Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps

The following is the introduction from Jim Kelly’s thesis on gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps, “Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps.”

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I was born on June 29, 1947 in a country hospital in a tiny southern Minnesota farming town.  The complicated and dangerous delivery almost cost both my mother and I our lives.  For the first 15 years of my life, every Sunday after church the ugliest, kindest nurse in history would, without invitation, give me a huge hug and say, “How’s my miracle baby today?”  If someone tells you often enough that you’re special, you’ll come to believe it yourself.

However, I kept the most “special” thing about me fiercely protected from discovery.  As far back as I can remember I knew that I was different: I felt about boys the way boys were supposed to feel about girls.  I also instinctively knew I was in danger if my secret got out.  At great psychic cost, I protected that secret for 21 years.  I was a college senior when I said out loud for the first time to another human being that I was gay – my academic advisor.

I don’t regret growing up in a small town.  Many values I still hold were developed there – values that I believe ultimately led to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer..My parents belonged to just about every board and organization in town.  From them I learned the values of community service and civic engagement.  I learned what unremarkable people can accomplish when they work together and acknowledge their interdependence.  I experienced the power of generosity, and the empowering effect of respect for others.

The darker side of human nature in a small town is that those values really operate only within a sphere of sameness – by and for people who look alike and act alike.  My town was at the northern end of a migrant route of Mexican summer farm workers.  Over the years, a small permanent community established itself.  They were the “other,” and that’s how I learned about prejudice and the impact of marginalization.  It helped me realize that I was “in, but not of” that sphere of sameness.  I was also an “Other!”  Difference is dangerous!  Theirs’ was obvious, mine was hidden; but the impact on me was profound.  I had learned to empathize.

“Otherness” and the preoccupation to avoid discovery was the driving influence in my life for years to come.  Yet, as my world expanded in college during the late 60’s, I realized there were movements everywhere to restore peace, celebrate differences and work on behalf of justice.  In my senior year, a woman in my friendship group who had graduated the prior year was sending us letters about her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador.

I was mesmerized and felt called.  Peace Corps was still in its first decade and the ideals on which it was founded were inspiring.  I applied.  About half-way through that endless application, I crashed into this question: “Do you have homosexual tendencies?”  In that instant I remembered my PC friend in El Salvador remarking that after she applied, FBI agents ran routine background checks and interviewed people who knew her.

I checked the “no” box, fully aware I was lying.  Moreover, I was obligated to ask my academic advisor to collude with me in this lie if he got asked that question by the FBI.

For longer than Peace Corp’s first decade of existence, applicants aware of being gay or lesbian had to perjure themselves to the federal government to even be considered for this opportunity to serve others and represent the best America has to offer.

In 1969 I completed pre-service training and began my service in a rural village in El Salvador.  Almost 47 years later, I still view my Peace Corps service as one of the most transcendent experiences of my life.  Nevertheless, camouflaging my sexual orientation while in the Peace Corps caused me considerable psychological and emotional pain.  During my training and Volunteer service I never experienced permission from trainers, other Volunteers or Peace Corps staff to be open about who I was.  I believed the Peace Corps assumed all Volunteers were heterosexual.  The cross-cultural adaptation training we received about male and female roles and interpersonal relationships was directed at heterosexuals.  The men and women had separate training sessions about sexual mores, do’s and don’ts.  I clearly remember a trainer reciting to the men names of brothels that were on an unofficial “hygienically approved” list.

In spite of the cost of my silence, I succeeded.  I extended my service until 1972.  No one ever knew about my profound sense of alienation induced by fear that my “secret” would become known.  No one in Peace Corps ever knew that eventually I did discover the El Salvadoran gay subculture and was able to develop a wonderful friendship and support network.  Although never regretting being a PCV, I also never forgot how I felt during training and Volunteer service about the omission of attention to some of my most fundamental gay-related needs and concerns as they related to my ability to serve Salvadorans.

Quite serendipitously, about five years after leaving El Salvador, I became associated with Peace again, first as the Training Coordinator for Peace Corps Chile’s pre-service training center.  That experience led to a referral in 1981 to CHP International, an Oak Park, IL company which, under contract to the Peace Corps, staffed and operated pre-service training centers in countries of destination (eventually managing centers in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa).  I remained with CHP until my retirement 25 years later.

