Becoming a Transman and into the Peace Corps

-A Current Peace Corps Volunteer

 Editors Note:

The writer is a recently assigned Peace Corps Volunteer in Southeast Asia. He hopes to write an article about his experience as a transgender volunteer in a few months.

Although I was unaware of it at the time, around the age of 9, two very important events would happen in my life that would shape the complex path of my future development as a human being. The first: I am allowed to cut my hair for the first time in my life. I get it cut as short as possible- even going back to the barbershop multiple times to have them cut shorter and shorter and shorter. I wind up with a very unflattering bowl cut. I love it. Between that and my new, giant, circular, powder-blue framed glasses, I think I am pretty cool. Until I go to school… where, for the first time in my life, I am asked The Question: “Are you a boy or a girl?”… Pause… wait, I have an option??

For the first time I am aware of myself and my body and how it relates to the forming gender identity in my young mind. … I think I might be a boy… “I’m a- girl?” This interaction starts a chain of thoughts that only build, grow and develop as I progress through this life as a transman. The second event: We are out at the farm of a family friend and the adults are all talking and catching up. It is late fall and I’m jumping around in the piles of leaves that have fallen to the ground. Grownup: “Tell me what’s new in your life Linda!” Linda: “Well most recently I have completed and submitted all of my paper work for my Peace Corps application. I am now in the eternal waiting period while they decide what country they will assign me to. I am excited for the future and what it holds.”

I had no idea what the Peace Corps was at the time, I only knew that my ears perked up at the word Peace and the implication of working internationally. I was hooked, I remember being excited about this Peace Corps thing and knowing that one day I would do… whatever it was that they did. It turns out the Peace Corps was not in the practice of accepting 9 year old applicants into their program. I spent the next several years picking up what bits and pieces of information I could find on the requirements for the Peace Corps, what work was done and the countries where volunteers served. With each piece of information I gleaned- from recruiting booklets to conversations with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to in-depth website research, I was more and more inspired and drawn to this work as a part of my future.

Fast forward about 10 years: I was able to talk about my gender identity with vocabulary and words I had never had before. I was coming to terms with myself as transgender, even if I did not have the faith and courage to have an open and honest conversation with my family. It was a period of difficult questions and introspective thoughts and battles. I had a series of mentors at that time who guided me in coming to terms with my gender identity and, equally as important, helped to guide me into what kind of person I wanted to be in life.

With their direction, and with the values and ethics instilled in me by my parents, I came to realize that helping those who were struggling with homelessness, broken families and a world of other issues, was my passion. I had parents who had been excellent role models for me in this capacity and I knew that I could create my own, similar path with the echo of their footprints to guide me. I started to think again about applying to the Peace Corps. I came to one of the very first questions on the application: Are you a boy or a girl? That question was deterrent enough to keep me from applying, plus it turned out that (at the time), the Peace Corps was not in the practice of accepting applicants without a college degree into their program.

Another 10 years later: I had started hormone treatment therapy nearly 10 years earlier. In this time I also managed to have honest conversations with my family and friends about my gender identity and came to the conclusion: I am absolutely blessed. There were most assuredly challenges along this road along with many difficult conversations. I also lost a friend or two, but those who stuck with me have also been with me and supported me unconditionally through many other significant hurdles that life has thrown my way. My family has proven themselves to be family not only in name but in action, support and love. I am incredibly lucky as I know so many others who have a different story with a much harsher reality. I am proud of who I am and am more comfortable in my body than I ever thought I would be. I have become secure in who I am as a person and how I interact as a transman in the world around me.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” I don’t get that question much these days but, for anyone who is open to listening, I have a long history of a story as an answer. And, after a nine year struggle, I also managed to graduate from college with a good GPA and a degree in Community and International Development.

It was time. I was at that point in life where I would again apply to the Peace Corps. This time it was for real. It also had become much easier to apply; everything was done electronically and through the Peace Corps website. I filled out all of the questions, essays, work history, education history, life history, and managed to find 3 people for references who were willing to go through the epic process of validating my character. I submitted my application with a pounding heart and held breath. Getting to this point had been a long process.

