Peace Corps Pride from Coast to Coast

- Manuel Colón, RPCV, Paraguay

2014 has been amazing year for the LGBT community here in the United States. From sweeping same-sex marriage bans being struck down (nearly every week) to trans actress Laverne Cox being nominated for an Emmy – there has been plenty to celebrate in the lives of our Queer brothers and sisters.

Accordingly, Peace Corps and the RPCV community were not shy in their efforts to highlight, promote, and celebrate the Queer experiences of Volunteers. Every regional office of Peace Corps hosted a variety of events during Pride season (which is still continuing) such as an informational tables, parades, or hosting a “Have Rainbow, Will Travel” panel discussion. If you are interested in finding out what Pride events Peace Corps is participating in, that might be in your area, access http://www.peacecorps.gov/volunteer/learn/meet/events/ enter “view all” and then key word either “pride” or “lgbt” for the full listing of upcoming recruitment and information events. Most events this year occurred during the summer and prime Pride Festival time. From New York to Los Angeles, the LGBT RPCV community has been actively engaged in these efforts will the full support of Peace Corps as an agency.

In fact, Peace Corps was awarded the Elizabeth Taylor Award: Best Non-Profit Contingent for their participation in the 2014 Capital Pride Parade in Washington, DC. Didn’t get a chance to participate in a Peace Corps Pride event this summer? No worries, the momentum is still going! The Atlanta Area RPCV Association (AARPCV) will be carrying over 100 flags from around the world, along with the rainbow flag, to represent Peace Corps in the Atlanta LGBT Pride Parade, October 12. This is the first time that AARPCV will be in the Pride Parade and will depict Peace Corps’ support for diversity, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

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Photos courtesy of Manuel Colón and Peace Corps at https://www.facebook.com/peacecorps/photos

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

Placing Same Sex Couples (SSxCs) in Peace Corps Ukraine

- A Peace Corps Volunteer

Introduction

Peace Corps has a long history of embracing diversity and equal opportunity.  It is long standing PC policy that, “that no person will be denied equal opportunity under applicable laws for employment or Volunteer service opportunities because of his or her race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (over 40), disability, sexual orientation, marital status, political affiliation, union membership, or history of participation in either the EEO process or grievance procedure.”

On May 21, 2103, Peace Corps announced that we would be accepting applications from same-sex couples for Volunteer service beginning June 3. At a teleconference with Country Directors, it was explained that this new policy applies to every country except where homosexuality is criminalized. In the Eastern Europe, Mediterranean and Asia region (EMA), Morocco is the only country excluded on this basis. Ukraine decriminalized homosexuality activity in 1991. The first placements will begin in about a year. Each country was asked to develop a plan with a discussion of safety and other possible concerns as well as how to mitigate those concerns. Washington said that a trainer would come to train staff on how to support and place SSxC in countries where they will be accepted. Also each couple will have a pre-arrival phone call with the CD during the placement process.

Washington asked posts to share any local press or other reactions in host counties following Peace Corps announcement of the same sex couple policy. To our knowledge, there has been no coverage, pro or con, in Ukraine to date.

LGBT Issues in Ukraine

Homophobia runs deep in Ukrainian society with most LGBT people deeply closeted. In 2012, there was the first attempt to hold a gay parade in the capital, Kyiv, but it was canceled and the organizer was severely beaten. Also in 2012, a bill was introduced in the Parliament to ban advocacy of LGBT rights, but no action was taken after protests from Western embassies.

In 2013, a bill was introduced to give equal rights, but it received no action after public protests. Despite various objections from city officials, courts, and the Orthodox Church, the first ever gay pride rally did take place in Kyiv outside the city center on May 25. About 100 Ukrainian gay rights activists were protected by police who arrested 13 people for trying to break up the march. In response to criticism that he was too tolerant of gays, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church recently stated that the “sin of homosexuality is comparable to that of murder.”

According to some sources, support for LGBT rights has declined in Ukraine in recent years. Nash Mir (Our World) Gay and Lesbian Center coordinator Andriy Maymulakhin in his 2012 analysis said: “Over the past five years, the number of people who support granting equal rights to homosexual citizens has decreased from 42.5 percent to 34.1 percent. The number of people who think that homosexual citizens should have the right to register their relations as a conventional couple, has decreased from 18.8 percent to 15.8 percent. The number of people who think that homosexual citizens have a right to raise children has decreased from 21.5 percent to 17.1 percent.”  

