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.

Peace Corps Service and HIV Disease: Practices, Risks, and Benefits

-Suzanne Marks, RPCV Togo

A question often asked of Peace Corps recruiters by participants at Gay Pride events is: “Can I serve as a volunteer if I am HIV positive?” Peace Corps’ official policy states that the agency does not discriminate on the basis of disability and that it must provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities, in accordance with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (Note: The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 protects HIV-infected individuals from discrimination by private employers of 15 or more employees, and by state and local governments). However, to date, no HIV-infected applicant has been accepted for Peace Corps service. At a time when protease inhibitors have rendered HIV disease a manageable health condition for many and when persons with HIV disease can provide much needed health education about disease prevention and management to the ever-increasing numbers of HIV-infected in developing countries, the practice of excluding those with HIV disease from Peace Corps service, regardless of policy, is called into question.

To be offered a Peace Corps volunteer position, an interested individual must complete an application form and be medically qualified. While the Peace Corps application does not explicitly request HIV status, it does ask applicants to report their medical history, including infectious diseases. If an applicant responds that s/he has HIV disease, then the health condition of the applicant is assessed. If an HIV-infected person does not voluntarily disclose her/his status, then the required medical exam soon reveals that fact, since Peace Corps policy states that applicants must be HIV tested.

Since 1986, HIV testing has been performed on all applicants prior to service and again at close of service. One reason for this policy is to determine baseline medical status upon entry and post-service medical status to aid in determining valid workers’ compensation claims in the event of disability caused or exacerbated during Peace Corps service. As of 1998, approximately 20 cases of HIV infection have been documented among volunteers since testing began. Another reason for HIV testing is to enable Peace Corps to examine the health status of applicants, so that their medical qualification for posts can be realistically assessed and accommodations made, if needed. The primary motivation underlying the practices of the Office of Medical Services is to protect the health of US citizens serving in the Peace Corps. Medical qualification is based on an applicant’s medical prognosis and on Peace Corps’ ability to meet her/his medical needs, including an assessment of how quickly the volunteer can be provided emergency medical care, if the need arises, and an evaluation of a worst case scenario.

Peace Corps has quite a history of accommodating various disabilities, such as blindness and diabetes. For example, a diabetic volunteer required use of an insulin pump, an uninterrupted supply of insulin, and regular medical monitoring, including lab tests of specimens. When asked whether the cost of accommodating a medical condition figured into the qualification process, the Office of Medical Services stated that the costs of care were not among the determining factors for medical clearance. However, costs might be considered at a higher level in the Peace Corps application process, such as at a policy level. Currently, no policies exist barring expensive medical conditions. But theoretically, an accommodation for a disability may become an undue hardship when it becomes costly, extensive, disruptive, or fundamentally alters the nature or operation of the business. Since the current annual cost of anti-HIV medications is approximately $15,000, and since Peace Corps would be required to pay this cost (excluding the first six months of service, during which the volunteer would bring a supply of medications), resource availability and constraints may become relevant if substantial numbers of HIV-infected individuals applied to the Peace Corps. Costs of accommodating a medical condition are covered either entirely by Peace Corps headquarters, entirely by the post, or are shared by both entities.

Besides medical qualification for service, applicants must be considered “suitable” for their posts. Among considerations of suitability is the acceptability of the medical condition by the culture in which the volunteer would serve. For instance, some cultures do not accept individuals with seizure illnesses such as epilepsy. Given the high prevalence of HIV disease in many developing countries, cultural acceptance of those with HIV is likely to be higher than for persons with diseases that are rare or unusual. However, legal barriers to acceptance of persons with HIV disease exist in countries, like the US, that prohibit entry of HIV-infected individuals.

