Training Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) on LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer Issues

- an interview with Kathleen Jordan MSN, Pre-Service Manager, Office of Medical Services

Last spring we were contacted by Kathleen Jordan from Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services (OMS). She was looking for resources to help her develop and deliver a component for this year’s (2009) Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) Continuing Medical Education (CME) that would provide information and resources to PCMOs about meeting the medical and emotional needs of LGBT PCVs. We provided her with contacts of current and recent LGBT Volunteers. We also developed and distributed an internet-based survey over our listserv. The survey was answered by 45 current PCVs and mostly recent RPCVs who serve or served in countries around the world. We sent the results to Kathleen.

LGBT RPCVs:
What prompted your project to develop a component in the 2009 CME addressing the medical and emotional needs of LGBT Volunteers?

Kathleen Jordan:
Several PCMOs indicated that they would welcome training in this area. Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services always aims to provide training to PCMOs that will assist them in effectively caring for all Peace Corps volunteers and addressing volunteers’ specific needs.

LGBT RPCVs:
Where and when were these training sessions held this year? How many PCMOs attended?

K. J.
Two were held this year: one in Washington DC in July and one in September in Thailand. All Peace Corps PCMOs worldwide attended these sessions.

LGBT RPCVs:
What did you learn from LGBT PCVs and RPCVs that helped you develop your training?

K.J.
We learned that peer-to-peer networks specific to LGBT Volunteers were very helpful and that it is important for LGBT Volunteers to have individuals within the agency to whom they can comfortably discuss the unique challenges they face in service. Returned Volunteers and currently-serving Volunteers can play a key role in this support.

LGBT RPCVs:
Were you able to include any current LGBT PCVs or RPCVs in the training sessions?

K.J.
Yes. Two LGBT RPCV staff attended the CME in Washington and 4 currently-serving LGBT PCVs attended the CME in Thailand. The participants were able to answer questions and facilitate small group work. The PCMOs greatly appreciated their participation and interaction.

LGBT RPCVs:
What kinds of questions did you get from PCMOs during the training?

K.J.
The majority of the questions revolved around how PCMOs could best meet the specific needs of LGBT Volunteers and the most appropriate ways to provide appropriate emotional support.

LGBT RPCVs:
Did the subject of establishing LGBT PCV support groups in countries of service come up? Tell us something about these discussions.

K.J.
Yes – During small group work, PCMO’s from various countries shared their thoughts about the best ways to provide support to LGBT PCVs. One option discussed was to utilize peer-to-peer networks to provide an accessible PCV support system. Another option discussed was to ensure that all Trainees were provided adequate private time to meet and speak with staff members about any confidential concerns and circumstances.

LGBT RPCVs:
Homosexuality is seen differently in countries around the world where Peace Corps serves. Some countries like Thailand, South Africa and some Latin American countries are more accepting and protect the rights of LGBT people. In other countries, particularly in Africa, homosexual acts are criminal offenses and homophobia is strong. What sort of discussions came up about these issues?

K.J.
Our discussions focused on how best to keep PCVs and Trainees safe. The PCMOs appreciated having a chance to openly talk about the specific circumstances in their countries and that the fact that they represent an important link between HQ in Washington, DC, the Volunteer and the new community in which the Volunteer will live. The PCMOs appreciated the opportunity to discuss the circumstances unique to their individual countries and best practices for effective LGBT PCV support.

LGBT RPCVs:
What sort of response did you get from the PCMOs after the training?

K.J.
They were very appreciative and they rated the session very highly.

LGBT RPCVs:
What are the plans to continue this training and maybe add to it?

K.J.
We hope to include it in the Medical Officer Staff Training that newly-hired PCMOs receive each year and are considering other ways to include it in the future.

Managing a Long Distance Peace Corps Relationship

- PCV, Ecuador

Editor’s Note: This is a slightly edited version of a response to a recent question that showed up on our listserv. A Peace Corps nominee had been in a relationship and was wondering whether she should hold on to it while in the Peace Corps or give it the old heave ho. She asked for some perspective and advice. I found a response from a current volunteer in Ecuador particularly thoughtful. Questions about managing or relinquishing relationships while an LGBT volunteer is abroad comes up fairly frequently. We’re publishing this as a newsletter item and will keep it on our web site for future reference for our sisters and brothers facing this situation.

I am about 8 months into my service and so about a year ago I was in basically the same situation. My boyfriend and I opted to stay together.  We have our reasons for that, but let me tell you it was scary as hell at the time. As another listserv poster said, communication is key. In my case, my boyfriend knew I was already deep into the Peace Corps application process at the time we started our relationship. It was perhaps a little more than foolish to start a relationship in those conditions. However, it helped that I was very straightforward about my imminent departure for Latin America (turned out to be Ecuador.) We had a few conversations about it and both understood that it was a risky thing, but that we wanted to give it a try. I think it helps to be a very realistic about the whole thing. Going away to another country to live does not necessarily mean a “goodbye forever,” however it will have an impact on you both whether you break up or not. It may even have unforeseen benefits. One of them is that such a relationship forces you to develop other aspects of your relationship which may not have been discovered, much less developed during the time together. I feel like being a PCV in a long distance relationship (and I’m by far not the only one in my omnibus) has helped me get to know my boyfriend and me in ways that other circumstances probably wouldn’t have allowed.

I don’t have anything to say with respect to whether you break up or not. It seems to me that you have decided tentatively to break up together, though you personally may be unsure. I’ll share some ideas that may or may not be helpful whichever way you go.

If you do decide to break up, I think it would be helpful to talk about the details of “when” and “how” together just as you seem to have negotiated the “what” (i.e. to eventually break up.)

