Advocacy in the Eastern Caribbean: GrenCHAP and its President

- Tom Jacobs, RPCV Eastern Caribbean, 2005-07

Because I was a new volunteer to the island, one of the senior volunteers provided a local contact. She had been working in the HIV/AIDS sector for more than a year and a half, and she described her contact as the “president” of gay Grenada.

“Is there a gay organization here?” I asked.

“No,” she clarified, “but if there were, Nigel would be president.”

Integrating whole-heartedly into Caribbean culture, it took me another ten months before I would meet Nigel, halfway through my Peace Corps stint. If there is one thing I regret about my PC experience, it is that I spent half of it not knowing Nigel. On the other hand, spending a year in Grenada without a connection to a local support system gave me the opportunity to experience the isolation that sexual minorities in a highly conservative and homophobic culture experience. By the time I met Nigel a year into my service, I had developed a greater appreciation for who he is and what he does.

During my last year of service, supporting Nigel’s endeavors became my secondary Peace Corps project. In that year, Nigel was able to gain official recognition through the Ministry of Health for GrenCHAP, Grenada’s chapter of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership, a network of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and CBOs (Community Based Organization) in the OECS (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) islands working with the most at risk populations in order to reduce the rate of HIV infection and increase respect for basic human rights and dignity. Along with Nigel, GrenCHAP has two other directors. However, Nigel was and continues to be the primary point person for the organization, thus fulfilling my colleague’s prediction: Nigel is now the official president of gay Grenada.

Working with Nigel during my last year of service, I had the opportunity to do various forms of outreach to Grenada’s underground MSM (men who have sex with men) population. One project consisted of a series of three weekend retreats for a small group of men. Another consisted of doing a “Voices” project in which I was allowed to conduct candid, intimate interviews with Grenadian MSM about all aspects of their lives. These projects helped to make that tiny isle a permanent fixture in my life.

I recently returned to Grenada and decided to turn the table on Nigel. This time, rather than being the orchestrator of inquiry, he became my subject.

Tom: How did you become the president of gay Grenada?

Nigel: (Laughs) By default, I guess. It began with HIV work. About 15 years ago I joined the Grenada AIDS Foundation, a non-profit organization which dealt with general HIV issues. I wanted to get involved in community activities and decided that I would join the fight against HIV/AIDS. A few years after I joined that organization, there was a regional meeting for “most-at-risk” populations which would have included MSM, sex workers, persons living with HIV, and other groups. I was chosen to represent Grenada at that meeting and it went from there.

Tom: What kind of work does the Grenada chapter of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership (GrenCHAP) do?

Nigel: We encourage people to get HIV testing. A couple years ago one of the guys said he went to the Ministry of Health to get an HIV test and the receptionist at the front desk said, “Why you coming to get tested for HIV? If yuh behavin’ yuhself, then yuh wouldn’t need to come and get a test!” He just turned back and left.

That said, there is a core group of health care providers who do understand the issues and are very professional in terms of testing for HIV and treating persons who are positive, and we can direct individuals to these professionals. Irresponsible behavior is not prevalent of all health care providers in Grenada.

A couple of us in GrenCHAP are also trained as VCT counselors, that’s Voluntary Counseling and Testing. We’re trained as counselors for persons who need counseling before the blood is drawn. We were trained under the Ministry of Health. We were constantly bringing up the MSM issue: “What if a lesbian or gay guy came to you? How would you react?” Or before we’d start actually doing a session out in the community to do testing, we’d remind them, “Don’t make any assumptions about anybody’s sexuality. Don’t assume that if a guy comes to you that it’s his girlfriend that he talking about. You have to talk in sort of gender neutral ways that, yeah, he might have a girlfriend, but he might be sleeping with men as well, or he might be a gay.” As advocates, it’s our responsibility to remind people about those issues as much as we can. We think people are becoming more understanding.

Some persons that we have encouraged to go get tested and have gone have said that they definitely see a difference now where they were very comfortable talking about their situation. The people we referred would have been talking in gender neutral terms saying, “my partner” as opposed to saying “he,” and then the counselors respond to that and use the same terminology, “your partner” instead of just assuming that the partner is of the opposite sex. We feel that some progress is being made there. Right now, more of our work is around human rights and advocacy work as opposed to strictly HIV, even though we do that as well. But because HIV is pretty much a mainstream issue now, everybody is on the HIV bandwagon; our niche has been focusing on the human rights issues of the most at-risk populations.

