What Kyrgyzstan Gave Me Travels Far

– Bryce Wolfe, RPCV

In pre-service training, we received a handout welcoming us to our “two-year crisis” in the Kyrgyz Republic. It charted the roller coaster of emotions, thoughts and physical manifestations that Peace Corps volunteers usually experience over the course of service in the remote, mountainous former Soviet republic. We laughed at it, and then dutifully posted it on our bedroom walls (or, for those of us lucky enough to have them, refrigerators) and now and then referred to it to make sure that our present flavor of anxiety / boredom / frustration / madness met standards of normalcy. Now I wish I had kept a copy of the handout, so I can track my journey through the stages. I like having corroborated evidence that being overwhelmed by the yogurt aisle is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.

Recently the latest stage. When I got the call, that the house was on fire, I didn’t panic. I was on a train in a tunnel under the San Francisco Bay. There was no point in speculating, in conjuring up worst-case scenarios of charred ground and burnt bodies, when I had no real information. I started making a mental list of who to call, what to do, and where to go once I got off the train. The second call informed me that my partner was in the hospital. I remember taking the news with a sort of third-person detachment. There was nothing I could do for him. I started making phone calls.

The next 24 hours was a blur of headlights on roadways, hospital hallways, Red Cross volunteers, fire investigators, property managers, insurance agencies, utility companies, long-distance calls to family, and the open arms, beds, and advice of friends… That first 24 hours was like the start of training. There was no going home. Everything was open.

But the excitement of training wears off, and becomes the restlessness of waiting for site placement, to get on with it, to earn some responsibility and some permanence in having one site and a mission to fulfill. We wonder: where will we live? Who will we work with?

In the days after the fire, my partner and I salvaged our belongings, and our lives became logistics. Every day: where will we sleep? How much can I carry?

I’m viewing it as a new opportunity.

In the Peace Corps, everything is new. We can reinvent ourselves, or revert to our base instincts. Some volunteers drink. Others cope with serial re-runs and internet memes. Most, I think, reach out and forge relationships that make us stronger.

I faced an additional worry as a volunteer that my being transgender would affect my safety and hurt my relationships with other volunteers, staff and host country nationals. I felt like I had a secret to keep. Instead, my gender identity turned out to be an asset. I related to local LGBTQ folk because, in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, we shared the understanding of what it means to be born in a body that doesn’t fit and a culture that doesn’t approve. I was able to offer my ideas, skills and experience with gender towards training, resources and events. Serving in the Peace Corps brought out the best in me, and I saw the kind of person I could be.

Looking back, I would have appreciated more guidance from Peace Corps trainers. My group had no Safe Zone Training, and when I conducted it myself, I hadn’t yet made connections with the LGBTQ community to invite them, who could have given their perspective, and insight, and offered opportunities to work together. Instead, my introduction into the LGBTQ community was informal and sort of hush-hush. There was no continuity but a word-of-mouth history of so-and-so who dated so-and-so who’s this activist trans guy… Only once I got to know people, and got a better handle on the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, did I feel comfortable taking on projects. And I do think it’s absolutely vital to have community involvement.

Silence is shaming. LGBTQ rights are human rights, and volunteers can benefit from having information about the rights, efforts, and issues facing LGBTQ groups in their country of service, whether those volunteers work directly with LGBTQ groups or not. I would encourage more outreach to non-LGBTQ volunteers. In my group, it was the straight volunteers – or at least those who appeared the most “normative” – who seemed to have the most success in opening a dialogue by acknowledging and supporting LGBTQ rights, and ultimately reducing stigma.

I understand silence. It’s easier than answering all the questions. It’s easier to let someone else do it.

I want transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people to know that it is possible to travel, live and serve abroad – successfully, and vocally – and that we should as we are.

It’s a process.

According to that chart of the two-year crisis, when the excitement grinds down, you’re left with the uncertainty, boredom and depression of the long haul. You ask yourself: Can I really keep doing this? Am I doing anything at all? Just what am I doing here anyway? This usually comes at the 1-year mark in service. After a few weeks of moving from couch to couch, cleaning greasy and possibly asbestos-laden dust off my belongings, navigating a bureaucratic tangle of renters’ rights, housing, insurance and all, I asked those questions again. I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and close my eyes and just not open them.

