Some Perspective for Gay Couples Considering the Peace Corps

-by Joe Terteling, RPCV, May 1998

Editor’s note: Joe Terteling, former volunteer in Sri Lanka, gay man, and former Peace Corps recruiter in Seattle, gives his views of questions most frequently asked by gay domestic partners considering Peace Corps. He offers suggestions and undermines some myths.

I fear domestic partners considering Peace Corps are down on their luck for a number of reasons.

Peace Corps doesn’t accept unmarried couples of whatever gender combination. Go figure. But even if Peace Corps did, the first strike against gay/lesbian domestic partners serving would be the same difficulty Peace Corps has in placing married couples overseas. Married couples have a notoriously difficult time landing a volunteer assignment, because Peace Corps must find some village on the planet with two official Peace Corps jobs waiting, one for which each spouse is qualified, and with housing for the couple available in the same location. Although meeting the job and housing criteria may sound easy, it isn’t. Couples applying to Peace Corps endure a wait easily twice as long as do individual applicants – if an assignment ever comes. Even spouses possessing red-hot degrees or experience in, say, agronomy and nursing, are going nowhere with Peace Corps unless some country has need of a couple possessing these skills.

Unable to serve, gay couples frequently ponder ways around the marriage barrier. Here are common schemes I’ve heard repeatedly from gay couples, and occasionally from unmarried straight couples, too.

We’ll both secretly apply for the Peace Corps at the same time, hoping we’ll be placed together. Please dismiss any dream of being assigned in the same place; much less the same country; much less the same hemisphere. If you’ve got different skills and interests and educational backgrounds, you’d be matched to different jobs. Some countries ask for certain skills, others don’t. Different programs start at different times. Programs get canceled. A volunteer pulled out of one country due to instability may be reassigned to the job “promised” to you: so you get bumped to a program leaving three months from now to Kazakhstan. Meanwhile your lover has a ticket for Ecuador in her hand.

Our love is so strong we can serve as volunteers in different places. I watched Donna and Alan, old sweethearts, serve in Sri Lanka and Kenya, respectively. In the first year Donna visited him in Kenya. He visited her in Sri Lanka the next. They’re now raising kids in Pennsylvania. But I imagine two years on different continents might strain any relationship.

I’ll just do Peace Corps while my lover waits for me back at the condo. Keep in mind that people of whatever sexual orientation in romantic relationships of whatever sort are statistically more likely to quit Peace Corps and come home early if they’ve left a love behind. It’s a human thing.

I’ll secretly fly my lover over once I’m settled in my village. I can’t recommend this approach due to lack of a job for your partner, lack of Peace Corps preparatory training and health care, possible social stigma, unavailability of housing, and the like. Every anecdote I know of a volunteer importing a lover ends in disaster. My friend Maggie brought her lover Richard to Nepal. They were married there, as the striking photos of Maggie in a red sari and dripping with gold jewelry attest. But Richard left after a few months. They soon divorced. Another thing that can happen is that an intimate relationship can impede language and culture acquisition. Instead of “getting into the culture” the partners spend more time “getting into each other.” And sometimes one partner bonds with the culture, and the other doesn’t.

Until Peace Corps accepts gay domestic partners, you do have avenues to working abroad, but you’ll have to research each thoroughly.

Ask your nearest Peace Corps recruiting office for its most recent list of alternative international agencies doing development and volunteer work abroad. There are many dozens of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) doing remarkable work overseas. Ask the Peace Corps office about volunteering for the United Nations. Consider short jaunts with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, thereby building up your resume of overseas experience. Check the library for books on how to work abroad.

Consider working overseas for a gay-friendly corporation which will support you both.

Bone up on a language together, travel to a place interesting to you where its spoken, and look together for some serious long-term volunteer work. The South Pacific might be ideal, where people are usually less shackled with sexual stigma than here. Our LGB RPCV Mentor Program can put you in touch with former volunteers who worked in parts of the world that interest you.

Attempt In-Country Admission. This is a real long shot, but possible. People wishing to be placed in a particular country can travel there and petition the Country Director, but success depends on positions available, your skills, availability of language and/or cultural training, available sites, your medical histories, discretionary Peace Corps Country budget, and many other details. In other words, you’d have to be extremely lucky, and the couple (gay, straight, or any combination) would need a wad of cash to live on while they wait to see if it works out. But strange things happen, even in the Peace Corps.