We’re advocating for very basic things: don’t threaten to send people to prison just because they’re gay, kind of thing. Marriage is not on the radar. The whole Proposition 8 issue, because we get all our cable feed out of the US, that’s something everybody was talking about here: “These gay people want to marry. It’s not right for a man to marry another man!” – and you’re hearing this while you’re on the bus because we’re bombarded with anything that’s coming out of the US. In some ways, it’s damaged a lot of the work we’re trying to do here in the Caribbean because people don’t really understand. As soon as they hear anything gay-related in the Caribbean now they immediately think we’re talking about marriage, and that is not what the issue is. Sometimes the conversation is shut down even before we get a chance to say this is not the issue in the Caribbean. We’re talking about basic human rights, removing repressive laws from books. That has been a challenge for the work that is going on in the Caribbean, and it’s a huge challenge to keep the conversation on track.

Tom: Why do you refer to MSM and not ‘gay men’?

Nigel: Especially in Grenada, the reason I still use the term MSM (men who have sex with men) is because there are a lot of people in the community – well, I can’t even call it a community – because people are so closeted, there are many men who have sex with men who do not consider themselves gay. We don’t have any gay bars or gay hang out places. There’s hardly a community. It’s more a matter of guys who have their girlfriends or have their wives who sleep with men on the side. There’s this obligation to maintain your Caribbean machismo image that you’re a guy with lots of girls, or at least one girl fathering a few children gives bonus points. As far as most guys are concerned, anybody finding out that they’re gay is the worst thing possible so they will go as far as possible to hide that. Because of that, it’s very rare that people develop relationships with persons of the same sex. People might have steady “friends with benefits” kind of thing but it’s never really a relationship. It’s never regarded as a relationship.

Tom: Do you know anyone who’s been able to sustain a same-sex relationship?

Nigel: (Laughs) Yes, there have been a few couples around. But don’t expect that to show up on a national census anytime soon.

Tom: Jamaica has the reputation of being the most homophobic country in the western hemisphere and many people lump all of the Caribbean islands together. How does Grenada compare to Jamaica in terms of homophobia?

Nigel: Jamaica has a population of 2.5 million as compared to Grenada’s 100,000, so that is a huge difference; and Jamaica has something like the second highest level of homicides anywhere in the world. There were more than 1,500 murders in Jamaica in 2008. In Grenada, if one person gets killed, that’s big news. We’re proud of our relatively safe track record.

A lot of people hearing these reports of violence would be frightened to go to Jamaica because they figure that if I’m a gay person, the moment I set foot in Jamaica, someone’s going to shoot me. That’s really not the reality. I even thought that before I went to Jamaica myself a few years ago. When I went there, I was shocked at how openly a lot of gay Jamaicans seem to be, very effeminate guys boldly strutting down the streets. I didn’t even know there were gay clubs before I went. Jamaica does have gay clubs and gay things to do, as opposed to Grenada where we don’t. If you have 5% of 2.5 million people being gay then there’s quite a community, as opposed to just a small pocket of Grenadians.

What happens, in my belief, is that in a country where you have such a high level of violence and there is homophobia as well, then when they express their homophobia it’s very often in a violent form; and so, you have a lot of gay people being attacked and murdered. I believe violence is the bigger problem. In Grenada, and other small islands such as Grenada, I would even go so far as to say that we are more homophobic than the Jamaican society; however, we’re not violent. That’s why we don’t share the startling and unfortunate statistics as Jamaica. It’s more subtle. People will talk behind your back or people will call you a batty-man or a faggot or whatever it is when you’re walking down the street sometimes. But somebody wouldn’t pull a knife or shoot you for it in Grenada where they might do that in other places.

Tom: How can foreign activists best support the work you’re doing in Grenada, and more broadly, in the Caribbean?

Nigel: One of the things that we all have to remember is that whatever we do and whatever we say is not just constrained to our immediate environment but it has rippling effects across the work that everybody else is doing and trying to achieve. One example, there was a call for a boycott of Jamaica by a group of activists in California recently, and this boycott was called without any sort of dialogue with the activists in Jamaica or with a total disregard for what the activists in Jamaica really wanted to happen. These are persons not living in Jamaica but who feel that they have this impetus to make the world a better place, that they know what is better for everybody else and Jamaicans don’t know what to do for themselves.

