New LGBT Employee Resources Group, SPECTRUM, Launched at Peace Corps

In Peace Corps’ efforts to become a more diverse and inclusive work place, the agency has launched and initiative to form affinity-based employee resource groups. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are agency supported groups which bring together staff from across the agency because of a common sense of identity that may be associated with their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, professional experience, faith, disability or life interest. ERGs can be designed to provide support and professional development to participating members while also affording the organization a chance to gain valuable insight into effective recruitment and retention approaches.

Peace Corps joins the ranks of many public and private sector organizations which have begun to thoughtfully engage their diverse workforces via ERGs. At headquarters there has always been a small but mighty LGBTQ community. As such, when the opportunity for ERG formation presented itself the queer community mobilized. In March of 2013, members of SPECTRUM submitted a petition – with nearly 100 signatures – for formal recognition to Peace Corps’ Chief of Staff and the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity.

With approval from Peace Corps’ leadership, SPECTRUM has already started working diligently to fulfill its mission of raising awareness of LGBTQ issues and concerns related to Peace Corps staff (domestic and international) experience. The group focuses on three key areas:

  • Organizing and hosting discussion sessions about the LGBTQ experience for Peace Corps staff. The goal of these discussions is to share the voice of the Peace Corps LGBTQ community and foster a more inclusive work environment for all Peace Corps staff regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. SPECTRUM hosted its first panel discussion on May 22, 2013 with representatives from Human Rights Campaign, USAID, Department of Justice and the RPCV community.

  • Working with Peace Corps senior leadership, Africa, Europe, Mediterranean, Asia, Inter-America and Pacific regional staff; and internal working groups to identify strategies, provide resources, and offer appropriate staff training content to enhance the support provided to LGBTQ Volunteers serving overseas to bolster the likelihood of successful fulfillment of their 27-month service commitment. Members of SPECTRUM have been thoughtfully involved in the conversations leading up to the May 21, 2013 announcement of inviting same-sex couples to apply for service.

  • Providing opportunities for the Peace Corps LGBTQ community to foster a sense of community, support and shared purpose. Members of SPECTRUM worked hand in hand with the DC Regional Recruitment Office to organize and 80 person contingent at the DC Pride Parade and an information table at the festival.

While SPECTRUM is in its early stages of development, we welcome the thoughts and ideas of the RPCV community. Please reach out to us at SPECTRUM@peacecorps.gov

All comments are welcome!

LGBTQ Panel Discussion Sponsored by Peace Corps’ Spectrum

- Edwin S. Patout, RPCV – Ukraine

I attended “The LGBTQ Experience in International Development” panel discussion held at Peace Corps Headquarters’ Shriver Hall on Wednesday May 22, 2013. The event announcement was posted on Facebook and co-sponsored by Spectrum and the Office of Civil Rights Diversity. This was an inaugural event for Spectrum, an employee resource group (ERG) for Peace Corps LGBTQ staff, volunteers and allies. Its mission is to raise awareness around LGBTQ issues and concerns related to Peace Corps Volunteer and staff experience. Information about this resource group can be found by emailing spectrum@peacecorps.gov .

The four panelists, all with extensive LGBTQ experience, specifically addressed the visibility issues faced in foreign countries by the LGBTQ community. The panelist included:
* Ty Cobb, a Senior Legislative Counsel at the Human Rights Campaign;
* Ajit Joshi, Acting Senior LGBT Coordinator at USAID;
* Bijal Shah, Associate Counsel, Immigration Review at the Department of Justice; and
* Dominique Narcisco, RPCV, Costa Rica, 2008-2010

Each panelist presented their perspective on the special challenges LGBTQ Peace Corps volunteers face in their new environment and what is probably going to be a life in isolation. The emphasis however should be on the opportunities presented by Peace Corps service; to provide support for other LGBT in the field; mentoring youth without having to out them; and providing education to a broader audience through displaying safe place stickers and offering diversity trainings to local staff on how to become a more inclusive community. The common theme of fostering inclusion and cultivating allies was developed in each of the panelist excellent presentations. A full house at Shriver Hall responded with thoughtful questions and was appreciative of the panels unique insight.

