Why gay marriage matters

by Philip Rodenbough

Originally posted on Peace Through Chemistry: (Mis)Adventures in Guinea and Burkina Faso (philgoestoguinea.blogspot.com)  on  Friday, April 29, 2011

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” – Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in New York City“Ouvrez les frontieres, ouvrez les frontieres…” [open the borders, open the borders…] – Tiken Jah Fakoly
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined this for myself. The cultures are just too different, the language barrier is just too high, the potential just isn’t there, I would have said. But if my time in the Peace Corps has proven anything to me, it’s that life is full of surprises.

I would like to make a formal introduction. Readers, I present to you: my boyfriend, Norbert. He was born and raised in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. When he was 18 years old, he won a scholarship to study fashion design in Paris. He has since worked successfully in the fashion industry throughout West Africa and in France. His most recent project: creating and organizing Ouagadougou’s first ever fashion week (brush up on your French and read about it here under “promotion de la mode”).

Norbert is fun, thoughtful, charming, and vivacious. He understands Western culture to at least the same degree that I understand African culture, probably even better. We are comfortable navigating either culture, but both of us still have much to learn. We communicate exclusively in French; Norbert doesn’t speak a word of English.

We met through friends of friends while I was working in Ouagadougou in August. At the time, I knew I was bound for Conakry, so the sparks that flew were somewhat dampened. We saw each other a few times before I left for Guinea, but we didn’t think we’d see each other again.

Then I finally arrived in Guinea, only to get stuck in the strife there. I had the option to take a temporary leave of absence from my Peace Corps service. But where would I go? I took a chance, went out on a limb. I asked Norbert if he could host me for a while, if I came back to Burkina Faso. He considered it, then said yes. So I flew back to Ouagadougou.

We spent day after day together, week after week. We ate together. We travelled together. We lived together. We learned about each other’s lives, and we fell in love with each other.

Agreeing that what we had was too valuable to throw away, we started to discuss our future. Although I didn’t know what the immediate future held for me and my Peace Corps service, I knew that when my service was finished, I wanted to live in New York City and study at Columbia University. The idea of living in America had never before crossed Norbert’s mind, but it was now enticing. If he could move to America and learn English, that would open up a whole new world for his fashion work. After some reflection, he agreed that he wanted to come to New York with me. It made sense for both of us. After my studies there, we could move anywhere in the world.

And then, for the first time ever, I started researching immigration. For a citizen of Cote d’Ivoire (or of any African country), getting just a temporary visa to come to the United States is very difficult. Citizens of developing countries have to overcome the assumption of immigration intent by demonstrating significant ties to their current residence, and this is completely up to the discretion of officers at US embassies. The other option is to try for a long-term immigrant visa or green card, but that can be even harder. Marrying an American is one of the very few reliable paths to permanent residency.

Earlier in my Peace Corps service, I had attended the marriage of a woman Peace Corps volunteer to a Burkinabé man in Gaoua, Burkina Faso. Their plan was to move to America shortly after the marriage. At the time, I never imagined anything of the sort for myself, but I was very happy for them, that they could share their lives together in the place of their mutual choosing.

And now I thought that I could do a similar thing for myself. Of course I couldn’t marry Norbert anywhere in West Africa, but I could bring Norbert to Massachusetts, get gay married there, and that would be that. We are totally ready to make that commitment. But then I researched more, and was surprised at what I discovered.

Although gay marriage is legal in several states in the US, these marriages are not recognized in any way by the federal government. That’s because in 1996, the US passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This act set the national definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, no matter what other legislative bodies say, be those legislative bodies outside the US, or inside the US. So same-sex couples who are legally married in Canada or South Africa or even Connecticut have no recognition of their marriage from the US federal government. That means they have no recognition of their relationship from US immigration law. But there must be some other options, right?

