A Commonsense Approach to Issues Facing LGBT PCVs

- Jay Davidson, RPCV, Mauritania

“Commonsense is as rare as genius.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The process of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer is multi-leveled. I see the transformation from applicant to PCV as similar to the metamorphosis that takes place when a caterpillar magically becomes a butterfly. The caterpillar has a long period of isolation in a cocoon, but it emerges from that solitude as a totally different being altogether. Similarly, many Peace Corps applicants transform from having a solely American cultural perspective to being truly multicultural in their outlook.

The purpose of this article is to help identify some of the issues to consider as an LGBT person making her or his way through the process. For the sake of expedience, I will use the word “queer” to refer to this spectrum of people to which we belong. As much as possible, I will use my personal experiences as a frame of reference for explaining the concepts I explain.

Applicant: One of the first questions many applicants ask is, “Should I tell my recruiter that I am queer?” Good question! Many of us define ourselves, at least in part, by our sexuality. It would seem like we were going back into the closet if we hid this aspect of ourselves, especially after many of us have been out to our friends and family.

When I was an applicant, I arrived at the San Francisco Regional Office a few minutes early to meet my recruiter for the interview. That brief extra time allowed me to take a look at some of the literature that was on display. One of the periodicals I saw was this newsletter produced by the LGBT chapter of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

“If this newsletter is on display in the Peace Corps office,” I reasoned, “then it must be okay to be queer and in the Peace Corps.” True enough. In fact, since the Peace Corps is an agency of the United States government, it would be illegal for it to discriminate against queer applicants, volunteers, and employees. Our most recent past director, Gaddi Vasquez, was a supporter of Gay Pride Month that was celebrated throughout the Peace Corps headquarters building every June during his tenure.

Emboldened by having seen that newsletter, I told my recruiter that I am gay. She registered no reaction – positive or negative – that I could discern. It was later in the interview, however, when she asked me, “Are you, by any chance, a vegetarian?”

When I answered yes, she responded by getting out of her seat and going to a file cabinet, from which she withdrew a form that I needed to sign as an indication that I would not refuse to eat any animal that had been killed in my honor, for to do so could potentially cause great harm to the image of the Peace Corps in the country where I may be serving. In the eyes of my recruiter, it was evident that my being a vegetarian was much more problematic than my being queer. This was my first indication that I was going to be seeing the world in a totally different perspective for some years to come!

Nominee to Invitee: With the ease of finding information on the Internet, it is not uncommon for Nominees to various parts of the world and Invitees to specific programs to find each other and make introductions. Questions abound, from what kinds of mosquito net tents that everyone is purchasing to specific advice being handed down about various counties by everyone who has a cousin’s neighbor’s girlfriend who has served in Country X and is willing to share information.

A few months before I set out to Mauritania in 2003, I learned about a listserv of Invitees who were going to be in my training group. There were only a couple dozen of us of the 56 Trainees who eventually went together to Mauritania. When somebody suggested that we introduce ourselves, I began with the short statement that I am a gay Jewish vegetarian. It seemed like a simple thing to do: direct, out, and informative.
Within a very short time of our arrival in Philadelphia for our staging event, everyone seemed to know who I was. A few people asked me why I had to describe myself that way. I told them simply that I was just saying who I was. By the time I got to know everyone in my group, I found out that there were fellow trainees with queer sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and friends. I never got the sense that I was being avoided or labeled in any negative way because of my sexuality.

Trainee: You’ll find very few people who describe their Pre-Service Training as a wonderful experience. It is emotionally draining and culturally disorienting. Fellow Trainees form alliances quickly. They are a finite number of people with a common cultural and linguistic history. In my experience, the group was a safety net for each other – a refuge from the rigors of the daily reminders that we were strangers in a strange land.

In Mauritania, where I served, we had to demonstrate an intermediate level of French in order to be sworn in as Volunteers. In order to determine our incoming level of French achievement and our progress, we were interviewed by Mauritanians who served on the training staff. The facilitator who conducted my interview asked me a wide-ranging number of questions in order to engage me in conversation so that he could assess my French. His final question was, “If you were the President of the United States, what is the first thing that you would do once you take office?”

