2014 – The Year of Connectivity for the LGBT Peace Corps Alumni Organization

2014 was the Year of Connectivity for the LGBT Peace Corps Alumni Organization as we continued to reach people through our website, our Facebook page, our Yahoo! Groups list, and Twitter. Here is a overview of our connected presence.


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 225 timely articles from 50 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/. We average about 100 visitors day.

Website visitors

We had close to 22,000 visitors in 2014.

Most of our most popular posts in 2014 were written before 2014, indicating that our information remains relevant and important to our readers.

Rank

Title Publication Date
1 Is There Gay Life in Benin? May 2006
2 Placing Same-Sex Couples in Peace Corps Ukraine February 2014
3 It’s Not that Bad in Paraguay April 2012
4 Queer Volunteer? What to Expect in Morocco March 2010
5 My Friends, the Fakaleitis of Tonga

November 2006


 LGBT Peace Corps on Facebook

Our fastest growing media presence is on our Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/lgbrpcv/. We now have over 237 members who are current and former volunteers, as well as friends of LGBT PC. Finds news, personal stories, job postings and the latest articles for our website here.

Lesbian__Gay__Bisexual__and_Transgender_Peace_Corps_Alumni


LGBT Peace Corps Alumni on Yahoo! Groups

Founded on December 31, 1998 is our Yahoo! Group at https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/lgbrpcv/ . This site requires a membership but it is easy to request by sending an email to lgbrpcv-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. The group currently hosts 631 members and averages 40 messages a month. Members post LGBT news from around the world, job listings, and seek advice on countries of service. This is our most important tool for mentoring volunteers about to enter service so if you have a question join in the conversation.

Lesbian__Gay__Bisexual__Transgender_Peace_Corps_Volunteers_-_Yahoo_Groups


LGBT Peace Corps on Twitter

Lastly we host a Twitter Feed at https://twitter.com/LGBT_RPCV. Over the last quarter of 2014 our Tweets had 12,700 views, with an average of 140 per day.

Our most popular tweet of that period was about our very own steering committee member, Manuel Colon with 787 views. .

Tweet_Activity_analytics_for_LGBT_RPCV

Transgender PCV Expands the Definition of Family

– A Peace Corps Volunteer, Southeast Asia

Editor’s note: This is the second article this writer has contributed to our website. The first from last year http://lgbrpcv.org/2014/11/16/becoming-a-transman-and-into-the-peace-corps/  describes the process a transgender applicant goes through to be accepted by Peace Corps. We plan to host more articles as this volunteer proceeds through his Peace Corps career. For security reasons we have not named the volunteer or the specific country where he serves.

I am now in my first year of Peace Corps service living in my adopted community. Already, it would be possible for me to write pages upon pages of what I have learned and how kind and loving this community has been to me. It all has to do with the people; they are the center of my growth and learning here. From the Peace Corps Volunteers I met on Day One to the host family I have lived with to the people I work with- they are the ones who are impacting my daily life. As I have found my place in this community, they are the ones continually teaching me about the ever broadening definition of family and acceptance.

I live and work in a very small community. I am living with a host family and there are anywhere from 6-10 of us that reside in a comfy 3 room house. Our water is pumped from a well across the road and hauled into the house in buckets for daily use. We have electricity but it is not always dependable. We wash our laundry by hand; purchase and cook the food we eat together for three meals per day (no refrigerator); and clean with homemade brooms and rags made from old clothing.

Together we live in harmony and good company. My host family has become like a second family to me. They show me they care by constantly trying to get me to eat as much food as possible; by making sure I am comfortable in the room I sleep in; and by making sure that I never go anywhere on my own. Quick trip to the store to buy cell phone minutes? I am accompanied by anywhere from 2-5 children. Stop by the bakery for a quick snack? My older host sister will trail my walk on the motorcycle. They have introduced me to every extended family member who lives in our community and have gone out of their way to include me in family events. My younger host brother has shown me how to play some of the children’s games and the three young granddaughters who live across the street enthusiastically run towards me whenever I am on my way home from work. Despite the language and cultural barriers, we are still able to communicate mutual love, respect and caring. They have taken me in to their lives and have shown me what it means to be a part of a family in their culture- which has expanded my view and thought on what family means.