In addition, “a Gorshenin Institute study done the same year showed 72 percent of Ukrainians had negative attitudes towards sexual minorities.” At the same time, the Kyiv Weekly (September 13, 2013) interviewed gay people who stated that their lives are gradually getting better over time. There have also been recent attacks in Ukraine against gays. Strong resistance to LGBT rights have also emerged in other former Soviet countries including Russia.

In Ukraine, there is a general lack of tolerance towards sexuality discussions in general, and LGBT issues in particular.  LGBT issues are tolerated less than HIV/AIDS discussions.  An example of how challenging HIV/AIDS discussions are is the situation with Ukraine’s only national clinic for HIV-positive patients located in the Lavra, a complex of monasteries in Kyiv, which has received extensive pressure to be relocated.

LGBT Volunteers in Ukraine

Despite these challenges, many LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers have served successfully in Ukraine during the post’s 21 years, although most have functioned “in the closet” without informing Ukrainians, except perhaps their very closest friends. Of course, living as a couple it will be much more difficult to avoid recognition of sexual orientation. This creates challenges that will likely be somewhat greater than those faced by single LGBT Volunteers.

Peace Corps Ukraine (PCU) staff has been trained and many are self-identified allies. The  GAD (Gender and Development Working Group) LGBT subcommittee serves as liaison between the PCV community and PC Ukraine office. This group has been worked on safe-spaces for PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) and PCVs and also provides plans and resources to Volunteers seeking to incorporate LGBT awareness into their service.

The GAD LGBT subcommittee also produced a video explaining the realities of living in Ukraine with tips for LGBT Volunteers in Ukraine, and this has been shared with Washington. The video states: “Being LGBT in Ukraine is not fair. . . it is taboo. . . You probably can’t be open with many host country nationals.” The video suggests using the Volunteer experience as an opportunity to promote tolerance in general, not just towards LGBT people, as that may attract unwanted attention.

The SSxC Working Group

The Peace Corps country office gathered a group of Peace Corps Ukraine staff, Volunteers, and interested US Embassy diplomats who met on September 27, 2013 to explore this issue further and help make recommendations as how to best proceed in Peace Corps Ukraine.   Participants were five PC Ukraine staff, five PCVs (including Volunteer Advisory Council leaders), and two American diplomats who are an SSxC.  The working group considered these questions and other relevant topics:

  • What are the safety risks for same sex couples in Ukraine?
  • Can the risks be reasonably mitigated (for example, placement in capital city only, female couples only, separation of couple during training, clustering, avoid school placements, etc.)?
  • Is it possible for a same sex couple to live together in Ukraine without attracting undue attention?
  • What training with be needed for staff, Volunteers, counterparts, host families, etc?
  • What training/information will need to be provided to the same sex couples?
  • How can LGBT couples best placed during PST?  What expectations would need to be set and relayed to the invitees regarding training and their ability to live together?  Would it be appropriate to separate LGBT couples during PST?
  • How might having SSxC impact housing standards and requirements?
  • Is it appropriate (or practical) to ask LGBT couples to live in the closet for the duration of their service?
  • Will LGBT couples do better in bigger cities? If so, how do we reconcile this with PCU’s plan to serve more underserved communities?
  • Should more emphasis for SSxC service be on goal 1 rather than goal 2 to avoid unnecessary conflicts/safety risks? (This might parallel the idea that embassy employees who live in Kyiv are here to work, and cultural integration is a much lesser priority than for PC). And, if so, how would this affect PST and would this mean setting up a “separate class” of PCVs?
  • How will government and community partners react? Is Peace Corp obligated to tell them we are placing same sex couples?  Does transparency help or hinder?  What about the press?
  • To what extent is PCU in general, and LGBT couples specifically, expected (or not) to advocate for America values on LGBT rights in Ukraine?
  • Is there any downside risk to the Peace Corps reputation in Ukraine if LGBT couples are invited?  Does PC appear too “political” or trying to impose our values?

Results of the Discussion and Additional Observations

There was not 100% consensus on many issues, but there was excellent, high quality discussion. There was general agreement that this is a worthy goal, and Peace Corps has an important role to play in advancing basic human rights.