I don’t know what possessed me to answer this way, but the first thing I could think of was to tell him that as President of the United States, my first action would be to sign an Executive Order that made it legal for gay people to marry just like everyone else. A bit taken aback, he asked me, “Wouldn’t you be concerned about what the church would say about that decision? I told him that as President, my concern would be to do what is right, not what is popular.

As far as I could tell, this reply to him had no long-term negative impact against me in my training. He continued to be jovial in his interaction with me. After all, I was not coming out myself – just showing my open attitude in regard to my outlook on human sexuality.

Volunteer: Among PC staff, including Host Country Nationals who have worked for the PC for a long time, many have been to the USA, and have worked with a wide variety of Americans for a long time. They have a different perspective about the USA, its culture, and its values than the typical HCN. In any event, your Country Director will be an American. Remember that you have every right to expect complete support from her or him.
One day, one of my fellow Volunteers, a lesbian, came to me rather sheepishly and told me that she had something she had to tell me. She had just been talking to one of our training directors, had come out to him, and had blurted out, rather impulsively, “Jay is gay, too.” As far as I could tell, I suffered no adverse effect of having been outed to this person. He continued to relate to me in the same friendly way that he had prior to his having this information.

As you acclimate to the new society in which you are living, be on your guard. First and foremost, you must use your common sense as you deal with people whose culture is likely be totally opposite of your own. Learn the realities of your situation. In Mauritania, for example, under the law, homosexuals are to be put to death if discovered. At the same time, a Mauritanian human rights speaker to Peace Corps Volunteers informed us that this has never been enacted. He told us that the Mauritanian people and government are much more accepting than the law.

One of the aspects of Mauritanian life that threw me off is that same-sex affection in public is standard. This does not necessarily indicate the presence of homosexuality, however. I became friendly with any number of men who expressed their affection for me by holding my hand, both in private and in public. That expression of friendship did not always lead to sexual acts.

What I had to do, as a means of protecting myself and testing the waters, was to hold back and let them make the “first move” if there was going to be one. If they did not, then I accepted the fact that they were behaving within their own socially accepted manner.

I learned so much about myself and other people in this process. Most significantly, I see that people in different parts of the world have a different, and more fluid, perspective on sex and sex roles in society. It seems to me that my most valuable asset was my willingness to be open-minded and flexible about life in a place where society’s rules are so different and opposite of what they are at home.

FAQ of a Former Peace Corps Recruiter

- Kate Kuykendall, PC Recruiter, RPCV China

Q: When you were a volunteer in China did you ever think about becoming a recruiter or other PC staff afterwards?
A: I never really thought about it because I wasn’t aware of the possibilities. I had very limited contact with my own recruiter, so I didn’t even realize that such a position existed! I will say, however, that I was voted “Most Likely to Star in a Peace Corps Informational Video” by my fellow volunteers, so they all saw it within me!

Q: How did it happen that you became a recruiter in San Francisco?
A: I was actually looking for recruiting jobs at large organizations and then I saw the job posting on the Peace Corps web site. I decided I would much prefer to recruit people to the Peace Corps than to a corporation!

Q: How did you get on as an openly gay recruiter with your Regional Manager and the other members of the San Francisco staff?
A: Well, it certainly hasn’t been a secret! My co-workers and my supervisor were extremely supportive, especially since my partner is also an RPCV.

Q: What was your sense of the number/proportion of gay and lesbian applicants who were showing up?
A: This one is difficult for me to answer objectively because I think that my co-workers often referred gay and lesbian applicants to me for questions, so I definitely talked to a disproportionate number of them. But I would definitely say that the LGBT community in the Bay Area, as a whole, is a great pool of Peace Corps applicants for our office and is generally very responsive to the Peace Corps message.

Q: How did you work out being open to LGBT applicants (either stated or perceived) to encourage their questions about how they would fit in?
A: This is always a tricky issue, especially because I always had to state that I’m gay for people to even really think about it (they don’t ever just guess!). But in any kind of in-depth conversation about my experience, my sexuality would come up because it played a significant role. I just chose to highlight that more with some applicants than others. There have definitely been situations, however, when I spoke openly about my experience in the hopes that it would elicit questions from an applicant I thought might be gay and that applicant never pursued the matter (I could very well have guessed incorrectly, of course!). The other way in which it surfaces is that I was very often asked if I would ever do Peace Corps again, and I always say, “If and when the federal definition of marriage changes and I can serve with my partner, then I would love to do Peace Corps again.”