Once the boycott went public, that caused a lot of problems for the work that the activists were doing in Jamaica. They were talking not only of a boycott of Jamaica, but also of Jamaican products and they singled out Red Stripe Beer. Red Stripe Beer was actually in dialogue with the activists in Jamaica and they were very sensitive to the issues and were not at all involved with the dancehall artistes who were promoting homophobia. So here was a responsible and sensitive corporate entity in Jamaica, and at the same time the foreign activists were calling for the boycott saying don’t support Red Stripe Beer. It really does more harm than good.

Calling for a boycott of a country that depends on tourism is going to make life worse for everybody, especially the persons who already have life difficult, i.e., the persons who are the most at risk. Yes, it’s all well and good to want to help, but you have to have some sort of respect, some sort of regard for the work that is happening in these countries that you want to affect some sort of change in. For advocates or agencies interested in doing work in regions around the world, dialogue with existing agencies in those parts of the world is critical.

You cannot decide what is going to happen on the other side of the world and expect it to roll out smoothly. You would not know the realities of what is going on in this other part of the world better than the persons who are actually working with those communities. There has to be some sort of conversation and you need to listen.

Tom: Would you be willing to serve in that role?

Nigel: In Grenada, yes, by default, since I’m told I’m the president of gay Grenada. The dialogue has to start somewhere. If I’m not the best person to talk to, we would direct you to whoever is.

Tom: You’re connected to the other islands?

Nigel: Yes. We’re one Caribbean. We all have very different local nuances, but at the same time, a lot of the same basic issues that we are dealing with right now are common across the Caribbean. The legal issue, for instance, that was inherited when we were all under British rule. Most of us are now independent states. We’re no longer under British rule, but the laws are still here. And it’s best if we advocate for change as a region.

Tom: Do you plan to continue as the President of GrenCHAP for much longer?

Nigel: Somebody has to do it. I will continue to do it for as long as I can; however, I really wish that other persons would be willing to speak openly. For me, it’s been baby steps along the way. I remember a few years ago, a reporter came up to me with a television camera and mic; I froze like a deer in the head lights and didn’t know what to say or do. Months later, and after much prodding, I agreed to do a radio interview. And then I wondered, “Am I going to do television? No, I’m not going to do television! Okay, now I’m on television.” Nobody threw any bottles at me after I did that so maybe I can do a little bit more. That’s how it’s been going for the past couple of years.

I can understand why many people are afraid to be visible, but everyone needs to start at some point, and hopefully realize along the way that it’s not as difficult as it seems at first. But, at the same time, you never know. I may just have been lucky so far. I can’t guarantee that somebody else following the same trail would have the same experience that I have had. I’ve been very fortunate. There have been threats toward me, but none of those have come to fruition.

Tom: What kind of threats?

Nigel: People saying that they’re going to hold me and beat me up, or whatever it is. The threats haven’t happened often, but other persons have heard those threats and that has prevented them from joining or being involved in our organization because they feel that the same thing might happen to them or that I am aligned with something that is dangerous.

Tom: Do you feel that it’s dangerous?

Nigel: It’s not something that I actively worry about. If I’m walking down the street, it’s not something that I think about, but at the same time, if it were to happen, I wouldn’t be surprised. I just need to have my head on like any other person who’s involved in any sort of advocacy.

Tom: Why do you do this?

Nigel: Good question. I’ve tried to figure that out myself. I think I just want to impact some sort of positive change, generally speaking. A long time ago when I wanted to choose how I am going to do this, through what sort of means, then we ended up in the HIV, MSM, human rights issues. I think that if I am effective in my role, if the organization is effective in its role, then we will be making the lives of a lot of people a lot better. I’ve seen that change start to happen. Marginalized populations start off at a stage of questioning and paranoia. Then there’s this long journey where you go along until you eventually are comfortable with yourself and you can function as a “normal” person. And I think if we can speed up that process as much as possible so that people can start living their lives and be comfortable sooner than later, then that would have a big impact on peoples’ lives. Ultimately, we want people to have a better life.


Interviewer Tom Jacobs can be contacted at jacobs_5@yahoo.com.

Seizing the Carpet: Equality Weekend

-Elizabeth B. Fuhrman, RPCV

My mama often told me, “Seize the carpet!” (You know, instead of “carpe diem.”) She was a “seizing” kind of Texas gal. Guess some of that passed down in my jeans. Recently I got in my fair share of “seizing” for what I now refer to as Equality Weekend. That was the 13th Annual Human Rights Campaign Dinner Saturday, October 10th, plus the National Equality March on Washington on Sunday, October 11th.

