LGBT RPCVs Annual Report for 2013 – Activities and Accomplishments

 - Mike Learned, Group Leader (RPCV, Malawi)

Mentor Program: LGBT RPCVs has managed and electronically based Mentor Program since 1994. LGBT applicants, nominees, trainees and people curious about joining Peace Corps connect with our Mentor Program on the Mentor page of our website.

We provide specific directions to readings from our website and instructions on how to direct questions and concerns to more than 650 people who post on our listserv. This continues to work well with many requests for information and support this last year. Concerns are usually about homophobia and anti-gay discrimination in host countries but also can focus on the more mundane. Sometimes there are small numbers of responses, but on occasion advice and ideas come from many more respondents.

Supporting Peace Corps at LGBT-Related Recruiting and Information Events: During 2013 LGBT RPCVs assisted regional Peace Corps offices and Headquarters staff at several recruiting and/or informational LGBT-related events around the country. This involved preparing a printed package of materials. The Public Affairs Coordinator on our Steering Committee communicates directly with the Public Affairs Specialists in the Regional Peace Corps Offices. We also help locate LGBT RPCVs to help staff at recruiting and information tables (most notably at Gay Pride events in the summer and fall of 2013) to answer questions and provide support for Peace Corps staff. We have also assisted in supporting and communicating about Peace Corps webinars and other smaller scale events.

Financial Management: We discontinued requiring membership fees in early 2008. We continue to receive a “rebate” ($15 per person) from NPCA for members who identify us as their NPCA affiliate.  NPCA members joined or renewed during 2013 naming us as their affiliate. We have reduced our operating substantially. At the same time we are reaching out to a much larger group of people in our community who are interested in Peace Corps service. At the end of 2013 we had 45 NPCA dues paying members. We refer to all the other people we communicate with through our website, listserv, Facebook page, and Twitter account as associates.

Communications: During 2013 we expanded our electronic communications substantially through our web site use, listserv, Facebook page, and Twitter account. This article written by the External Communications Coordinator on our Steering Committee, describes this in full.

Advocacy and External Relationships: In 2013 we established informal relationships with two LGBT human rights groups. ORAM (Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration). This cooperative relationship will allow ORAM to access current and recent LGBT PCVs about conditions in countries where they serve(d) that could allow ORAM to assist refugee, asylum and other migration issues for people around the world who are at risk. This article from our web site provides more detail.

We have also established a cooperative relationship with SPECTRUM, a recently formed affinity-based employee resource group within Peace Corps. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are agency supported groups which bring together staff from across the agency because of a common sense of identity that may be associated with their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, professional experience, faith, disability or life interest.

Peace Corps joins the ranks of many public and private sector organizations which have begun to thoughtfully engage their diverse workforces via ERGs. At headquarters there has always been a small but mighty LGBTQ community. As such, when the opportunity for ERG formation presented itself the queer community mobilized. In March of 2013, members of SPECTRUM submitted a petition – with nearly 100 signatures – for formal recognition to Peace Corps’ Chief of Staff and the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity. This article from our website further explains their goals.

The summer of 2013 finally saw Peace Corps accept a policy change that we have long supported, the placement of same-sex couples serving together as volunteers. This was the last of many policy changes we have advocated for over the years which affected LGBT applicants and PCVs. This article from our website goes into our advocacy work over the last twenty years.

United Through the Wire – Our Organization Thrives in a Digital World

- Kevin H. Souza, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Malawi

The key to maintaining volunteer organizations is creating self-sustaining practices and this has been the approach of the LGBT Peace Corps group for the last few years, particularly in the area of communication. Our communication strategy consist of a wordpress website, a discussion group hosted by Yahoo Groups, a Facebook group and a Twitter account.

Website LGBRPCV

We have had a web presence since the mid-1990s and have published hundreds of stories from queer volunteers and their friends about the countries where they serve, about what life is like back in the states or about new adventures since the Peace Corps. Our website is hosted at http://www.lgbrpcv.org and currently contains almost 200 timely articles from 48 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe. You can follow new publications on our website and we welcome comments online. If you follow your news on a blog reader (RSS) the newsfeed URL for our website is http://lgbrpcv.org/feed/.