The fact of the matter is that although many countries in the world offer some legal avenue for same-sex couples to sponsor each other for immigration purposes, the US offers none. As far as the US government is concerned, my relationship with Norbert is nothing.

I had no idea.

I joined the Peace Corps for a lot of reasons, and pride for my country was an important one among them. I was excited about the cultural sharing, and to educate others about the land of the free and the home of the brave. Although I was deeply disappointed after learning about this bigoted immigration policy, I am still proud that I can raise my voice against it.

I could pick any single woman off the street and get her a fiancée visa to the US by simply declaring my intention to marry her. No matter who the woman is, the legal avenue is there. But because Norbert and I are both men, I have no legal standing to help Norbert immigrate to the US. That is wrong.

This is why gay marriage matters, to me. This is why the US needs to legalize gay marriage nation-wide. It’s the right thing to do.

There is reason to believe that DOMA will reach the Supreme Court, where it will be struck down. But things like that are slow, and my Peace Corps service is finishing soon. Even if congress passes the slightly-more-politically-appetizing Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would simply allow same-sex couples to sponsor their partners for immigration purposes, it probably won’t do so in time to alleviate our immediate worries.

Norbert is currently paying me an extended visit in Guinea. We know he is incredibly lucky. He applied for a US tourist visa in Ouagadougou, and it was granted. He is now allowed to travel to the US for a short amount of time. What will we do when that time is up? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. It frustrates me that our relationship has no recognition from my country.

But if enough people learn about this issue and take a stand, I am confident that, one day, we can achieve marriage equality for all.

Norbert and I in Ouagadougou

Norbert and I in Ouagadougou

“La Dame du Mali,” a mountain that looks like a woman’s profile near my village.

Norbert and I atop the Dame du Mali

Norbert and I atop the Dame du Mali

Norbert and I aren’t the only ones. Learn more about the struggles of same-sex bi-national couples by reading this Human Rights Watch document Families, Unvalued.

This movement needs as much exposure as possible. Get involved in the fight for immigration equality at immigrationequality.com, especially their action fund blog, and atstopthedeportations.blogspot.com.

Too many couples are being hurt through discriminatory US immigration policy. Call your congressperson in support of UAFA today.

Note since publication on “Peace through Chemistry”: 

Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was struck down by the supreme court on June 26th, 2013 in United States v. Windsor. Today, the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages for all purposes, including immigration. 

Click photo to view their wedding photo in the National Peace Corps Association Facebook Wedding Album. 

You can view their wedding photo in the National Peace Corps Association Facebook Wedding Album.

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.

Uganda Comes to Albany – a Book Review

– Mike Learned, RPCV, Malawi

 Dick Lipez is a RPCV, Ethiopia, former DC Peace Corps staff, longtime journalist and editorial writer, and keen observer of the political, social, and human rights issues that affect LGBT people around the world. He has just 41FtLSQy1gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_published the fourteenth mystery in his Donald Strachey series, Why Stop at Vengeance. His first, On the Other Hand, Death, was published 34 years ago. His protagonist/hero Strachey is an Albany, NY private eye in a longtime relationship with Timothy Callahan, who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in India prior to their relationship. Peace Corps values, experiences, insights crop up in almost all the books in the series. Timothy offers good advice and asks incisive often challenging questions. He’s that voice in the back of Strachey’s head keeping him on the proper path.

Lipez, writing as Richard Stevenson, actually Dick’s first and middle names has had his finger on the wide range of critical issues facing his LGBT brothers and sisters for the last three decades. Dick reflects these in his own life with his husband Joe, and Strachey and Tim have taken it all on,

This latest volume tackles the rabid homophobia that many Peace Corps Volunteers, straight and gay, face in many, many countries throughout Africa. In this case the setting is in Uganda, a country where 154 PCVs currently serve; 1405 volunteers since 1964. Strachey is contacted by a gay Ugandan refugee in Albany who wants vengeance against a conservative American minister who has preached the demonization of LGBT people in Uganda, and is involved in questionable transactions with corrupt Ugandan politicians who support the vile homophobic laws and agendas. The corrupt politicians, the manipulative American ministers, DC lobbyists; all have their hands in the till.