My work with CHP kept me in constant contact with our Peace Corps training centers, curriculum development projects, the evolution in Peace Corps’ training philosophy, Peace Corps staff, and with networks of serving and returned PCVs.  The anecdotal accounts of many gay and lesbian friends I made in the informal networks of Peace Corps staff and RPCVs made me wonder how much had really changed in the Peace Corps’ understanding as an institution of the special challenges that Volunteer service presents to gay and lesbian Volunteers.

Towards the end of my first decade with CHP, I decided to obtain an advanced degree in cross-cultural training – acutely aware that I’d already I’d been called to serve again by conducting and publishing this research.  As the thesis dedication says:

To the gays and lesbians who have served
as Peace Corps Volunteers
1961 – 1991
We have a voice now

Click Kelly, James B (1991) to read complete copy of Kelly’s thesis on our website.

LGBT RPCV National Coordinator on the “Listening Tour”

by Manuel Colón, 

In my new role as National Coordinator for LGBT RPCV, I decided to make it a point to reach out to each of the continuing Steering Committee members and have a chat. I’ve dubbed this my “listening tour.” I wanted the conversations to serve not only as a time for me to engage with each of the members one-on-one, but also to tap into their individual and collective knowledge of the group’s history and their thoughts on our future. I’m nearly complete, with only two or three more committee members to go, and I cannot be happier with the results thus far.

The conversations I’m having have  been so informative, insightful, and, quite honestly, enjoyable! The knowledge and experiences that each one of our Steering Committee members brings to the table is absolutely great! However, there is a particular incident that has truly surpassed my expectations of what these chats could have produced. LGBT RPCV produces a newsletter that is shared with our followers and supporters on a quarterly basis and done so digitally. However, as you might imagine, when the group first started in 1991, the newsletter was print.

Dennis Gilligan, fellow Steering Committee member, informed me that he still had all the original print newsletters that the group had produced. In fact, he had been meaning to scan and digitize them, just never got around to it. Since our conversation, Dennis has sent me over 70 digitized pages of LGBT RPCV’s newsletters from its early days of inception. I was only two pages into the inaugural newsletter when I was stopped dead in my tracks to learn that in 1991, an RPCV named James “Jim” Kelly wrote a master’s thesis titled “Diversity’s Hidden Dimensions: Gays and Lesbians in the Peace Corps.”

James “Jim” Kelly and Manuel Colón

James “Jim” Kelly and Manuel Colón

In my excitement to find Jim and his thesis, I looked in our university’s database, scanned what Google produced, and even searched Facebook. While I was unsuccessful in my digital search, all I had to do was scroll over to the next page to find Jim’s home address and phone number (as research would have been done in 1991, obviously). I wasn’t 100% positive that the number listed would still be active 24 years later, but it was! Jim answered the phone, was more than happy to chat with me, and, since we are both in Illinois, made time to meet in-person later that week.

I’ve invited Jim to contribute a piece to our website; so that he can expand upon his experience with Peace Corps and his dissertation work. Jim was also gracious enough to provide us with a digital copy of

his thesis (a task he, also, had been meaning to do, but hadn’t until I requested) and we’ll share the full report when we get his written story.

In the meantime, I was able to record our chat. I tried my best to edit it and have shared via SoundCloud. If you have about 45 minutes, CLICK HERE to  take a listen.

Share Your Story at Peace Corps Connect June 2015

LGBT RPCB PCC-BerkeleyThe LGBT RPCV Association wants to share more voices during its Peace Corps Connect session in Berkeley. This is the annual gathering of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, and it is the first conference session we have hosted in many years. (The actual session time is TBD but likely Friday, June 5, 4:30 – 5:30PM)!
At our conference session we will lead the audience through a sample Safe Zone Training session, as well as give an overview of the work of LGBT PCVs through the years. We want to include you!
All are welcome, but we are especially looking for recently COS’d (last 3-4 years; or currently serving!) — and extra-especially anyone who participated in a Safe Zone Training while in service.
We invite you to participate by attending our session live*, or coming live via Skype, or emailing in your thoughts for us to share. If interested or for questions, please contact Hale Sargent @ lgbtrpcv@gmail.com.
*You do not have to pay the conference fees if you are serving as a presenter and only coming for our session. To learn more about Peace Corps Connect, visit http://www.peacecorpsconnect.org.

