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

It’s Not That Bad in Paraguay

- Manuel Colon, former PCV

My application and recruitment process for Peace Corps did not prepare me properly for serving as an out Gay man in Paraguay. Prior to my arrival in country, it was very unclear to me whom I could disclose my orientation (or if I should at all). I was really concerned about staying closeted for two years, and really prepping myself to be a celibate hermit. I can’t speak for all of the Queer volunteers, but I do know that those who I have spoken with have also echoed my initial preoccupations and reservations about being ill-prepared to handle their “out” identities in Paraguay. My local recruiter seemed pretty positive about my sexual orientation and service, although, she did gave me the standard warnings about cultural and gender norms in Latin America. But, I also received a follow-up call from the Paraguay desk staff in Washington really driving home the idea that I’ll need to prepare myself for being closeted for two years and the general non-acceptance of gays in the country I was being invited to (she wouldn’t disclose Paraguay over the phone).

I suppose if I had done some really good research, I could have resolved some of my concerns and uncertainties about being out in Paraguay on my own. But, I doubt it would have been effective. After living in-country for 20 months I now know that there is very little (accurate) information about Paraguay on the internet (and even less in English). Which is why I was inspired to write this piece. I want anyone who is reading this; the local recruiter, the Washington Office desk officer, the interested applicant, the recent invitee, etc, to please know, it’s not that bad!

I commonly use an example from our staging in Miami that demonstrates the general discomfort and confusion about how candid and honest we can be about our sexual orientation when coming to Peace Corps. My training class was pretty big (47 total) and it has come to light that at least 6 of us openly identified as Queer prior to coming to Paraguay. Though, when we were in Miami and running through the classic “Biggest Hope”/ “Biggest Fear” activities, only one of us mentioned her sexual orientation. One, only one of six! It clearly was on my mind and a definite fear of mine (and I would imagine the five other’s too). But, between the conversations I had with my recruiter and the Washington Office desk officer, I understood that I had to keep quiet about my sexual orientation and stay in the closet. I didn’t know if that meant to everyone, other volunteers, staging staff, in-country staff, or only host country nationals… to whom exactly?

During training you’re in a small bubble, with little information about what really is going on Paraguay and with other volunteers. Among my training group, little by little  my peers opened up about their sexual orientation and we’d talk about it together; what our experiences were back home, what we expected in Paraguay, who we had told so far, etc. But, as luck would have it, it turned out there was a volunteer-led diversity advocacy group, Jopara, that offered safe space for Queer volunteers (and other identities) and apparently there was a tradition after every swear-in to go dancing at a Gay club in the capital. Wait… Let’s unpack that a little. There is a Gay club here in Paraguay? Volunteers know about it? And frequent it? Where was that in my Welcome Handbook? And wouldn’t you know it, there isn’t just one Gay club, there are several. In fact, two new ones have opened up since I’ve been here. Additionally, there are several Queer NGOs, Pride/Equality rallies and marches, and LGBT movie festivals.

All in all, there is a whole bunch of Queer positive activity happening in Paraguay. Like most progressive movements, these activities are concentrated in the capital. But, hell, why didn’t anybody tell me that they existed in the first place? I distinctly remember being on a new site visit and a fellow trainee and I were taken to a Gay karaoke club in the capital where we ran into some other volunteers. When Glee’s version of Madonna’s “Vogue” played across the screen I thought to myself “If this is Peace Corps Paraguay, I’m going to be alright”.

I understand that recruiters and desk officer need to paint the toughest possible picture of service, because it is a reality that some volunteers will have to live. In fact, while I seem to be ranting and raving about the progress that exist in the capital, I don’t know any volunteers (myself included) who actually are out to their communities. However, just like lots of other concerns and worries about your service that are created before even getting in country, I think they can be alleviated before arriving here too. No one should come into service thinking it will be a walk in the park, much less Queer volunteers. But, there needs to be no confusion over who a volunteer can be out to during their service. Peace Corps Paraguay wants to support its volunteers, all volunteers! And if that involves you disclosing your sexual orientation, that’s okay! As with any new setting you should be cautious about individuals who may not receive the information well. But, it’s okay to tell your trainee peers, your sector bosses and general office staff. The PC medical officers will probably be the first you’ll disclose it to, or at least it was for me. During my mandatory, arrival medical check-in I was asked about my plan for contraception, I replied “Homosexuality.” I find it very unlikely that I’ll be getting anyone pregnant here and I thought it was important they knew that. Invitees and interested applicants need to know that the in-country staff is supportive of diversity issues and are open to having that conversation.

