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

African LGBT and Human Rights Advocates Reject Economic Sanctions by Developed Countries

– Mark Canavera, RPCV,
Editor’s Note:

Mark Canavera, RPCV Burkina Faso, has been a frequent contributor to our enewsletters and web site. This article recently appeared in the Huffington Post with a slightly different title. Not in our name: African human rights activists reject UK aid conditionality  

An oft-told African proverb (whose precise culture of origin often changes with the teller) asserts that “When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” Put another way, the powerless are trampled in the clashes of mammoth decision-makers. An elephant match is currently underway between the government of the United Kingdom, which have threatened that it will consider reducing foreign aid to countries that criminalize homosexuality, and the governments of many African nations, who have stridently rebutted the threat. In the process, the “grass”–that is, Africans who support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people–is suffering. But African social activists are refusing to take the trampling lying down. These are standing up and speaking out.

In October of this year, a coalition of pro-LGBTI African social activists came together, representing 51 organizations and 86 individuals from at least 19 countries in Africa, all four regions of the continent, and the African diaspora. This spontaneous coalition released a strongly worded statement that essentially rejects the UK’s proposed aid conditionality. This “not in our name” statement–by which these activists used virtual tools like listservs, emails, teleconferences, and discussion forums to reach rapid-fire consensus–argues that the UK’s decision would create backlash against LGBTI people across the continent by positioning them as scapegoats for decreases in aid revenue. The UK’s position also undermines the burgeoning LGBTI movement in Africa, the coalition claims.

“We developed this statement for three reasons,” explains Joel Gustave Nana, the Executive Director of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights and the author of the first draft of the statement. “First, we were tired of being collateral damage in international politics. Second, statements by Britain and other Northern countries affect the work that we do on a daily basis to ensure that LGBTI people are protected on the continent. And third, and perhaps most importantly, we needed to say, ‘not in our name.’ If you decide to cut aid to these countries, do not do this in our names.”

Nana explains that the UK government did not consult any African activists before taking its decision and making it public. When I asked the Office of the Prime Minister of the UK about the activists’ concerns, it replied with a statement that reiterates its reasoning: the UK hopes to ensure that its foreign aid contributes to the international strengthening of human rights. The reply does not address the concerns raised by the coalition of African activists, most notably the potential scapegoating of LGBTI people in the wake of the UK’s announcement.

For their part, the African governments that continue to criminalize homosexual acts have responded vociferously to the UK. As collated on the blog Towleroad, the governments of Uganda, Ghana and Malawi responded angrily, with a Malawian government spokesperson calling the threat “unacceptable and provocative” and a Ugandan presidential adviser describing the UK’s position as “an ex-colonial mentality.” (“We are tired of being given these lectures by people,” the adviser is reported to have told BBC Newshour.) A Ugandan newspaper reported additional reactions from Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Kenya, in which officials argued that they would rather lose foreign aid than kowtow to the Brits.

Nana believes that these government reactions were predictable and reflect the very concerns that the coalition of activists laid out in their statement. “African leaders who feel that they are being bullied to embrace values that they don’t believe in feel like this aid conditionality is an attempt to violate their sovereignty,” he says. He predicts that the UK aid conditionality will be more harmful in countries with more heavy-handed rulers, asserting, “The more authoritarian a government, the more strongly it will come out in opposing this conditionality. And the more severe the impact will be for LGBTI people.”

Issues of aid conditionality are always tricky, especially where human rights are concerned. Nana concedes that there are legitimate concerns for donor governments who want to ensure that their citizens’ tax dollars are not blindly handed over to oppressive regimes. Moreover, just last year, some Ugandan activists praised the role that some European countries’ threats of aid reductions played in combating Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, deemed odious by Barack Obama himself. Nana points out, however, that no human rights or LGBTI activists from Africa have publicly opposed the coalition’s recent statement.

Whether or not the UK’s decision will help or harm the cause of LGBTI people in Africa remains to be seen. The early verbal reactions by some African governments do not bode well. What is evident for now, however, is that the UK government has so far neglected to engage with or to listen to the very people whom its policies purport to assist. The African activists’ statement is a tremendous opportunity to hear the voice of the grass, whispering its crystalline message on the wind, even as it is being stomped by those elephants on high.

You can contact Mark Canavera at mark.canavera@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/canavera

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