In my community, I work in Youth Development with some of the economically poorest of the population here. Here too, I have found family in the people I work with every day. In the Life Skills sessions I lead, the parents and youth have drawn me into their lives and have welcomed me with open hearts and generosity. We have many commonalities- from reading, to drawing, writing, swimming, cooking and a passion for teaching and learning. I am able to share with them experiences from my life and knowledge that the Peace Corps has taught me in order to communicate life skills that range from self confidence and how to be a good role model to English and Mathematics tutoring. In return, they have shown me that many struggles of youth transcend boundaries of culture. Many of the impoverished youth here are facing the same struggles as some youth in the United States: the struggle to stay in school versus working to provide money for their family; the struggle for a family to support them in higher education goals and the lack of available work and support systems. These youth and parents are also becoming part of my broader family every time they share with me their thoughts and hopes and every time they accept me and my presence in their community.

If there has been one aspect of myself I have been unable to share with my new host and work families it is my gender identity. In the past, when I have not been able to be open and honest with people about my gender identity, I have felt as though that one issue was a barrier to having a meaningful relationship with them. Serving in the Peace Corps has already taught me otherwise. I find that I have meaningful, fulfilling relationships with my host family, my co-workers and the families and youth that I work with despite not being open about every aspect of myself, my identify and my history. This has been a significant revelation to me and is one part of myself and my paradigm that I am continuing to reassess and contemplate.

Sexuality in my host culture is very different from the culture of the United States. Here, boys walk to school with their arms draped across each others’ shoulders; women and female youth walk hand and hand or arm in arm as they walk down the street. This act, which would be very out of place in most American neighborhoods, is an act of comfort and friendship here. There are also gay and lesbian people in my community, but once again, it is a very different culture. Many boys are openly identified by the adults and their peers in the community as gay at a very young age (usually based on their mannerisms and physical characteristics). It is accepted as a part of who they are and is not questioned in my community. Having said that, it is also not common to see gay youth or adults in relationships with other men, at least not in public.

Lesbian women in my community are not talked about. There are several women about whom I have heard hints of conversation like “she dresses like a boy” or some other subtle comment, but they are much less openly talked about compared to gay men. It is never directly mentioned that they are attracted to women.

It is a different dynamic as you go to larger cities or communities that have a college campus. Same gender pairings are becoming more common to see in public and it is more acceptable to live with the person you are in a relationship with, but this is not the case in my community yet. I have also heard no mention of transgender individuals, while I am certain that there are transgender people in my host country, I have not yet been able to find a community of local transgender individuals even in the closest, larger city.

This leads me to the family I have found among the other Peace Corps Volunteers. When I first got here, I knew I would have to find allies in some of my fellow volunteers if for no other reason than safety, security and the unlikely event of a medical emergency. I also knew that, if I was unable to be completely open with the people in my host community, I would have to find another outlet in my Peace Corps community. What I did not expect was the warmth, understanding and unconditional respect and love that I would receive in response. While I am not open with every single Peace Corps staff and volunteer, those who I have felt comfortable enough to disclose my gender identity to have been overwhelmingly supportive of me. Of course there have been questions and curiosities and many in-depth, gender-based conversations, but it has been out a genuine desire to understand and appreciate fully the extent of the person I am.

The medical and in-country staff  have also been outstanding. Once again, and as I expected, there is a lot of teaching and education on my end. The medical and in-country staff have no experience working with transgender individuals, but they have a strong desire to learn and an even stronger characteristic of support, respect and conscientiousness that has been quite touching to experience. Without my Peace Corps family completing my understanding and experience of “found family”, my service here would be much more stressful and, at times, frightening. Knowing that I have the support of Peace Corps doctors, staff, and peers who will show up, without hesitation, to support and vouch for me should I find myself in need of such things, has allowed me to relax and enjoy the experience I am having instead of just trying to safely get through it.