Interesting and informative to me, not a Human Resources person, was the sponsoring organization Spectrum, an LGBTQ Employee Resource Group (ERG). Learning that ERG’s are an emerging part of human resources toolkit for enhanced employee engagement. Certainly the formation of an LGBTQ ERG is no easy task and a challenge for LGBTQ employees that requires courage but is a path to form social/mentoring networks and create workplace environment that is more inclusive. Kudos to the LGBTQ Peace Corps staff on their efforts in establishing Spectrum with best wishes for much success.

Post Script: Not more than a few days ago after working on a draft of this article Spectrum appears in my life again as a Facebook posting. My alma mater LSU, for the first time sponsored an LGBT–inclusive 2013 graduation, offering lavender stoles to wear with cap and gowns. Spectrum is LSU’s LGBTQ sponsoring organization. Spectrum maybe the new human resource buzz word reflecting a broad range of diversity within an organization but for me it signifies a full circle.

Edwin Patout can be contacted at edwinpatout@yahoo.com.

Placing Same Sex Couples as PCVs and Other Advocacy Issues

- Mike Learned, Group Leader, RPCV Malawi

May 21, 2013, a very important day at Peace Corps and for the LGBT Peace Corps community. It brought the announcement that Peace Corps would begin placing same sex couples together.  This was the latest of many policy changes we have advocated for over the years. Now is a good time to look back and review the advocacy we have championed and how it has influenced policy change at Peace Corps and positively affected our community.

Inclusion of Sexual Orientation in Peace Corps’ Non-Discriminatory Statement

Same-sex marriage laws around the world. Wikipedia.

Even though Peace Corps had been accepting lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers for many years, Peace Corps non-discriminatory statement which included the familiar race, nationality, age, gender, and disability language, did not include sexual orientation. In the early 1990s Peace Corps Director, Elaine Chow, visited San Francisco for an event that welcomed applicants, nominees, soon to depart PCVs, and the local RPCV community. A half dozen of us (active LGBT RPCV members) approached Director Chow (perhaps confronted would be a more descriptive verb) and presented her with a letter requesting that sexual orientation be included in Peace Corps non-discriminatory statement. She expressed surprise that it hadn’t been already. She took the letter, put it in her purse, and we never heard back.

The next Peace Corps Director we approached was Carol Bellamy. She was the first Peace Corps Director under President Clinton, and also the first RPCV to serve as Peace Corps Director. She had put together a much more progressive senior management team, and we had a couple of key allies among them and much lower level staff support. In 1994 Director Bellamy announced that sexual orientation would be included in the non-discriminatory statement. One down and a few more to go.

Accepting Healthy HIV Positive Applicants as Volunteers

By the late 1990s it became apparent to most in our community that people with HIV who were reacting positively to anti-retroviral therapies could live normal lives and be useful and skilled Peace Corps Volunteers. This was a much longer struggle. Over the years I talked with HIV+ applicants who had been turned down by Peace Corps Medical. One Peace Corps Medical Director I spoke with admitted that some HIV+ applicants could safely serve, but there were just too many questions. Then there was the issue that many countries where Peace Corps Volunteers served required volunteers to show proof they did not have HIV in order to receive work visas.

Although Peace Corps was not accepting HIV+ applicants, it had to deal with current Peace Corps Volunteers who became HIV+ while serving. There were several cases of this. They were brought back home their health evaluated and medically separated. In 2008, a very brave volunteer in the Ukraine, who became HIV+ during service was brought back to Washington, evaluated, and medically separated. He fought back and contacted the ACLU. They contacted Peace Corps and the press; suddenly every one was talking about the case. Shortly after, a volunteer in Zambia became infected. She was returned to DC, evaluated, and was about to be medically separated when Peace Corps (influenced by the Ukraine case, no doubt) said that since her health was good she could return to Zambia, or be placed for the last year of her tour in Lesotho. Her name is Elizabeth Tunkle, and she wrote a wonderful article for our website about her time in Lesotho actively speaking to high school students about her own HIV status and ways to prevent HIV. So another issue down and a few more to go.