I just want to let whoever is reading this know, that upon entry to Peace Corps Paraguay you’ll be greeted by a community of Queer volunteers and straight allies that want to make sure you have an excellent and meaningful service and an office that supports you too. Really, it’s not that bad.

The writer can be contacted at macolon2@gmail.com

Serve As a Peace Corps Volunteer Where I’m Illegal?

- Mike Learned, RPCV, Malawi, Editor

A couple of months ago there was a very interesting conversation on our listserv. About ten participants responded to a question/comment from a recent gay applicant. He said that he told his recruiter that he would not serve anywhere where he was illegal. I and the respondents assumed that this meant in countries where homosexuality is illegal. I immediately thought. “Does that mean where homosexual acts are illegal or something more?” I was prompted by the many new and proposed laws, particularly in parts of Africa, that would also criminalize support for human rights for LGBT people and gay marriage, speaking out or writing about such support, actually being or acting as a homosexual (What? Cruising?), and other troubling situations.

Our listserv does have a good search capability. Alan Silverman, our International Communications Board Member, purposely places the country name involved in the subject line of his posts. So, a listserv participant, perhaps an applicant or a nominee for a position in a particular country, could search by country name and see the posts that had been posted about that country by date, and learn about any current LGBT issues there. But posts by topic are not always so easy to find because the searcher might not guess the right “search” word or phrase. So, I decided to summarize these posts as an article on our website where it would remain and could more easily be found.

The responses to the applicant’s comments were interesting. A couple of posters said that they had told their recruiters or placement officers that they were concerned about their security in a country where they had been nominated because of homophobic laws and cultural values. In these cases the posters said that they had been offered and posted in countries where they felt more secure. This jelled with a couple of other cases I’ve heard about over the years where concerns about security for LGBT applicants did affect placement. I am also aware of a few other cases where LGBT volunteers were placed in urban areas by local country staff, usually because the volunteer could be more anonymous and secure in such a setting, rather than in a small village or town in remote areas where everybody knew everyone else’s business.

There were several posts that encouraged the applicant to be more flexible and take the chance and go to one of the countries he wanted to avoid. The argument being that many LGBT volunteers had really had successful times in such locations, and came back home with a much keener sense of what our LGBT brothers and sisters in much of the developing world have to cope with. Many LGBT volunteers and their straight colleagues over the years have been active in coming to know local LGBT and related Human Rights groups and worked with them, often below the horizon.

As an organization we have always urged LGBT volunteers to come to know their local societies and the situations of what we identify as LGBT members of their communities. Articles on our website describe how many LGBT PCVs have been able to come out to trusted members of their host country communities. After taking the trouble to come to know their local friends and the details of their lives, these local friends have shown acceptance and respect when volunteers tell about theirs.

Recent and current PCVs have developed Safe Zone and related training materials in Latin America, Africa and the Mideast for their local host country national staff to make them more aware of the concerns of LGBT volunteers and ways of supporting them. These sessions, within the local Peace Corps family, have been very successful.

One of our posters was a Peace Corps employee. She reminded all of us of some the of the core expectations that Peace Corps has of all volunteers, including, “Serve where Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service.”

There is another expectation that directly applies here. “Recognize that you’re successful and sustainable development work is based on the local trust and confidence you build by living in, and respecting integrating yourself into, your host community and culture.”

You can see all 10 Core Expectations for Peace Corps Volunteers here:

http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/about/pc_core_volunteer_expectations.pdf

I think this last mentioned expectation is one that many volunteers have the most difficulty with. What if the host community and culture is profoundly homophobic or transphobic? What if the host community and culture is highly patriarchal and treat women unequally or even worse? What if the local community is strongly anti-Semitic or anti-Christian? Situations like this would pose challenges for a wide swipe of volunteers.

After a chat with a couple of Peace Corps staff I did find out about some current realities. If an applicant is adamant about serving in a particular country or region, that person usually isn’t considered. If an applicant is concerned about serving in particular countries because of personal security issues related to gender, sexual orientation or religion, the application might be moved forward, particularly because of the skills and experiences of the applicant. But in these cases, by reducing the number of possible placements, the applicant is reducing her or his chances of an assignment. This is particularly true now (late 2011). There are so many applicants for the few places that are still available in 2012. Part of this is because of the economy and the unemployment rate. Many people getting out of college or graduate school think that a couple of years in the Peace Corps will enhance their job seeking skills after they return from a challenging assignment to a hopefully better job market. Also Peace Corps is concerned about future budgetary limits that may cause it to reduce the number of country programs and the volunteers it places.