Finding new definitions of family along with a wide expanse of people who provide me with different components of family (and who hopefully I do the same for in return), has been one of the most surprising aspects of my Peace Corps service so far. I expect that these new families of mine will continue to surprise and impress and teach me as I carry on throughout the next several years. I find that, while I was a bit nervous about the location I was placed in for Peace Corps service, it has turned out to be more than what I could have ever dreamed and has, so far, surpassed my expectations.

You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Challenges to Sexual or Gender Minorities Populations

By Suzanne Marks, RPCV Togo, LGBT RCPV Steering Committee

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as of December 2014, homosexuality is known to be criminalized in 76 countries, including punishment by death in 10 countries (Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, Yemen) and in 3 countries so-called “LGBT anti-propaganda” laws restrict freedom of assembly (Nigeria, Lithuania, Russia). See map of the countries. While many of these laws were instituted during European colonial times and subsequently rarely enforced, there has been a recent resurgence in new legislation (Liberia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe), harassment, discrimination, and violence against LGBT persons or against persons perceived to be LGBT. HRC published a report in July 2014 that lists concerns in Africa: The State of Human Rights for LGBT People in Africa, July 2014.  HRC also reports regularly on recent international news relevant to the LGBT community.  Another resource, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), advocates for the rights of LGBT persons, and provides country-level updates. . For a full listing of human rights practices by country, visit the U.S. Department of State human rights website.

Recent anti-gay legislation in many countries has been promoted by American religious extremists, who have been spreading inaccurate information about sexual and gender minorities and about HIV transmission on five continents, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe. HRC published a report called Exposed: Export of Hate that documents the activities of Scott Lively, Lou Engle, and others who have been instigating these changes. Inaccurate information that the religious extremists have promoted includes: 1) “LGBT persons recruit youth into homosexuality” and “No one is born gay.” In fact, there is substantial evidence that most same-sex attraction and gender identity are innate; 2) “Conversion therapy” can work to make persons heterosexual. All credible health organizations reject the practice of “conversion therapy,” which is ineffective and in many cases harmful; 3) “Gay men molest youth more than heterosexuals.” There is no evidence that LGBT persons engage in pedophilia more so than heterosexuals; and 4) “Same-sex parents harm children.” All credible scientific studies find that children raised by same-sex parents are as well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexual parents. The Southern Poverty Law Center exposes hate groups and provides materials for fighting homophobia to counter the misinformation. A key resource includes Top 10 Anti-Gay Myths Debunked

Some consequences of human rights abuses against sexual and gender minorities and their de-humanization have included: 1) lack of privacy due to published lists, pictures, and addresses of known or suspected LGBT persons; 2) isolation due to laws requiring the reporting of any known/suspected homosexual; 3) police harassment/brutality/abuse including home invasions and raids, 4) forced disrobement and invasive physical examinations, 5) eviction from homes, 6) “corrective” rape of LGBT females, 7) being targeted by mob justice (stoning; bombings, murders), 8) loss of children, 9) accusations of transmitting HIV, and 10) suicide. In Nigeria, where a law (1/7/2014) criminalized freedom of assembly of and association with LGBT persons, there is a report that HIV treatment has declined substantially, as people fear (because of the perception of being gay) going to clinics to receive their medication. (Mother Jones 3/2014). Moreover, HIV prevention and outreach efforts have become stymied. Also see The Economist 2014.

God Loves Uganda

God Loves Uganda Documentary Film

Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) has sued Scott Lively for violating international law by intentionally contributing to the persecution of Ugandan LGBT and seeking to deprive them of their basic human rights. As of January 2015, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals refused Lively’s request for case dismissal based on the First Amendment to the US Constitution, so the case will soon be heard in court. (Slate 2014)

There are a few films that poignantly portray the issues: “God Loves Uganda”highlights motivations for the actions of some religious groups. “Call Me Kuchu” is a film, mostly from the perspective of LGBT Ugandans, showing the impact of LGBT persecution and story of David Kato’s efforts to bring  international support for LGBT rights in Uganda.