Q: What were the major concerns voiced by LGBT applicants?
A: The most common question is, “Will I have to go back in the closet?” I think the idea of being in the closet, especially after having worked so hard to get out of it, is really overwhelming to many prospective volunteers and actually keeps a fair number from even applying. And, of course, there are also delicately phrased questions about whether they will have to be celibate for 27 months!

Q: How did you answer them?

A: I try to answer all questions as honestly as possible, and on this particular topic that often means telling people what they don’t want to hear. There are definitely sacrifices involved in being a Peace Corps Volunteer and having to be much, much more discreet about your sexuality is one of them.

Q: What sort of LGBT-specific informational and recruiting events have you been involved in?
A: I’ve coordinated the Peace Corps Pride booth here in San Francisco the past few years. I’ve also given presentations at university LGBT student centers. Last July 20th our office co-sponsored an event called “Have Rainbow, Will Travel: The LGBT Experience in the Peace Corps” at a local public policy forum. We had four panelists participate in that program and I felt they all did a marvelous job talking about the sacrifices but also the rewards of serving as a gay Peace Corps Volunteer. We had about 50 people attend, and I had wonderful feedback as a result.

Q: What were the highs of your recruiting assignment?

A: Pretty much every single person I come in contact with through my job is someone who has already been a Peace Corps Volunteer or who is contemplating becoming one. That is a wonderful segment of humanity to work with – there’s not many other jobs in the world where you get to work with such internationally and civic minded individuals, and that is what I’ll miss the most.

Q: What were the lows?
A: The only part of the job I didn’t like was writing up hundreds and hundreds of interviews with applicants. The interviews are great, but the paperwork was no fun.

Q: Now that you’ve left this assignment, what words of encouragement/advice do you have for LGBT volunteers and RPCVS who might be considering a recruiting or other PC staff job as their next career move?
A: Go for it! The Peace Corps is a wonderful agency to work for and, particularly for LGBTs, a very supportive and queer-friendly place. Although we may be a government agency, we’re an agency made up of wonderful and open-minded people, not the policies and politics of our government.

Q: And what’s next for you?
A: My partner and I are going to travel overseas for 6 months and then move to a small town in East Texas in the spring of 2005. We’re going there to spend more time with my 78-year-old grandma, to experience life in small-town USA, and to try and be more creative about how we approach earning a living (we’re going to experiment with some small business ideas). Wish us luck because we’ll need it! It’s kind of like another Peace Corps assignment to us – East Texas is sort of a foreign land and culture, with its own special language.

Kate Kuykendall can be contacted at katekook@yahoo.com.

She’s Finally Gone Over the Edge

-Rose Rosely, RPCV Ghana

Why would somebody quit a perfectly fabulous career working in the animation business in Los Angeles, making enough money to fly up to San Francisco every other weekend if she felt like it, to take a job where she earned about a hundred dollars a month? Or why give up a spacious rent controlled apartment at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, which all her friends couldn’t believe she got in the first place, for a two-room mud hut? Why sell her brand new car for half of what it was worth, give away or sell almost every possession she owned, and kiss a lover of thirteen on-and-off again years goodbye promising to write? It sounds crazy ridiculous, downright stupid. If my grandmother were still living she would have asked, “Honey, are you okay?”

In retrospect, it all makes sense. I have found that I love living life one adventure after another. At the time, though, I’ll admit it did seem a little absurd. Here I was about to turn 40 in a couple of years and all I had was 70 lbs. of material possessions that the airline would allow me to take along to Ghana, West Africa where I was to be an environment volunteer in the far north of the country. My qualifications for being an environmental candidate? Well, I’d had a few ornamental gardens at houses that I’d owned along the way and living in LA I could certainly vouch for the ugliness of a smoggy sky.

This article is a result of my response to an inquiry on the LGB RPCV listserv from someone who is considering joining Peace Corps. He was asking our collective community of RPCVs what we thought about his leaving his stable job because in his words, “at my age it may be professional suicide.” True, but in this day and age, some of the things that seem most stable seem to crumble and fall at our feet. Like me, he’s older than the majority of volunteers who are in their twenties, he’s afraid of what’s going to happen to his life after the two years overseas, and he’s gay. He’s having the last minute jitters before sending in his application. When I responded to him, I’d simply hit reply and so everybody else on the listserv got my two cents too. Michael, the editor of this newsletter, saw it and asked me to elaborate. So, let’s go.