I regret the dour overview, but these are the realities as I see them. There are occasional stories of gay domestic partners assigned to different places in the same country and their impassioned weekend meetings, and there are anecdotes of gay volunteers who somehow partner-up in remote and isolated areas. But these happy tales seem much the exception.

I think it’s vital for gay domestic partners interested in Peace Corps to let Peace Corps know you’d apply if you could. I want the Peace Corps to know of the presence and interest of gay couples, for without a constant tap on the door I fear the agency will never consider such a possibility.

Finally, I want to note that as an individual your sexual orientation is a non-issue for Peace Corps. There are tons of gay people in the Peace Corps at all levels of the organization: in Washington D.C., the regional recruiting offices, staff overseas, and as volunteers in the field. You’re welcome as a gay person.

I encourage you to call or visit your nearest Peace Corps recruiting office and get a second opinion on my views. Good luck, and, as they say in Sri Lanka, “May the Triple Gems Bless You.”

Joe Terteling was a volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1984 to 1986.

Peace Corps’ Statement on Diversity

“An organization that represents America should be representative of America.”

The diversity of the American people is a large part of what makes America the country it is. Diversity of ethnic backgrounds, life experiences, and beliefs have strengthened our country in countless ways. And because the Peace Corps shares with the rest of the world our most precious resource — our people — it can carry out its mission only if the Volunteer corps truly represents America in all its diversity.

Since 1961, Peace Corps Volunteers have helped people in developing countries around the globe overcome the adversities they face and improve the quality of their life. Volunteers have brought that experience back to communities across our country, which has helped America respond to many of its own challenges. This has made the Peace Corps a valuable experience for people of every background, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and people of other ethnic groups who are so important to our country’s past and its future.

To be sure, there are many communities in America that need and deserve assistance. But the Peace Corps can provide you with a new perspective on the world, a greater understanding of the problems in your community here at home, and provide you with the skills to help solve them.

In today’s competitive world, there is often a great deal of pressure to use one’s education to take the first good job that comes along. The Peace Corps, however, can often lead to more and better opportunities. Serving overseas as a Peace Corps Volunteer can increase your marketability here at home. Volunteers return with valuable technical and cross-cultural skills, knowledge of a foreign language, a financial readjustment allowance (up to $5,400 if you complete your training and two years of service), and the chance to participate in the Peace Corps’ graduate school programs — the Master’s International Program and the Peace Corps Fellows Program. This will put you in the enviable position to succeed in whatever career you choose.

The Peace Corps is an exciting opportunity not only because of what you can accomplish while serving as a Volunteer, but also because of what you can accomplish when you come home. That’s why the Peace Corps continues to attract the best and brightest people from every ethnic background, from all over America. “

Welcome to Peace Corps! Welcome to Training!

-Roy Schachter, RPCV Honduras, Peace Corps Staff Latin America

“Hi, I’m going to be your small business technical trainer. Nice to meet you, so glad you’re here.” And so begins the process of getting acquainted with a new and enthusiastic group of Peace Corps trainees. “Oh, by the way, I’m gay, so if any of you are curious about gay issues here in Guatemala (or El Salvador, Honduras, or Bolivia), I’d be happy to share my perspective. And if anyone in the group is interested in information about gay life in the local community or support available in the Peace Corps, we can talk about that also.”

But the reality is – I was never “out.” I worked six cycles of technical and one of cross-cultural training in four Latin American countries from 1993 to 1996. Although I’m sure some trainees and staff knew about me, it was never discussed. I attended meetings of the LGB Volunteer’s support group in Guatemala (Cuates). I went out to gay bars in countries that had them. I socialized openly with other gay people, both local and volunteers. During one training cycle, I even came by the Training Center with my partner (my friend, as I introduced him). But I was only really “out” to some of the Peace Corps nurses, telling them that I was available as a resource for trainees who revealed they were gay.