“I understand that sexual orientation and gender identity raise sensitive cultural issues.  But cultural practices cannot justify any violation of human rights. . .  . When our fellow humans are persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, we must speak out. . . . States bear the primary responsibility to protect human rights advocates.  I call on all States to ensure the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly that make their work possible.  When the lives of human rights advocates are endangered, we are all less secure.  When the voices of human rights advocates are silenced, justice itself is drowned out.” – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

While the situation for sexual and gender minorities has become worse in many countries, the situation, especially regarding marriage equality, has improved in some countries. As of December 2014, 18 countries permit same-sex marriage according to Freedomtomarry.org. Ireland, Chile, and Taiwan are scheduled to vote soon on marriage equality.

For sexual and gender minorities living, working in, or visiting countries where homosexuality is criminalized, it is important to be aware of the current situation for LGBT persons in the country. While the decision to be openly LGBT is left to each individual. Many persons choose to be discreet or not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity with foreign-country nationals. However, being out to your Peace Corps and other U.S. governmental colleagues is encouraged so that you can obtain needed support in talking about your family and social life. Becoming involved in advocacy for LGBT rights is welcome after you return to the U.S., but doing so while overseas as a PCV would likely need to be approved prior to any activity and might be discouraged because of security reasons.

Serving as an LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia

– Krista M. Mastel, RPCV 2011-14

I thought serving as an LGBT volunteer in Mongolia would be difficult. Sure there were challenges, but it turns out serving in Mongolia was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Already at staging and on the flight over I connected with four other LGBT trainees. We were nervous of course, but glad to have found each other. We weren’t sure what arrival in country would bring, but we were excited.

Training was intense. All the usual pressures and challenges and frustrations were slamming us. But we also felt overlooked. Sessions on health, safety and relationships focused on heterosexual relationships. Could we ask about LGBT circumstances? And to whom could we ask? We knew hardly a thing about Mongolian culture, much less about the status of LGBT people in country and how our staff would react. Then an ally piped up, asking what we weren’t sure we could. The floodgates opened.  Others chimed in.  Mongolian staff urged caution and tactfulness. American staff self-identified as allies and provided safe zones. We were thrilled. And in that moment, an idea was born.

Together with two other LGBT volunteers, we founded the Peace Corps Mongolia LGBT Task Force. Our goals were three-fold: to support fellow LGBT and ally volunteers, to conduct staff trainings so they are better prepared to support LGBT trainees and volunteers, and to raise awareness about LGBT issues in our communities.

Our first goal was born out of our feelings of isolation and confusion during training.  We knew we didn’t want any incoming trainees to feel as we had.  Instead, we wanted a welcoming, visible group to let future generations of volunteers know that no matter where they were in their process, they had support and resources around them. Part of trainees’ arrival schedule now includes a dinner for LGBT and ally trainees to interact with currently serving LGBT and ally volunteers and learn about life as an LGBT volunteer in Mongolia.

The second goal also came from those feelings during training. Because we weren’t sure who we could turn to on staff, we also weren’t sure how we’d be supported during service. We didn’t know how much our staff knew about LGBT issues or how they felt about it. With the support of our Director of Programming and Training, we facilitated the first-ever Safe Zone training for staff. Staff welcomed the training just as much as we welcomed their participation. They were hungry for information about the LGBT experience and how to best support volunteers. The training has been facilitated thrice more at the time of writing this article, as staff has changed or upon staff request for more information.

Lastly, the third goal came from discussions of Peace Corps’ Second Goal and how to best represent the diversity of America. We developed contextual, respectful and collaborative (with a Mongolian LGBT NGO) materials that volunteers could use to talk about, even champion LGBT issues in their communities while remaining apolitical. We attended LGBT art exhibitions and film festivals, the first-ever Pride, and networked with international organizations like the United Nations Population Fund to develop inclusive initiatives. Turned out, the climate in Mongolia wasn’t as un-friendly as we may have thought and worried about as trainees.  With little in the way of religious objections, we soon learned that LGBT people and issues were more misunderstood or even unknown, rather than feared or hated.