Including LGBT PCV Examples in Recruiting Materials

This occurred during the George W. Bush administration under Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez. I had met Director Vasquez on a couple of occasions, and he assured me that he would never act in any discriminatory way toward LGBT volunteers or staff. He was a religious and political conservative, but I took him at his word. Every so often Peace Corps produces recruiting materials that features the racial, ethnic, gender, age, and disability diversity of Peace Corps volunteers in programs around the world. But they never featured an openly LGBT recent volunteer. Finally, one rather gentle story was added to some recruitment materials written by a gay RPCV who had served in the Philippines. Right before going to press the senior manager in charge ordered a “stop the presses” and “remove that story.” An ally at Peace Corps headquarters called me immediately. I went directly to Vasquez. He overturned his manager’s decision, and the recruiting brochure went to press as designed. One more down, but still some more to go.

Placing Transgender Volunteers

I had never heard of a Peace Corps policy that rejected or accepted transgender volunteers. I’d heard a few stories over the years about a couple of trans volunteers who served very quietly, but never heard more than that. Several years ago an older transwoman contacted us. She had transitioned many years earlier had applied to the Peace Corps and had been nominated as a volunteer. She had had a very successful career. She seemed a perfect fit for the program she had been nominated for. But Medical had questions about her gender transition and turned her down. I wrote a letter to the Medical Director at the time suggesting a review of the case, but got a reply that basically said he couldn’t discuss the health or medical issues of any applicant.

Around 2005 I heard from a transman who applied to the Peace Corps with note worthy skills and experience. He was being questioned by Medical in what he felt was and unfair and discriminatory way. I spoke with a personal contact I had within Peace Corps Medical who explained (as I knew) that the contact was constrained by ethics and policies around medical and health information. I suggested that the situation could be looked at again and more thought given to a decision of whether to accept or reject the applicant. The applicant won over medical staff and was accepted and had a very successful experience as a volunteer, and has since gone on to even more important work in the developing world. One more down and just one more big one to go.

Placing Same Sex Couples Together as Volunteers

We have been actively advocating the placement of same sex couples together as volunteers since the very beginning of the Obama administration. After the legalization of same sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004, Peace Corps modified its policy for placing married couples together to reflect the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act’s (passed in 1996). Prior to this Peace Corps identified couples as married according to the state laws in which they presided. This included the recognition of common law marriage if it was recognized in an applicant couple’s state of residence. The revised Peace Corps policy stated that because of DOMA only a married couple who were a man and a woman would be eligible as applicants.

Several recent factors led to our decision to aggressively push this discriminatory policy toward resolution. These included the election of the current administration and the appointment of a more progressive Peace Corps Director and senior staff, and a policy change that allows the same sex partner/spouse of Peace Corps staff serving overseas to have the same rights and privileges of the opposite sex staff couples where all parties are American citizens. It also helped that more states had legalized same sex marriage and domestic partnerships, and polls indicated that there was an increase in the number of Americans, particularly younger Americans, who supported same sex marriage and domestic partnerships.

We started with a letter to Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams. We got a quick response informing us that a member of Peace Corps headquarters staff would contact us. This began a dialogue about how to prepare and implement a policy that would allow the placement of same sex couples, but this process took longer than I thought. I spoke personally to both Director Williams and his successor Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radalet. And there has been much communication between us and Peace Corps staff over the last couple of years about this. And finally the May 21 announcement.

We Did Not Do This Alone

Through all the years of our advocacy on these issues, we did not work alone. Peace Corps staff has included many supportive members of the LGBT community and loads of straight allies. Three years ago or so we offered suggestions for ongoing Medical Officer training to include a discussion of the physical and mental health needs of LGBT PCVs. We have also worked closely with Peace Corps and LGBT PCVs and their straight colleagues to offer several versions of Safe Zone training on our website. We have contributed suggestions for diversity training in initial training programs to include local LGBT topics for PCVs new to their countries of service. Many Peace Corps recruiters and country desk officers refer LGBT applicants, nominees and invitees to our web site.