If you do end up trying to “see how it goes,” don’t listen to what others tell you unless you find it useful. This goes for what I’m writing right now too. I wrote to the LGBT listserv before departing for Ecuador for advice about long distance relationships and received a very condescending “you are an idiot” kind of email from one member. If you and your partner have talked about it and agreed upon it, don’t let people from outside change that decision for you.

At any rate, here are some ideas about long distance relationships (they don’t necessarily have to be romantic relationships) that I would have liked to have received last year. They have been helpful for me and my boyfriend, though obviously every relationship is different. As I said, take it if you find it useful. (Just an FYI, I am still with my boyfriend and I’m going to visit him in June 2009!)

  1. Set up a designated day and hour to talk and/or write. Latin America generally has easy-to-find internet and cheap international calling, but this could vary in other parts of the world. This helps to establish a sense of stability in the relationship.
  2. Don’t talk or write all the time. Both partners need to live their lives where they are too. This happened to a fellow PCV who eventually broke up with her girlfriend in the US because she felt smothered.
  3. Get a support network. That is, find friends with whom you can be open, whether PCVs or local friends you can trust. It helps a lot to be able to share your struggles and rewards with good friends. I have found it especially supportive to talk to other PCVs who are in long distance relationships, particularly during pre-service training. There are inevitably fights in long distance relationships and so having that support network helps to weather them. Also, being a gay foreigner in most Peace Corps countries isn’t always that great, as you can probably imagine.
  4. Be sure to share all the boring and fascinating details of your life abroad but don’t be surprised if the other doesn’t write back much. You probably already know the kinds of things that are going on “back home.” On the other hand, the other likely has no idea what your life is like overseas. Perhaps that’s why they say it’s always harder for the one that stays behind. Informing about all those details (without being asked to) helps to fill in those blanks to keep the relationship going in the present. You don’t want to spend all of your time reminiscing.
  5. Do little things to let the other know you love him/her. Postcards, emails, text messages, gifts, etc…
  6. Try to visit or have the other visit you if possible.
  7. Have something that only you two do together when you talk. My boyfriend and I speak in Spanish pretty much exclusively and we have lots of inside jokes. Those little things help.
  8. Talk about dreams and the future, but not too seriously. This also keeps from getting stuck in nostalgia.
  9. Be prepared to be sad and lonely. That goes without saying, really. However, it does help to remind yourself that other PCVs are going through similar kinds of things, though not always with a significant other. Surprisingly, you do get used to the physical absence after a while, though it’s no walk in the park.
  10. Above all, be a good volunteer and take care of yourself. If you’re happy, those you talk with will also be happy. For me, this has meant not working all the time and trying to foster relationships with HCNs (host country nationals).

New GLBT PCV Support Group in Albania

A new GLBT Committee for Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania was formed at the end of 2007. Several key steps occurred to begin the new committee. The first step was to have GLBT volunteers serving in Albania identify one another. This process was basically an informal one that occurred over time. The next step was when some of these GLBT volunteers in Albania identified the need and benefit of having a GLBT Committee. At the same time we were very fortunate that the Programming and Training Officer at Peace Corps Albania expressed strong support in forming such a group during individual meetings with some of the GLBT volunteers. As a result, these GLBT volunteers did some research online regarding what other Peace Corps countries were doing to address the unique issues encountered by GLBT volunteers. This research tended to focus on utilizing the resources from this website. The next step was to meet with the Country Director to obtain his support for the new committee.

The Country Director then sent an e-mail communication to all the volunteers in Albania inviting GLBT volunteers to join the committee. One of the most critical aspects of forming the new GLBT Committee was to ensure the confidentiality of its members due to the risks for committee members if individuals in their communities learned of their sexual orientation. As a result, the committee has used a code word for the committee’s name for administrative purposes when working with the Peace Corps Albania staff (such as Volunteer Support Committee). A GLBT Committee e-mail address was also established for volunteers interested in joining the committee to easily facilitate volunteers joining the new committee while maintaining confidentiality.

The committee’s first meeting in October, 2007 focused on agreeing upon the chairperson and the first year objectives for the committee. Here is a summary of the objectives:

  • Provide peer support for existing GLBT volunteers
  • Provide advice for new volunteers about realities in Albania and identify coping strategies
  • Work with Peace Corps staff to provide diversity training for Peace Corps staff and volunteers on GLBT issues
  • Do outreach with GLBT organizations in Albania

Although the GLBT Committee in Albania was formed only six months ago, the team has already been very successful. The GLBT Committee has met each quarter to support one another. Just getting together periodically to share the challenges that we face has been very beneficial to each one of the committee members. The committee has also provided written advice for new GLBT volunteers coming to Albania. But the biggest accomplishment of the committee so far has been related to diversity training. The GLBT Committee collaborated with another American (living in Albania with extensive experience working at a university GLBT Center in the US) to develop recommendations to the Peace Corps Albania staff for the diversity training. All of our recommendations to include the voice of GLBT volunteers in Albania into the diversity training for the first time were incorporated. The most significant aspect of the new diversity training was having one of the committee members “come out” to the staff and new volunteers and share her story of what it is like to be a GLBT volunteer. The feedback from this new diversity training was very positive. In addition, some of the committee members work with GLBT organizations in Albania on secondary projects and have met with other GLBT organizations to identify opportunities to collaborate with the GLBT Committee. One of the committee members is even a Finance Officer for a new GLBT organization in Albania working with HIV prevention and human rights.

Since most of the committee members will be completing their two years of Peace Corps service in the near future, the next step for those remaining on the committee will be recruiting other GLBT volunteers in Albania to join the committee. These new members will be critical to maintaining the momentum of the new committee.

The author can be contacted for additional information about the Albania group at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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.

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