Serving as the First: A Same-Sex Couple Perspective

By Jessica and Khayla

My partner and I knew that we always wanted to join Peace Corps. Like all those who have come before us, it was a dream. We didn’t want to become another person in their aging years proclaiming “I should have… I would have…. I could have…” So we did. Knowing we couldn’t serve together we tried in our interviews to at least get placed on the same continent. As we received our invitations our hearts broke. Africa and South America. It doesn’t get much farther. With one of our staging dates coming 6 months before the other, we were going to be apart for 32 months. Thirty two. Even now the number is hard to grasp. But this was our dream, how could we not take the leap? So I went off to staging first, and that was the first time I truly felt my heart break. It wasn’t for another 16 months that my heart would be whole, when thanks to the wonderful staff of Peace Corps and Peace Corps Ecuador that I was able to put my pieces back together.  I am incredibly grateful and proud to be a part of one of the last couples that will ever have to feel the pain of being separated.  The pain that comes only because I fell in love with someone who checks the same box as me on forms. Female. It’s a huge and scary leap that Peace Corps is taking into the new age, but if you spend 10 minutes with my partner and I, and see our relentless love and gratitude to be serving together, you’ll know it’s the right choice.

Jessica and Khayla share their success story as a same-sex couple in the Peace Corps.

Jessica and Khayla share their success story as a same-sex couple in the Peace Corps.

First, let’s touch on the challenges that come as a same-sex couple serving abroad. With regards to being out at site, my partner and I have made the decision to not tell any host country nationals about our relationship. The decision was a personal one, and ultimately was made to maintain our safety in country.  I work with three wonderful women, whom I’ve witnessed talking positively about homosexuals in Ecuador, but I still have reservations about telling them because of the gossipy nature here. I don’t think my coworkers would ever maliciously tell anyone about our relationship, but everyone I’ve met separately in Loja seems to know each other in one way or another. So, one small piece of gossip could become a universal truth in less than a week. We each go to the other person’s organization/school to help when we have the day off from our prospective jobs (Health and TEFL are our respective programs) and each of our colleagues loves the other. Any time either has an after-hours event or social gathering, they make sure we are bringing our lovely roommate and friend. Keeping this secret is absolutely a challenge; finding new reasons for why I don’t want an Ecua-boyfriend, dodging blind-dates from host family members, and above all having to watch as men make passes in cafes or bars at my partner and not being able to tell them that not only is she taken, but that she’s with me!, can be trying.

Another challenge is not being treated the same as married couples, with staff and other Ecuadorians. When my partner and I are booked for a hostel room in the capital city for medical purposes, the hostel staff is just doing their job when assigning another female Volunteer to our room or requesting that we move into a room with another female Volunteer, because that is their standard procedure.  But if we were a heterosexual couple, no one would ever be added to the room. We wouldn’t have to worry about acting “normal” in front of strangers, or explaining when we slip up and call the other one “honey”. This can be helped by the Peace Corps staff by keeping the couple in mind and making sure the hostel puts them in a double room. I know it’s an extra step, but being treated as a normal married couple will gain the unyielding respect of your future same-sex couples. When we encountered this situation for ourselves, Peace Corps Ecuador handled it quickly and professionally, something we appreciated and a feeling of support that we will never forget. Additionally, if a same-sex couple puts in a reimbursement for the cheapest double room they could find on their way to mid-service, when they could have spent less if they had stayed in a dorm room with strangers, be kind and accept the receipt.

Again, it’s the little things that will make your couple feel safe and welcomed.

Although we have to watch what we say and how we act around our landlord, one of the advantages of living in Ecuador as a same-sex female couple is that everyone who knows we live together is overwhelmingly supportive and genuinely relieved that we have each other for company. This is definitely a cultural advantage for us. However, that’s not to say that male couples would be subject to suspicion. Because we are foreigners in a new country and culture we would recommend more than anything that a same sex-couple be aware of their site’s views on homosexuality when making decisions about how to act and what information is shared with host country nationals.

Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, other challenges that we’ve faced have originated with other PCVs. Again nothing that has happened was done maliciously, but because they aren’t constantly thinking about their sexuality or trying keeping their relationship private. For example, sometimes we will invite another volunteer over for dinner and they show up at our door with an Ecuadorian we’ve never met. At this point we have to run and shut two doors (one to our actual bedroom, and one to the room we tell others is my room, which sorry to digress, but same-sex couples will most likely need to rent two-bedroom homes if they want to invite host country nationals over and maintain their relationship privacy) and hide anything around the apartment that may hint that we are a couple, like an anniversary banner I once had hung up in the kitchen. PCVs don’t immediately see why it would be important to mention they are bringing someone over whom we don’t know, because it’s not something they’ve ever had to think about. They also may forget themselves and make passing comments about our relationship around others, creating a stressful moment as we wait to see if the other guest didn’t hear, or if we need to explain ourselves/think of a quick lie. In another situation my partner was outed to one of her colleagues by another Volunteer. This placed her in a difficult situation, not knowing what her counterpart would think, say or do with this newfound information. Thankfully everything turned out okay; my partner’s Program Manager was incredibly supportive, met with her and her counterpart (who ended up being both understanding of the delicacy of the situation and accepting of our relationship) and to this day we haven’t had any problems. That being said, most Peace Corps posts have begun preparing LGBTQ couple specific training for the office staff, but it’s important to remember sensitivity, respect and outing training for Volunteers as well. Despite having listed the above challenges, we want to mention that more than anything they’re just things to think about. Things to be aware of to help anticipate and prevent any potential bumps in the road.

The good! Let’s talk about the good! My partner and I are ecstatic to be serving together, and all of the volunteers close to us are happy to have us here as well. About twice a month we host small dinners at our apartment for the local PCVs, we take a poll and cook whatever people are craving. I love to cook and my partner loves to bake. I wouldn’t say we are the best chefs in the world, but you certainly won’t hear any complaints from the Loja area volunteers! We also adopted a kitten a few months ago named Milo (pronounced Meelow, the Spanish way!)  He’s adorable and always the hit of the party when we host group dinners. Additionally, my partner and I have taken on a secondary project teaching two classes a week at the Universidad Nacional de Loja. Each class is three hours long, and we are teaching students who are studying to become Ecuador’s future English teachers. They are so driven and dedicated; it’s an honor to be a part of their education. All in all, my partner and I couldn’t be happier. We are living a dream we never imagined could or would ever become a reality. The opportunity to live and serve together as Peace Corps Volunteers is absolutely incredible! We feel complete and happy and beyond appreciative. But at the end of the day, we’re still Volunteers, the same as any other couple serving in any country; we just have to put a little more thought into our actions when we are out in public. The majority of our interactions with PC staff are the same as with any other volunteer; VRFs, questions for program managers, calling medical when ill, etc. We go to work, interact with our communities, plan projects, engage in mutual cultural exchanges, and truly love being a part of Peace Corps. We recognize that introducing same-sex couples to Peace Corps is scary.

But it’s also unbelievably exciting. If you have any specific questions or concerns please let us know. We are more than happy, if not eager, to engage in a dialogue about our experiences and insights.

Transgender PCV Expands the Definition of Family

- A Peace Corps Volunteer, Southeast Asia

Editor’s note: This is the second article this writer has contributed to our website. The first from last year http://lgbrpcv.org/2014/11/16/becoming-a-transman-and-into-the-peace-corps/  describes the process a transgender applicant goes through to be accepted by Peace Corps. We plan to host more articles as this volunteer proceeds through his Peace Corps career. For security reasons we have not named the volunteer or the specific country where he serves.

I am now in my first year of Peace Corps service living in my adopted community. Already, it would be possible for me to write pages upon pages of what I have learned and how kind and loving this community has been to me. It all has to do with the people; they are the center of my growth and learning here. From the Peace Corps Volunteers I met on Day One to the host family I have lived with to the people I work with- they are the ones who are impacting my daily life. As I have found my place in this community, they are the ones continually teaching me about the ever broadening definition of family and acceptance.

I live and work in a very small community. I am living with a host family and there are anywhere from 6-10 of us that reside in a comfy 3 room house. Our water is pumped from a well across the road and hauled into the house in buckets for daily use. We have electricity but it is not always dependable. We wash our laundry by hand; purchase and cook the food we eat together for three meals per day (no refrigerator); and clean with homemade brooms and rags made from old clothing.

Together we live in harmony and good company. My host family has become like a second family to me. They show me they care by constantly trying to get me to eat as much food as possible; by making sure I am comfortable in the room I sleep in; and by making sure that I never go anywhere on my own. Quick trip to the store to buy cell phone minutes? I am accompanied by anywhere from 2-5 children. Stop by the bakery for a quick snack? My older host sister will trail my walk on the motorcycle. They have introduced me to every extended family member who lives in our community and have gone out of their way to include me in family events. My younger host brother has shown me how to play some of the children’s games and the three young granddaughters who live across the street enthusiastically run towards me whenever I am on my way home from work. Despite the language and cultural barriers, we are still able to communicate mutual love, respect and caring. They have taken me in to their lives and have shown me what it means to be a part of a family in their culture- which has expanded my view and thought on what family means.