Nearly immediately after I hit the “submit application” button, I received an e-mail telling me that I was now required to fill out the Preliminary Health History Form. Ok, no problem, I can do it. First question? Are you a boy or a girl? Seriously?? It took me more time and more uncertainty to answer this question than it did to fill out most of the general application form. I had no idea how to electronically answer such a complicated question. There was no “both” or “neither” type of option and no person on the other end to explain “it’s complicated” too. So I did what I couldn’t do as a 9 year old: I made up my mind, gritted my teeth and hit the circle next to “male”.

Thus began what was, for me, the most grueling and time consuming portion of my Peace Corps process so far – The Medical Assessment. I was immediately assigned to the Head Peace Corps Nurse due to the “special circumstances” of my medical application. She was amazing and an incredible support during the medical clearance process. She did not always know the answers to my questions, but she made it clear that she would do whatever she could to advocate for me and find the answers I needed. She empathized with me as I was required to submit document after document after document. There were many times where I had to step back and remind myself that this medical process was part of what it took to apply for a government job. I reminded myself that the nurse was not trying to make this personally hard on me; she was simply doing her job.

Perhaps because the Peace Corps has not had many transgender medical applicants, there did not seem to be any protocol on how to handle my medical application. I essentially went through the process of submitting both the “male” and “female” health forms. I also had to go through a significant psychological evaluation not required by most applicants. I believe this is more than likely due to the fact that being transgender is still considered to be a mental health issue with a diagnosis still present in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). There were personal statements on how, when, where and why I gave myself testosterone shots along with the storage requirements, chemical composition and effects of testosterone. There was also an incredible amount of blood work that was analyzed. Without the support of the Peace Corps Head Nurse, the task of navigating through medical clearance would have, at minimum, been greatly prolonged and, at maximum, would not have been an achievable task. She has my gratitude and respect for making a painful process slightly less so.

Summer, slightly over a year from the initial application process; after several months of wading through paperwork; tiring out many doctors with my panicked calls and visits; saying farewell to friends and family, I left the United States to start my own, unique Peace Corps experience. In many ways, I had the same application process as many of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Each of us had struggles in our own right with various portions. Some struggled writing the essays, others struggled through the medical portion for reasons due to age, medical history or current medical ailments. What I have found as I meet more and more of the wider Peace Corp family is not only acceptance, love and genuine connection, but also that each of us has our own personal experience with the Peace Corps from the moment we apply until the moment we conclude our service. My experience happens to be wrapped intrinsically around my gender identity, but my hope as I continue on this journey, is to remember that throughout struggles I can always find those that will support me- and the excitement and happiness on the other side of that struggle is well worth the wait.

The writer can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Challenges Facing LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer

Editor’s Note:

Our listserv has over the years provided a forum for applicants, nominees, current and former PCVs to advise and support one another. A few months back a current volunteer posted a message asking for some advice about handling  feelings of isolation and alienation. There were six or eight responses from recent volunteers offering their experiences and excellent advice. We have chosen three of them that seem to summarize the best of all those responses. They are very slightly edited to removed location and other personal identity information. You can subscribe to the listserv by accessing lgbrpcv-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

The initial post:

Throwing a bone out to you all, because I’m starting to hit a wall. Perhaps that wall is the door of the closet slamming shut right in my face, all over again. I’m four months in country, homosexuality is illegal and it’s considered so unquestionably wrong in this culture that it’s not even thought of. I guess I identify somewhere between bisexual and queer – suffice to say I’ve loved men and women and find both attractive. But it didn’t really come up…or out… in my training and there isn’t an active LGBT support group in-country.

So, here I am attracted to the local population but realizing I could never have a real discussion about who I truly am with them, so feeling alienated. Feeling comfortable and supported by some PCVs but like I regressed back to high school and am afraid to tell the truth, so feeling alienated.

I just want to talk with someone about this and I really don’t think there’s much save for one or two in country so here I am. How did you keep your sanity during round two in the closet? And, to also get your ideas about how I can improve this situation and work on creating a safe space for LGBT PCVs in my post.

Thanks for the listening ear.

The first response:

I felt for you when I read your e-mail.  I vividly remember thinking, “What the f— did I get myself into?” Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer for you.  I did develop strong relationships with a few supportive PCVs, though that didn’t relieve the stress of the feelings of being alienated from my community – because, in fact, even though I had a few supportive relationships, I did remain alienated from my community. It really sucked, primarily because I was an alien to my community, and the only thing I could do was learn to live with the feelings of alienation. The good thing was that I discovered an inner strength I never knew I had. The bad thing was that I discovered an inner strength that I know I never wanted.