Without even knowing who was on the celebrity list, I signed up my partner and me to volunteer for the annual HRC dinner. I figured there would be good food and all. At some point we noticed that Lady Gaga was a headliner, making for a fun talking point. Like I was shopping near Rehobeth Beach and this blouse caught my eye. I asked the cute saleswoman, “Do you think Lady Gaga would notice me in this?” Wide-eyed, she nodded. “Really, you are going to see Lady Gaga?” “Yep. I’m gonna be at a party with her.” My partner elbowed me… Only a few days before the event, I noticed the addition of President Obama. I called up my partner and broke the news; her first comment was, “What am I going to wear?”

Saturday, October 10th
Speaking of dress, on the day of the HRC dinner, by the time we got to the Convention Center, our feet were already hurting. Okay, imagine lesbians trying to wear high-heeled shoes once every five years. (And high-heels for lesbians is say one inch.) Now that’s a sight to see! Just call us “wobblers.” (And at a formal such as this, there ain’t much choice. It’s all butch, “suits,” or all femme, “wobblers.” I feel torn because I don’t really fit either.) Once the novelty of dressing up wore off, us “wobblers” sure wished we were “suits.” What would Lady Gaga say?

So there we were making sure the cue behaved, when Jane Lynch seizes the carpet, the very same that we were standing on. A beautiful giant, she somehow managed a kind of “wobbler-suit” combo: high heels, dress and suit jacket. Next, we re-positioned ourselves at the main doors of the dining room where we took tickets. Gaggles of gorgeous gay men checked in, decked out to the tens. The dinner formally started with Lynch welcoming everyone. I best recall her making jokes about not being an activist by nature, referring to herself as a “complainer.” Yep, it’s a fine line between the two, this “seizing the carpet” business. What would my mama say?

Looking in the faces of those around me, I could see the charged emotions as each speaker talked of change and progress. The cast of Glee were received with a huge applause. I struggled to harness my own emotions from time to time. Guess I’ve never been in the same room with so many celebrities who spoke out for the gay community before. Okay, so let me get right to Obama’s speech because it was truly the icing on the HRC cake. This is the way I explained it to my friends and family: Obama said all the things we have ever wanted a President to say to the gay community! He acknowledged our struggle and frustrations. He promised to strike down “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell.” He said gay couples should get all the benefits married couples have. All in all, he sounded so in-the-know about our issues that I swear he must have a gay bf. Alrighty, I think you should just go to YouTube and listen for yourself.

Funny, when Gaga appeared, she got the same reverence as Obama, just no presidential march music. (Obama must really be sick of that song. I bet he much preferred the Black-Eyed Peas song: “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night.”) However, the Lady surprised everyone with somber tones, talking about the GLBT equality movement as being the most worthy in her opinion. Stating that this night was not about her, she informed us she wouldn’t sing any of her own songs. She leaned over the white piano and played John Lennon’s “Imagine,” changing the lyrics to mention Matthew Shepherd and anti-gay violence. Parked on the floor, shoes off, my partner and I were lulled by her luscious, strong voice.

The night culminated with Representative Patrick Kennedy talking about the many years of his father Ted Kennedy’s service to the GLBT community. Doubt there was a dry eye in the house when he bestowed the HRC’s first Edward M. Kennedy National Leadership Award to Judy and Dennis Shepherd. Damn, should’ve packed some hankies!

Sunday, October 11th
Still buzzing from the night before, I metro-ed the next morning to downtown DC again for the Equality March. It didn’t really hit me how big this event was going to be until I boarded along with a crowd of marchers, including two little girls with their rainbow-clad father. It struck me how the people attending the march looked different from those that “do Pride”. Was it the variety in ages and their places of origin? Was it the fact that I didn’t recognize the “usual crowd”?

As I waited around for the march to proceed, this time hoofed in sturdy lesbian shoes, I had major flashbacks of when I was one of the RPCV group bearing country flags that briskly-cold day in January when we shivered around, waiting for the Inaugural Parade to begin. (see our February 2009 artcle) By contrast this Equality Day was sunny and beautiful! As far forward and backward as I could see, the streets were thick with all kinds of folks. One person held up a sign: “I didn’t get to vote whether you can marry. Why do you get to vote on me?” Another guy’s sign said: “Do you really want me to marry your daughter?” This older woman’s sign stood out: “I’m too old for this B.S. Give me equal rights now!” My sign said: “Just let me get married already.”