In my community, I work in Youth Development with some of the economically poorest of the population here. Here too, I have found family in the people I work with every day. In the Life Skills sessions I lead, the parents and youth have drawn me into their lives and have welcomed me with open hearts and generosity. We have many commonalities- from reading, to drawing, writing, swimming, cooking and a passion for teaching and learning. I am able to share with them experiences from my life and knowledge that the Peace Corps has taught me in order to communicate life skills that range from self confidence and how to be a good role model to English and Mathematics tutoring. In return, they have shown me that many struggles of youth transcend boundaries of culture. Many of the impoverished youth here are facing the same struggles as some youth in the United States: the struggle to stay in school versus working to provide money for their family; the struggle for a family to support them in higher education goals and the lack of available work and support systems. These youth and parents are also becoming part of my broader family every time they share with me their thoughts and hopes and every time they accept me and my presence in their community.

If there has been one aspect of myself I have been unable to share with my new host and work families it is my gender identity. In the past, when I have not been able to be open and honest with people about my gender identity, I have felt as though that one issue was a barrier to having a meaningful relationship with them. Serving in the Peace Corps has already taught me otherwise. I find that I have meaningful, fulfilling relationships with my host family, my co-workers and the families and youth that I work with despite not being open about every aspect of myself, my identify and my history. This has been a significant revelation to me and is one part of myself and my paradigm that I am continuing to reassess and contemplate.

Sexuality in my host culture is very different from the culture of the United States. Here, boys walk to school with their arms draped across each others’ shoulders; women and female youth walk hand and hand or arm in arm as they walk down the street. This act, which would be very out of place in most American neighborhoods, is an act of comfort and friendship here. There are also gay and lesbian people in my community, but once again, it is a very different culture. Many boys are openly identified by the adults and their peers in the community as gay at a very young age (usually based on their mannerisms and physical characteristics). It is accepted as a part of who they are and is not questioned in my community. Having said that, it is also not common to see gay youth or adults in relationships with other men, at least not in public.

Lesbian women in my community are not talked about. There are several women about whom I have heard hints of conversation like “she dresses like a boy” or some other subtle comment, but they are much less openly talked about compared to gay men. It is never directly mentioned that they are attracted to women.

It is a different dynamic as you go to larger cities or communities that have a college campus. Same gender pairings are becoming more common to see in public and it is more acceptable to live with the person you are in a relationship with, but this is not the case in my community yet. I have also heard no mention of transgender individuals, while I am certain that there are transgender people in my host country, I have not yet been able to find a community of local transgender individuals even in the closest, larger city.

This leads me to the family I have found among the other Peace Corps Volunteers. When I first got here, I knew I would have to find allies in some of my fellow volunteers if for no other reason than safety, security and the unlikely event of a medical emergency. I also knew that, if I was unable to be completely open with the people in my host community, I would have to find another outlet in my Peace Corps community. What I did not expect was the warmth, understanding and unconditional respect and love that I would receive in response. While I am not open with every single Peace Corps staff and volunteer, those who I have felt comfortable enough to disclose my gender identity to have been overwhelmingly supportive of me. Of course there have been questions and curiosities and many in-depth, gender-based conversations, but it has been out a genuine desire to understand and appreciate fully the extent of the person I am.

The medical and in-country staff  have also been outstanding. Once again, and as I expected, there is a lot of teaching and education on my end. The medical and in-country staff have no experience working with transgender individuals, but they have a strong desire to learn and an even stronger characteristic of support, respect and conscientiousness that has been quite touching to experience. Without my Peace Corps family completing my understanding and experience of “found family”, my service here would be much more stressful and, at times, frightening. Knowing that I have the support of Peace Corps doctors, staff, and peers who will show up, without hesitation, to support and vouch for me should I find myself in need of such things, has allowed me to relax and enjoy the experience I am having instead of just trying to safely get through it.

Finding new definitions of family along with a wide expanse of people who provide me with different components of family (and who hopefully I do the same for in return), has been one of the most surprising aspects of my Peace Corps service so far. I expect that these new families of mine will continue to surprise and impress and teach me as I carry on throughout the next several years. I find that, while I was a bit nervous about the location I was placed in for Peace Corps service, it has turned out to be more than what I could have ever dreamed and has, so far, surpassed my expectations.

You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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

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