Coming Out and Safe Zone Training in The Gambia

-Marnie Florin, RPCV, 2008-2010

Author’s Comment:
Alongside this article should be everything you need to conduct the Safe Zone Training in your own country: a detailed lesson plan, the hand-out, a message from the country director, a vocabulary list, power point slides and much more. Even though some of the content is specific to The Gambia, it could easily be adapted for other countries.
Training Materials

Prior to arriving in The Gambia in November 2008, I had no idea that homosexuality was not only illegal there, but also punishable by death—the president made a public statement that he would behead any known homosexuals in the country. It was not a big issue for me as I was not “that gay” at the time. In fact, I did not even mention being gay in any of my Peace Corps interviews. As a result, I had no idea that lying about my sexuality for two years would be one of the hardest parts of my service. I also never could have imagined that, after spending two years in a conservative, Muslim country, I would go back to America gayer than ever.

Unlike a lot of my peers in Orange County, CA, I have very liberal, Jewish parents and have had the same gay hairdresser since age four, so I always knew gay people existed and vehemently believed that they deserved the same rights as everyone else. But, I never had one gay female or male friend, even after I left Orange County and attended college at Emory University in Atlanta. During my Peace Corps service, I befriended so many different kinds of people: environmentally aware hippies (I had never heard of Leave No Trace, nor had I ever met anyone that wore Chaco’s), androgynous boys and girls and, most importantly, lots of gays.

I have heard many of people say it and have said it a lot myself: You will never find a more open and accepting community than the PC Volunteer community. As conservative, scary and judgmental as the Gambian political climate is, that is how non-judgmental the Gambian PCVs are. I did not have a plan as to when or how I was going to come out to my fellow trainees, but everyone was so welcoming that despite my being unable to say, “I am gay,” a month earlier in America, I ended up doing just that during my first week in country.

After that initial “out,” I became more and more comfortable with my sexuality. I later learned that exposure to and acceptance into the gay community is an extremely important step for completing the Acceptance Phase of the coming-out process. While it felt great to be able to say, “I am gay,” the more comfortable I became with my sexuality, the more difficult it became to live a lie in my village. I was starting to develop really close friendships with several host-country nationals (HCNs) in my village and among the PC staff, and wanted more than anything to be honest with them about who I was (in fact, I think I would have extended a third year if I did not have to lie about being gay).

Unfortunately, I was always warned not to come out to HCNs in my village, as it could lead to my being removed from village, and possibly the country, if anything went wrong. But, after hearing from several PCVs that a younger, female Gambian PC staff member, whom I was close with, was an ally, I came out to her. She was incredibly helpful and definitely served as a great asset to us PCVs in trying to reach the other staff members. A little later, two volunteers carried out a Diversity Training with the language/cultural trainers (LCFs). The training did not focus too much on homosexuality, but during the session, one volunteer bravely came out to the LCFs. Not long after that, I came out to two more female, Gambian staff members.

Learning to embrace my sexuality, I began to develop a strong urge to work on gay issues in any capacity possible. During my second year, I became the head of PC Gambia’s LGBT Committee and joined the LGBT RPCV listserv. While on their website, I discovered material used in a Safe Zone Training in Guatemala. I pitched the idea of doing the training with PC Gambia staff, explaining that this is an American institution and as such, all staff members must adhere to American laws while working in their capacity as PC employees, including anti-discriminatory laws. Several members of our direct-hire staff (non-locals – Americans and other expatriates) were against it. They did not think that the Gambian staff was capable of accepting homosexuality in volunteers and they didn’t think we PCVs were capable of pulling the training off. The Gambian staff, go figure, was 100% supportive of the training and wanted all staff members (drivers, cleaners, etc. to be present). I could not have been more impressed. A compromise was finally reached and it was decided that the training staff and senior staff members would attend the training. Although I wanted more staff to go, I was extremely happy with the end result.

I and the other ten members of the LGBT Committee were given five hours to carry out the training. Using the initial training material and PowerPoint provided on this website as a foundation (THANK YOU PC Guatemala for the idea and all the materials!), I spent countless hours over several months creating an interactive curriculum appropriate to this country that included role-plays, skits, games, etc. Each committee member was then assigned one or more sections and spent a lot of time making sure his/her sections were the best they could be.

As a result of all our efforts, the training was a huge success. Given The Gambia’s views on homosexuality, much of the training’s content was sensitive and potentially divisive. Fortunately, all the staff members were extremely participatory: we facilitators were blown away by their insightful comments and open-mindedness. The staff’s concern for and desire to support volunteers was very evident, especially among the Gambian staff, whose own culture and religion largely shun homosexuality. I would like to share some highlights from the evaluations, which were completely anonymous:

  • Seventeen of the twenty staff participants indicated that their opinions on LGBQ# issues had “absolutely changed” from the start of the presentation. The other three participants had already identified themselves as allies before the training.