So what should LGBT applicants say when they have concerns about homophobic laws and culture in countries where volunteers serve. The posters on the listerv did say that it was a valid point to bring up to recruiters and placement officers, but the general suggestion was flexibility and exhibiting a genuine desire to serve. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article that seems pretty up-to-date about LGBT rights (or lack of them) in countries around the world.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_by_country_or_territory

And this link identifies the countries where Peace Corps serves.

http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.wherepc

You can reach Mike Learned at learned_mike@yahoo.com

Knocking Out Depression in Tanzania

-Mick Zelski, RPCV, 2007-09

In my final year of college, as graduation finally looked like it might be a reality for me, I naturally had to face the looming question of what I was going to do next. What kinds of opportunities were out there for an anthropology major who had experience working on a organic farm? One day while walking through the student union, I noticed a table staffed by a lone woman with information about Peace Corps. Instantly curious, I approached the table and spoke to her. She told me that she was holding an informational session later in the week if I was interested. I certainly was, and thus began the journey that would ultimately lead me to an even bigger journey, one as rewarding as it was challenging. But my first, challenge happened even before I became a volunteer: I had to convince Peace Corps to take me on despite a personal history of depression.

As anyone who has gone through the Peace Corps application process knows, the medical clearance portion of the procedure is notoriously thorough. Having nothing to hide, I disclosed my past and present medical issues, including a diagnosis of depression that I received as a teenager. It was something I had struggled with over the course of my adolescence, seeing doctors and therapists as well as trying a few medications in an attempt to manage my condition. Eventually, in the midst of my college years, I found a psychologist that helped me define my depression, as well as a medical doctor who zeroed in on the root cause. I was prescribed medication that was very effective and things finally started to look up for me. This information was included in my completed medical forms, along with the requisite letter from my therapist and doctor’s signature stating that I was healthy and that they stood behind my decision to apply for Peace Corps service. I thought that would be enough, but it wasn’t.

Soon after I sent in the forms, PC contacted me to let me know they had received them and that a review was in progress. I had been nominated for a position in Africa that was to begin in June of that year; all I needed was medical clearance, then I could get that coveted invitation to serve. Then one day in late March, I received a phone call from an OMS staff member to ask me a few questions. The concern was about my depression and, specifically, what kind of coping strategies I planned to use as a volunteer regarding this issue.

The question caught me off guard. In my mind I had all but conquered my condition and was ready to face the world. When answering the question, I fumbled. I didn’t have any clue how I would react to living in the conditions that PCVs face and came up with nothing. It was suggested to me that I contact local RPCVs as well as attend another informational meeting in my area so that I could ask former volunteers what they did to cope during the hard times. Fearful that I would not get clearance in time for the Africa assignment, I asked if taking more time would ruin my chances. Her rather abrupt response was that assignments are not official until an invitation is sent out, so my spot was not secure to begin with. Annoyed, I thought to myself: Who better to put in a potentially depressing situation than someone who has dealt with depression for years? But she had a point. It is only in the best interest of Peace Corps that they send people who are healthy and will be able to handle a two year assignment in difficult and unfamiliar conditions.

Taking her advice, I asked RPCVs about their experiences and how they got through the rough patches. Unfortunately, I wasn’t told any specific coping strategies. However, what I did get from these conversations was the unerring sense that Peace Corps was perfect for me. Three weeks after the initial phone call, I called PC again to relay what I had learned. In this conversation, I simply laid out how I felt: I still didn’t know how I would react to being on my own in a Third World country, and couldn’t possibly know what to expect once I got there, but that I understood myself enough to be able to handle what comes my way and not let depression affect my service. Furthermore, my desire to be a volunteer had only been strengthened and it meant more to me now than ever. I thought I came off as desperate, but it worked. I was told that it sounded like I really was ready to be a volunteer and that my paperwork would be moved on to the next step, which was giving me an assignment. A week later, I got my invitation to serve, and in June of 2007 I flew to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to begin my service as a PCV.