You always have the option to early terminate.

Before I left America, I had decided that this was not an option for me.

It still isn’t.

I can handle marshrutkas (minibuses) and parasites and impromptu tea breaks in the middle of class, airport chaos, muggers, icy turnpikes with no guardrails, cartfuls of dead puppies, eyeball toasts and long hours scrubbing laundry with my knuckles and a bar of soap, government paperwork and vast amounts of VAST budgets, with humor and diplomacy. If nothing else, the Peace Corps prepared me to thrive in situations where I have no control. That, and dance. I’m grateful for that.

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

20 Years after an HIV Scare in Africa

– Brian Guse, RPCV, and PC Trainer, Mali

I was perusing the National Peace Corps Association site on Facebook today and saw a post urging readers to check out an RPCV’s blog titled “No Going Back – There Is Only Forward.

The author is a young woman who was recently med-separated from Peace Corps after contracting HIV while in country (Zambia). Her story is one of courage and strength and she is an inspiration to all – Peace Corps or not, HIV positive or not.

After reading her blog I couldn’t help but think back to where I was 20 years ago and the intersection HIV made with my own Peace Corps experience. By no means do I compare my “scare” with what she is going through, but I think some of you might be able to relate to the story I am about to tell.

20 years ago, almost to the day, I was sitting on an airplane crossing the Atlantic on my way back to Mali. I had been away from my village, my friends and my Malian family for more than 45 days – on medical evacuation for a serious life threatening illness. After having spent a week in Georgetown University hospital, another 2 weeks recuperating in the Virginian Hotel in Rosslyn, VA (Washington, DC) and a couple of weeks fattening up back home in the Midwest, I was anxious to get back to my mission and finish my remaining months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

To many of the other PCVs I met on medevac, the time spent in DC was like a vacation – time to recuperate from whatever ailed them, job hunt or visit the sites of the Nation’s Capital. For me, those weeks in DC were some of the most frightening days of my life; a time when I thought I was going to die.

As a sexually active gay man in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I was extremely aware of and paranoid about the prospects of acquiring HIV. Nonetheless, safe sex was a concept but not always a reality for me. Getting tested for HIV was a nerve wracking affair yet throughout college I had been pretty good about getting tested on a regular yet anonymous basis. Then, as now, Peace Corps required a full physical including an HIV test in order to be placed in a country. Before submitting to the full physical, I went to a city health clinic and was tested anonymously one last time. I tested negative. I was ready for the real deal, the official, named and documented HIV test. I tested negative.

I was living in Chicago the day the acceptance letter arrived. Mali, West Africa. Never heard of it. Still, what a happy day. I sat at my favorite Chicago hotdog stand and cried tears of joy and relief as I opened the acceptance letter. The moment the invitation package arrived, the HIV testing stopped. I wanted nothing to get in the way of being a PCV. I knew testing positive would put an end to my dreams of joining Peace Corps so I put it out of my mind and assured myself that I was and would remain negative. If later I discovered I was positive I would be compelled to disclose the information to Peace Corps and end my PCV experience before it ever began. Better not to know. In four non-celibate months I would be on the plane to Mali. Nothing to worry about.

I wasn’t sure of my HIV status the day I flew to New Orleans for pre-service orientation. Stupidly or rather naively, it never occurred to me that Peace Corps would require one final HIV test before allowing me to get on that flight to Mali. The test took place on the first day. I lost sleep in New Orleans. While my fellow trainees were out enjoying their last few nights in the US, I sat in my hotel room shaking with fear. I wasn’t afraid for my health or even my long-term future. Testing positive meant only one thing to me: the end of ever being a Peace Corps volunteer. I tested negative.

After getting settled into my rural village the fears of HIV passed and I focused on other things. In 1990, AIDS hadn’t penetrated land-locked West Africa yet. Peace Corps hadn’t even begun to build an HIV/AIDS sector yet. In my mind the next 2+ years would be a time free from worry. HIV would not get near me.

