Call to Action for the LGBT Peace Corps Community

- Charlie Rounds, RPCV, Cameroon 1978 – 1981

It seems kind of crazy that in October I will celebrate 30 years of coming home from the Peace Corps in Cameroon and Coming Out – one followed the other by 23 days. My coming out was facilitated by a fellow volunteer who told me that if I thought I was gay I should go to the Island of Mykonos on the way home, meet someone and … Well I did, and the rest is history. The closet door was not just opened – it came off the hinges.

In 1981 I came home to a gay Minnesota and a gay United States that looked very different from what I see today. Although we have come so far in 30 years – the next 16 months of my life will be consumed with trying to beat back an anti-gay amendment to the Minnesota Constitution. As Bruce Springsteen sings “one step forward – two steps back”, and yet we have no choice but to put everything we can into defeating it – and defeat it we will.

The challenge with this amendment is that it was brought on by an historic shift in the Minnesota House and Senate – a shift that was greatly helped by 3M, Target, Ecolab, and Best Buy. After being confronted about their contributions they all just shrugged and said – ‘this is not anti-gay – it is anti-tax.” Unfortunately in this day and age, you do not get one without the other. So as we move forward, how will we deal with a post Citizens United (the Supreme Court decision that agrees with Mitt Romney that corporations are people) United States? How do we judge a Target that has very good lgbt employee policies and has donated to HRC, and yet openly helps the most virulent anti-lgbt candidates? This week the CEO of New Balance had to “come-out” against the donation of his board chair to Mitt Romney. The CEO openly states that New Balance supports the lgbt community – that’s great – but Mitt Romney still has his $500,000 to try and again ban us from the military and destroy our marriages.

It will be very difficult for us as a movement to continue to win big battles if corporate America decides that profits trump everything else – including our basic civil rights. I therefore am hoping that on a national level, our leaders commit to establishing a plan to work with corporations to make them, as much as possible, stop giving to candidates who would deny us all of our hard earned rights. But even if they do, this strategy can only work, if the majority of our community and allies actually make our voices heard and most importantly shop where we are wanted and don’t where we aren’t. I have discussed this with many people who disagree with me and who most often say “you can’t win against big money.” I think we can and I think as RPCV’s we would not have done what we did with that attitude – we all went to change the world and I think in most cases we did. In this same vein we can change corporate America through constructive dialogue backed up with strong actions that lets them know that what is bad for the lgbt community is bad for America – including them.

At the same time that we help big corporations “see the light,” we also need, as a community to step up our own giving to finish the battle for our rights. There are various studies that show that less than 5% of the American lgbt community gives over $35 or more a year to an lgbt organization. The people on this site might find that extremely hard to believe, but one reason for the disbelief is that we are also “givers’ by nature or we would not have done what we did. We are most likely “surrounded by ourselves” i.e. by other people who give both their time and their money to the causes they believe in. But we are only a tiny minority. Another challenge to our national leaders will be to figure out how to a)  get more money out of those of us who already give, b) get more money from those who don’t and c) establish accost-effective ways to communicate the message to achieve (a) and (b). As someone who has been paid-to-be-gay (worked for companies that only sold to the lgbt community) I can tell you firsthand that we, through lgbt media and company databases, can most likely only reach less than 25% of our community. And messaging to us through mainstream media is just too expensive. Those that oppose us have the advantage of being at a place of worship every week. When the Catholic Church wants to stop gay rights in Minnesota they have access to 800,000 people. I doubt that our statewide lgbt organizations have even 5% of those names on their databases. But that does not mean we can just sit back and not do anything. In the next two to five years we will need to develop a strategy to increase lgbt giving to lgbt organizations 10 fold – it can be done – but we need to start now and not give up until 50% of our community is giving over $35 a year to an organization.

So as we are all aware – we have challenges ahead – but for this group – the glass will always be half full and perhaps we will one day see it full.

You can contact Charlie Rounds at roundscharlie@hotmail.com.

Peace Corps Pride Events 2011

Peace Corps and Pride – 2011

 Peace Corps and LGBT RPCVs were actively involved in many Gay Pride activities in June. We have reports from five cities: Boston, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D. C.

Boston: The New England Regional Corps Office sponsored a recruiting and information table at the Boston Pride Festival. Two staff members presided and eight RPCVs sat with the staff to talk about their experiences as Peace Corps Volunteers. 63 Pride participants stopped by the table, and 27 signed up to get more information about Peace Corps. Although there was some rain and cold, there was great participation from the RPCVs. They came out and helped set up early on Saturday morning and stayed throughout the festival to share their life enhancing experiences with budding volunteers. Peace Corps found the Boston Pride Committee highly organized and looks forward to participating in future Pride events.

Chicago: The Chicago Peace Corps office had a contingent in the Chicago Gay Pride parade. 18 people marched in all: five Staff Members, seven RPCVs, long with six friends and family. It was a great day. The Peace Corps marching group had a huge Peace Corps banner, a flag, and several marchers were dressed in country of service traditional costumes. The contingent handed out lots of stickers and post cards promoting an upcoming Diversity Information Session. Marchers got a great reaction from the crowd. Much of it obviously from other RPCVs, shouting out their countries of service: Paraguay, China, Tanzania and others.