As recent polls have indicated, there has been a huge increase in support for equal rights for LGBT people among the general population. All of these trends and the support of our allies have worked in our favor, energizing the many steps forward in our search for equality as members of the Peace Corps family and as citizens.

You can contact Mike Learned at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

LGBT Peace Corps Alumni Applaud Peace Corps on Placement of Same-Sex Couples

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Hale Sargent, of the LGBT RPCV Steering Committee: lgbtrpcv@gmail.com

LGBT Peace Corps Alumni Applaud Peace Corps on Placement of Same-Sex Couples

SAN FRANCISCO /May 21, 2013/ — LGBT Returned Peace Corps Volunteers applaud the Peace Corps for its announcement today that the agency will now accept applications from same-sex domestic partners who wish to serve together as volunteers overseas.

“Peace Corps service is an amazing experience, and the organization has long been friendly to LGBT volunteers” says Mike Learned, national coordinator of the LGBT RPCVs. “Accepting gay couples to serve is a major milestone for a great organization and for equality.”

LGBT RPCVs is an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Peace Corps alumni (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) that promotes Peace Corps ideals and the legal, political, and social rights of LGBT people around the world.

Founded in 1991, the organization has members around the world. It produces an online newsletter and operates a mentorship program for LGBT Americans considering service with the Peace Corps.

Read the Peace Corps announcement here: http://www.peacecorps.gov/resources/media/press/2238/

For more information on LGBT RPCVs, visit http://www.lgbrpcv.org

LGBT RPCVs in Cooperation with ORAM

- Mike Learned, Group Leader and Kevin Lo, ORAM’s Advocacy Director

Recently I met with Kevin Lo, Director of Advocacy and Legal Services for ORAM – Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration. ORAM is the leading advocate for refugees fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. ORAM works closely with governments, inter-governmental agencies, and NGOs, building their capacity to protect LGBTI people. ORAM conducts groundbreaking research, offers a robust training program for refugee experts worldwide, produces top-notch publications, and offers direct legal representation, ensuring that the concerns of LGBTI refugees are heard in key domestic and international arenas. Most recently ORAM released an extensive report on the challenges confronted by urban LGBTI refugees in Mexico, Uganda, and South Africa, along with a comprehensive set of recommendations for refugee officials. For more information, please go to http://oraminternational.org/en/publications.

A transgender refugee talks about her difficult life in South Africa.

Kevin reached out to me and our organization because our current and recent PCVs would be wonderful resources about current country conditions, laws, and restrictions facing LGBTI communities around the world. Our knowledge and insight would be invaluable in assisting LGBTI people seeking refugee status and asylum.

This is something I’ve done on an individual basis a number of times over the years, contacting current or recent volunteers and forwarding information to lawyers and other advocates working on such asylum cases. We decided that the quickest and easiest way to reach current and recent LGBTI PCVs would be through (1) our listserv with new posts by Kevin seeking information, (2) the extensive archives of international news and information that Alan Silverman has posted on the listserv, and (3) our website articles themselves.

Kevin has posted messages on our listserv and has already had some success. For example, in response to ORAM’s request for country condition information regarding LGBTI people in Burkina Faso, RPCV Mark Canavera was able to draw on his West Africa experience to recommend some key NGO contacts.

In summary, ORAM and the LGBT RPCV are excited to launch this joint initiative supporting safety for LGBTI people everywhere. Participating PCV members will provide their knowledge of LGBTI conditions in various countries for reports and analyses informing refugee status decisions and policy. ORAM also conducts trainings and outreach around the world, providing PCV members with opportunities to learn more about regional LGBTI refugee issues and to co-sponsor events.

Mike Learned can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

Kevin Lo can be contacted at kevin@oraminternational.org.You can learn more about him ORAM’s work at www.oraminternational.org and by liking ORAM on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ORAMrefugee.

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