Several months into my service I received a cassette tape (yes it was the 90’s) from my best friend back home. We went to high school together and came out to each other at a time when coming out was not in vogue. Hearing his voice was wonderful; hearing news about our friends and families brought a smile to my face; hearing him cry as he told me had tested positive for HIV devastated me. HIV had returned to my life; it suddenly became of part of my reality albeit it through someone else; someone for whom I cared deeply but could not comfort in person. I immediately got on my motorcycle and drove to the capital. I placed a phone call to my mom asking her to arrange for my friend to call me from her home the next day. He and I talked for an hour. We laughed and cried and discussed how he became infected. We talked about the future – my future. I felt selfish and petty talking about the community garden I was working on when all he could focus on was whether he’d live long enough to see his 22nd birthday and avoid a slow and painful demise. The early 90’s were an especially frightening time for people with HIV. My generation witnessed the sudden loss of the gay generation before us to AIDS. We had no mentors; we had no role models. To us, AIDS meant death. He was positive. I was negative. He could only focus on the present. I was able to look forward; look to the future. Guilt.

Fast forward one year to three restless nights of fevers and sweats in my mud hut. I had already come down with malaria a few times while in country but this was something different. My Malian host mother had seen enough and insisted that I make my way to the capital to seek medical attention. She sent word by mouth from village to village until a nearby PCV learned I was ill and gave me a lift on his motorcycle to the capital. A few days later I was unable to eat; was losing weight too quickly; had abdominal pains and high fevers. PC sent me to several specialists – no one had an answer. During that time a close friend came to country for a visit. When he saw me at the airport his jaw dropped. I looked bad. In a way that only close friends can speak to one another he said, “You look like you have AIDS.”

Months before, as part of our mid-service physical, Peace Corps required an HIV test. I tested negative. Shortly after the physical I went on vacation to Europe and made up for sexual lost time. For the most part, I was safe. I had nothing to worry about. Until, “You look like you have AIDS.”

The Peace Corps medical unit was unable to diagnose what ailed me. The only choice was medevac. My heart sank. I knew deep down it was HIV. I knew that once it was confirmed Peace Corps would separate me and I would never again see my Malian family. I would never have the chance to say good-bye.

The Peace Corps doctor escorted me on the flight to DC where I was immediately admitted into Georgetown University hospital. I weighed 109 lbs. I had lost 50 lbs in less than a month. The fevers continued. I couldn’t eat. I was delusional at times. I called my mom and told her she needed to come to DC. The doctor spoke with her and said make it quick.

For days, doctors examined me. Phlebotomists drew blood. Nurses held my hand. Students studied me. Most had never seen my symptoms. One intern, I never got her name, boldly suggested a bone marrow exam. She had an idea. She was correct. Typhoid. Curable. Not HIV. No, that test came back negative. Twice. Called mom and said not to worry. “I’ll come visit you once I recover.” Bacon – the first solid food I ate in weeks. I love bacon.

A week in the hospital. Christmas and New Years in the Virginian hotel. Finally, home to mom. More bacon. I spent a good amount of time with my friend. I was embarrassed. I had been worried about myself. I was negative. He was positive. But in those months since sending me the cassette tape much about him had changed. He had come to terms with HIV and was under the care of a number of HIV/AIDS specialists. In the time since we had spoken on the phone he had become positive about life again. He was looking forward; looking to the future. He was not defeated.

20 years later he still is looking to the future. He has lived with HIV for over 20 years. He has suffered losses and buried a lover. He graduated from college. He witnessed his brother’s wedding and watched his nephews grow into fine young men. He bought a house and started a career. He and his partner adopted one too many pugs. Through his strength and perseverance he has inspired all who know him.

I remain engaged in international development. Over the past 20 years I’ve seen African nations fall victim one by one to HIV/AIDS. I’ve seen hope disappear and reappear on the faces of the farmers, students and professionals that I have come into contact with. This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to Mali. Not a day goes by where I don’t think how lucky I was to have a second chance on life – a second chance to complete my Peace Corps service – although really, come to think of it, do we ever really finish Peace Corps?

You can contact Brian Guse at bvguse@aol.com and visit the story on the blog that inspired this article “There is no going back, there is only forward.”

Without Borders: The Story of a Bi-national Same-sex Couple

- Brad Mattan, RPCV, Ecuador

Introduction

Brad and Raúl cut their cake.