New York City:

 

 
Approximately 30 people walked, carried flags, beat a drum, and lost their voices shouting “50 More Years, 50 More Years!” behind the Peace Corps banners at New York City’s June Pride March. The marching group consisted of RPCVs who had served in countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. Nominees on their way to becoming PCVs as well as family and friends were also part of the group. RPCV, Kat, Suriname, grabbed friends and jumped on a bus with 20 giant country of service flags from Peace Corps Headquarters in DC just to join in this year’s historic Pride March. Onlookers clapped, cheered, and shouted “Thank You!” This being New York there were also lots of cheers from the crowd for the Jamaican and Dominican Republic flags that were carried by RPCVs who served in those countries. 

The New York Office also held an information session aimed at prospective LGBT applicants. 25 people attended. About half of them joined staff and 8 LGBT RPCVs at the Cubby Hole for a happy hour and lots of questions about the lives of LGBT PCVs in the developing world.

San Francisco:

The local Bay Area chapter of LGBT RPCVs held its 20th anniversary Pride Celebration on Bill and Tony’s deck in the Castro, the Saturday afternoon before the Pride March. Several women in the group also were part of the Dyke March at nearby Dolores Park early that evening. About 40 people showed up at the barbecue, many longtime members, other’s there for the first time. Lots of good food, drink and conversation. Hard to believe it was 20 years ago that LGBT RPCVs was founded in Washington D.C. and groups there and in San Francisco had their first meetings.

Washington D.C.:

For the D.C. Pride Parade on Saturday June 11, Peace Corps had a very animated group of around 30 RPCVs and PC staff members carrying their country of service flags. The marching contingent also carried Peace Corps banners and had a very welcoming reception from the estimated 100,000 people watching the parade. On Saturday night the Peace Corps marching group was notified that it had won the “Harvey Milk Award for Best Public Sector Contingent.” The group was called up on the main stage during Sunday’s festival to receive the award. Peace Corps also hosted an information table at the festival on the Sunday where there were an estimated 200,000 attendees. LGBT RPCVs sat at the table along with Peace Corps Staff.

Earlier in the month Peace Corps hosted an LGBT RPCV panel in the Rosslyn, VA recruiting office for about 20 participants. Earlier the same day at Peace Corps Headquarters in downtown D.C., transgendered political appointees appointed by the Obama administration came to speak to Peace Corps employees about transgender issues. There were about 100 employees in attendance. The Deputy Director introduced the panelists and there were lots of Q and A’s.

Later in June, Peace Corps’ Office of Diversity Recruitment and National Outreach sponsored a webinar “Have Rainbow, Will Travel: The LGBT Experience in the Peace Corps.” There were 25 participants and six panelists, two lesbian, two gay, and two transgendered RPCVs. They answered so many questions about the challenges and opportunities for LGBT volunteers. There is another panel discussion planned for the fall.

A Special Thanks: So many people on Peace Corps staff and LGBT RPCVs helped to make these 50th Peace Corps anniversary and Gay Pride related events successful. A special thanks to all who worked to make these such a success, particularly Bill and Tony, Jerry, Jeffrey, John, Kat, Kiva, Shari, Stephen – who all helped organize and coordinate activities.

The History of Safe Zone Training in Peace Corps

- Mike Learned, RPCV, Malawi, Editor

I first heard of Safe Zone training in 2004 when we featured the article “The Double Life of Gay Volunteer in Kenya” by Eric Shea, who had just returned from his PC service in Kenya. He and his PCV colleagues had created a training package to train the local Peace Corps staff about issues of American diversity, including gay people. I quote a short paragraph from his article.“I became part of the volunteer-run Diversity and Peer Support group, using it as a tool to break down the walls in Peace Corps Kenya. With barely any support from senior administration and no budget, DPS has trained all permanent staff on issues regarding American diversity and Peace Corps’ policies. Among other things, we have facilitated diversity panels and peer-support workshops. Through DPS, the ideal of diversity has gained respect and understanding from staff and volunteers, raised awareness about Americans and established a solid Safe Zone for all people committed to Peace Corps Kenya.”I had become more aware of Safe Zone training since then. A year ago we put an article and Safe Zone Training attachments on our web site authored by PCV, Guatemala, Grant Picarillo and his PCV colleagues. Here is Grant’s explanation of Safe Zone training.

“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.”

Since that time LGBT PCVs and their Volunteer supporters have hosted or are planning Safe Zone training or versions of it in several countries: The Gambia, Jordan, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. What I find incredibly amazing about this is that this has all been spear-headed, developed, adapted and trained by LGBT PCVs and straight PCV allies. These are not training packages developed by PC HQ in Washington. Our Peace Corps volunteer compatriots have seen a need for this and “done it.”

I recently met with Bryan, back from his PC service in Jordan. He was one of the PCVs who provided Safe Zone training to new PCVs and Jordanian staff at the Peace Corps office in Amman. He told me how one of his PCV colleagues had seen the Safe Zone training developed by Guatemala PCVs on our website, then adapted it for training sessions for both new PCVs arriving in Jordan, but also much of the Jordanian PC staff. These sessions were quite successful, much more active participation than the six PCVs (both gay and straight) who conducted the training expected. Bryan described seeing the Safe Zone stickers posted throughout the PC office afterward. There are plans to continue the training this year, and to continue to adapt it to better fit cultural norms in Jordan. We plan to have this Middle-East version on our website at the end of the year, after these further adaptions.

We have recently added to our website two additional resources, Marnie Florin’s Gambia package (add the Gambia link address here) and Brad Mattan’s and his PCV colleagues’ Ecuador brochure. All of these pieces can be adapted for any Peace Corps country. No one has to start from scratch.

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.

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