But in addition to all that, it was the personal experiences I had that defined my time in Mongolia. At the gay bar in the capital I was free to be myself. I was not afraid to come out to the staff of the LGBT NGO. I developed a network of LGBT-identifying Mongolian friends. And after over a year and a half of friendship and assessing her tolerance (thanks to Adam Lambert), I came out to my best Mongolian friend in my community. We cried and hugged and she thanked me for telling her about the “real” me. It was the relief and release I needed.

Then something unexpected happened. I had extended for a third year, moved to the capital, taken on a new role within Peace Corps and was looking forward to starting work with a new agency. I wasn’t looking for it; it never even occurred to me that something like this could happen during service. Wasn’t I going to be in the closet and celibate the entire time? But there she was: a fellow volunteer. Before we knew it, we fell in love.  It’s nearly two years later and we’re happily together in the US with great jobs and acceptances into graduate school. Serving in the Peace Corps in Mongolia gave me more than I ever could have imagined. I am forever grateful for the relationships I built and the experiences I had. Are you ready for the experience of a lifetime in Peace Corps?

The writer can be contacted at krista.mastel@gmail.com.

Becoming a Transman and into the Peace Corps

-A Current Peace Corps Volunteer

 Editors Note:

The writer is a recently assigned Peace Corps Volunteer in Southeast Asia. He hopes to write an article about his experience as a transgender volunteer in a few months.

Although I was unaware of it at the time, around the age of 9, two very important events would happen in my life that would shape the complex path of my future development as a human being. The first: I am allowed to cut my hair for the first time in my life. I get it cut as short as possible- even going back to the barbershop multiple times to have them cut shorter and shorter and shorter. I wind up with a very unflattering bowl cut. I love it. Between that and my new, giant, circular, powder-blue framed glasses, I think I am pretty cool. Until I go to school… where, for the first time in my life, I am asked The Question: “Are you a boy or a girl?”… Pause… wait, I have an option??

For the first time I am aware of myself and my body and how it relates to the forming gender identity in my young mind. … I think I might be a boy… “I’m a- girl?” This interaction starts a chain of thoughts that only build, grow and develop as I progress through this life as a transman. The second event: We are out at the farm of a family friend and the adults are all talking and catching up. It is late fall and I’m jumping around in the piles of leaves that have fallen to the ground. Grownup: “Tell me what’s new in your life Linda!” Linda: “Well most recently I have completed and submitted all of my paper work for my Peace Corps application. I am now in the eternal waiting period while they decide what country they will assign me to. I am excited for the future and what it holds.”

I had no idea what the Peace Corps was at the time, I only knew that my ears perked up at the word Peace and the implication of working internationally. I was hooked, I remember being excited about this Peace Corps thing and knowing that one day I would do… whatever it was that they did. It turns out the Peace Corps was not in the practice of accepting 9 year old applicants into their program. I spent the next several years picking up what bits and pieces of information I could find on the requirements for the Peace Corps, what work was done and the countries where volunteers served. With each piece of information I gleaned- from recruiting booklets to conversations with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to in-depth website research, I was more and more inspired and drawn to this work as a part of my future.

Fast forward about 10 years: I was able to talk about my gender identity with vocabulary and words I had never had before. I was coming to terms with myself as transgender, even if I did not have the faith and courage to have an open and honest conversation with my family. It was a period of difficult questions and introspective thoughts and battles. I had a series of mentors at that time who guided me in coming to terms with my gender identity and, equally as important, helped to guide me into what kind of person I wanted to be in life.

With their direction, and with the values and ethics instilled in me by my parents, I came to realize that helping those who were struggling with homelessness, broken families and a world of other issues, was my passion. I had parents who had been excellent role models for me in this capacity and I knew that I could create my own, similar path with the echo of their footprints to guide me. I started to think again about applying to the Peace Corps. I came to one of the very first questions on the application: Are you a boy or a girl? That question was deterrent enough to keep me from applying, plus it turned out that (at the time), the Peace Corps was not in the practice of accepting applicants without a college degree into their program.