Lo and behold, I found a whole block of marching Texans. Go figure, they were carrying the biggest rainbow flag of all, plus a Texan flag! When we got close to the White House, our chants changed from “Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia has got to go” to “Obama, Obama. Let mama marry mama!”

Once our segment of the march reached the destination of the Capitol grounds, the lawn area was already filled. A ring of people moved ’round the reflecting pool. Friends, my partner and I sat and gawked at all the people and port-o-potties. We had to “park it” back by the statues. I only got up off my now exhausted butt to applaud a few of the many speakers, like hottie actor Michelle Clunie, our “old friend” from Queer as Folk, and long-time gay activist Cleve Jones. The crowd went gaga when Lady Gaga screamed out, “President Obama. Are you listening?”

Back on the metro home, too “seized-out” to talk, I reflected on the weekend. That feeling that I was a part of something way bigger than myself again made me feel fortunate that I was able to get involved. Wherever my mama is, out there in the after-life, I know she’s real proud of me! Yet it was the “allies” that made me ponder hard, those that chose to take part in the dinner and the march. I thought about the mom that was on the arm of a proud gay man I talked to at the dinner, and the young hetero-couple from New York that came to march with a friend. Also there was that young man who relayed how he marched for his lesbian sister in California. Those were the stories that made me think: When was the last time I went to march for someone else’s cause? And how precious is that, folks that “seize the carpet” when an issue is not so personal? Why didn’t I give these allies, as they bravely blended with the thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender participants…damn, why didn’t I give them a super-sized Texas hug?!

My photo-story (song by Emiliana Torrini).


You can contact Elizabeth Fuhrman at ebfuhrman@aol.com

LGBT Advocacy in Albania

-Bill Trunk, RPCV, 2007-2009

Despite the challenges in my personal life as a gay volunteer in Albania, I had very rewarding experiences working to improve the lives of the Albanian LGBT community. My primary PC assignment was working for Opportunity Albania (a micro-credit organization) as a community development volunteer.

So what is the LGBT community in Albania like? The good news is that from a legal perspective, homosexuality in Albania became legal in1994. Therefore, Albanian gay or lesbian individuals cannot legally be imprisoned for their sexual orientation. However, do not be misled by the legality of homosexuality. Generally Albanians are sadly, deeply homophobic and generally never discuss the topic.

The LGBT community in Albania is very underground and there are no gay bars in any city in Albania including the capital city, Tirana. It is very difficult to even find any information about the LGBT community there. Similar to many other developing countries, the term “gay” is generally not used in Albania but instead it’s “men who have sex with men.” Although homosexuality exists in Albania, few individuals have a “gay” identity similar to what we find in the United States or other developed countries.

My search for the LGBT community began even before I left the US for Peace Corps in Albania (March, 2007). My search was conducted on the internet. I was disappointed to find virtually no information, but I did find a postal address for a gay NGO (non-governmental organization). So I mailed them a letter. And after about five months in Albania, I met the director of this gay Albanian NGO. It had been created shortly after communism ended in Albania in 1992, but had been inactive for several years due to a lack of funding.

At the time I met the director, he was working on a proposal for funding from the United Nations Global Fund for an NGO to provide HIV prevention education to the gay community and to be an advocate for LGBT human rights in Albania. I assisted him with this initial funding proposal. Thankfully up to this point HIV/AIDS has been a minor issue in Albania. But it is critically important to properly educate the gay community in Albania on how to prevent HIV/AIDS before it does become a more significant problem.

After this NGO received funding for the project, I took on the role as its Finance Officer for the first year. My responsibilities as Finance Officer centered on preparing the budgets and monthly financial statements and then advising the director about the implications of the NGO’s programming activities. I also advised the director about implementing programming activities. Some of these activities included:

  • Participation at a World AIDS Day event in the capital city, Tirana, with other Albanian organizations working to prevent HIV/AIDS.
  • Participation on an Albanian television talk show about gay and transgender people.
  • Collaboration with an Albanian newspaper to write an article about homosexuality in Albania.

In addition, I collaborated with another American NGO consultant living in Albania to provide capacity building training for this NGO. The training focused on the stages of teams and we identified action items for the NGO to progress from the beginning stage of creating a team. As a result, we developed some formal Operating Policies and Procedures for them.