We asked participants before the training, and after it was finished, “What do you think of when you hear the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’?” Here are the pre- and post-training responses from two participants:

  • Pre: “Scared, embarrassed and confused.”

Post: “Fine happy knowledgeable.”

  • Pre: “Some one’s way of expressing their sexuality.”

Post: “Each human being has the right to express your sexuality in any way youchoose.”

The following are some of the answers to the question, “In what ways, if any, has your opinion changed?”:

  • “The people are made with different opinions which are to be respected.”
  • “More prepared and ready accept the homosexuality from now on.”
  • “I have a clear view of what homosexuality is, and how to prepare to support them.”
  • “LGBQ have right to exist.”
  • “That they exist and that they need to be supported”

Here are some responses to the last question, “Any other comments, concerns, or unanswered questions?”:

  • “Wonderful presentation and it has really broadened my concept about the gay community.”
  • “Every staff should respect the LGBQ and be friendly to them so as to have a comfortable stay in the country.”
  • “Every member of PC staff needs to go through this training, it is very helpful.”

These comments are part of a larger report on the training.

I would also like to add that I did eventually come out to one of my best friends in my village, an HCN. This did not happen until a few months before I completed my service. She and I were very close (she named her baby after me) and I could not stand lying to her anymore. It was killing me. I trusted my instinct that she would be ok with my being gay and she was 100%. I cannot tell you how amazing it felt to be honest with her. Then, about a month after being back in America, I told another one of my very close Gambian friends over Facebook chat. One of my few literate friends, he runs the internet café in the town near me. He wrote me back an email that said in huge letters, “Homosexuality is OK to me.” It made me cry. I am not saying you should tell every HCN about your sexuality, just be smart about it. Test the waters and trust your instinct, just as you probably did when you were first coming out to people in America.

I urge everyone to try and conduct this training and if you have any questions at all, please email me:marnie.florin@gmail.com.

LGBT RPCV’s Grant for Romanian Brochure

In 2008 LGBT RPCVs provided a grant to produce a Romanian language brochure, “Our Sons and Daughters,” based on PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) materials. Peace Corps Volunteer Laura Rogers helped coordinate the project with the Romanian human/gay rights organization Accept. She was a member of the Gender and Development Committee, a group made up of Romanian PCVs and Romanian host country nationals dedicated to promoting gender equality (including LGBT rights) in the social and economic processes of Romania.

After Laura completed her service, PCV Micah Carbonneau followed through with the distribution and use of the brochure. Several months ago he approached us with a proposal to produce another brochure. This one would be based on the “Coming Out Guide” produced by HRC (The Human Rights Campaign). We recently provided a grant of $900 to print 1000 copies. Micah in coordination with Accept translated and adapted the HRC materials to be distributed at Accept events and activities. A brief survey on how to improve the materials for future publication will accompany the guide.

Peace Corps and Pride – 2010

Many of the Regional Peace Corps Offices are scheduling Information and Recruiting tables at Gay Pride Events around the country early this summer. The Boston Office will have tables at both Boston and Providence Pride festivals. The Seattle Office will have a table at the Portland, OR event. The Los Angeles Office will be at LA Pride. The Mid-Atlantic Office will have a place at Washington DC Pride. The Chicago Office is involved in a forum during Chicago Pride, and the San Francisco Office has scheduled a number of events during June targeting the LGBT community. There will also be an LGBT Pride forum at Peace Corps HQ in Washington for HQ employees. There may be more, but this is what we have heard of so far.

Again this year, LGBT RPCVs have provided all the Regional Offices and HQ staff with a packet of information and four articles from our website that answer many of the questions that LGBT applicants and nominees often ask.

Once again a Peace Corps Director has designated June as LGBT Pride Month at Peace Corps. This is Director William’s message to the entire Peace Corps family.

Letter to PC Global from PC Director Regarding LGBT Pride 2010
June 1, 2010

TO: Peace Corps Global

FROM: Aaron S. Williams, Director

SUBJECT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month

I am pleased to designate June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month at the Peace Corps. This month recognizes and honors the many contributions that gay and lesbian Americans have made in our workplace, communities, and country. The theme for this month’s observance is “One heart, One world, One pride.”

In 2000, President Clinton designated June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in Manhattan, the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.