The VAC had previously requested PCV input and received eight comments with a wide variety of opinions on the feasibility of SSxCs in Ukraine. While there was no consensus, the general feeling among these PCVs, if SSxCs are invited, is that public displays of affection would not be acceptable, big cities are safer, and female couples would have it easier.

The diplomats asked if PCVs in Ukraine are viewed as having special status that would socially protect them. The consensus is that PCVs are culturally expected to assimilate so this type of protection would not apply to Ukraine the way it might in some other countries.

PC staff expressed the view that SSxCs would need to be in the closet in order to be safe; culturally, Ukraine is following Russia’s lead to some extent. The US Embassy is advocating for LGBT rights so this might have some benefit over time.

One LGBT PCV said that SSxCs can live safely in cities, but not openly. He noted however that there is generally no “gay-dar,” that people never assume he is gay which is helpful.

Another PCV observed that SSxCs probably could not work as school teachers, and would have to work at NGOs or perhaps universities.

There was discussion of whether it is appropriate (or practical) to ask LGBT couples to live in the closet for the duration of their service?  In joining the PC, you need to adapt to cultural norms, but this could be very emotionally challenging for these couples.

Will staff ask counterparts and communities about acceptance of SSxCs as part of the site identification process and, if not, would this be “institutional deception?” It was noted that we do not identify PCVs as Jewish or having other characteristics.

One PCV asked if Peace Corps considered that, if there was the same safety risk for all PCVs as there would be for SSxCs, would the agency accept that risk?  He thought perhaps not.

There was discussion of housing and registration challenges in placing SSxCs. Most agreed that female couples pose less safety risk, although there have apparently been cases of Ukrainian men raping gay women to, in their view, convert them to heterosexuality.

It was stated that splitting up couples during PST would be preferred as it would be very challenging to find host families.

In addition to safety and practical concerns, the group discussed the risk that this might alienate the general public and create ill feelings toward Peace Corps, even perhaps leading to our being asked to leave Ukraine if there were incidents that resulted in bad press. How far do we go in trying to advocate for American values as opposed to assimilating culturally? What is the right balance?

One staff member, who was unable to attend, raised the question as to whether having SSxCs could perhaps harm our educational programs on tolerance. He referenced a discussion with the chairman of a leading LGBT NGO in Kyiv that supports NGOs in nine regions of Ukraine, who said: “Peace Corps’ purpose of promoting peace and friendship in Ukraine might be jeopardized by one single scandal related to a parent outraged by the fact that his or her child is taught by a gay man or woman. There are other methods to educate people about LGBT tolerance, and placing same-sex couples in schools is probably not the best method.”

This Ukraine LGBT leader also mentioned that some oblasts are more tolerant to LGBT issues than others. He cited Lviv oblast authorities as particularly non-tolerant, while Chernihiv city administration was more welcoming for LGBT NGOs. But, he expressed concern that a PCV who is open about sexual orientation may be perceived as someone pursuing the goal of “perverting” Ukraine youth.

Although not present for the discussion, the Peace Corps Ukraine Safety and Security Coordinator shared comments that he believes inviting SSxCs to Ukraine at this time is premature, high risk, and may result in physical assaults of PCVs.

To conclude, accept SSxCs is a worthy goal and Peace Corps has an important role to play in advancing basic human rights, but, at the same time, there is a significant risk to accepting SSxCs in Ukraine, both in terms of PCV safety and the future of the Peace Corps program in Ukraine. However, it may be possible to mitigate these concerns to some extent by:

1)    Fully advising SSxCs interested in Ukraine of the significant risks involved and that they will need to exercise caution and discretion for the duration of their service

2)    Accepting female SSxCs in preference to male couples

3)    Placing SSxCs in large cities only

4)    Separating these couples during PST for placement in host families

5)    Focusing on Community Development same-sex couples for placement in NGOs; avoid placement in secondary schools (although universities might be considered in some cases).

You can contact the writer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

What Kyrgyzstan Gave Me Travels Far

– Bryce Wolfe, RPCV

In pre-service training, we received a handout welcoming us to our “two-year crisis” in the Kyrgyz Republic. It charted the roller coaster of emotions, thoughts and physical manifestations that Peace Corps volunteers usually experience over the course of service in the remote, mountainous former Soviet republic. We laughed at it, and then dutifully posted it on our bedroom walls (or, for those of us lucky enough to have them, refrigerators) and now and then referred to it to make sure that our present flavor of anxiety / boredom / frustration / madness met standards of normalcy. Now I wish I had kept a copy of the handout, so I can track my journey through the stages. I like having corroborated evidence that being overwhelmed by the yogurt aisle is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.