Take it one day at a time.  Try to maintain an objective perspective – the reason it feels challenging is because it is challenging.  And don’t forget to breathe!

Good luck!

Another response:

Congrats on making it four months into country so far. I’m sure you’re doing well. 4

Four months in can be a good moment of general existentialism, self-doubt and major loneliness/disconnect. It’s hard. But, I think that bringing up your feelings honestly to this listserv is a good start. I think one of the most difficult parts of PC is coming to realization that your value systems is just so different, conflicting with the people you’ve made a commitment to help.

I think the key will be to just hold out. I don’t think you’re betraying yourself if you’re keeping yourself safe. And don’t feel bad relying on using your supportive PC friends to talk about these issues. I was the only gay guy in both of my trainings and it caused me to have a mild freak out in regards to that. I felt whiney being like nobody understands how hard it is for a gay volunteer, but it’s a legitimate feeling. I felt even crankier when my lesbian friends started dating guys.

But, I guess I’ll say the main reason I made it was because I did rely on my friends who were supportive, not local people and I patiently waited to hear what local friends and colleagues would say. I did come out to a few of them, but not until the end of my time in each country (I was in two different countries).

As for creating a safe place in PC as an organization, I know that there are safe place trainings that take place. I would suggest speaking with someone who you trust about it. I think a lot of Country Directors are open to this. I found a lot of support through PC staff both local and American. from HCN staff and American Staff.

Also, to help your sanity: journal and make art about it. Have friends from home visit, get out of the country for a, shall we say, vaygaytion. But, please don’t be afraid to send messages back to people you know support you in PC.

I hope this helps and isn’t too rambling. I really hope you can find a way to process these tough feelings. But, I’m sure you’ll find resilience and a creative way to make this situation dealable and possibly better for others in your situation.

Best,

And Another Response:

It sounds like you are going through something that just about any LGBTQ Volunteer has experienced at some point during their service. I had taken it for granted that I lived my life as an openly gay man in the States before I went to my host country and found I had to hide that part of myself to the locals. While I knew I would have to do it, I found it took much more of a toll on me than I had anticipated over the course of my service.

I never came out to any local people, and I chose not to come out to any PC staff, American or not. I did, however, come out to other volunteers in my training group and eventually most other volunteers that I met throughout my service. I found everyone to be very supportive and that was crucial to my success and sanity as a Volunteer.

Additionally, in my country of service we had what is called a Peer Support and Diversity Network (PSDN) which is a completely Volunteer organized group that trains a selected group to deal with any personal issues that may come up with volunteers that they may not want to go to PC staff with directly. I was a member of this group, as well as an officer. It was very rewarding as we were able to help fellow volunteers as well as provide some diversity training for PC staff. If this does not exist in your country, I suggest you look into it and possibly start to organize such a group there. That may help you to take what you are feeling and put it into some positive action. A quick Google “psdn Peace Corps” didn’t come up with too much, but it might get the ball rolling, and someone on your country’s staff will probably be able to get you some more information.

Take care and good luck,

Placing Same Sex Couples (SSxCs) in Peace Corps Ukraine

- A Peace Corps Volunteer

Introduction

Peace Corps has a long history of embracing diversity and equal opportunity.  It is long standing PC policy that, “that no person will be denied equal opportunity under applicable laws for employment or Volunteer service opportunities because of his or her race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (over 40), disability, sexual orientation, marital status, political affiliation, union membership, or history of participation in either the EEO process or grievance procedure.”

On May 21, 2103, Peace Corps announced that we would be accepting applications from same-sex couples for Volunteer service beginning June 3. At a teleconference with Country Directors, it was explained that this new policy applies to every country except where homosexuality is criminalized. In the Eastern Europe, Mediterranean and Asia region (EMA), Morocco is the only country excluded on this basis. Ukraine decriminalized homosexuality activity in 1991. The first placements will begin in about a year. Each country was asked to develop a plan with a discussion of safety and other possible concerns as well as how to mitigate those concerns. Washington said that a trainer would come to train staff on how to support and place SSxC in countries where they will be accepted. Also each couple will have a pre-arrival phone call with the CD during the placement process.