LGBT RPCV’s Steering Committee Selects New National Coordinator

The Steering Committee for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Returned Peace Association has appointed a new National Coordinator, Manuel Colón.  He served as an Environmental Education Volunteer in Areguá, Paraguay, from 2010-2012. During his service, Manuel led efforts to establish a national curriculum called “Paraguay Verde” with

Manuel Colon LGBTRPCV Alumni National Coordinator

Manuel Colon
LGBTRPCV Alumni National Coordinator

Volunteers from the entire Environment sector. Paraguay Verde promotes environmental youth groups centered around civic and community engagement. The national conference component to Paraguay Verde successfully concluded its fifth iteration February of this year. Manuel was also a leader in Jopara, the Volunteer-led diversity committee, which helped to facilitate the first-ever LGBT ally training with Volunteers and Staff. Upon completion of service, Manuel returned to his alma mater to work as an undergraduate recruiter for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also a part-time Master’s student in the Human Resources Development program.

Manuel joined LGBT RPCV’s steering committee in 2013 as the New Volunteer Coordinator. In this capacity he is the liaison between the prospective Volunteer, currently serving Volunteer, and recently returned Volunteer populations and the group at large. Manuel is a major content generator on our group’s social media accounts and listserv. He works to highlight, promote, and celebrate the LGBT Volunteer experience.

Other members of the Steering Committee have agreed to continue their roles to help support our new leadership. Mike Learned, former Group Leader, will remain on the Steering Committee as enewsletter editor.

Manuel can be contacted at lgbrpcv@lgbrpcv.org 

Survey of LGBT RPCV Followers

LGBT Follower Survey 2015To take the pulse of what LGBT RPCV followers think about our mostly virtual organization, a survey was announced through our listserv as well as via Facebook and Twitter. Seventy-seven (77) people responded to the short survey (12% of our listserv membership).

Of the 77 respondents, just over 80% are returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), with about 13% being current volunteers.

The feature of our organization most appreciated is the listserv (62.5%) followed by Facebook (51.4%) and our webpage (37.5%).

For the listserv, the top 2 postings appreciated are Learning about Peace Corps-related news and events (73.5%) and LGBT world news (67.7%). Also appreciated were learning about job postings (38.2%) and countries of assignment (30.9%).  65.7% of respondents judged that the number of listserv postings is about right, with 22.4% saying there are too many posts and 11.9% too few. When asked how we can improve the listserv, the top suggestion was to consolidate the postings into either a daily or weekly summary to cut down on the frequency of posts, and possibly including questions for discussion about the posted issues. Many suggested adding more stories of LGBT PCVs and RPCVs and to include links to all that is posted, although a current PCV asked for the opposite: to post full articles since Internet service is weak and opening links can be a challenge. A few comments commended what we are now doing.

On the mentoring program, 58.2% of respondents didn’t know such a program existed, but would be interested in participating. Very few had participated in the program either as a mentor or mentee. The few notable comments were that people had tried to participate but were never contacted and that it may be worth considering having current volunteers mentor one another. It was also suggested that RPCVs who had served in specific countries could be made available to share their experiences with those who may be going to those countries.

Key suggestions to improve the Facebook group, Twitter posts and our webpage were to close the Facebook page because having it open to the public may compromise current volunteers where host country nationals can see that they are members and to increase the number of job posts.

Other things that followers would like to see LGBT RPCV doing that would be useful:

  • Enable more connections among RPCVs such as organizing more local and regional events of interest to LGBT RPCVs, including social events and job fairs and pride events.
  • Make links to more external groups that share similar interests to ours, including working with US-based LGBT organizations to support projects.
  • Make more efforts to reach potential PCVs.
  • Explore having RPCVs visit current LGBT PCVs.

When asked about interest in becoming more involved in LGBT RPCV in leading our community, 9 people stepped forward with their contact information. No one had a specific idea about what they wanted to volunteer to do, but one respondent who has already been very active noted that he has taken part in LGBT RPCV events such as Pride celebrations and Peace Corps anniversary occasions. He said that he is “proud of our organization and its ongoing supportive involvement in Peace Corps. I consider my own service as a pivotal point in my own life that keeps me closely connected… Surely PC’s own evolving comfort and active support of LGBT volunteers has much in our organization’s existence and work…”

LGBT Follower Survey 2015


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