Being a volunteer was the most amazing time of my life. I left Ghana thinking that if I died tomorrow, then it would be okay. Seriously, because I’d lived enough in the last three years to consider it a wonderful life. Nothing I have done has compared to my experience living in a rural community in a developing country. My brain and all my senses were summoned every morning when the roosters crowed and they were working until I fell asleep at the end of the day out under the stars. I actually looked forward to the sun coming up, knowing that it would get hot enough to brew tea on my front porch. Then there was the long ride to town 15km down a bush path on a bicycle, the soup made from baobab leaves that we ate from one bowl, the small market that happened every three days where I could buy tomatoes and onions, and the women who came to the literacy class I started. Some days you’d reel because you were bombarded with too much reality: a kid convulsing from malarial fever, a thief being beaten under the mango tree or a crippled man dragging himself down the road. You learn to let go, to let the day unravel, to exhale, to be blown by the winds from the Saharan desert during harmattan, to just be.

To feel full up, spilling over with the everyday of life, is something that we all chase but rarely have the opportunity to catch. I ran after it and grabbed and didn’t let go. Right before leaving Ghana, I wrote home to friends and family that it was a good thing that stories didn’t weigh anything or else I’d have to leave too much behind. My head and heart were overflowing with memories and feelings. In the three years living and working with another culture (the Ghanaian people who are the friendliest people on the planet) was a heart expanding, mind blowing, soul rejuvenating, self challenging experience that will always make me feel full up.

It seems that I’m living life backwards. When I was twenty-something I bought my first house, planted a garden, dug into my career. It seemed that I was settled and successful. Now, that I’m forty-something I’m courting wanderlust and adventure and feeling like a rolling stone.

Even so, in the beginning, being around all the volunteers who had just finished college was not what I was expecting. You’d think, from the marketing that Peace Corps does, that the volunteers are just one big happy Benetton ad. Or? Most of the volunteers are young, white and straight. Or? I’d left gay Hollywood, where the queens from South America that lived in my building use to meringue around the pool on Sundays in heels, and ended up in the middle of West Africa feeling alone and out of place with one foot back in the closet. Horrified that I’d just ruined my life, thrown away everything that I’d worked so hard to get, I wanted to go home before training was finished. It took some time to find my feet, but when I did there was no more falling down.

The community of volunteers is like marrying into a big crazy family. You hate ‘em, you love ‘em but no matter what, you’re stuck with ‘em. So, figure it out. It’s actually one of the coolest things about Peace Corps. You end up getting to know people that you’d never give a second chance to in the States. I’d say that there are definitely some difficult diversity issues but most of them are complicated by how we ourselves deal with it. For me, once the shock wore off, I found myself relaxing and finding my place. I’ve made friends for life and am instantly connected to a myriad of interesting folks because of this experience.

Now, that I’m back, I’m having to figure out what to immerse myself in next. It’s not a piece of cake. In fact all the possibilities make my head spin. My mom says that I’m like a cat, always landing with my feet on the ground. Ground please? And another returned friend’s words, “yeah, some of us dream about living but then there’s those of us that live like we’re in a dream.” I’m just accepting that the beginning and the ending of things are a bit of a struggle like the butterfly emerging from its cocoon just before taking flight. I’m a little stuck at the moment, but not for long.

Rose Rosely returned home last November. You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

HIV Status and Application to the Peace Corps

-Mike Learned, RPCV Malawi

At annual Pride/Parade celebrations, many Peace Corps regional offices will have information and recruiting staffs present at such events. A question that always comes up on such occasions is “can people who are HIV positive, but otherwise healthy, apply for the Peace Corps?” For the last few years, the answer to this question has been, “yes.” HIV disease is treated as a medical condition. All applicants who are invited to take part in a Peace Corps program are medically evaluated.

Several things have to be determined. Will an applicant’s health allow her or him to serve in a particular Peace Corps assignment without jeopardizing his or her health? Are there medical resources available to support the medical needs of an applicant with a particular medical condition at a particular site, in a particular program, in a particular country? Can the applicant with a medical condition be expected to complete a full tour without undue interruption to his or her program or Peace Corps service?