Washington asked posts to share any local press or other reactions in host counties following Peace Corps announcement of the same sex couple policy. To our knowledge, there has been no coverage, pro or con, in Ukraine to date.

LGBT Issues in Ukraine

Homophobia runs deep in Ukrainian society with most LGBT people deeply closeted. In 2012, there was the first attempt to hold a gay parade in the capital, Kyiv, but it was canceled and the organizer was severely beaten. Also in 2012, a bill was introduced in the Parliament to ban advocacy of LGBT rights, but no action was taken after protests from Western embassies.

In 2013, a bill was introduced to give equal rights, but it received no action after public protests. Despite various objections from city officials, courts, and the Orthodox Church, the first ever gay pride rally did take place in Kyiv outside the city center on May 25. About 100 Ukrainian gay rights activists were protected by police who arrested 13 people for trying to break up the march. In response to criticism that he was too tolerant of gays, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church recently stated that the “sin of homosexuality is comparable to that of murder.”

According to some sources, support for LGBT rights has declined in Ukraine in recent years. Nash Mir (Our World) Gay and Lesbian Center coordinator Andriy Maymulakhin in his 2012 analysis said: “Over the past five years, the number of people who support granting equal rights to homosexual citizens has decreased from 42.5 percent to 34.1 percent. The number of people who think that homosexual citizens should have the right to register their relations as a conventional couple, has decreased from 18.8 percent to 15.8 percent. The number of people who think that homosexual citizens have a right to raise children has decreased from 21.5 percent to 17.1 percent.”  

In addition, “a Gorshenin Institute study done the same year showed 72 percent of Ukrainians had negative attitudes towards sexual minorities.” At the same time, the Kyiv Weekly (September 13, 2013) interviewed gay people who stated that their lives are gradually getting better over time. There have also been recent attacks in Ukraine against gays. Strong resistance to LGBT rights have also emerged in other former Soviet countries including Russia.

In Ukraine, there is a general lack of tolerance towards sexuality discussions in general, and LGBT issues in particular.  LGBT issues are tolerated less than HIV/AIDS discussions.  An example of how challenging HIV/AIDS discussions are is the situation with Ukraine’s only national clinic for HIV-positive patients located in the Lavra, a complex of monasteries in Kyiv, which has received extensive pressure to be relocated.

LGBT Volunteers in Ukraine

Despite these challenges, many LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers have served successfully in Ukraine during the post’s 21 years, although most have functioned “in the closet” without informing Ukrainians, except perhaps their very closest friends. Of course, living as a couple it will be much more difficult to avoid recognition of sexual orientation. This creates challenges that will likely be somewhat greater than those faced by single LGBT Volunteers.

Peace Corps Ukraine (PCU) staff has been trained and many are self-identified allies. The  GAD (Gender and Development Working Group) LGBT subcommittee serves as liaison between the PCV community and PC Ukraine office. This group has been worked on safe-spaces for PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) and PCVs and also provides plans and resources to Volunteers seeking to incorporate LGBT awareness into their service.

The GAD LGBT subcommittee also produced a video explaining the realities of living in Ukraine with tips for LGBT Volunteers in Ukraine, and this has been shared with Washington. The video states: “Being LGBT in Ukraine is not fair. . . it is taboo. . . You probably can’t be open with many host country nationals.” The video suggests using the Volunteer experience as an opportunity to promote tolerance in general, not just towards LGBT people, as that may attract unwanted attention.

The SSxC Working Group

The Peace Corps country office gathered a group of Peace Corps Ukraine staff, Volunteers, and interested US Embassy diplomats who met on September 27, 2013 to explore this issue further and help make recommendations as how to best proceed in Peace Corps Ukraine.   Participants were five PC Ukraine staff, five PCVs (including Volunteer Advisory Council leaders), and two American diplomats who are an SSxC.  The working group considered these questions and other relevant topics:

  • What are the safety risks for same sex couples in Ukraine?
  • Can the risks be reasonably mitigated (for example, placement in capital city only, female couples only, separation of couple during training, clustering, avoid school placements, etc.)?
  • Is it possible for a same sex couple to live together in Ukraine without attracting undue attention?
  • What training with be needed for staff, Volunteers, counterparts, host families, etc?
  • What training/information will need to be provided to the same sex couples?
  • How can LGBT couples best placed during PST?  What expectations would need to be set and relayed to the invitees regarding training and their ability to live together?  Would it be appropriate to separate LGBT couples during PST?
  • How might having SSxC impact housing standards and requirements?
  • Is it appropriate (or practical) to ask LGBT couples to live in the closet for the duration of their service?
  • Will LGBT couples do better in bigger cities? If so, how do we reconcile this with PCU’s plan to serve more underserved communities?
  • Should more emphasis for SSxC service be on goal 1 rather than goal 2 to avoid unnecessary conflicts/safety risks? (This might parallel the idea that embassy employees who live in Kyiv are here to work, and cultural integration is a much lesser priority than for PC). And, if so, how would this affect PST and would this mean setting up a “separate class” of PCVs?
  • How will government and community partners react? Is Peace Corp obligated to tell them we are placing same sex couples?  Does transparency help or hinder?  What about the press?
  • To what extent is PCU in general, and LGBT couples specifically, expected (or not) to advocate for America values on LGBT rights in Ukraine?
  • Is there any downside risk to the Peace Corps reputation in Ukraine if LGBT couples are invited?  Does PC appear too “political” or trying to impose our values?

Results of the Discussion and Additional Observations

There was not 100% consensus on many issues, but there was excellent, high quality discussion. There was general agreement that this is a worthy goal, and Peace Corps has an important role to play in advancing basic human rights.

The VAC had previously requested PCV input and received eight comments with a wide variety of opinions on the feasibility of SSxCs in Ukraine. While there was no consensus, the general feeling among these PCVs, if SSxCs are invited, is that public displays of affection would not be acceptable, big cities are safer, and female couples would have it easier.

The diplomats asked if PCVs in Ukraine are viewed as having special status that would socially protect them. The consensus is that PCVs are culturally expected to assimilate so this type of protection would not apply to Ukraine the way it might in some other countries.

PC staff expressed the view that SSxCs would need to be in the closet in order to be safe; culturally, Ukraine is following Russia’s lead to some extent. The US Embassy is advocating for LGBT rights so this might have some benefit over time.

One LGBT PCV said that SSxCs can live safely in cities, but not openly. He noted however that there is generally no “gay-dar,” that people never assume he is gay which is helpful.

Another PCV observed that SSxCs probably could not work as school teachers, and would have to work at NGOs or perhaps universities.

There was discussion of whether it is appropriate (or practical) to ask LGBT couples to live in the closet for the duration of their service?  In joining the PC, you need to adapt to cultural norms, but this could be very emotionally challenging for these couples.

Will staff ask counterparts and communities about acceptance of SSxCs as part of the site identification process and, if not, would this be “institutional deception?” It was noted that we do not identify PCVs as Jewish or having other characteristics.

One PCV asked if Peace Corps considered that, if there was the same safety risk for all PCVs as there would be for SSxCs, would the agency accept that risk?  He thought perhaps not.

There was discussion of housing and registration challenges in placing SSxCs. Most agreed that female couples pose less safety risk, although there have apparently been cases of Ukrainian men raping gay women to, in their view, convert them to heterosexuality.

It was stated that splitting up couples during PST would be preferred as it would be very challenging to find host families.

In addition to safety and practical concerns, the group discussed the risk that this might alienate the general public and create ill feelings toward Peace Corps, even perhaps leading to our being asked to leave Ukraine if there were incidents that resulted in bad press. How far do we go in trying to advocate for American values as opposed to assimilating culturally? What is the right balance?

One staff member, who was unable to attend, raised the question as to whether having SSxCs could perhaps harm our educational programs on tolerance. He referenced a discussion with the chairman of a leading LGBT NGO in Kyiv that supports NGOs in nine regions of Ukraine, who said: “Peace Corps’ purpose of promoting peace and friendship in Ukraine might be jeopardized by one single scandal related to a parent outraged by the fact that his or her child is taught by a gay man or woman. There are other methods to educate people about LGBT tolerance, and placing same-sex couples in schools is probably not the best method.”

This Ukraine LGBT leader also mentioned that some oblasts are more tolerant to LGBT issues than others. He cited Lviv oblast authorities as particularly non-tolerant, while Chernihiv city administration was more welcoming for LGBT NGOs. But, he expressed concern that a PCV who is open about sexual orientation may be perceived as someone pursuing the goal of “perverting” Ukraine youth.

