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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