Safe Zone: Making Peace Corps Havens for LGBT PCV/Ts Worldwide

-Grant Martin Picarillo, PCV, Guatemala, 2008-2010

Overview:

“Safe Zone” is a LGBT sensitivity, acceptance and awareness training exercise designed to promote understanding and promote ally development among our straight peers. Subsequently, the mission is simple. By facilitating a better understanding of LGBT issues among Peace Corps staff, LGBT trainees and volunteers will feel more supported, comfortable and accepted in their individual interactions with staff members and thus in their service as a whole. On a recent Monday early in the New Year, Peace Corps Guatemala completed an all staff Safe Zone training. Sparking dialogue, engaging questions and presentation of new and real facts about LGBT people, Safe Zone in Guatemala was a great success. Here’s how and why we did it.

Why Safe Zone in Peace Corps is Necessary:

An inclusive and accepting environment of mutual support and acceptance is vital to relationship building between PCV/Ts and PC administration and staff. This fact can be particularly true when it comes to LGBT issues such as “coming out,” personal sharing, feelings of safety and security, self-esteem, and mental health. Dealing with a LGBT identity can be hard in the United States, let alone in a different and often more “conservative” culture of Guatemala. All this is going on while dealing with the other adjustments that being a PCV entails. Speaking from personal experience, I found dealing with my sexual orientation identity in this new environment to be one of the hardest adjustments in my transition from American to Guatemalan living. One of the mediating factors to this challenge has been my interaction with Peace Corps staff. While I can’t say I have ever felt discriminated against or unsupported there have been moments of uncertainty and doubt. For example, questions such as “Is it OK if my APCD knows that I’m gay?” “Can I openly talk about my boyfriend with a Spanish teacher when we share stories in language class?” “What if I have to ask the nurse a question that “outs” me?” While some of these questions are applicable to my own case and others not, I can promise that all of these and more have been concerns to countless volunteers. The negative ramifications of these feelings and hesitations can be harmful to the volunteer and to her or his ability to thrive in their community. Compounding this situation is the sad reality that we non-straight identifying volunteers (for the most part) must live a lie in site for two years; acting as heterosexual for the sake of our safety and integration. To have few obvious outlets to be open and honest, neither on site nor in our interactions with staff could be extremely damaging to one’s Peace Corps experience.

Therefore, it is my strong belief that should the general knowledge of LGBT issue be raised and should any number of staff members sport the “acceptance symbol” (see attachment as a model to one we could design on our own) on their door or in their office as a symbol to say “I’m a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues,” the PC community in Guatemala would be healthier, safer, and more inclusive. Note: as is also outlined in our safe zone script, PC-Washington also states that all PC-Centers must be supportive and accepting places for volunteers. So from the PCV community up and the Washington headquarters down PC Posts worldwide have little excuse not to engage their LGBT volunteer community.

How We Did It:

Starting with a proposal from our LGBT representative on our Gender and Development – Committee (GAD), the Safe Zone idea was presented to our Peace Corps Training Officer (PTO) and Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO). While they were initially receptive to the idea, I followed up by modifying and combining various LGBT centric resources I had, including a Safe Zone training script I received while at college from New York University’s LGBT resource center, to create a Peace Corps Specific Safe zone module. From there, GAD presented the proposed 2-hour agenda of activities to the aforementioned staff contacts. Impressed, our PTO and PCMO gave me the green light to present our “Safe Zone” training to staff. Seeing the importance of this training, our staff liaisons coded the upcoming Safe Zone training as a mandatory event for all staff (they rightly assumed that should this not be mandatory some staff would choose not to attend because of the subject matter at hand…which is exactly the point of the training! To raise staff “comfort level” with LGBT issues). From here, our organizing committee reached out staff members we already knew to be allies to as them to facilitate parts of the workshop. With buy-in from various staff members – Guatemalan and American – and not just the token gay volunteer and socially liberal American staff, we were able to communicate before even starting that it’s OK… “cool” even, to be an ally.

With our safe zone script finalized and sticker logo printed (see attachments) it was game time. Coming together, myself, our GAD chairwoman, PTO, PCMO, Country Director (CD) and 2 other Peace Corps Alphabet soup facilitators executed the 2 hour safe zone training on Monday the 25th of January, 2010 to a captive, curious, and willing to engage (SUCCESS!) audience.

Conclusion and Follow Up:

An important part of Safe Zone for Peace Corps Guatemala was ensuring the change was not just internally processed staff member to staff member…but that PCT/Vs were able to more obviously understand and see that our PC center was a place of total acceptance and support. Therefore, as a concluding part of our training, we allowed staff to take our in-house safe zone logo (circle of rainbow colored hand prints) and stick it up in a visible place somewhere in their office or workspace. Low and behold, the majority of attendees took not just 1 but two stickers to hang up, as did they take all copies of other LGBT/GAD resources I had previously created: “How to fight homophobia in site,” “What to expect as an LGBT PCV,” and our fall 2008 “Gender Blender” newsletter containing upwards of 5 articles about homosexuality in Guatemala. With stickers in place our Peace Corps office and training center is a visible safe zone, with more staff then not sporting their rainbow stickers implicitly saying “I’m an ally… a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues.”