The website averages about 100 visits a day from almost every country in the world. Our most popular articles of all time are:

  1. The Life of a Transgender PCV: Are you a Boy or a Girl by Bryce Wolfe

  2. Open Secrets – Serving Queer in Paraguay – Compiled and Edited by Manuel Colón and Fiona Martin

  3. Building My Own Closet in Paraguay – by Fiona Martin

  4. Is There Gay Life in Benin? – by a former volunteer

  5. It’s Not That Bad in Paraguay  - by Manuel Colón

Online Discussion Group at Yahoo! Groups

Our Yahoo! Groups listserv at https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/lgbrpcv/ has attracted 655 members since January 27, 1999 and inspired 4192 messages. It is one of the richest sources of information on queer issues in Peace Corps service and the full archive is easily searchable. In the archive you will find 170 postings on Malawi, 145 on Russia, 126 on China, and 79 on Mongolia – just to scratch the surface. To search the archives or join the conversation you can subscribe at lgbrpcv-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Facebook

Our fastest growing community is found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/lgbrpcv/ with more than 145 members and growing daily. Discussions similar to our Yahoo! Groups are found here with postings from potential applicants, recently placed applicants and former volunteers sharing advice and stories about life as a queer volunteer in the Peace Corps. Recent discussions have included service in Columbia, Uganda, and Russia. You will also find information on Peace Corps events and interesting polls from our members. Boasting active members of Peace Corps it is also a great place to track new policy, advocacy and opportunity.

Twitter

Finally, our group has a presence on Twitter. You can follow us at https://twitter.com/LGBT_RPCV. Like Facebook, our Twitter community is growing fast with over 145 followers and posts that encourage local get-togethers, highlight volunteers and queer Peace Corps employees around the country.

The easiest way to be a part of our community is join in the discussion. You have many options depending on your favored way of communicating. Lets us hear from you.

For questions or comments about our communications strategies contact kevin.souza@gmail.com

LGBT RPCVs 2013 Financial Report

2013 was a quiet year financially. We were able to keep operating expenses very low. The voluntary work and contributions made by our Steering Committee members (our board) contributed to controlling expenses. We do have enough money in our bank account to make a grant during 2014.

Beginning Balance: $3343.45

Income:

  • Dues from NPCA: $735.00

Expenses:

  • NPCA Reaffiliation: $40.00
  • PO Box: $124.00
  • Internet Expenses: $13.00

Income Minus Expenses: $558.00

End of Year Balance: $3901.45

Placing Same Sex Couples as PCVs and Other Advocacy Issues

- Mike Learned, Group Leader, RPCV Malawi

May 21, 2013, a very important day at Peace Corps and for the LGBT Peace Corps community. It brought the announcement that Peace Corps would begin placing same sex couples together.  This was the latest of many policy changes we have advocated for over the years. Now is a good time to look back and review the advocacy we have championed and how it has influenced policy change at Peace Corps and positively affected our community.

Inclusion of Sexual Orientation in Peace Corps’ Non-Discriminatory Statement

Same-sex marriage laws around the world. Wikipedia.

Even though Peace Corps had been accepting lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers for many years, Peace Corps non-discriminatory statement which included the familiar race, nationality, age, gender, and disability language, did not include sexual orientation. In the early 1990s Peace Corps Director, Elaine Chow, visited San Francisco for an event that welcomed applicants, nominees, soon to depart PCVs, and the local RPCV community. A half dozen of us (active LGBT RPCV members) approached Director Chow (perhaps confronted would be a more descriptive verb) and presented her with a letter requesting that sexual orientation be included in Peace Corps non-discriminatory statement. She expressed surprise that it hadn’t been already. She took the letter, put it in her purse, and we never heard back.

The next Peace Corps Director we approached was Carol Bellamy. She was the first Peace Corps Director under President Clinton, and also the first RPCV to serve as Peace Corps Director. She had put together a much more progressive senior management team, and we had a couple of key allies among them and much lower level staff support. In 1994 Director Bellamy announced that sexual orientation would be included in the non-discriminatory statement. One down and a few more to go.

Accepting Healthy HIV Positive Applicants as Volunteers

By the late 1990s it became apparent to most in our community that people with HIV who were reacting positively to anti-retroviral therapies could live normal lives and be useful and skilled Peace Corps Volunteers. This was a much longer struggle. Over the years I talked with HIV+ applicants who had been turned down by Peace Corps Medical. One Peace Corps Medical Director I spoke with admitted that some HIV+ applicants could safely serve, but there were just too many questions. Then there was the issue that many countries where Peace Corps Volunteers served required volunteers to show proof they did not have HIV in order to receive work visas.

Although Peace Corps was not accepting HIV+ applicants, it had to deal with current Peace Corps Volunteers who became HIV+ while serving. There were several cases of this. They were brought back home their health evaluated and medically separated. In 2008, a very brave volunteer in the Ukraine, who became HIV+ during service was brought back to Washington, evaluated, and medically separated. He fought back and contacted the ACLU. They contacted Peace Corps and the press; suddenly every one was talking about the case. Shortly after, a volunteer in Zambia became infected. She was returned to DC, evaluated, and was about to be medically separated when Peace Corps (influenced by the Ukraine case, no doubt) said that since her health was good she could return to Zambia, or be placed for the last year of her tour in Lesotho. Her name is Elizabeth Tunkle, and she wrote a wonderful article for our website about her time in Lesotho actively speaking to high school students about her own HIV status and ways to prevent HIV. So another issue down and a few more to go.

