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

LGBT RPCVs 2013 Financial Report

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

Beginning Balance: $3343.45

Income:

  • Dues from NPCA: $735.00

Expenses:

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

Income Minus Expenses: $558.00

End of Year Balance: $3901.45

New LGBT Employee Resources Group, SPECTRUM, Launched at Peace Corps

In Peace Corps’ efforts to become a more diverse and inclusive work place, the agency has launched and initiative to form affinity-based employee resource groups. 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. ERGs can be designed to provide support and professional development to participating members while also affording the organization a chance to gain valuable insight into effective recruitment and retention approaches.

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.

With approval from Peace Corps’ leadership, SPECTRUM has already started working diligently to fulfill its mission of raising awareness of LGBTQ issues and concerns related to Peace Corps staff (domestic and international) experience. The group focuses on three key areas:

  • Organizing and hosting discussion sessions about the LGBTQ experience for Peace Corps staff. The goal of these discussions is to share the voice of the Peace Corps LGBTQ community and foster a more inclusive work environment for all Peace Corps staff regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. SPECTRUM hosted its first panel discussion on May 22, 2013 with representatives from Human Rights Campaign, USAID, Department of Justice and the RPCV community.

  • Working with Peace Corps senior leadership, Africa, Europe, Mediterranean, Asia, Inter-America and Pacific regional staff; and internal working groups to identify strategies, provide resources, and offer appropriate staff training content to enhance the support provided to LGBTQ Volunteers serving overseas to bolster the likelihood of successful fulfillment of their 27-month service commitment. Members of SPECTRUM have been thoughtfully involved in the conversations leading up to the May 21, 2013 announcement of inviting same-sex couples to apply for service.

  • Providing opportunities for the Peace Corps LGBTQ community to foster a sense of community, support and shared purpose. Members of SPECTRUM worked hand in hand with the DC Regional Recruitment Office to organize and 80 person contingent at the DC Pride Parade and an information table at the festival.

While SPECTRUM is in its early stages of development, we welcome the thoughts and ideas of the RPCV community. Please reach out to us at SPECTRUM@peacecorps.gov

All comments are welcome!

LGBTQ Panel Discussion Sponsored by Peace Corps’ Spectrum

- Edwin S. Patout, RPCV – Ukraine

I attended “The LGBTQ Experience in International Development” panel discussion held at Peace Corps Headquarters’ Shriver Hall on Wednesday May 22, 2013. The event announcement was posted on Facebook and co-sponsored by Spectrum and the Office of Civil Rights Diversity. This was an inaugural event for Spectrum, an employee resource group (ERG) for Peace Corps LGBTQ staff, volunteers and allies. Its mission is to raise awareness around LGBTQ issues and concerns related to Peace Corps Volunteer and staff experience. Information about this resource group can be found by emailing spectrum@peacecorps.gov .

The four panelists, all with extensive LGBTQ experience, specifically addressed the visibility issues faced in foreign countries by the LGBTQ community. The panelist included:
* Ty Cobb, a Senior Legislative Counsel at the Human Rights Campaign;
* Ajit Joshi, Acting Senior LGBT Coordinator at USAID;
* Bijal Shah, Associate Counsel, Immigration Review at the Department of Justice; and
* Dominique Narcisco, RPCV, Costa Rica, 2008-2010

Each panelist presented their perspective on the special challenges LGBTQ Peace Corps volunteers face in their new environment and what is probably going to be a life in isolation. The emphasis however should be on the opportunities presented by Peace Corps service; to provide support for other LGBT in the field; mentoring youth without having to out them; and providing education to a broader audience through displaying safe place stickers and offering diversity trainings to local staff on how to become a more inclusive community. The common theme of fostering inclusion and cultivating allies was developed in each of the panelist excellent presentations. A full house at Shriver Hall responded with thoughtful questions and was appreciative of the panels unique insight.

Interesting and informative to me, not a Human Resources person, was the sponsoring organization Spectrum, an LGBTQ Employee Resource Group (ERG). Learning that ERG’s are an emerging part of human resources toolkit for enhanced employee engagement. Certainly the formation of an LGBTQ ERG is no easy task and a challenge for LGBTQ employees that requires courage but is a path to form social/mentoring networks and create workplace environment that is more inclusive. Kudos to the LGBTQ Peace Corps staff on their efforts in establishing Spectrum with best wishes for much success.

Post Script: Not more than a few days ago after working on a draft of this article Spectrum appears in my life again as a Facebook posting. My alma mater LSU, for the first time sponsored an LGBT–inclusive 2013 graduation, offering lavender stoles to wear with cap and gowns. Spectrum is LSU’s LGBTQ sponsoring organization. Spectrum maybe the new human resource buzz word reflecting a broad range of diversity within an organization but for me it signifies a full circle.

Edwin Patout can be contacted at edwinpatout@yahoo.com.

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

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