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.

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

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