We here in PC-Guatemala are hoping to have some follow up dialogue about the many questions raised during our session. Most pressing of all, were perhaps the many questions from APCDs concerning either: a) how to select a site for a LGBT volunteer and b) what to do when they believe the volunteer is struggling with sexuality issues in Guatemala but has yet to come out to them. These are all good questions that GAD and our PCMO are working on addressing more concretely in the near future.

While many hours of work were involved in “making this happen,” I have been thrilled with the immediate results and ongoing dialogue. We all have unique PC experiences and challenges and while helping LGBT volunteer mitigate some of the potential landmines of service is just one step in the right direction, it is an important step, and one we must take. Saludos from Guatemala!

Workshop Materials:

Contact Grant regarding any questions about the Safe Zone training, accessing Spanish translations and/or implementing a Safe Zone at your post at gmpicarillo@gmail.com.

In-Country Support Groups for LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers

-Mike Learned, Editor, RPCV, Malawi

There have been support groups for LGBT PCVs in countries around the world for at least 15 years. The first I knew of back then was Cuates, organized by PCVs in Guatemala. It has functioned on again, off again since. We have published at least five stories in our newsletter noting or announcing these efforts in Guatemala, Kenya, Ecuador, Romania and Tanzania. I have heard of many more. The purpose of this article is to pull together the experiences of the many volunteers who have set up, organized, and perpetuated such groups.

Setting Up an LGBT Support Group

During Pre-Service Training (PST) in-country two different occasions emerge that can initiate the information and support needs of LGBT volunteers. The first is that part of training that describes the societal and cultural values of a country related to gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. From what I’ve heard information about sexual orientation varies from barely mentioned to being dealt with in an understanding and sophisticated way. Peace Corps is a large and de-centralized organization. Training around social issues ranges widely depending on the experience and sensitivity of the Country Director and her or his staff.

If an LGBT trainee is not getting enough information about LGBT issues in the local society, ask for more. This suggests you identify yourself as LGBTQ or whatever, but there may be more subtle ways to get that conversation going. If you are dissatisfied with the information you are getting, let the staff know in a positive and constructive way. They won’t improve their training if you don’t give them feedback.

In the beginning, test the waters, particularly if homosexual activity is illegal in a particular country. The PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) staff might be a good place to start. You could ask current PCVs and American staff which of the HCN (Host Country National) staff might be more sensitive and knowledgeable about issues of sexuality.

Another thing that usually happens during PST is the formation of Peer Support Groups. You and your PCV colleagues are new to the country. You will be living in the community, often in isolated circumstances. You are encouraged to use one another for social and emotional support. Often times you will be able to identify other LGBTQ trainees, either because they reveal themselves, or old fashioned gaydar just kicks in. It’s possible that some of the straight trainees will not be that supportive of their LGBT colleagues, or that some in the LGBT contingent may chose to remain discrete about their identity.

In at least one country, Kyrgyzstan, a Peer Support Network apart from PST was set up that involved trainees, more experienced volunteers, and some relevant PC staff (such as the Peace Corps Medical Officer) to support volunteers experiencing challenges during their service, including issues around sexuality.

An existing LGBT Support Group may already exist, particularly in countries with long years of Peace Corps presence. There may be LGBT volunteers already in country who have made themselves available to trainees for information and counseling.

Sexual Orientation: One Slice of the Diversity Pie

Peace Corps makes a great to-do about the diversity of its volunteer force – reflecting the face of America – gender, race, ethnic identity, age, geographic distribution, and more subtly sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is included in Peace Corps equal employment and non-discrimination policies. Peace Corps Directors have routinely declared June Gay Pride Month at Peace Corps. This means that LGBT volunteers should expect and get support from in-country Peace Corps staff.

In-Country Homophobia and Discrimination

On the other hand there is the existence of laws outlawing and providing criminal punishment for homosexual activity in many countries where Peace Corps serves. And if it’s not illegal, there’s still plenty of homophobic attitude. Even in countries like South Africa (where same-sex marriage is legal) and Thailand, various forms of homophobia exist. Within a given country there may be significant differences in understanding and acceptance between urban and rural people.

Regardless of accepted norms of sexuality in any given society, Peace Corps staff has to take into account the safety and security of all volunteers. Safety and security concerns for LGBT volunteers may be greater if a volunteer’s sexual orientation is revealed in the community where she or he serves. Although an unusual occurrence, lesbian and gay volunteers have been harassed, ostracized, intimidated, and even suffered physical harm when their sexual orientation was suspected or revealed. There is no evidence however, that LGBT volunteers have suffered such negative experiences at a rate higher than Peace Corps volunteers in general.