Over the past year the Peace Corps has continued to make strides towards building a more inclusive environment for our dedicated gay and lesbian Volunteers and staff. This year we officially recognized same-sex domestic partners as eligible family members for overseas staff, elevating their status from member of household. This change allows same-sex domestic partners to be included on travel orders and entitled to many of the same benefits married spouses receive.

During the month of June, please take the time to contemplate how we are all part of the same human family and how this year’s theme reflects Peace Corps’ own goals to promote cross-cultural understanding and bring people together.

In honor of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, and on behalf of the Peace Corps, I extend my gratitude to LGBT Volunteers and staff for their efforts to foster world peace and friendship and fulfill the three goals of the Peace Corps.

Picking Up the Pieces in Malawi

-Mark Canavera, RPCV Burkina Faso

Editor’s Note: Peace Corps has had a long time presence in Malawi. Many current and past volunteers work(ed) in rural locations as educators and counselors teaching HIV/AIDS prevention strategies to their Malawian communities. Peace Corps Response is currently recruiting RPCVs to serve one year assignments as HIV/AIDS Technical Advisors working on prevention and education approaches at the local district level for the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. The information in this article will highlight one of the challenges facing current and future volunteers in Malawi involved in such programs.

Before the outsized international human rights outcry. Before the world had even heard of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga. Before their chinkhoswe ceremony – akin to an engagement ceremony although more complex – landed these two in prison, then convicted for “indecent practices between males,” and finally sentenced to 14 years of hard labor. Before the President of Malawi reluctantly pardoned the convicted parties. Before the couple split, leading to massive speculation about Monjeza’s motivations and no small amount of head-scratching.  Before all of this, activists were acting up in Malawi.

“Our organization was born out of the need to fill major gaps in HIV service delivery,” explains Gift Trapence, the director of the Lilongwe-based Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), a human rights organization working on behalf of at-risk minority groups, including people in same-sex relationships, sex workers, and prisoners. When Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested in December, this relatively young organization, founded only in late 2005, was propelled to the forefront of a movement whose butterfly wing flaps would create maelstroms around the world. “Steven and Tiwonge’s case has brought a lot of attention,” modestly admits Trapence, whose organization has been balancing the pressures of high-level international advocacy with their need to ensure ongoing services to its target populations of marginalized individuals.  CEDEP’s tightrope walk has only become more nerve-wracking now that Monjeza has, according to Malawian press reports, left Chimabalanga, taken up residence with a woman, and suggested that he was “coerced” into gay acts, a claim that contradicts earlier statements.

In addition to overseeing Monjeza and Chimbalanga’s legal defense strategy, CEDEP was one of the few organizations willing to visit the two in prison to ensure their wellbeing. Dunker Kamba, CEDEP’s administrator, traveled over 400 miles round-trip each week – and sometimes twice a week – for prison visits despite never having met the two prior to their arrest. “The first week after their arrest, it was difficult to visit them because the situation was hot,” explains Kamba.  “People were thinking, ‘Who is the kind of person who would like to meet with these people?’ and the prison guards just told me that they weren’t there.” Eventually, however, Kamba was able to visit Monjeza and Chimbalanga, bringing them food, basic toiletries, and most importantly, he believes, hope and encouragement.

Before this headline case upended their activities, CEDEP was busy steadily building a portfolio of cutting-edge work for sexual minorities. The organization laid the groundwork for its HIV-prevention activities with a groundbreaking 2006 study on the knowledge, attitudes, and practices of Malawi’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations despite the overwhelmingly hidden nature of these groups and the complication that the concept of LGBT has little cultural currency in the country. In 2008, CEDEP contributed to another landmark piece of research on men who have sex with men, or MSM (an acronym common in HIV circles that seeks to emphasize behavior rather than identity), in Malawi. They discovered that the HIV rate in the MSM population was a jaw-dropping 21.4 percent, nearly double the prevalence rate of the general adult population. Over 95 percent of these men were unaware of their status.

CEDEP has used the findings from these pieces of research to raise awareness with men who have sex with men, running a resource center that provides these men with accurate prevention information. This work is not without its dangers, however. Earlier this year, two CEDEP staff members were arrested and briefly detained for allegedly distributing pornography. The pornography in question? HIV-prevention pamphlets tailored to men having sex with men.

Despite the risks, however, CEDEP has enjoyed some noteworthy successes, not the least of which is the recent pardon and release of Mojeza and Chambalanga. Another small victory was the inclusion of MSM as a target group in Malawi’s recently developed national HIV prevention strategy, running through 2013. Also, Dr. Mary Shawa, the secretary for nutrition, HIV and AIDS in the president’s office, expressed her support for a human rights approach to HIV-prevention that reached out to men in same-sex relationships following her attendance at a CEDEP-supported conference on HIV prevention with at-risk groups. Dr. Shawa was the first high-level government official to take such a stance and sparked large-scale debate.