I advised the director on the proposal he was writing for the second year of funding. Once again the NGO received funding, but the funding level was reduced. Unfortunately, the activities implemented by the NGO had to be severely reduced. In addition, the NGO was required to hire an Albanian as Finance Officer. So my role in the second year was limited to a financial advisor.

At the same time that I was working with this NGO, I worked with some other LGBT PCVs in Albania to create a LGBT Committee. It is a peer group of LGBT volunteers and their supporters. You can refer to the New GLBT PCV Support Group in Albania article from June 2008 for more details about this committee.

Given the limited activity with the gay NGO the second year, I began to do more outreach to the gay community in the capital city Tirana. I met some individuals with another gay organization through the American NGO consultant whom I worked with previously. However, this other gay organization was basically inactive as well, but I learned more about the gay community in Tirana by meeting with them. For example, the code word they use for gay is “communist.” I also learned that the main reason for the two different gay organizations in Tirana. One tended to be an organization for professional, well-educated gay men. The other organization tended to reach out more to gay men on the fringes of society (i.e. transvestites, people with substance abuse issues).

During my outreach to the gay community, I also met an American lesbian couple who live in the capital city. One of the women worked at the US Embassy in Albania. The US Ambassador to Albania (John Withers) became aware of the challenges that this couple faced. So he asked the American lesbian couple to meet with him to discuss recommendations for what he should do as the US Ambassador to Albania to support the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. When this couple told him that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been working with the gay community in Albania, he asked them to invite me to the meeting.

Our initial meeting with the Ambassador was held just two days after the historic US Presidential Election of Barack Obama. Our meeting blew away all my expectations. The Ambassador’s insights as an African American clearly demonstrated his tremendous wisdom. For example, he discussed how the US Civil Rights movement involved more whites than blacks. The key to success in any movement, such as LGBT human rights, is to build coalitions. He recommended reading the book called Black Like Me. It is about a white man who changes the color of his skin around 1960 to learn what it is like to be an African American in the US. Shortly afterwards I read the book and wrote an article about my insights from the book for the Peace Corps Albania Volunteers quarterly newsletter.

During our initial meeting we agreed upon some actions to address the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. The highlights of these actions were for the US Ambassador to include sexual orientation when he speaks about human rights in Albania. In addition, the Ambassador supported conducting some type of roundtable meeting regarding “human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania.” An advisory committee will identify individuals and organizations in Albania who are interested in collaborating on this issue.

Shortly after this meeting, this advisory committee attended the First Albanian Human Rights Debate Conference in Tirana. It was sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN’s declaration of human rights. The topics covered were human rights for women, children, and sexual minorities. It was the first time that a human rights conference in Albania had included the topic of sexual minorities. The Conference began with everyone together as leaders of the Albanian Government and Dutch Embassy spoke about the importance of human rights. And then each topic split out into its own session for a three-hour panel discussion.

During the sexual minorities’ panel discussion, the panel members from several organizations made a very good case for why human rights of LGBT were important. There also was some good discussion with a representative from the police force regarding past reports of how the police had previously treated LGBT people poorly, on occasion with violence. The police force representative agreed to address this issue. One other critical action item identified was to conduct training in schools to improve Albanian society’s understanding and acceptance of LGBT Albanians. Despite the success of the conference, a major problem was that there were no representatives from the Albanian LGBT community at the session because of fear of disclosure.

After the sexual minorities’ session, I spoke with some of the individuals leading it. The moderator of the session was the director from an Albanian NGO called Albanian Human Rights Group. I was very impressed with her commitment to this issue as a straight woman. I shared with her my experience in Peace Corps working with some Albanian gay NGOs plus starting the LGBT Committee for volunteers. I also suggested that the key method to change people’s acceptance to LGBT issues in Albania was to have LGBT people share their stories anonymously (because they feared negative ramifications from disclosure).

Shortly before I completed my Peace Corps service, we had a meeting at the US Embassy with the organizations working on LGBT human rights issues in Albania. Most of the participants at the meeting were individuals whom I had met during the First Albanian Human Rights Debate. A few representatives from the LGBT community in Albania attended as well. The US Ambassador kicked off the meeting by making comments about how important the LGBT human rights issue is on a global basis today.

Then the director from the Albanian Human Rights Group (NGO) informed everyone that she had met with the Albanian Prime Minister the day before. They discussed the anti-discrimination bill that has been proposed to include protections for LGBT as well as others in Albania. The Prime Minister agreed to ensure that the bill gets passed. As we all agreed, the passage of an anti-discrimination bill is important but only the first step towards improving the environment in Albania for LGBT people. There needs to be significant training for the police, and people in the judicial, education, and health care systems to properly enforce the new law.