One of  Lipez’s (Stevenson’s) strengths as a writer is his wide read understanding of  what is behind so many of the human rights struggles in much of  developing world, much of it the developing world where PCVs serve. Although Lipez (Stevenson) in an Author’s Note says that although fiction, but the involvement of American missionaries and other clergy in anti-gay crusades in Africa and Eastern Europe is all too real.

Much of the books description of  the  raw, violent homophobic rhetoric of Ugandan politicians can be difficult to read, but it’s exactly what has been promulgated in that beautiful East African country in recent years. Lipez (Stevenson) rightly ties this rhetoric to the corrupt, long lasting political and social elites who want to keep hold of political and economic power in some of the world’s poorest countries. They sell homophobia as an answer to the problems of the people they should be serving rather than exploiting. PCVs who have served in Africa and other developing countries often despair of what has happened in countries in which we worked and truly loved. Why Stop at Vengeance tells us this story again.

During the course of the novel Don and Tim suffer some similar fates of LGBT people in Uganda including arson and intimidation.  But true to form Don and Tim come through another adventure in Albany. May they continue to live the challenges and celebrations of our times.

Lipez (Stevenson) recommends the ironically titled 2014 documentary film, God Loves Uganda

Might I also add the documentary Call Me Kuchu, which highlights the life and death of Ugandan LGBT activist, David Kato.

Print and Kindle editions of Why Stop at Vengeance, MLR Press, are available on Amazon

The author, Dick Lipez, can be contacted at poshmeadow1@aol.com

A Night in the Chadian Rainforest

– Michael Varga, RPCV, Chad

Editor’s Note:

This is an excerpt from Under Chad’s Spell, a novel by Michael Varga, based on his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad. 726 PCVs served in Chad over several years in four different segments. Peace Corps is no longer active in Chad because of security issues. PCVs now serve in other African countries in west and central Africa and no doubt could have experiences like the ones described here. Madison the character mentioned here is a Peace Corps Volunteer.

About a month earlier, Madison made one of his rare visits to Medina’s hut.  She lived with another woman who had similarly muddled her standing among Chadians in crossing the color line with a French soldier.  Medina invited Madison to come and have dinner with her and this other woman and their numerous children, brothers, cousins and other hangers-on who lived in the nearby huts.  It was a big event for them to entertain the nasara, and just about anybody who even had a passing acquaintance with Medina or the other woman had shown up to eat, but more importantly, to watch and perhaps talk to the nasara.

Madison was startled to see how many people had gathered to eat with him.  The two chickens that had been killed for the meal would barely allow a sliver for each person, but Medina pulled some large pieces of the chickens from their bones and put them in front of Madison.  After all, he was the guest of honor.  As was the Chadian custom, all the men sat together while the women served.  If there was anything left from the men, the women and children would share that afterwards, removed from the men.

The men kept asking Madison about the unrest in the capital.  Rumors continued to fly that a coup was imminent, that Muammar Khadafi, Libya’s leader, was intent on making all of Chad part of Libya.  They were vehement in denouncing Libyans, although not one admitted that he had ever met one.  Madison jokingly asked how they would recognize a Libyan, and the men sat in silence, evidently not finding any humor in such a challenge.

After the men ate, someone put a radio on and they started pressing Madison to dance.  As the women and children nibbled on the leftovers, Madison called Medina over, and as they started to move rhythmically to the static-filled sounds from the radio, other men grabbed other women and soon the hut was surrounded by bodies swaying to the beat.  There were many more men than women so a number of the men danced together or danced alone.