As each group of Peace Corps trainees boards the plane after staging, no one trainee truly knows what the next two years will bring. Indeed, the possibilities are truly endless. While most expect to gain experience in international development work or even learn more about themselves and the world, one thing that most typically do not expect is to fall in love and eventually marry a special someone from his or her country of service.

I write this as I await takeoff from Quito’s International Airport. I am returning from my second trip back to Ecuador since my Close of Service in 2010. Though my visit was only a week, it was a very meaningful one for me and my partner, Raúl, as we celebrated our civil union (legal in Ecuador since 2008). Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, I did not expect to fall in love with and marry an Ecuadorian. In fact, I was generally opposed to the possibility, a sentiment shared by many of my fellow RPCVs, several of whom ended up marrying Ecuadorians! Life has a way of producing unexpected turns.

Like other bi-national couples I have had the pleasure of meeting, Raúl and I experience our share of challenges and rewards. In addition to those are the challenges and rewards that come with being a same-sex bi-national couple at the beginning of the 2010’s.  Among the most difficult obstacles we face is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from granting the 1,138 benefits, rights and privileges bestowed by marriage to married same-sex couples. Among the rights DOMA denies to same-sex couples is the ability for a US citizen to sponsor his or her partner for a green card. Unlike many RPCVs who marry non-US citizens and begin a life together in the US, same-sex couples like Raúl and me are barred from doing so. In spite of such difficulties, Raúl and I have shared some memorable moments unique to our relationship. Such experiences have allowed us to grow ever closer and maintain hope for our future even in the face of formidable obstacles and great distances.

Our Story

Raúl and I met about halfway through my Peace Corps service through a mutual acquaintance. We shared an instant connection from the first time we met. After a couple of months of hesitation on my part, Raúl finally convinced me to accept what we both felt for each other and we began our relationship. From that time until the end of my Peace Corps service we were inseparable. He met my host family in Baños, the highland parish where I lived, and I met his family on the coast.

Of course, we kept our relationship a secret from the beginning. For both Raúl’s family and Baños as a whole, we were merely “friends” albeit friends who were suspiciously often in each other’s company. We’re both sure that many are aware there is something more. Even in places where same-sex dating is exclusively underground, a few begin to catch on after a certain point and gossip then takes care of the rest. As an aside, my impression is that Peace Corps generally encourages volunteers not to get anywhere near that point because it could undermine the trust necessary to work safely and effectively in their communities. Fortunately, any potential rumors did not appear to damage the relationships with my counterparts at the schools and church where I provided technical assistance. In the end, Raúl and I never let doubts about gossip keep us from spending time with the people we love whether it was spending carnaval on the coast with Raúl’s family or having a crab soup picnic up in the mountains with my host family in Baños.

Unfortunately, Raúl did not get the chance to meet my parents when they came to visit me during my service in Baños. I first met him in person the day after I dropped my parents off at the airport in Guayaquil. Once we started dating he would often ask me about my family and what they were like. He was always reminding me to call home.

As my service drew to a close in mid-2010, we had decided somewhat naively that I would leave the Peace Corps and join Raúl in Equatorial Guinea where he was offered work. In the meantime, we had also applied for a visa for Raúl to meet my family over the holidays. As I have written for Stop the Deportations, the visa application was rejected because of Raúl’s inability to prove sufficient ties to Ecuador that would compel him to return. Heartbreaking though it was, this kind of rejection is common in developing countries such as Ecuador where visa applicants bear the burden of proving they do not intend to remain in the US. I would later learn that Raúl’s being truthful about his relationship with me in his interview constituted further evidence of such “immigration intent”.

When Raúl’s job offer in Equatorial Guinea failed to materialize, I returned to Ecuador a few months later to work with Community Enterprise Solutions (CES). Prior to my return we bought a small café/bar in order to improve Raúl’s chances on a future visa application. The eight months that I lived with Raúl in Cuenca (the major city closest to Baños) were some of the most stressful either of us have lived. Both of us, for different reasons needed to work our full-time jobs in addition to running the café/bar in the evenings. Fourteen hour days were common. My own job involved regular trips to the field, occasionally leaving Raúl to work and run the café/bar by himself on the weekends.