Peace Corps headquarters weighs the risks and the benefits of each applicant, before deciding to offer a position. Are the skills and abilities that an HIV-positive applicant brings to Peace Corps service worth the risks to that individual’s health? The opinion of a source in the Office of Medical Services is that, currently, the risks are greater than the benefits for most HIV-infected individuals. The high incidence of diarrheal, parasitic, and other infectious diseases among volunteers with functional immune systems suggests that Peace Corps service would be detrimental to the health of HIV-infected individuals. Other organizations and agencies, such as CARE, CDC, USAID, and WHO, are also formulating policies and practices vis-a-vis HIV-infected applicants. Of interest would be the consistency in policies/practices and the actual experiences of HIV-infected employees placed in long-term positions in developing countries. The net risks/benefits depend greatly on the health status of the applicant and on the circumstances of the post. Access to high quality water, food, and needed medications are essential. Also to be considered are prophylactic medications that may lessen an individual’s risk of acquiring diseases. Tuberculosis (TB) is the most common opportunistic infection determining AIDS in the developing world. However, prophylactic medications exist to prevent TB disease. And, if disease develops, TB is as curable in HIV-infected persons as it is in non-infected persons. Peace Corps will help applicants make informed risk/benefit calculations regarding their decisions to continue with the Peace Corps application process. HIV-infected persons who are considering applying for Peace Corps service may contact the Office of Medical Services at 800-424-8580, extension 1500.

The many facets of the decision to send HIV-infected US citizens into developing countries as Peace Corps volunteers highlight the challenges and realities that millions born and living in developing countries face daily in their struggle to survive HIV infection. The developed world has been criticized for their two-tiered approach to preventing and managing HIV disease: with the provision of anti-HIV medications, intensive medical monitoring, and needle exchange in the US and Europe compared with the focus on condom use and partner reduction in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Since one of Peace Corps’ three goals is to bring the experiences of the developing world back to the US, HIV-infected Peace Corps volunteers can help bridge the gap in the application of AIDS prevention practices and technologies.

A Letter from Australia for Couples Considering Volunteer Service

-by Michael Tatham, May 1998

Editor’s Note: While we were preparing this issue, which focuses on questions that usually come up at the Gay Pride events, a related e-mail from Australia arrived out of the blue. The author has given us his permission to adapt it as an article.

I came across your web site recently and was interested in the issues you discuss concerning same sex couples and the Peace Corps.

I was a volunteer in Thailand with the Australian Volunteers Abroad Program administered by the Overseas Service Bureau with my partner Peter from 1995 to 1997. The experience was an interesting one. Whereas the OSB was ok about placing us (a lesbian couple was placed in Africa at the same time), the fact we were together was cause for some consternation with our host agency in Thailand. It was not until we received permission to move to separate organizations that we felt we were being treated on our own merits rather than as an oddity. Sometimes it seemed that our host felt obliged to accept us as volunteers in order to maintain an ongoing relationship with OSB.

The fact that we went to the same host organization (albeit different branch offices about 20 km apart) meant we were treated as being the same, having the same values and being stereotyped along the same lines – a fascinating experience, if a little wearing. And, as for the myth of universal acceptance of homosexuality in Thailand, yes it is – a myth.

There were many stresses on the relationship that would otherwise not have been there, and yes one did have a better job than the other, but we also had different attitudes to the placement as well, so coping was an individual as well as a joint experience. We were there for the duration of the two year program, and are still together.

There is a perception in Australia of a “free and easy” sexuality and acceptance of all diversity in countries like Thailand, sometimes perpetuated by Thailand’s own ambiguous tourist promotion as well as our own lack of in-depth cultural understanding. I sometimes feel I have to constantly remind people (including myself) that there is in Thailand, like in all societies, different levels of acceptance. We have wonderful Thai friends of all genders and persuasions. We were lucky to recently invite one friend to visit us who had a great time showing us our town from his perspective.

As far as I know, OSB continues to place gay couples if they can, so long as their skills and positions match. While this may be difficult to do in the countryside, in big cities it should be easy. I would recommend couples who want to be placed together keep trying to get through the discriminatory Peace Corps policy somehow, as ours was an experience unique and exciting in its realization.

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