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.

LGBT Ally Training in Paraguay

- Manuel Colon, former PCV

PC Paraguay (Jopara)

On Friday, November 2, 2012, Peace Corps – Paraguay hosted its first ever LGBT ally training with 16 participants, volunteers and staff, in attendance. The training comes as a response to the 2011 all volunteer survey (AVS) that stated roughly 25% of the incidents of harassment received by volunteers as a result of their sexual orientation came from either volunteer peers or staff. Peace Corps Headquarters is currently in the process of creating a training packet to address this issue specifically, but has yet to release anything more than the outline. Jopara, Paraguay’s volunteer diversity group, decided to step in and move forward with organizing and facilitating the training instead. Topics covered in the training included facts and history of LGBT events and legislation, correct terminology usage, a guided experience of the coming out process, and an overview of the in-country LGBT resources. Upon termination of the training, all participants were awarded “safe space” stickers to be placed anywhere of their choosing (desks, doors, notebooks, etc) to communicate their dedication as an ally to the LGBT community.

LGBT Resources in Paraguay

LGBT Resources in Paraguay

Organizations

Somosgay

  • República De Colombia 141 C/ Yegros.
  • (21) 495802, (+595) 981 616 203
  • Mon-Th 14:00 to 22:00 Fri. and Sat. 14:00 to 00:00
  • comunicacion@somosgay.org
  • http://somosgay.org/
  • Marcha de Orgullo, Besaton
  • Their center functions as a temporary relief shelter for LGBT youth who are homeless, they offer HIV screenings, and a general space to be rented for events

Paragay

Aireana- lesbian organization

  • Eligio Ayala 907 entre EEUU y Tacuary
  • 21 447976
  • aireanaparaguay@gmail.com
  • http://www.aireana.org.py/
  • La Serafina Bar, Friday night events, Feminist Conferences, Radio Show, Marcha para la Igualdad, LesBiGayTrans Festival de Cine

Panambi- Trans community

Grupo Ñepyru- Trans community and people living with HIV

  • O’leary 177 c/Cap. Carmelo Peralta y Padrea Molas, Cnl. Oveido
  • 0521200059
  • http://www.nepyru.neositios.com
  •  Services and focus: HIV screenings and education, human rights

Todo Mejora- Paraguay- entire LGBT community

  • Facebook page and YouTube account
  • A project that offers resources and support to LGBT youth
  • Offers a collection of videos on YouTube from LGBT Paraguayans sending messages of hope and support to LGBT youth for the future

LGBT Friendly Spaces

Babylon Dance

  • Dance club and bar
  • 760 25 de Mayo c/ Tacuari

Hollywood Dance

  • Dance Club
  • Independencia Nacional c/ Teniente Farina
  • 0982.488.652

Frogus Karaoke Gay

  • Estrella 852 entre Montevideo & Juan de Ayolas

La Serafina

  • Feminist Safe Space with Books, Internet, Space to Hang Out
  • Monday-Friday 9am-12pm and 1pm-5pm/Converted into a restaurant + bar and event space on Friday nights 8pm-1am
  • Eligio Ayala 907 c/Tacuary
  • 0921.447.976

Peace Corps – Paraguay Resources

Peace Corps Medical Officers/Counselors/ Security Officer

Jopara, Volunteer Diversity Group

Peer Support Network

You can contact Manuel at macolon2@gmail.com

Without Borders: The Story of a Bi-national Same-sex Couple

- Brad Mattan, RPCV, Ecuador

Introduction

Brad and Raúl cut their cake.

As each group of Peace Corps trainees boards the plane after staging, no one trainee truly knows what the next two years will bring. Indeed, the possibilities are truly endless. While most expect to gain experience in international development work or even learn more about themselves and the world, one thing that most typically do not expect is to fall in love and eventually marry a special someone from his or her country of service.

