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

 

2012 in Review at lgbrpcv.org

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 21,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 5 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

LGBT RPCVs’ Annual Report for 2011 – Activities and Achievements

- Mike Learned, Group Leader (RPCV, Malawi)

This report of our activities and achievements during 2011 has been submitted to the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) as part of our reaffiliation with that organization for 2012.

Mentoring Program: Since 1994 LGBT RPCVs has managed an electronically-based Mentor Program. LGBT applicants, nominees, trainees and people curious about joining Peace Corps connect with our Mentor Program on the Mentor page of our website (www.lgbrpcv.org). We provide specific directions to readings from our website and instructions on how to direct questions and concerns to more than 600 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 a dozen or more respondents. We would be happy to share with other NPCA affiliates the way our Mentor Program functions. It would work particularly well with Country of Service groups that have or would initiate a listserv.

Supporting Peace Corps at LGBT-Related Recruiting and Information Events: During 2011 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. We also located LGBT RPCVs to help staff at recruiting and information tables (most notably at Gay Pride events in the summer and fall of 2011) to answer questions and provide support for Peace Corps staff. Peace Corps staff, LGBT RPCVs and others marched as Peace Corps contingents in the Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. Gay Pride Parades. We have also assisted in supporting and communicating about Peace Corps webinars and other smaller scale events.

In 2011 we were also active in urging Peace Corps senior managers to place same-sex couples together as volunteers where their security needs could be reasonably assured.

Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary: We cosponsored with our Washington D.C. contingent a happy hour event during the 50th anniversary celebrations in Washington. We provided snacks and bar food at the no-host bar event on the Friday evening of that weekend event. About 50 people attended.

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. 59 NPCA members joined or renewed during 2011 naming us as their affiliate. We include in our membership anyone who was a paying member in the last five years and anyone who has joined us electronically since we changed our membership fee policy. Our operating expenses are now less than $600 a year. We currently measure our membership at about 350. We have lost track of some members because of (now) invalid email addresses.

Local Groups: LGBT RPCVs celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2011. Over the years LGBT RPCVs has had local groups around the country: San Francisco, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston (New England), and the New York City area. Currently the San Francisco and Washington DC groups are active. A smaller New York group maintains a listserv but appears inactive.

Communications: LGBT RPCVs administers a listserv with more than 600 participants. It is an integral component of our Mentor Program, and we use it to communicate international news related to LGBT and other human rights issues in the developing world, with special emphasis on what’s going on in countries where Peace Corps has or has had programs. We also send our enewsletter to members of the listserv.

The listserv is open to anyone, though our monitor does check the early postings sent by new participants to avoid inappropriate messages (such as those we identify as homophobic or exploitative). Not all individuals on our listserv are group members, and we collect no personal information about those who join the listserv.

Our newsletter has been published several times a year since 1993. In 2008 we converted to an all-electronic format, saving us about $2,000 a year. This savings has allowed us to stop collecting membership fees but still disseminate our message and provide services.

Our web master redesigned our web site in 2011 using WordPress. This makes it much easier to add content and to update. It is also much easier to administer than our previous platform. When the time comes to assign a new web master, the transition should go smoothly.

Counseling and Advice: LGBT applicants, nominees and current volunteers contact us to help resolve issues with Peace Corps that usually relate to sexual orientation or gender identity. We provide relevant information, advice and resources. Our aim is to resolve problem issues within the context of Peace Corps’ non-discriminatory, equal employment and volunteer security policies.

2011 Financial Report: Our Operating Expenses were a little higher in 2011 because we paid for past, current, and future expenses for our post office box. We also provided $180 to our Washington D.C. cohorts for snacks and other bar food for the 50th Peace Corps Anniversary event we co-hosted.

Start of Year (2011) Balance:   $2550.85

Income:
NPCA Memberships:                           $735.00

Operating Expenses:
NPCA Re-affiliation:                             $90.00
Web Hosting:                                        $144.00
Post Office Box
(2 ½ years)                                           $234.00
Catering 50th Anniversary                  $179.40
Total Expenses:                                $647.40

Income Minus Total Expenses:            $87.60

End of Year Balance, (2011):    $2638.45

Our Financial Coordinator Dan  Rael, RPCV, Paraguay can be contacted at daniel_rael@hotmail.com. You can contact Mike Learned at learned_mike@yahoo.com.

New Website is Modern and Mobile

The new LGBT Peace Corps Alumni website has a modern look and travels well on tablet and mobile phone devices. The new site is built on the wordpress.complatform and therefore is much easier to update and maintain. All editing takes place through a web interface instead of using computer-based software, thus making it easier to post, edit and manage our web content.We have migrated over 120 articles from our old website and provided robust tagging of our content by topics, including more than 40 countries-of-service listings. We look forward to a robust publishing future and encourage our readers to submit articles for consideration.

The new website allows for RSS subscriptions using the POSTS link in the upper right corner of every page and email subscriptions using the SUBSCRIBE list in the right hand navigation bar. The new site will also save us money as we no longer have to pay hosting fees.

Thanks for visiting us and check in often for new content. If you would like to volunteer to help run the new site please contact Kevin Souza at webmaster@lgbrpcv.org.

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