That debate is still raging, of course, and CEDEP’s battle remains steeply uphill. Despite the president’s pardon, the effects of Monjeza and Chamblanga’s case are likely to linger, driving the MSM community in Malawi even further underground. Indeed, in granting his pardon, President Bingu wa Mutharika made it clear that he was doing so only under international pressure, reiterating the illegality of Monjeza and Chambalanga’s actions and his unhappiness with granting the pardon. “I do not agree with this,” he said, adding, “these two… were wrong – totally wrong.” Likewise, public attitudes remain firmly opposed to same-sex relationships. After the sentencing, for examples, some crowd members outside the courthouse jeered for harsher sentences. Christian women representing a number of churches likewise recently joined hands to pray against “outbreaks of measles [and] homosexuality.”

Internal to the organization, challenges face CEDEP as well. One of these is the inclusion of women who have same-sex relationships in its activities, a group that it has not currently reached. Monica Mbaru, the Africa regional coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, one of CEDEP’s key partners, indicates that lesbian women in Malawi may face issues specific to women – like so-called “corrective rape” – that are not yet being addressed. “Although we cannot yet ascertain the scale of the problem,” says Mbaru, “we know from some lesbian women in Malawi that they are subjected to corrective rape or other violence within their families. Their families believe that they have simply not found a proper man to induct them into having sex, so they start making advances, and these women close up and end up dying in their own spaces.”

After months of the manic activity that accompanied Monjeza and Chambalanga’s court case, CEDEP is taking a deep breath and taking stock. “Since December [when the two were arrested], we have been running up and down,” says Trapence, “and of course we are proud of what we have achieved,” noting that the contributions of the international human rights community were crucial in obtaining the presidential pardon. CEDEP, however, is keeping its eyes firmly on its goal of human rights for LGBT communities in Malawi. The organization has developed a three-year strategy that focuses on training, capacity building, and advocacy. CEDEP hopes to help media outlets, especially radio and television, to better cover LGBT issues, and they want to engage religious groups and parliamentarians on the issue as well. Its leaders also hope to ensure that LGBT rights are included in the activities of other human rights organizations and campaigns, building a stronger coalition. To that end, CEDEP has already put together a working group comprised of ten like-minded actors.

Whatever twists and turns the case of Monjeza and Chimbalanga takes (and surely there are more to come), CEDEP’s staff members are keeping their eye on the prize of human rights for all.  Continuing this work will require fortitude, a quality that this small organization’s team members have demonstrated in spades. “I’m doing this work out of the human rights heart that I have,” explains Kamba. “Human rights are universal. I will always say that, even if they put me in jail.” © Mark Canavera

This article, originally published on the Huffington Post is the first in a series profiling organizations and individuals in sub-Saharan Africa promoting the rights of sexual minorities.  The slightly different version which appeared on the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-canavera/picking-up-the-pieces-in_b_596371.html includes links to many of the information sources for the article. The next article in the series will feature the coalition of actors working together in Uganda. This article does not imply the sexual orientation or gender identity of any person mentioned herein.

Mark Canavera can be contacted at mark.canavera@gmail.com.

Safe Zone: Making Peace Corps Havens for LGBT PCV/Ts Worldwide

-Grant Martin Picarillo, PCV, Guatemala, 2008-2010

Overview:

“Safe Zone” is a LGBT sensitivity, acceptance and awareness training exercise designed to promote understanding and promote ally development among our straight peers. Subsequently, the mission is simple. By facilitating a better understanding of LGBT issues among Peace Corps staff, LGBT trainees and volunteers will feel more supported, comfortable and accepted in their individual interactions with staff members and thus in their service as a whole. On a recent Monday early in the New Year, Peace Corps Guatemala completed an all staff Safe Zone training. Sparking dialogue, engaging questions and presentation of new and real facts about LGBT people, Safe Zone in Guatemala was a great success. Here’s how and why we did it.