In spite of the stress, we learned to work out any problems respectfully and enjoy the small things in life and the rare moments we had together, even if that meant just falling asleep together in exhaustion. On top of our work responsibilities, we also began the process of applying for a tourist visa for Raúl to come and visit for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration in August, 2011 to which he was cordially invited by my grandparents (Go here for more on my grandparents and coming out to my extended family after the Peace Corps).

Thanks to the pro-bono advice of Lavi Soloway of Stop the Deportations: The DOMA Project, Raúl and I were able to put together a much stronger tourist visa application (Read the story here).  Among the help we received was a Class B Referral from the Country Director of Peace Corps/Ecuador as well as a letter from US Rep. Bruce Braley. Though those letters guaranteed no particular outcome, they were helpful in getting the US Consulate to carefully consider Raúl’s well-prepared application. Against the odds, the US Consulate in Guayaquil approved Raúl’s visa. Upon hearing the news, I cried in relief, disbelief and sheer joy. Our hard work paid off.

The month and a half that we spent together in the US was unforgettable. Raúl was able to meet most of my dad’s side of the family all of whom received him with open arms. He also attended his first baseball and football game. Raúl was able to experience life in rural Illinois as well as in Chicago and New York City. Perhaps the highlight of the visit was when we got engaged atop my apartment building in Chicago on a beautiful autumn day, overlooking Lake Michigan, the University of Chicago campus and downtown in the distance.

To this day, Raúl continues to talk about his experiences with any Ecuadorians who will listen. In a very real way, the visit fulfilled Peace Corps’ second goal. However, Raúl’s visit also contributed to the third goal by leaving an impact on the Americans he encountered. Whether it was the conversations he had with my parents or the woven crafts workshop he gave at the local art league, he often shared stories and traditions from his native Ecuador. As a frequent translator, I often contributed my own perspective to the conversations.

Yet, perhaps more than anyone else, my understanding of the US, my family and my self was enriched by Raúl’s visit. In Raúl’s fascination with the common phrase “thank you so much” I became aware of the Midwesterner’s tendency to value politeness and civility, something one tends to take for granted when growing up there. I also began to understand the usual Ecuadorian lament about Americans’ carb-heavy and preservative-laden diets, something I had also taken for granted, even after 2 years of nutritious Ecuadorian fare! Naturally, these and other insights helped the two of us to learn about each other and provide a basis for mutual understanding even as we now live in different countries.

Though Raúl returned to Ecuador months ago, we continue to maintain contact as before with daily phone calls and Google video chat. Yet even with daily contact, it has been hard for us to live apart, and particularly for Raúl who now lives in what he describes as multiple worlds. In one, we are able to be open about our love for one another. In another, he must keep us and himself a secret for fear of losing his job and housing. Feeling foreign in his own country, Raúl cannot claim the US as home even though we both know it is the only place where our family, our love and our dreams for the future can be one.

Last week, Raúl and I celebrated our civil union on our two-year anniversary in Ecuador.  With a small group of our Ecuadorian friends, including my host mother and aunt from my Peace Corps site, we held a short ceremony and fiesta to commemorate our special day. The simple ceremony and reception (we spend most of our ever-diminishing resources on plane tickets) was a sign of what we hope to come. We both dream of someday “officially” marrying in the United States in the company of friends and family.

Though that day may still be far off, we are optimistic in light of a constellation of recent court rulings, legislative activity, and activism that may lead to a quicker solution than we originally thought. Currently, I’m collaborating with GetEQUAL, Stop the Deportations and Out4Immigration and their “Home for the Holidays” Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to petition Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to grant humanitarian parole to same-sex bi-national couples so that we can start our lives together in the US. This initiative was launched during the holidays to call attention to couples like Raúl and me who wish to spend the holidays with our families in the US.

This Christmas, many couples, including Raúl and me, know that we will not be together. However, because of efforts like “Home for the Holidays”, and the countless individuals and organizations working to bring about greater equality at all levels of government and in the private sector, next year may well be different. The two of us will certainly be counting our blessings on the 25th.  Many same-sex bi-national couples have not had the opportunity to travel to the US, as we had this August.  Yet, in spite of the obstacles, it has been worth every moment for Raúl and me.  We both look forward to continuing to learn and grow together in the years to come.