Another 10 years later: I had started hormone treatment therapy nearly 10 years earlier. In this time I also managed to have honest conversations with my family and friends about my gender identity and came to the conclusion: I am absolutely blessed. There were most assuredly challenges along this road along with many difficult conversations. I also lost a friend or two, but those who stuck with me have also been with me and supported me unconditionally through many other significant hurdles that life has thrown my way. My family has proven themselves to be family not only in name but in action, support and love. I am incredibly lucky as I know so many others who have a different story with a much harsher reality. I am proud of who I am and am more comfortable in my body than I ever thought I would be. I have become secure in who I am as a person and how I interact as a transman in the world around me.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” I don’t get that question much these days but, for anyone who is open to listening, I have a long history of a story as an answer. And, after a nine year struggle, I also managed to graduate from college with a good GPA and a degree in Community and International Development.

It was time. I was at that point in life where I would again apply to the Peace Corps. This time it was for real. It also had become much easier to apply; everything was done electronically and through the Peace Corps website. I filled out all of the questions, essays, work history, education history, life history, and managed to find 3 people for references who were willing to go through the epic process of validating my character. I submitted my application with a pounding heart and held breath. Getting to this point had been a long process.

Nearly immediately after I hit the “submit application” button, I received an e-mail telling me that I was now required to fill out the Preliminary Health History Form. Ok, no problem, I can do it. First question? Are you a boy or a girl? Seriously?? It took me more time and more uncertainty to answer this question than it did to fill out most of the general application form. I had no idea how to electronically answer such a complicated question. There was no “both” or “neither” type of option and no person on the other end to explain “it’s complicated” too. So I did what I couldn’t do as a 9 year old: I made up my mind, gritted my teeth and hit the circle next to “male”.

Thus began what was, for me, the most grueling and time consuming portion of my Peace Corps process so far – The Medical Assessment. I was immediately assigned to the Head Peace Corps Nurse due to the “special circumstances” of my medical application. She was amazing and an incredible support during the medical clearance process. She did not always know the answers to my questions, but she made it clear that she would do whatever she could to advocate for me and find the answers I needed. She empathized with me as I was required to submit document after document after document. There were many times where I had to step back and remind myself that this medical process was part of what it took to apply for a government job. I reminded myself that the nurse was not trying to make this personally hard on me; she was simply doing her job.

Perhaps because the Peace Corps has not had many transgender medical applicants, there did not seem to be any protocol on how to handle my medical application. I essentially went through the process of submitting both the “male” and “female” health forms. I also had to go through a significant psychological evaluation not required by most applicants. I believe this is more than likely due to the fact that being transgender is still considered to be a mental health issue with a diagnosis still present in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). There were personal statements on how, when, where and why I gave myself testosterone shots along with the storage requirements, chemical composition and effects of testosterone. There was also an incredible amount of blood work that was analyzed. Without the support of the Peace Corps Head Nurse, the task of navigating through medical clearance would have, at minimum, been greatly prolonged and, at maximum, would not have been an achievable task. She has my gratitude and respect for making a painful process slightly less so.

Summer, slightly over a year from the initial application process; after several months of wading through paperwork; tiring out many doctors with my panicked calls and visits; saying farewell to friends and family, I left the United States to start my own, unique Peace Corps experience. In many ways, I had the same application process as many of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Each of us had struggles in our own right with various portions. Some struggled writing the essays, others struggled through the medical portion for reasons due to age, medical history or current medical ailments. What I have found as I meet more and more of the wider Peace Corp family is not only acceptance, love and genuine connection, but also that each of us has our own personal experience with the Peace Corps from the moment we apply until the moment we conclude our service. My experience happens to be wrapped intrinsically around my gender identity, but my hope as I continue on this journey, is to remember that throughout struggles I can always find those that will support me- and the excitement and happiness on the other side of that struggle is well worth the wait.

The writer can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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