Why Safe Zone in Peace Corps is Necessary:

An inclusive and accepting environment of mutual support and acceptance is vital to relationship building between PCV/Ts and PC administration and staff. This fact can be particularly true when it comes to LGBT issues such as “coming out,” personal sharing, feelings of safety and security, self-esteem, and mental health. Dealing with a LGBT identity can be hard in the United States, let alone in a different and often more “conservative” culture of Guatemala. All this is going on while dealing with the other adjustments that being a PCV entails. Speaking from personal experience, I found dealing with my sexual orientation identity in this new environment to be one of the hardest adjustments in my transition from American to Guatemalan living. One of the mediating factors to this challenge has been my interaction with Peace Corps staff. While I can’t say I have ever felt discriminated against or unsupported there have been moments of uncertainty and doubt. For example, questions such as “Is it OK if my APCD knows that I’m gay?” “Can I openly talk about my boyfriend with a Spanish teacher when we share stories in language class?” “What if I have to ask the nurse a question that “outs” me?” While some of these questions are applicable to my own case and others not, I can promise that all of these and more have been concerns to countless volunteers. The negative ramifications of these feelings and hesitations can be harmful to the volunteer and to her or his ability to thrive in their community. Compounding this situation is the sad reality that we non-straight identifying volunteers (for the most part) must live a lie in site for two years; acting as heterosexual for the sake of our safety and integration. To have few obvious outlets to be open and honest, neither on site nor in our interactions with staff could be extremely damaging to one’s Peace Corps experience.

Therefore, it is my strong belief that should the general knowledge of LGBT issue be raised and should any number of staff members sport the “acceptance symbol” (see attachment as a model to one we could design on our own) on their door or in their office as a symbol to say “I’m a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues,” the PC community in Guatemala would be healthier, safer, and more inclusive. Note: as is also outlined in our safe zone script, PC-Washington also states that all PC-Centers must be supportive and accepting places for volunteers. So from the PCV community up and the Washington headquarters down PC Posts worldwide have little excuse not to engage their LGBT volunteer community.

How We Did It:

Starting with a proposal from our LGBT representative on our Gender and Development – Committee (GAD), the Safe Zone idea was presented to our Peace Corps Training Officer (PTO) and Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO). While they were initially receptive to the idea, I followed up by modifying and combining various LGBT centric resources I had, including a Safe Zone training script I received while at college from New York University’s LGBT resource center, to create a Peace Corps Specific Safe zone module. From there, GAD presented the proposed 2-hour agenda of activities to the aforementioned staff contacts. Impressed, our PTO and PCMO gave me the green light to present our “Safe Zone” training to staff. Seeing the importance of this training, our staff liaisons coded the upcoming Safe Zone training as a mandatory event for all staff (they rightly assumed that should this not be mandatory some staff would choose not to attend because of the subject matter at hand…which is exactly the point of the training! To raise staff “comfort level” with LGBT issues). From here, our organizing committee reached out staff members we already knew to be allies to as them to facilitate parts of the workshop. With buy-in from various staff members – Guatemalan and American – and not just the token gay volunteer and socially liberal American staff, we were able to communicate before even starting that it’s OK… “cool” even, to be an ally.

With our safe zone script finalized and sticker logo printed (see attachments) it was game time. Coming together, myself, our GAD chairwoman, PTO, PCMO, Country Director (CD) and 2 other Peace Corps Alphabet soup facilitators executed the 2 hour safe zone training on Monday the 25th of January, 2010 to a captive, curious, and willing to engage (SUCCESS!) audience.

Conclusion and Follow Up:

An important part of Safe Zone for Peace Corps Guatemala was ensuring the change was not just internally processed staff member to staff member…but that PCT/Vs were able to more obviously understand and see that our PC center was a place of total acceptance and support. Therefore, as a concluding part of our training, we allowed staff to take our in-house safe zone logo (circle of rainbow colored hand prints) and stick it up in a visible place somewhere in their office or workspace. Low and behold, the majority of attendees took not just 1 but two stickers to hang up, as did they take all copies of other LGBT/GAD resources I had previously created: “How to fight homophobia in site,” “What to expect as an LGBT PCV,” and our fall 2008 “Gender Blender” newsletter containing upwards of 5 articles about homosexuality in Guatemala. With stickers in place our Peace Corps office and training center is a visible safe zone, with more staff then not sporting their rainbow stickers implicitly saying “I’m an ally… a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues.”

We here in PC-Guatemala are hoping to have some follow up dialogue about the many questions raised during our session. Most pressing of all, were perhaps the many questions from APCDs concerning either: a) how to select a site for a LGBT volunteer and b) what to do when they believe the volunteer is struggling with sexuality issues in Guatemala but has yet to come out to them. These are all good questions that GAD and our PCMO are working on addressing more concretely in the near future.

While many hours of work were involved in “making this happen,” I have been thrilled with the immediate results and ongoing dialogue. We all have unique PC experiences and challenges and while helping LGBT volunteer mitigate some of the potential landmines of service is just one step in the right direction, it is an important step, and one we must take. Saludos from Guatemala!

Workshop Materials:

Contact Grant regarding any questions about the Safe Zone training, accessing Spanish translations and/or implementing a Safe Zone at your post at gmpicarillo@gmail.com.

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