I write this as I await takeoff from Quito’s International Airport. I am returning from my second trip back to Ecuador since my Close of Service in 2010. Though my visit was only a week, it was a very meaningful one for me and my partner, Raúl, as we celebrated our civil union (legal in Ecuador since 2008). Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, I did not expect to fall in love with and marry an Ecuadorian. In fact, I was generally opposed to the possibility, a sentiment shared by many of my fellow RPCVs, several of whom ended up marrying Ecuadorians! Life has a way of producing unexpected turns.

Like other bi-national couples I have had the pleasure of meeting, Raúl and I experience our share of challenges and rewards. In addition to those are the challenges and rewards that come with being a same-sex bi-national couple at the beginning of the 2010’s.  Among the most difficult obstacles we face is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from granting the 1,138 benefits, rights and privileges bestowed by marriage to married same-sex couples. Among the rights DOMA denies to same-sex couples is the ability for a US citizen to sponsor his or her partner for a green card. Unlike many RPCVs who marry non-US citizens and begin a life together in the US, same-sex couples like Raúl and me are barred from doing so. In spite of such difficulties, Raúl and I have shared some memorable moments unique to our relationship. Such experiences have allowed us to grow ever closer and maintain hope for our future even in the face of formidable obstacles and great distances.

Our Story

Raúl and I met about halfway through my Peace Corps service through a mutual acquaintance. We shared an instant connection from the first time we met. After a couple of months of hesitation on my part, Raúl finally convinced me to accept what we both felt for each other and we began our relationship. From that time until the end of my Peace Corps service we were inseparable. He met my host family in Baños, the highland parish where I lived, and I met his family on the coast.

Of course, we kept our relationship a secret from the beginning. For both Raúl’s family and Baños as a whole, we were merely “friends” albeit friends who were suspiciously often in each other’s company. We’re both sure that many are aware there is something more. Even in places where same-sex dating is exclusively underground, a few begin to catch on after a certain point and gossip then takes care of the rest. As an aside, my impression is that Peace Corps generally encourages volunteers not to get anywhere near that point because it could undermine the trust necessary to work safely and effectively in their communities. Fortunately, any potential rumors did not appear to damage the relationships with my counterparts at the schools and church where I provided technical assistance. In the end, Raúl and I never let doubts about gossip keep us from spending time with the people we love whether it was spending carnaval on the coast with Raúl’s family or having a crab soup picnic up in the mountains with my host family in Baños.

Unfortunately, Raúl did not get the chance to meet my parents when they came to visit me during my service in Baños. I first met him in person the day after I dropped my parents off at the airport in Guayaquil. Once we started dating he would often ask me about my family and what they were like. He was always reminding me to call home.

As my service drew to a close in mid-2010, we had decided somewhat naively that I would leave the Peace Corps and join Raúl in Equatorial Guinea where he was offered work. In the meantime, we had also applied for a visa for Raúl to meet my family over the holidays. As I have written for Stop the Deportations, the visa application was rejected because of Raúl’s inability to prove sufficient ties to Ecuador that would compel him to return. Heartbreaking though it was, this kind of rejection is common in developing countries such as Ecuador where visa applicants bear the burden of proving they do not intend to remain in the US. I would later learn that Raúl’s being truthful about his relationship with me in his interview constituted further evidence of such “immigration intent”.

When Raúl’s job offer in Equatorial Guinea failed to materialize, I returned to Ecuador a few months later to work with Community Enterprise Solutions (CES). Prior to my return we bought a small café/bar in order to improve Raúl’s chances on a future visa application. The eight months that I lived with Raúl in Cuenca (the major city closest to Baños) were some of the most stressful either of us have lived. Both of us, for different reasons needed to work our full-time jobs in addition to running the café/bar in the evenings. Fourteen hour days were common. My own job involved regular trips to the field, occasionally leaving Raúl to work and run the café/bar by himself on the weekends.

In spite of the stress, we learned to work out any problems respectfully and enjoy the small things in life and the rare moments we had together, even if that meant just falling asleep together in exhaustion. On top of our work responsibilities, we also began the process of applying for a tourist visa for Raúl to come and visit for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration in August, 2011 to which he was cordially invited by my grandparents (Go here for more on my grandparents and coming out to my extended family after the Peace Corps).