Although not present for the discussion, the Peace Corps Ukraine Safety and Security Coordinator shared comments that he believes inviting SSxCs to Ukraine at this time is premature, high risk, and may result in physical assaults of PCVs.

To conclude, accept SSxCs is a worthy goal and Peace Corps has an important role to play in advancing basic human rights, but, at the same time, there is a significant risk to accepting SSxCs in Ukraine, both in terms of PCV safety and the future of the Peace Corps program in Ukraine. However, it may be possible to mitigate these concerns to some extent by:

1)    Fully advising SSxCs interested in Ukraine of the significant risks involved and that they will need to exercise caution and discretion for the duration of their service

2)    Accepting female SSxCs in preference to male couples

3)    Placing SSxCs in large cities only

4)    Separating these couples during PST for placement in host families

5)    Focusing on Community Development same-sex couples for placement in NGOs; avoid placement in secondary schools (although universities might be considered in some cases).

You can contact the writer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Placing Same Sex Couples as PCVs and Other Advocacy Issues

- Mike Learned, Group Leader, RPCV Malawi

May 21, 2013, a very important day at Peace Corps and for the LGBT Peace Corps community. It brought the announcement that Peace Corps would begin placing same sex couples together.  This was the latest of many policy changes we have advocated for over the years. Now is a good time to look back and review the advocacy we have championed and how it has influenced policy change at Peace Corps and positively affected our community.

Inclusion of Sexual Orientation in Peace Corps’ Non-Discriminatory Statement

Same-sex marriage laws around the world. Wikipedia.

Even though Peace Corps had been accepting lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers for many years, Peace Corps non-discriminatory statement which included the familiar race, nationality, age, gender, and disability language, did not include sexual orientation. In the early 1990s Peace Corps Director, Elaine Chow, visited San Francisco for an event that welcomed applicants, nominees, soon to depart PCVs, and the local RPCV community. A half dozen of us (active LGBT RPCV members) approached Director Chow (perhaps confronted would be a more descriptive verb) and presented her with a letter requesting that sexual orientation be included in Peace Corps non-discriminatory statement. She expressed surprise that it hadn’t been already. She took the letter, put it in her purse, and we never heard back.

The next Peace Corps Director we approached was Carol Bellamy. She was the first Peace Corps Director under President Clinton, and also the first RPCV to serve as Peace Corps Director. She had put together a much more progressive senior management team, and we had a couple of key allies among them and much lower level staff support. In 1994 Director Bellamy announced that sexual orientation would be included in the non-discriminatory statement. One down and a few more to go.

Accepting Healthy HIV Positive Applicants as Volunteers

By the late 1990s it became apparent to most in our community that people with HIV who were reacting positively to anti-retroviral therapies could live normal lives and be useful and skilled Peace Corps Volunteers. This was a much longer struggle. Over the years I talked with HIV+ applicants who had been turned down by Peace Corps Medical. One Peace Corps Medical Director I spoke with admitted that some HIV+ applicants could safely serve, but there were just too many questions. Then there was the issue that many countries where Peace Corps Volunteers served required volunteers to show proof they did not have HIV in order to receive work visas.

Although Peace Corps was not accepting HIV+ applicants, it had to deal with current Peace Corps Volunteers who became HIV+ while serving. There were several cases of this. They were brought back home their health evaluated and medically separated. In 2008, a very brave volunteer in the Ukraine, who became HIV+ during service was brought back to Washington, evaluated, and medically separated. He fought back and contacted the ACLU. They contacted Peace Corps and the press; suddenly every one was talking about the case. Shortly after, a volunteer in Zambia became infected. She was returned to DC, evaluated, and was about to be medically separated when Peace Corps (influenced by the Ukraine case, no doubt) said that since her health was good she could return to Zambia, or be placed for the last year of her tour in Lesotho. Her name is Elizabeth Tunkle, and she wrote a wonderful article for our website about her time in Lesotho actively speaking to high school students about her own HIV status and ways to prevent HIV. So another issue down and a few more to go.