Ideally, a gay trainer would be out and available for any of the trainees who could use his/her guidance or insight on gay related issues in a particular foreign country/culture. But it’s not so easy. It’s interesting that gay or bisexual volunteers, who are open with their sexuality, often feel quite comfortable sharing this within the Peace Corps community, but rarely at their assigned work sites. Most feel that being out in their work environments in a culture usually less accepting than our own problematic society would adversely affect their acceptance and integration into their communities. And they’re right. But in Peace Corps, a volunteer can find a piece of Americana, usually with acceptance, respect and compassion toward gay volunteers by many of their fellow volunteers and the American Peace Corps staff. In fact, if they come across any overt discrimination within the Peace Corps they can make an issue of it and fully expect Peace Corps to back them and support them.

Ironically, for a trainer, the Peace Corps community is her/his “site.” For many of the same reasons that volunteers choose not to be as open at their sites, I felt that it was not in my best interest to share the fact that I was gay. I often worked closely with local staff to coordinate training activities. Most of the training staff were local people who often carried with them the same mixed bag of acceptance and prejudices as the local community. Staff at the Peace Corps office was also predominately local. From time to time I heard or heard of homophobic comments or attitudes, only confirming my suspicions about the risks involved. Being out could very well have presented problems. Some trainers and volunteers are out and open about their sexual orientation, and I admire those who were. I wish I could have been a bit stronger, a bit more self-confident and taken on this additional challenge. But, I wasn’t ready at the time.

One of my favorite training sessions was on diversity, an issue close to my heart. Who better to understand what it’s like to be different? It was a challenge to select, adapt, and develop activities that would generate worthwhile discussions and have people truly examine the whole range of diversity, including sexual orientation. All too often diversity or sensitivity training is met with resistance. Many people don’t think they need it, and others are unwilling to examine or consider changing values, beliefs, and behavior. The irony of addressing these issues with Peace Corps volunteers is that the volunteers welcome being thrust into working and living in a foreign country, and almost always come with open minds about learning and accepting a very different culture. But, they are often unaware of the unique challenges faced by other volunteers because of individual diversity issues like gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, marital status, age, political or religious beliefs – those issues that identify a volunteer as a minority within the majority Peace Corps community.

Sometimes these diversity sessions worked well. Generating discussion and having people consider the challenges and advantages of diversity and the perspectives and problems faced by others was rewarding. But on other occasions it was very hard to get staff or volunteers to truly consider how their behaviors and attitudes affected others. It was strange conducting diversity sessions and not being out about my own diversity. I imagine that some of the participants wondered about my enthusiasm for the topic.

Sexual orientation, other than heterosexual, is an intriguing diversity issue, because it’s often a “hidden” diversity. In one session, a gay volunteer pointed this out, advising the group to be aware of inadvertently insulting a gay person, regardless of their feelings about homosexuality. I think most lesbians, gays and bisexuals have experienced this kind of situation. After this session, I overheard one of the trainees discussing his problems with gay sexual orientation. “But it’s abnormal, completely abnormal,” he said. I stepped up and asked what he had been referring to. “Nothing,” he responded. I pursued the issue until he confirmed that he thought “it” was “just abnormal.” Not ready to reveal myself, I asked him how he would deal with working with a gay person in his volunteer assignment. He responded that he would limit the interaction strictly to work issues. I thought that he would probably not be able to hide his bias. And here was this future volunteer, telling me, his trainer, that I was abnormal. I wasn’t hurt by this, but disappointed. How do you get someone like this to reconsider?

Weekend visits by the trainees to current volunteer sites were scheduled soon after this diversity session. Another trainee assigned to visit the gay volunteer who participated in the session expressed serious reservations about spending two nights in this volunteer’s house. Understandable, amusing, sad? Feeling that his fears were unfounded, I reassured him. He did go, and I heard no more about it.