Once I was there, I began to fully understand why depression would be an issue. Living in a Third World country can bring you down quickly, or wear on you over time. Being without familiar foods, missing friends and family, struggling with a new language, and isolation all can contribute to feelings of depression. So can hearing the sound of a dog being mistreated, staring extreme poverty in the face, and losing a friend to AIDS-related illness. Additionally, I entered at a very tumultuous time in PC/Tanzania history. Over the course of my service, I estimate 80-90% of the staff that was present when I arrived had left for various reasons, including the Country Director. On top of all this I am gay, which presents an entirely different set of challenges. Having googled “homosexuality in Tanzania” before I left, I found out that it is illegal and carries a heavy prison sentence, up to life in some cases. While I was not surprised to learn this, I began to accept the fact that I would be living in a culture that considers homosexuality immoral and illegal, and not the openly gay lifestyle I was accustomed to. In fact, the lowest time I experienced during my service was due to this very issue.

It just so happened that I was placed in the same region as another gay volunteer. A third year extender, I saw this volunteer as exemplary in almost every way. His language skills were amazing, he was working on multiple projects, and he was about as integrated into his village as one could be. In addition to his stellar work, he was very social. This included having sexual relations with Tanzanian men. Never bringing this to his village, he thought he was being discrete enough. Then without warning people stopped showing up for meetings, projects he worked on were neglected, and things disappeared from his house. Eventually he brought this to the attention of the village officials, who informed him that someone from his village found out about his activities and was spreading the word. Despite more than two years of productive service, his good work and respect for the community did not matter. His village friends could barely look at him, let alone speak to him. He was shunned. Under these circumstances, there was no way he could remain in the village and he was forced to return to the States. The silver lining is that there were people that told him they did not care and that they did not want him to go, but his story is a telling example of how many Tanzanians view homosexuals.

After this incident, which occurred less than a year into my service, I began to change how I felt about being there and my interactions with people from my village. I could not help but think that the friends I had just made and the people I was now beginning to work with would treat me the same if they ever found out about me. Having them in my house was difficult. To bring myself to visit their houses was even more difficult. The fact that I could never be openly gay to a Tanzanian became strikingly clear to me, and my reaction was to withdraw. For about a month, I experienced the lowest time in all of my service. Yet even during this period, seriously weighing leaving against staying in my mind, I found the strength to pull through and remain in Tanzania. There were a few reasons why I was able to stay, even though the temptation to walk away was quite strong at times.

One of the biggest reasons I stayed was the friends I made, both Tanzanian and through Peace Corps. A particular friend in the village stands out among the crowd. He was a joy to be around from the moment I met him and became my best friend. I could be in the worst mood, but after leaving his company my good energy would be restored. As for as PC friends, I simply cannot say enough. They become your extended family almost instantly. We were all in the same boat so I could always look to other volunteers for acceptance and understanding. With them I could be myself completely while otherwise occupying a world in which I had to keep a part of myself hidden. Additionally, I became a member of the Peer Support and Diversity Network (PSDN), a volunteer-run group that provides confidential peer support and promotes diversity within the PC community, which provided another outlet for me to express myself as well as be appreciated.

At the end of the day though, I had to look inside myself and decide if being there was what I really wanted. I had a strong sense of responsibility and commitment to seeing my service through to the end, and the longer I stayed the more commitments I made to the community I was serving. The thought of leaving without completing my projects would have weighed heavily on me had I left. In one of the conversations I had with RPCVs before I left America, one said something that helped get me through and stays with me to this day. As she was gushing over her memories as a PCV, she mentioned how envious she was of me that I was on the verge of going and she wished that she could go back and do it all again. The thought that I could one day look back so fondly on my service helped me to see beyond what I was feeling in the moment and focus on what I was there to do.

Throughout my service I dealt with depression more than I could have ever expected. I understand why it is a concern, and potential volunteers should realize how much it can and will affect them on a daily basis. Those of us with depression in our past have a higher risk of lapsing into a funk that can make us ineffective as a volunteer. However, a history of depression does not need to be a reason to be excluded from being a Peace Corps Volunteer. We also have the skills and ability to deal with the issue because of our past experiences. Tapping into that self knowledge and staying true to the ideals that made me want to be a PCV in the first place was the key to my success as a volunteer. When all was said and done, I stayed in Tanzania a total of 28 months. Now, as an RPCV, I can look back fondly on my service and be envious of those who are about to embark on their own journey of a lifetime.

Mick Zelski can be contacted at mickzelski@gmail.com.

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