Including LGBT PCV Examples in Recruiting Materials

This occurred during the George W. Bush administration under Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez. I had met Director Vasquez on a couple of occasions, and he assured me that he would never act in any discriminatory way toward LGBT volunteers or staff. He was a religious and political conservative, but I took him at his word. Every so often Peace Corps produces recruiting materials that features the racial, ethnic, gender, age, and disability diversity of Peace Corps volunteers in programs around the world. But they never featured an openly LGBT recent volunteer. Finally, one rather gentle story was added to some recruitment materials written by a gay RPCV who had served in the Philippines. Right before going to press the senior manager in charge ordered a “stop the presses” and “remove that story.” An ally at Peace Corps headquarters called me immediately. I went directly to Vasquez. He overturned his manager’s decision, and the recruiting brochure went to press as designed. One more down, but still some more to go.

Placing Transgender Volunteers

I had never heard of a Peace Corps policy that rejected or accepted transgender volunteers. I’d heard a few stories over the years about a couple of trans volunteers who served very quietly, but never heard more than that. Several years ago an older transwoman contacted us. She had transitioned many years earlier had applied to the Peace Corps and had been nominated as a volunteer. She had had a very successful career. She seemed a perfect fit for the program she had been nominated for. But Medical had questions about her gender transition and turned her down. I wrote a letter to the Medical Director at the time suggesting a review of the case, but got a reply that basically said he couldn’t discuss the health or medical issues of any applicant.

Around 2005 I heard from a transman who applied to the Peace Corps with note worthy skills and experience. He was being questioned by Medical in what he felt was and unfair and discriminatory way. I spoke with a personal contact I had within Peace Corps Medical who explained (as I knew) that the contact was constrained by ethics and policies around medical and health information. I suggested that the situation could be looked at again and more thought given to a decision of whether to accept or reject the applicant. The applicant won over medical staff and was accepted and had a very successful experience as a volunteer, and has since gone on to even more important work in the developing world. One more down and just one more big one to go.

Placing Same Sex Couples Together as Volunteers

We have been actively advocating the placement of same sex couples together as volunteers since the very beginning of the Obama administration. After the legalization of same sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004, Peace Corps modified its policy for placing married couples together to reflect the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act’s (passed in 1996). Prior to this Peace Corps identified couples as married according to the state laws in which they presided. This included the recognition of common law marriage if it was recognized in an applicant couple’s state of residence. The revised Peace Corps policy stated that because of DOMA only a married couple who were a man and a woman would be eligible as applicants.

Several recent factors led to our decision to aggressively push this discriminatory policy toward resolution. These included the election of the current administration and the appointment of a more progressive Peace Corps Director and senior staff, and a policy change that allows the same sex partner/spouse of Peace Corps staff serving overseas to have the same rights and privileges of the opposite sex staff couples where all parties are American citizens. It also helped that more states had legalized same sex marriage and domestic partnerships, and polls indicated that there was an increase in the number of Americans, particularly younger Americans, who supported same sex marriage and domestic partnerships.

We started with a letter to Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams. We got a quick response informing us that a member of Peace Corps headquarters staff would contact us. This began a dialogue about how to prepare and implement a policy that would allow the placement of same sex couples, but this process took longer than I thought. I spoke personally to both Director Williams and his successor Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radalet. And there has been much communication between us and Peace Corps staff over the last couple of years about this. And finally the May 21 announcement.

We Did Not Do This Alone

Through all the years of our advocacy on these issues, we did not work alone. Peace Corps staff has included many supportive members of the LGBT community and loads of straight allies. Three years ago or so we offered suggestions for ongoing Medical Officer training to include a discussion of the physical and mental health needs of LGBT PCVs. We have also worked closely with Peace Corps and LGBT PCVs and their straight colleagues to offer several versions of Safe Zone training on our website. We have contributed suggestions for diversity training in initial training programs to include local LGBT topics for PCVs new to their countries of service. Many Peace Corps recruiters and country desk officers refer LGBT applicants, nominees and invitees to our web site.

As recent polls have indicated, there has been a huge increase in support for equal rights for LGBT people among the general population. All of these trends and the support of our allies have worked in our favor, energizing the many steps forward in our search for equality as members of the Peace Corps family and as citizens.

You can contact Mike Learned at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Guarding My Sexuality in Botswana

- A Peace Corps Volunteer

The other day a fellow PCV invited me to an LGBT pool party coming up in Gaborone, the capital. This was strange to me to begin with because I don’t know any locals who are members of the LGBT community. My village is very small and very remote. And considering the climate in my area regarding issues of homosexuality, I am not out as a gay man. Since Botswana is very small (only 2 million people) I am always somewhat on guard to make sure I don’t accidentally out myself, because word travels fast.