Recently the latest stage. When I got the call, that the house was on fire, I didn’t panic. I was on a train in a tunnel under the San Francisco Bay. There was no point in speculating, in conjuring up worst-case scenarios of charred ground and burnt bodies, when I had no real information. I started making a mental list of who to call, what to do, and where to go once I got off the train. The second call informed me that my partner was in the hospital. I remember taking the news with a sort of third-person detachment. There was nothing I could do for him. I started making phone calls.

The next 24 hours was a blur of headlights on roadways, hospital hallways, Red Cross volunteers, fire investigators, property managers, insurance agencies, utility companies, long-distance calls to family, and the open arms, beds, and advice of friends… That first 24 hours was like the start of training. There was no going home. Everything was open.

But the excitement of training wears off, and becomes the restlessness of waiting for site placement, to get on with it, to earn some responsibility and some permanence in having one site and a mission to fulfill. We wonder: where will we live? Who will we work with?

In the days after the fire, my partner and I salvaged our belongings, and our lives became logistics. Every day: where will we sleep? How much can I carry?

I’m viewing it as a new opportunity.

In the Peace Corps, everything is new. We can reinvent ourselves, or revert to our base instincts. Some volunteers drink. Others cope with serial re-runs and internet memes. Most, I think, reach out and forge relationships that make us stronger.

I faced an additional worry as a volunteer that my being transgender would affect my safety and hurt my relationships with other volunteers, staff and host country nationals. I felt like I had a secret to keep. Instead, my gender identity turned out to be an asset. I related to local LGBTQ folk because, in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, we shared the understanding of what it means to be born in a body that doesn’t fit and a culture that doesn’t approve. I was able to offer my ideas, skills and experience with gender towards training, resources and events. Serving in the Peace Corps brought out the best in me, and I saw the kind of person I could be.

Looking back, I would have appreciated more guidance from Peace Corps trainers. My group had no Safe Zone Training, and when I conducted it myself, I hadn’t yet made connections with the LGBTQ community to invite them, who could have given their perspective, and insight, and offered opportunities to work together. Instead, my introduction into the LGBTQ community was informal and sort of hush-hush. There was no continuity but a word-of-mouth history of so-and-so who dated so-and-so who’s this activist trans guy… Only once I got to know people, and got a better handle on the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, did I feel comfortable taking on projects. And I do think it’s absolutely vital to have community involvement.

Silence is shaming. LGBTQ rights are human rights, and volunteers can benefit from having information about the rights, efforts, and issues facing LGBTQ groups in their country of service, whether those volunteers work directly with LGBTQ groups or not. I would encourage more outreach to non-LGBTQ volunteers. In my group, it was the straight volunteers – or at least those who appeared the most “normative” – who seemed to have the most success in opening a dialogue by acknowledging and supporting LGBTQ rights, and ultimately reducing stigma.

I understand silence. It’s easier than answering all the questions. It’s easier to let someone else do it.

I want transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people to know that it is possible to travel, live and serve abroad – successfully, and vocally – and that we should as we are.

It’s a process.

According to that chart of the two-year crisis, when the excitement grinds down, you’re left with the uncertainty, boredom and depression of the long haul. You ask yourself: Can I really keep doing this? Am I doing anything at all? Just what am I doing here anyway? This usually comes at the 1-year mark in service. After a few weeks of moving from couch to couch, cleaning greasy and possibly asbestos-laden dust off my belongings, navigating a bureaucratic tangle of renters’ rights, housing, insurance and all, I asked those questions again. I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and close my eyes and just not open them.

You always have the option to early terminate.

Before I left America, I had decided that this was not an option for me.

It still isn’t.

I can handle marshrutkas (minibuses) and parasites and impromptu tea breaks in the middle of class, airport chaos, muggers, icy turnpikes with no guardrails, cartfuls of dead puppies, eyeball toasts and long hours scrubbing laundry with my knuckles and a bar of soap, government paperwork and vast amounts of VAST budgets, with humor and diplomacy. If nothing else, the Peace Corps prepared me to thrive in situations where I have no control. That, and dance. I’m grateful for that.

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

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