Thanks to the pro-bono advice of Lavi Soloway of Stop the Deportations: The DOMA Project, Raúl and I were able to put together a much stronger tourist visa application (Read the story here).  Among the help we received was a Class B Referral from the Country Director of Peace Corps/Ecuador as well as a letter from US Rep. Bruce Braley. Though those letters guaranteed no particular outcome, they were helpful in getting the US Consulate to carefully consider Raúl’s well-prepared application. Against the odds, the US Consulate in Guayaquil approved Raúl’s visa. Upon hearing the news, I cried in relief, disbelief and sheer joy. Our hard work paid off.

The month and a half that we spent together in the US was unforgettable. Raúl was able to meet most of my dad’s side of the family all of whom received him with open arms. He also attended his first baseball and football game. Raúl was able to experience life in rural Illinois as well as in Chicago and New York City. Perhaps the highlight of the visit was when we got engaged atop my apartment building in Chicago on a beautiful autumn day, overlooking Lake Michigan, the University of Chicago campus and downtown in the distance.

To this day, Raúl continues to talk about his experiences with any Ecuadorians who will listen. In a very real way, the visit fulfilled Peace Corps’ second goal. However, Raúl’s visit also contributed to the third goal by leaving an impact on the Americans he encountered. Whether it was the conversations he had with my parents or the woven crafts workshop he gave at the local art league, he often shared stories and traditions from his native Ecuador. As a frequent translator, I often contributed my own perspective to the conversations.

Yet, perhaps more than anyone else, my understanding of the US, my family and my self was enriched by Raúl’s visit. In Raúl’s fascination with the common phrase “thank you so much” I became aware of the Midwesterner’s tendency to value politeness and civility, something one tends to take for granted when growing up there. I also began to understand the usual Ecuadorian lament about Americans’ carb-heavy and preservative-laden diets, something I had also taken for granted, even after 2 years of nutritious Ecuadorian fare! Naturally, these and other insights helped the two of us to learn about each other and provide a basis for mutual understanding even as we now live in different countries.

Though Raúl returned to Ecuador months ago, we continue to maintain contact as before with daily phone calls and Google video chat. Yet even with daily contact, it has been hard for us to live apart, and particularly for Raúl who now lives in what he describes as multiple worlds. In one, we are able to be open about our love for one another. In another, he must keep us and himself a secret for fear of losing his job and housing. Feeling foreign in his own country, Raúl cannot claim the US as home even though we both know it is the only place where our family, our love and our dreams for the future can be one.

Last week, Raúl and I celebrated our civil union on our two-year anniversary in Ecuador.  With a small group of our Ecuadorian friends, including my host mother and aunt from my Peace Corps site, we held a short ceremony and fiesta to commemorate our special day. The simple ceremony and reception (we spend most of our ever-diminishing resources on plane tickets) was a sign of what we hope to come. We both dream of someday “officially” marrying in the United States in the company of friends and family.

Though that day may still be far off, we are optimistic in light of a constellation of recent court rulings, legislative activity, and activism that may lead to a quicker solution than we originally thought. Currently, I’m collaborating with GetEQUAL, Stop the Deportations and Out4Immigration and their “Home for the Holidays” Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to petition Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to grant humanitarian parole to same-sex bi-national couples so that we can start our lives together in the US. This initiative was launched during the holidays to call attention to couples like Raúl and me who wish to spend the holidays with our families in the US.

This Christmas, many couples, including Raúl and me, know that we will not be together. However, because of efforts like “Home for the Holidays”, and the countless individuals and organizations working to bring about greater equality at all levels of government and in the private sector, next year may well be different. The two of us will certainly be counting our blessings on the 25th.  Many same-sex bi-national couples have not had the opportunity to travel to the US, as we had this August.  Yet, in spite of the obstacles, it has been worth every moment for Raúl and me.  We both look forward to continuing to learn and grow together in the years to come.

You can learn more about the “Home for the Holidays” Campaign online and sign the petition here.

You can contact Brad Mattan at bmattan@uchicago.edu.

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