After the US Ambassador to Albania left the meeting, we continued with a lengthy conversation about possible activities we could implement to support this initiative. But we ran out of time to create a list of specific actions. So the group plans to meet again to develop this planning list. I shared with others my recent experience of providing diversity training for new volunteers and Albanian staff and how we could utilize Peace Corps volunteers around the country to share LGBT educational materials in their communities.

Prior to completing my service in May this year, I introduced the new chairperson for the LGBT Volunteer Committee from Peace Corps Albania to these organizations. Therefore, Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania can continue to collaborate on this important project to improve human rights for LGBT in Albania.

Bill Trunk can be contacted at willyt2000@hotmail.com.

Peace Corps’ Equal Opportunity Policy

-Mike Learned

On March 24, 1994, Carol Bellamy, former Peace Corps Director, signed Peace Corps’ current version of the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy statement – which for the first time includes sexual orientation among its non-discriminatory criteria. What has the Peace Corps done since then to assure that applicants, volunteers and staff understand the policy and include non-discriminatory actions as part of their day-to-day job activities?

Conversations and correspondence with straight and gay recruiters, placement officers, volunteers, overseas staff and the top management team at Peace Corps indicate strong organizational support for the new policy. However, the agency is still struggling with practical ways of communicating the policy to applicants and being realistic with them about the attitudes lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers may be confronted with in their host countries.

The new gay-inclusive EEO statement is being printed on applications and other Peace Corps documents only as old supplies are diminished and new materials have to be ordered. The Placement Staff is including attitudes about sexual orientation in each country’s Volunteer Assignment Description (VAD) when this information is available. Current staff diversity training now includes issues raised by the inclusion of sexual orientation in the EEO statement.

One openly gay recruiter in a large metropolitan area told me that although some lesbian and gay applicants were open to him about their sexual orientation, he assumed most applicants did not discuss such issues with recruiters. Anecdotal evidence had indicated that when the subject did come up, many recruiters were unsure what to tell lesbian and gay applicants about what to expect in host countries.

Conversations like this were instrumental in getting our LGB RPCV recruiting resource project off the ground. We now have more than 60 RPCV members of our organization who are willing to advise LGB PC applicants about our experiences overseas. Starting with this issue, we’re sending our newsletter to each recruiting office. We’re asking that it be placed along with other Peace Corps related materials. Within two months we’ll have our LGB RPCV applicant resource project operational. Placement of openly lesbian/gay applicants causes some concerns with the Placement staff. Although there may be a few countries where a volunteer’s sexual orientation would not interfere with his or her success as a volunteer, there are strong indications that an openly gay volunteer would have difficulties in many traditional cultures. Several current LGB volunteers and two Associate Peace Corps Directors have described to me the extreme homophobic environments in which they work. A few PCVs who get our newsletter have specifically requested that envelops not include the word lesbian or gay because they fear harassment (we also get the same request from RPCVs who live in this country). To cite one extreme situation, a current volunteer described a very intimidating experience that involved the murder of a local gay couple and the police’s lack of zeal because of the victims’ sexual orientation.

The social/cultural issues which lesbian and gay volunteers may confront are in some ways not so very different from what other PCVs have faced. Certainly, African-American, Asian and Hispanic volunteers have experienced racial prejudice, bias or indifference in certain countries. Women have often had to deal with another culture’s limited view of a woman’s role. Volunteers have been known to bite their tongues (I was one of them) over issues of political and worker rights, and other expressions of personal freedom in situations where these freedoms were not valued or respected.

What’s critical here is that the lesbian, gay, bisexual volunteer and staff member have support from within the Peace Corps organization. We’ve heard many examples of this happening. Wayne Hill’s article last issue that mentioned the Peace Corps Director in Guatemala is a case in point. We’ve heard from current volunteers whose assignments have been made easier by the support of their Country Director, APCD and other gay and straight volunteers. Unfortunately there are still volunteers and staff members who do not experience this kind of support. This is an area where we urge the Peace Corps to improve its performance.

Helping to create a positive environment around sexual orientation in the Peace Corps and supporting lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers in threatening and homophobic environments are major goals of our organization. We intend to regularly cover these issues in our newsletter.

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