For me this has been easily the most difficult part of my service. Back in the United States I was a very vocal advocate for LGBT issues. I first started coming out to people when I was 15. During my time in college I was the head of the GSA on our campus and the Diversity Committee of our Student Senate. So feeling the need to head back into the closet has been challenging to say the least. Nowadays the only time I mention anything related to being gay outside of my contact with other PCVs is when talking about respect and social responsibility towards all people with the kids I work with. Even then I still distance myself from my own orientation. I always lead off with, “I have friends back in the US who are…”

At times I feel that I am closing off a part of me, and that does make it harder to have friendships with the people in my community. When I am hanging out with teachers from the school, or the nurses over at the health post the conversation often drifts to, “Why aren’t you dating anyone? Did you have a girlfriend you left in the US?” And so on. So while I can have good conversations with people, eventually it leads back to me having to lie yet again, and keep guarding myself.

There has only been one instance during my service that caused me severe discomfort, and even some fear, regarding being gay here. I was at a multi-day event and one of the teenage girls had told another PCV that she was a lesbian. The PCV asked if I would be willing to talk to her since the girl had a lot of questions she was unable to answer. There were many reasons in my head why I should not do it, all of them concerning self-preservation of my hidden identity. First of all, with how small Botswana is, if word got out the people back home would probably know I was gay before I even showed up back there. Secondly, the girl lived in my shopping village, so there was a chance I would run into her often.

Despite this I decided to go ahead with the conversation. I came to Botswana to help people, and this was a way that I was uniquely qualified to give help. She mostly was looking for advice on how to talk to her family about being a lesbian. She was already out to a few friends, so I told her to use them for support, and also not to feel rushed to tell her family if she wasn’t ready. All in all it seemed to go pretty well.

In the next few days that girl ended up telling some other event facilitators that she was a lesbian. As soon as I had heard about this from the other facilitators I grew quite nervous since I was not sure if she had told them about me as well. From what I was able to gather from her, she did not. There is still the chance that she could tell people somewhere down the road, which is a risk I knew I was taking, but one I felt necessary to try and help her out.

I still think that at any day people here could start to figure out I am gay. Not only because of that event, but also because I have started to become closer with my co-workers to the point where I even have a few of them on Facebook (which considering some of the things I post is a big deal). I have even lately been considering telling some of them who I am closest to. Yet, I have not quite reached that point, and until then I am completely isolated in my village regarding even people to talk to about being gay.

But I do have a friend who lives much closer to the capital. She has LGBT friends (mostly people of other cultures working here). They have movie nights, and other events aimed at bringing LGBT people in Botswana together. In a sense Botswana is 2 different worlds. In the bigger areas, and especially the capital, you can go around fairly unnoticed. This means you can find other LGBT people and not have to worry about censoring yourself all the time. But in the remote areas, you are lucky if you are able to walk to the tuck shop without stopping and talking for a minute with at least 5 different people.

And for me, I am starting to meet some more LGBT people. I did end up going to that pool party in Gaborone. And to my big surprise (since I thought I would never even be able to talk about it during my time in Botswana at all) I actually met someone there who I am now seeing regularly. And while our relationship is very under the radar (although several of my PC friends know) it is still liberating to be able to express that part of myself.

So I think I would have to say that Botswana has some LGBT culture, but unless you are posted to a large area you may not find it that easily. And while yes, being gay in Botswana can be very challenging, the work we do here is very rewarding. I have tough days, when I just want to go home and beat my head against the wall, but ultimately the work I do with the youth in my community is more important to me than my discomfort about closeting myself. After having been here a year, I can say you get a little more comfortable about covering your orientation, and that I have made small headway with at least being able to talk about homosexuality with some people in my community, though always devoid of personal identification.

All in all though, I am actually very grateful to be a gay male in Botswana, even if I am closeted. This experience has taught me much more about myself, my limitations, and my strengths and has caused me to appreciate how much I have grown. I would say to anyone that don’t let being a member of the LGBT community stop you from engaging in challenging situations, at the very least you will learn a lot from it.

You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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