As the night wore on and the beer ran out, Madison grew a bit uncomfortable with sitting in the presence of all of these Chadians, staring at him.  They had covered the topics they could discuss, so no more words were being exchanged.  They had danced to more than a dozen songs.  The food had long ago run out (long before the beer), and Madison felt he could graciously take his leave.  He shook the hand of every person present.  Medina said she would accompany him.  Madison told her he was sure she was tired from all the cooking and preparations and it was better if he went home alone.

Medina’s hut was only a couple of kilometers from Madison’s house and Madison had walked the paths several times in daylight, including earlier this evening.  But this was the first time Madison tried to find his way home at night and, unfortunately, there was no moon.  The night was a black sheet, broken only by the dim beam of his flashlight.  Strange whining animal calls and falling branches seemed to be always just behind Madison as he stepped forward.  He gripped the flashlight, pointing it in a wide arc as the path twisted and turned.  He tripped on a branch that had fallen across the path and grew more unsure whether he was heading in the right direction.  Where was his Virgil to lead him into the clear?

He circled the pathways for a half hour, passing clusters of huts that he thought looked familiar, but when he spied a person smoking some tobacco before one hut, then a woman cleaning pots next to a fire, he realized he’d been mistaken and these were not the huts he thought they were.  He was lost.

He considered retracing his steps to find Medina’s hut, but he wasn’t sure he could even do that.  He heard a boy’s voice calling out “Petrol! Petrol!”  He waited for the boy to come closer, thinking he might know Medina and be able to lead him to her hut.  He turned the flashlight beam on his own face so that the boy would see him.  But when the boy saw him, evidently shocked at seeing his white face lit up in the black night, he cried “Kaii!  Nasara!  Kaii!”  In fear, he ran in the other direction, spilling the kerosene as he fled.

Madison decided he had to be methodical in finding his way back to Medina’s hut.  He turned around and started heading back in the direction from which he had just come.  He wasn’t certain he was making the right move, but as he walked, he thought things looked a bit more familiar.

“Monsieur Madison?”

He shined the flashlight toward the sound and saw the face of a young man he didn’t recognize.  For a second, he thought it might be one of his students, but despite the size of his classes, he knew every student’s face and he did not recognize this one.  Yet there was something familiar about it.

“Who are you?”  Madison asked in French.

“Medina’s brother, Bousang.  Are you lost?”

Madison was loath to admit that he was, but he knew there was no point in pretending he could find his way home on his own.

“I am.  Do you know how to get to my house?”

“Walk this way.”

Bousang turned and led Madison back up the narrow path. The thick ropy vegetation limited the path to the width of just one person.  After about fifteen minutes of walking in silence through the darkness, the path widened as they neared the center of Baibokoum.  Madison walked next to Bousang. He took his hand.  Madison had grown at ease over these months with the Chadian custom of men walking together, their hands loosely touching in a slight grasp of each other’s fingers.  There was nothing more than friendliness implied in two men walking with their hands touching.  A man and a woman would never touch each other in public, whether they were married or not, but two men or two women would always have some physical link to the other person if they were friends.  It was the Chadian way.

Bousang’s hands were rough from working in the cotton fields around Baibokoum.  Madison asked him how he spent his time.  He told him he worked the fields, but he had been to school and had hopes of returning.  His French was good and that impressed Madison.  Bousang couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, and Madison realized now that he had talked briefly with Bousang earlier in the evening at Medina’s.  He was the one who had asked about African-Americans, how they managed in America and whether they ever thought about coming back to live in Africa.  Madison answered that slavery had been a crime and that the younger generations of African-Americans he knew were too far removed from life in Africa to want to return.

When they got to Madison’s house, he turned off the flashlight.  As they stood side by side in the darkness, Madison thanked Bousang for helping him, asked him if he wanted a drink of water or a Fanta before he headed back home.  Without answering Madison, Bousang let go of his hand.  In the darkness, Madison could sense Bousang was moving closer to him.

Under Chad’s Spell is available at Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback editions. Michael Varga can be contacted through his website www.michaelvarga.com


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 

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