You can learn more about the “Home for the Holidays” Campaign online and sign the petition here.

You can contact Brad Mattan at bmattan@uchicago.edu.

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.

Reunited with Korea

- John Finn, RPCV

In October, while seated in a restaurant in Pusan, (South) Korea, with ten of my former students whom I had first encountered in a middle school classroom in 1970, I was overwhelmed by a flood of feelings, including the recognition that I had been lucky to have been a volunteer in Korea. Those years in the Peace Corps formed the central experience of my early adult life, and after almost four decades, I was reliving those meaningful memories as a result of an invitation extended by the Korean government.

Peace Corps maintained programs in Korea for 15 years (from 1966 to 1981), and in April of this year the Korea Society recognized the contributions of the more than 1,600 volunteers who had served there by giving Peace Corps an award at the Society’s annual dinner in New York. That event prompted the Korean ambassador to the United States to suggest that the Korean government host a series of reunions for former volunteers, and as a result of his initiative, in October the Korean government hosted 45 former volunteers (accompanied in some cases by spouses) in a return to Seoul. As far as is known, it was the first time in Peace Corps’ history that a host country had made such a generous gesture.

The six-day official program included visits to our original sites, luncheons and dinners sponsored by the Korean government, an introduction to Korea’s version of the Peace Corps, tours in Seoul, and in an exciting coincidence, a formal reception at the official residence of the U.S. ambassador. What made this moment so momentous was that our reunion coincided with the arrival of a new U.S. ambassador to Korea – Kathleen Stephens – the first woman to serve in that post, the first ambassador to speak Korean, and the first former Peace Corps Korea volunteer to represent our country there. It was thrilling to see the impact of her appointment – the press covered her every move, her former students, colleagues and friends were the subjects of countless interviews, and Koreans recognized her on the street. All the good will and warm feeling we former volunteers felt for Korea and that Koreans felt for us was in a dramatically symbolic way embodied in the presence of Ambassador Stephens.

On a personal level this trip was a chance for me to re-connect with Peace Corps Korea friends and staff, former colleagues and former students. It had been 21 years since I had last visited Korea, and over these past years I was curious about the dynamic and dramatic developmental changes in that country. It would also represent a chance for me to introduce Art Desuyo, my companion for the last 28 years who is now my spouse. In a 2003 article for this newsletter I predicted that I would have the need to be more forthcoming about myself should I return to Korea, and the reunion proved to be both opportunity and challenge.

I was eager to learn about the changing atmosphere for queer Koreans, and in a couple of evening forays in Seoul, we discovered a vibrant nightlife. I further wondered how Koreans would receive the news that at the age of 60 I still had no wife or kids. Art’s presence by my side was never questioned, but I hungered for the opportunity to discuss this important personal part of my being. Aside from a few special, satisfying private moments – on several occasions my former students told me that they were part of a changed Korea which was becoming a more accepting and understanding society – I was silent about my gay identity. But then an intriguing chance presented itself.

A former student of mine who is now a professor invited me to speak before his class on the topic of Volunteerism – with emphasis on what might be termed “open-minded curiosity.” So I spoke of my Peace Corps days and then talked about the broadening value of such an experience. In preparing for this presentation, I had read in an English-language newspaper article about the sad suicide of a 23-year-old Korean actor/model that had come out the year before. I used this article, which I brought into the classroom as a kind of visual aid, to venture into the world of tolerance and acceptance. I started with the case of Proposition 8 on the November ballot in California ballot. I explained how in 1948 the California Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage to people of different races. Then I pointed out that in 2008 the California Supreme Court once again made a dramatic ruling about same-sex marriage. Finally I talked more broadly about gay/lesbian rights. It was at this moment that I tried to find within myself the courage to make a personal declaration in front of these students, but I chose not to. Even after the passage of so many years, I still felt a cross-cultural distance between my desire to be direct and the demands of a Korean culture that lives by more subtle approaches.

The governmental embrace of our Peace Corps past was sincere and sincerely appreciated. We volunteers had made modest contributions to the extraordinary development of this formerly impoverished country, and we were proud to be so warmly recognized. The LGBT side of me recognizes that it will take longer for a similar social embrace.

The author can be contacted at Johnnfinn@aol.com

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