During another diversity session, in another country, one of the trainees chose to excuse himself from a small group discussion about a hypothetical case study involving a non-gay volunteer who chose not to react to homophobic comments from a local counterpart, even though they weren’t directed at or about him. The volunteer, who said he found the attitudes expressed offensive, feared that if he spoke up in a situation like this, he could be perceived as being gay, and was concerned how that could affect his relationship with his workmates. I encouraged the trainee to express his views regarding the case study. During the report-back to the whole group, he explained his inability to discuss the case: “Look, I’m Catholic and the Pope says no to abortions and no to gays.” Both my co-facilitator and I were caught off guard. How could we respond to this? We all want to accept diversity of opinions, don’t we? What right does someone have to completely reject the very existence of someone else? We all have our own moral codes and standards. Who and what should we be required to accept, or in the absence of acceptance, respect as a right that someone else has? We simply acknowledged his different viewpoint without challenging it or exploring it further, afraid to open up a Pandora’s Box. This could have been a perfect opportunity to analyze what “celebrating diversity” really means. Instead of accepting the challenge, we left the issue unresolved with many in the group finding the trainee insensitive and closed-minded.

Even though I experienced many frustrations and uncertainties as a trainer, my overall experience has been that Peace Corps handles gay and lesbian issues progressively.

To make the Peace Corps a more gay friendly environment. I would like to see:

  • information about the gay and lesbian situation in the local country, and the support available to LGB volunteers provided shortly after volunteers arrive.
  • better diversity training for Peace Corps and training staff, which includes gay and lesbian concerns.
  • more discretion and sensitivity by everyone in the Peace Corps community about gay and lesbian issues.
  • more trainers, staff, and volunteers open about their sexuality, without being made to feel uncomfortable or threatened by this revelation.

Roy Schachter was a PCV in Honduras from 1983 to 1985. He served as a Peace Corps trainer in Latin America from 1993 to 1996.

Same-Sex Couples and the Peace Corps

-by Kevin H. Souza, May 1997

Since 1994 I have been coordinating a project that connects returned gay and lesbian Peace Corps volunteers with Peace Corps applicants and invitees. Most of the requests for an RPCV mentor come through our web site and the most common question is, “Can my partner and I join Peace Corps together?” The answer is no. Peace Corps does not currently place same-sex couples. Peace Corps only places legally married couples when they can match the couple’s skills with positions in the same or nearby locations.

Now having said that, let me add that it is not impossible for same-sex couples to serve together. If a couple can show that hey have carefully thought about their decision; if they have skills needed by the host country; if their recruiter, medical staff, and placement officer are aware of, and sympathetic to their situation; and if the Peace Corps can find a posting suitable and safe for a same-sex couple, it could happen. These postings are rare, and if all of these elements came together they probably would not stay in place for long. Most Peace Corps staff are limited to five years of employment and without a change in placement policy, such postings would continue to be unusual.

It seems to me that Peace Corps’ policy on the placement of couples is not the real issue. The bottom line for couples, either opposite or same sex, is that the Peace Corps experience is not usually couple-friendly. It is difficult to find a geographic location where both individuals can utilize their skills. It is difficult to find countries that will accept couples, and it can be difficult adjusting to life in the Peace Corps. Couples who apply must be flexible – very, very flexible. It’s usually not hard to match the skills of one person to a specific site, but it is uncommon to equally match the skills of both partners to one site. Usually one partner receives a “good job” and the other “a not-so-good job.” This leads to dissatisfaction on the part of the poorly matched volunteer and the couple often decides to terminate their service. Approximately 500 couples served in the Peace Corps between 1990 and 1994 and about 35% left service before meeting their 27 month commitment. Their reasons included job dissatisfaction and health issues.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and their were seven couples in my training group, all married. One couple had married the day before they arrived at pre-service training. Others were joining Peace Corps after longer marriages, even retirement. The newly married couple lasted six months. Their young marriage was strained by the new and difficult surroundings and he was bored by his Peace Corps assignment. Four other couples left during the first year for similar reasons. One couple split up, geographically speaking. The husband, a computer programmer, went home early because there were no computers to program, while his wife stayed on to finish her remaining eight months. Only one couple completed their full commitment, a retired couple. None of these couples were faced with keeping their romantic relationship a secret in homophobic southern Africa.