Peace Corps considers HIV a chronic disease, as it does diabetes, high blood pressure and other medical conditions. Peace Corps does consider applicants with HIV disease, and Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services advises and has evaluated applicants who are HIV positive.

Our position as an organization is that Peace Corps treat HIV disease in a way similar to other chronic diseases and medical conditions. We understand that most Peace Corps assignments require rigorous good health. Would we recommend that a volunteer with HIV disease be allowed to serve anywhere? I think not. Many of us (young, energetic and healthy) experienced serious health problems during our service in remote and disease-ridden areas. Can you imagine what might have happened with compromised immune systems?

I have chosen not to ask the Office of Medical Services if applicants with HIV disease have served as volunteers. The reason – I don’t think it’s any of our business. If I were an applicant with HIV disease who was accepted, I would not want the Peace Corps or anyone else broadcasting my presence, even if I remained unidentified. On the other hand, if there’s an HIV positive applicant out there who feels he or she has been unfairly evaluated, and she or he wants to pursue that decision as discriminatory, that’s another issue, and we’d like to hear about it.

Mike Learned was a volunteer in Malawi. He can be reached at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

Gays, Lesbians and the Peace Corps: Should I or Shouldn’t I?

-Dick Lipez, RPCV Ethopia

WHY?, a lesbian or gay man might reasonably ask, should I join the Peace Corps when there’s so much important work to be done at home? The gains of the gay movement in recent decades and the larger cause of American social justice are under constant threat from the right, so wouldn’t leaving the country for two years be copping out? And on a purely personal level, after surviving the ordeal of coming part or all of the way out of the closet with my faculties more or less intact, would I then perhaps have to go back in again. Might the Peace Corps send me, say, to a country where the penalty for homosexual acts is being flung off a cliff? What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my country? What’s in it for somebody else’s country?

One good answer to these fair questions is, gay people should and do join the Peace Corps for the same reasons straight people should and do. All the propaganda about the Peace Corps being the toughest job you’ll ever love is true. Plunging into an endeavor so complicated and then discovering that you can survive or even master it is exhilarating. As a liberating experience, it ranks up there with coming out. What’s more, a gay persons joining is good for the United States in the way it presents our best face to the world – helpful, caring, democratic – and in making you a wiser citizen when you get home. The 140,000 former PCVs are a great national asset. As for the good you’ll do overseas, the Peace Corps tries to place volunteers in useful jobs where they can help solve problems in societies that are even in bigger trouble than ours is, and surprisingly often the Peace Corps succeeds at this.

It can be argued that lesbians and gay men especially should join the Peace Corps. Trying not to sound too much like a gay chauvinist, let me nonetheless assert that many gay people possess, in abundance, skills and qualities that the Peace Corps badly needs. Technical and linguistic skills are important in Peace Corps assignments, but adaptability is the essential trait. Are gay people adaptable? Oh yes. Otherwise many of us wouldn’t have survived past seventh grade gym class or that painful first high school dance. Oddly – and sadly – one of the satisfactions of Peace Corps life is feeling like a stranger in society because you actually are one. But you can learn to be the best kind of stranger, one who’s helpful, appreciative, and appreciated.

The Peace Corps is nondiscriminatory and welcomes lesbian and gay volunteers. But it also respects the mores and values of the societies it works in, so sometimes sacrifices are involved. Just as you might have to give up some physical ease for a larger cause, being lesbian or gay in the Peace Corps can mean living a life of greater discretion than you might be used to. Still in some places, gay volunteers can hook up with fledgling gay groups and serve the cause that way. Or they can serve it more quietly by coming out with their most trusted colleagues in and out of the Peace Corps. We are everywhere, and its good for people to know this.

Any lesbian or gay man who flies off to remotest Tirana or Dembidollo for two years needn’t feel guilty about abandoning the struggle at home. You’ll come back with coping skills you never dreamed you had, and with renewed commitment to the cause of human rights. And while the Peace Corps is not primarily a dating service, the chances are you’ll meet more like-minded gay people in the Peace Corps than you will through the classifieds or at the local watering hole. Gay men and lesbians who light out for real watering holes for a couple of years are nearly always thankful they did. For gays and straights, the Peace Corps comes as a revelation. So many countries, so little time. ©Dick Lipez.

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