Including LGBT PCV Examples in Recruiting Materials

This occurred during the George W. Bush administration under Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez. I had met Director Vasquez on a couple of occasions, and he assured me that he would never act in any discriminatory way toward LGBT volunteers or staff. He was a religious and political conservative, but I took him at his word. Every so often Peace Corps produces recruiting materials that features the racial, ethnic, gender, age, and disability diversity of Peace Corps volunteers in programs around the world. But they never featured an openly LGBT recent volunteer. Finally, one rather gentle story was added to some recruitment materials written by a gay RPCV who had served in the Philippines. Right before going to press the senior manager in charge ordered a “stop the presses” and “remove that story.” An ally at Peace Corps headquarters called me immediately. I went directly to Vasquez. He overturned his manager’s decision, and the recruiting brochure went to press as designed. One more down, but still some more to go.

Placing Transgender Volunteers

I had never heard of a Peace Corps policy that rejected or accepted transgender volunteers. I’d heard a few stories over the years about a couple of trans volunteers who served very quietly, but never heard more than that. Several years ago an older transwoman contacted us. She had transitioned many years earlier had applied to the Peace Corps and had been nominated as a volunteer. She had had a very successful career. She seemed a perfect fit for the program she had been nominated for. But Medical had questions about her gender transition and turned her down. I wrote a letter to the Medical Director at the time suggesting a review of the case, but got a reply that basically said he couldn’t discuss the health or medical issues of any applicant.

Around 2005 I heard from a transman who applied to the Peace Corps with note worthy skills and experience. He was being questioned by Medical in what he felt was and unfair and discriminatory way. I spoke with a personal contact I had within Peace Corps Medical who explained (as I knew) that the contact was constrained by ethics and policies around medical and health information. I suggested that the situation could be looked at again and more thought given to a decision of whether to accept or reject the applicant. The applicant won over medical staff and was accepted and had a very successful experience as a volunteer, and has since gone on to even more important work in the developing world. One more down and just one more big one to go.

Placing Same Sex Couples Together as Volunteers

We have been actively advocating the placement of same sex couples together as volunteers since the very beginning of the Obama administration. After the legalization of same sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004, Peace Corps modified its policy for placing married couples together to reflect the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act’s (passed in 1996). Prior to this Peace Corps identified couples as married according to the state laws in which they presided. This included the recognition of common law marriage if it was recognized in an applicant couple’s state of residence. The revised Peace Corps policy stated that because of DOMA only a married couple who were a man and a woman would be eligible as applicants.

Several recent factors led to our decision to aggressively push this discriminatory policy toward resolution. These included the election of the current administration and the appointment of a more progressive Peace Corps Director and senior staff, and a policy change that allows the same sex partner/spouse of Peace Corps staff serving overseas to have the same rights and privileges of the opposite sex staff couples where all parties are American citizens. It also helped that more states had legalized same sex marriage and domestic partnerships, and polls indicated that there was an increase in the number of Americans, particularly younger Americans, who supported same sex marriage and domestic partnerships.

We started with a letter to Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams. We got a quick response informing us that a member of Peace Corps headquarters staff would contact us. This began a dialogue about how to prepare and implement a policy that would allow the placement of same sex couples, but this process took longer than I thought. I spoke personally to both Director Williams and his successor Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radalet. And there has been much communication between us and Peace Corps staff over the last couple of years about this. And finally the May 21 announcement.

We Did Not Do This Alone

Through all the years of our advocacy on these issues, we did not work alone. Peace Corps staff has included many supportive members of the LGBT community and loads of straight allies. Three years ago or so we offered suggestions for ongoing Medical Officer training to include a discussion of the physical and mental health needs of LGBT PCVs. We have also worked closely with Peace Corps and LGBT PCVs and their straight colleagues to offer several versions of Safe Zone training on our website. We have contributed suggestions for diversity training in initial training programs to include local LGBT topics for PCVs new to their countries of service. Many Peace Corps recruiters and country desk officers refer LGBT applicants, nominees and invitees to our web site.

As recent polls have indicated, there has been a huge increase in support for equal rights for LGBT people among the general population. All of these trends and the support of our allies have worked in our favor, energizing the many steps forward in our search for equality as members of the Peace Corps family and as citizens.

You can contact Mike Learned at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

2012 Financial Report

2012 was a quiet year financially. Our web master did not ask for a reimbursement for web hosting expenses. We did not make any grants this year, but have enough on hand to make one in 2013.

Beginning Balance: $2638.45

Income:
Dues from NPCA:  $915.00

Expenses:
NPCA Reaffiliation: $90.00
PO Box: $120.00

Income Minus Expenses:  $705.00

End of Year Balance: $3343.45

 

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