dorm room with strangers, be kind and accept the receipt.

Again, it’s the little things that will make your couple feel safe and welcomed.

Although we have to watch what we say and how we act around our landlord, one of the advantages of living in Ecuador as a same-sex female couple is that everyone who knows we live together is overwhelmingly supportive and genuinely relieved that we have each other for company. This is definitely a cultural advantage for us. However, that’s not to say that male couples would be subject to suspicion. Because we are foreigners in a new country and culture we would recommend more than anything that a same sex-couple be aware of their site’s views on homosexuality when making decisions about how to act and what information is shared with host country nationals.

Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, other challenges that we’ve faced have originated with other PCVs. Again nothing that has happened was done maliciously, but because they aren’t constantly thinking about their sexuality or trying keeping their relationship private. For example, sometimes we will invite another volunteer over for dinner and they show up at our door with an Ecuadorian we’ve never met. At this point we have to run and shut two doors (one to our actual bedroom, and one to the room we tell others is my room, which sorry to digress, but same-sex couples will most likely need to rent two-bedroom homes if they want to invite host country nationals over and maintain their relationship privacy) and hide anything around the apartment that may hint that we are a couple, like an anniversary banner I once had hung up in the kitchen. PCVs don’t immediately see why it would be important to mention they are bringing someone over whom we don’t know, because it’s not something they’ve ever had to think about. They also may forget themselves and make passing comments about our relationship around others, creating a stressful moment as we wait to see if the other guest didn’t hear, or if we need to explain ourselves/think of a quick lie. In another situation my partner was outed to one of her colleagues by another Volunteer. This placed her in a difficult situation, not knowing what her counterpart would think, say or do with this newfound information. Thankfully everything turned out okay; my partner’s Program Manager was incredibly supportive, met with her and her counterpart (who ended up being both understanding of the delicacy of the situation and accepting of our relationship) and to this day we haven’t had any problems. That being said, most Peace Corps posts have begun preparing LGBTQ couple specific training for the office staff, but it’s important to remember sensitivity, respect and outing training for Volunteers as well. Despite having listed the above challenges, we want to mention that more than anything they’re just things to think about. Things to be aware of to help anticipate and prevent any potential bumps in the road.

The good! Let’s talk about the good! My partner and I are ecstatic to be serving together, and all of the volunteers close to us are happy to have us here as well. About twice a month we host small dinners at our apartment for the local PCVs, we take a poll and cook whatever people are craving. I love to cook and my partner loves to bake. I wouldn’t say we are the best chefs in the world, but you certainly won’t hear any complaints from the Loja area volunteers! We also adopted a kitten a few months ago named Milo (pronounced Meelow, the Spanish way!)  He’s adorable and always the hit of the party when we host group dinners. Additionally, my partner and I have taken on a secondary project teaching two classes a week at the Universidad Nacional de Loja. Each class is three hours long, and we are teaching students who are studying to become Ecuador’s future English teachers. They are so driven and dedicated; it’s an honor to be a part of their education. All in all, my partner and I couldn’t be happier. We are living a dream we never imagined could or would ever become a reality. The opportunity to live and serve together as Peace Corps Volunteers is absolutely incredible! We feel complete and happy and beyond appreciative. But at the end of the day, we’re still Volunteers, the same as any other couple serving in any country; we just have to put a little more thought into our actions when we are out in public. The majority of our interactions with PC staff are the same as with any other volunteer; VRFs, questions for program managers, calling medical when ill, etc. We go to work, interact with our communities, plan projects, engage in mutual cultural exchanges, and truly love being a part of Peace Corps. We recognize that introducing same-sex couples to Peace Corps is scary.

But it’s also unbelievably exciting. If you have any specific questions or concerns please let us know. We are more than happy, if not eager, to engage in a dialogue about our experiences and insights.

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