Activities, Training and Social Opportunities

What will keep an LGBT Support Group going is becoming involved in activities. Here are some that various groups and individuals have been involved in:

  • Taking part in the Pre-Service Training for new volunteers, explaining the realities of being LGBT PCVs in a particular host country.
  • Being part of on-going diversity training for host country national staff, so that this staff is in a better place to support and understand the circumstances of LGBT volunteers.
  • Conducting “life skills” training as part of a health education curriculum where topics such as sexuality and HIV/AIDS education can be raised. Peace Corps has developed a Life Skills Manual that is available to any interested Volunteer through the local Peace Corps Center’s resource department.
  • As secondary assignments identifying and working for Human Rights or NGOs who focus on HIV/AIDS education, prevention, care. Individual PCVs in some countries have been able to work with such groups because they are providing particular HIV/AIDS education and prevention for men who have sex with men, and for women who have sex with women.
  • As a secondary assignment, one volunteer translated information in English into the local language for in-country Gay Rights organization. Another actually ran a small Gay Rights organization on an island nation, because host country nationals felt such a role would be unsafe for them. Both of these assignments were taken with the OK of the local Peace Corps Country Director. The volunteers did their work and kept their heads down.
  • Social events – the whole range, visits to gay bars or discos where they exist and are safe to visit, sports, hikes, camping, organized visits to local places of interest.
  • Do PCVs in such support groups ever get “involved” with one another? It’s happened.

Leadership

If a support group is going to be successful, there has to be someone who takes on the role of leader. In one case I recall, two leaders, a man and a woman. I always recommend someone who has party planning skills. We all know people like this. There the ones who get things going. If you can plan a party, you can plan any kind of social, cultural, or training event.

Peace Corps’ Policies Regarding Political Activities

Peace Corps Volunteers may not become involved in local political activities. This is explained pretty extensively during training. The question then becomes – is being involved in local Human Rights and particularly Gay Rights groups seen as political? It depends on the country and how the power structure in the country views such groups. In some places involvement in such groups is definitely political, in other places not.

A Written Purpose Statement or Mission

Developing a written purpose or mission statement can give focus to an LGBT PCV Support Group, and clearly identify to in-country PC staff what it is about. It can also act to perpetuate the group if there is a lag in leadership between groups, or in countries with smaller numbers of volunteers. Purpose/Mission statements can always be revised to reflect new realties.

A Mission or Purpose statement might answer these questions.

  • Who are we?
  • How do we interact with PC staff and other volunteers?
  • What activities are we involved in as part of Peace Corps?
  • What activities are we involved in as members of our communities?

Here is an example of a written Mission/Purpose statement put together by an LGBT PCV Support Group in Ecuador in December 2006. http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles/02_07_ECUADOR.htm

A Special Thanks:

I acted as a compiler and editor for this article. I got input and ideas from so many people. So let me say thank you to Aida (who was one of the first to lead such a group), Eric, David, Craig, Danielle, Adam, Claudia, Jim, Connor, Lena, Jesse, Erin, Kevin, Daniel, Laura, Benjamin, Jeffrey, Tony, Jay, Molly, Steven, 2 Johns, and to everyone else I’ve talked with about this topic.


 

Mike Learned can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

PCV GLBT Interest Group Forming in Ecuador

-Claudia Calhoon, PCV

On December 15, 2006, a group of volunteers met in Quito to re-organize a GLBT Interest Group to serve volunteers in Ecuador. Efrain Soria from Equidad, a human rights and HIV organization that works with gay men in Quito, spoke to the group about issues facing gay and lesbian populations and described the work of the organization. The majority of the volunteers are from the Rural Public Health and Youth and Families programs. We hope to identify training and resources materials for providing education on homophobia, particularly with the aim of improving HIV prevention for GLBT populations and men who have sex with men. We are planning to have a presence at Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride) in Quito in June and want to network with the other GLBT organizations working in Guayaquil and Machala. Our new group will not be all work. We plan so social events, including a rafting trip we have in mind for sometime in 2007.

The Ecuador Group’s Mission Statement:

The GLBT Interest group is a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight Peace Corps Volunteers working in Ecuador to support programming in education on sexuality, homophobia, HIV, and discrimination. Our objectives are:

  • To provide a supportive network for volunteers who are GLBT in which they can discuss the challenges of living and serving in Ecuador.
  • To provide an outlet and resource to all volunteers who are interested in addressing homophobia and raising the visibility of GLBT communities in Ecuador. Supporting the creation of safe and secure environments for youth who may be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is a key part of encouraging health behaviours and is fundamental to combating the spread of HIV.
  • To serve as a resource to Peace Corps Ecuador staff and volunteers in training with sensitivity to GLBT issues.

You can reach Claudia Calhoon to offer support or find out more about the LGBT Group atclaudiacalhoon@yahoo.com

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