What lies ahead for same-sex couples in the Peace Corps? Some think the same-sex marriage issues winding their way through the courts and the legislature in Hawaii might dramatically change the rights of same-sex couples, including their treatment by the Peace Corps. That seems a speculative position. I believe Peace Corps will not make any moves to equate same-sex and opposite-sex married couples until the Supreme Court or the Congress rules favorable on these issues. This is unlikely to happen soon. In light of my experience as a volunteer, and the statistics of early termination of married couples, I see the difficulty of placing couples in Peace Corps assignments. But might there not be another approach to this issue? Why not open placement policies to include married, affectionate or non-affectionate couples in Peace Corps assignments if the skill match is there. This broadened placement policy could include members of traditional families like parent and child, siblings, or other relatives. It could include close friends, business partners, and of course same-sex couples. And this would be the case only if the couple placements were appropriate to the project/program/ site situation. A policy like this might even make it easier to place some couples and open the Peace Corps to a wider variety of talents, skills, and placement possibilities.

Kevin H. Souza served in Malawi from 1989-91 and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can contact him at lgbrpcv@yahoo.com.

Peace Corps’ Equal Opportunity Policy

-Mike Learned

On March 24, 1994, Carol Bellamy, former Peace Corps Director, signed Peace Corps’ current version of the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy statement – which for the first time includes sexual orientation among its non-discriminatory criteria. What has the Peace Corps done since then to assure that applicants, volunteers and staff understand the policy and include non-discriminatory actions as part of their day-to-day job activities?

Conversations and correspondence with straight and gay recruiters, placement officers, volunteers, overseas staff and the top management team at Peace Corps indicate strong organizational support for the new policy. However, the agency is still struggling with practical ways of communicating the policy to applicants and being realistic with them about the attitudes lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers may be confronted with in their host countries.

The new gay-inclusive EEO statement is being printed on applications and other Peace Corps documents only as old supplies are diminished and new materials have to be ordered. The Placement Staff is including attitudes about sexual orientation in each country’s Volunteer Assignment Description (VAD) when this information is available. Current staff diversity training now includes issues raised by the inclusion of sexual orientation in the EEO statement.

One openly gay recruiter in a large metropolitan area told me that although some lesbian and gay applicants were open to him about their sexual orientation, he assumed most applicants did not discuss such issues with recruiters. Anecdotal evidence had indicated that when the subject did come up, many recruiters were unsure what to tell lesbian and gay applicants about what to expect in host countries.

Conversations like this were instrumental in getting our LGB RPCV recruiting resource project off the ground. We now have more than 60 RPCV members of our organization who are willing to advise LGB PC applicants about our experiences overseas. Starting with this issue, we’re sending our newsletter to each recruiting office. We’re asking that it be placed along with other Peace Corps related materials. Within two months we’ll have our LGB RPCV applicant resource project operational. Placement of openly lesbian/gay applicants causes some concerns with the Placement staff. Although there may be a few countries where a volunteer’s sexual orientation would not interfere with his or her success as a volunteer, there are strong indications that an openly gay volunteer would have difficulties in many traditional cultures. Several current LGB volunteers and two Associate Peace Corps Directors have described to me the extreme homophobic environments in which they work. A few PCVs who get our newsletter have specifically requested that envelops not include the word lesbian or gay because they fear harassment (we also get the same request from RPCVs who live in this country). To cite one extreme situation, a current volunteer described a very intimidating experience that involved the murder of a local gay couple and the police’s lack of zeal because of the victims’ sexual orientation.

The social/cultural issues which lesbian and gay volunteers may confront are in some ways not so very different from what other PCVs have faced. Certainly, African-American, Asian and Hispanic volunteers have experienced racial prejudice, bias or indifference in certain countries. Women have often had to deal with another culture’s limited view of a woman’s role. Volunteers have been known to bite their tongues (I was one of them) over issues of political and worker rights, and other expressions of personal freedom in situations where these freedoms were not valued or respected.

What’s critical here is that the lesbian, gay, bisexual volunteer and staff member have support from within the Peace Corps organization. We’ve heard many examples of this happening. Wayne Hill’s article last issue that mentioned the Peace Corps Director in Guatemala is a case in point. We’ve heard from current volunteers whose assignments have been made easier by the support of their Country Director, APCD and other gay and straight volunteers. Unfortunately there are still volunteers and staff members who do not experience this kind of support. This is an area where we urge the Peace Corps to improve its performance.

Helping to create a positive environment around sexual orientation in the Peace Corps and supporting lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers in threatening and homophobic environments are major goals of our organization. We intend to regularly cover these issues in our newsletter.

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