The Life of a Transgender PCV: Are You a Boy or a Girl?

- Bryce Wolfe RPCV

Last year my host mother called the Peace Corps medical officer. She had seen my boxers drying on the line, she said, and had doubts about my gender. She feared I was actually a man, and was now concerned for the safety of her two young daughters. The notion that I would ever harm my host sisters disturbed me; the doubts about my gender did not. I have long hair. I have a deep voice. I have an hourglass figure. I have facial hair. It confuses people. The medical officer assured my host mother that I am, in fact, female, and that she has no cause for concern. Boys and girls both may wear boxers, the medical officer explained, and Westerners frequently wear clothing of the opposite sex. When I learned about this phone conversation, I wasn’t upset; instead I was glad that my host mother took the initiative to call the medical officer. This way, rather than harboring fear or spreading rumors, she learned about the fluidity of gender.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” People ask.

Technically, I’m intersex. I identify as transgender. Currently, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer serving in a predominately Muslim country.

In this culture, your sex determines your life. It influences what you do for a living, what you do in your free time, what you absolutely must do and what would be an absolute shame for you to do. Men interact with men differently than women interact with women, and inequalities exist. To speak the language, you must identify yourself as a man or a woman.

I took a good, long look at myself before I joined the Peace Corps. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. There would be the constant questioning, the lack of privacy and the need to change my appearance and behavior. There would be the stares and the possibility of even physical violence. All volunteers face this. What I couldn’t find, was much information about the unique challenges faced by volunteers who don’t fit neatly into “male” or “female”. For all I knew, I would be the only one. This was okay. I never let a fear of the unknown hold me back. Still, who would I trust? How would I dress? Would I commit a grievous faux pas and be stoned to death?

I was prepared to live undercover for twenty-seven months. Now, looking back, I’m amused to think I considered hiding who I am, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to.

In my first month as a volunteer, I facilitated a diversity training session for staff and found that both Americans and host country nationals wanted to know how they could be allies to LGBTQI volunteers. I met gay and lesbian and otherwise queer volunteers already serving in country. When I walked the office halls, I saw rainbow stickers of support on office doors. Their support has been unwavering and, while I tested the waters in the beginning, I’m now open about my gender identity with all volunteers and staff members.

Still, I’m not open in my community. This is a conservative country, and I don’t know who I can and can’t trust. I teach English at a secondary school, and I don’t want to be accused of “converting” children, as others have been accused. The level of violence and harassment against LGBTQI individuals here is high, and the law enforcement is no help.

Last month two law enforcement officers approached me on the street. I reached for the ID in my bag, expecting them to ask me for identification. Instead, they asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” and, once satisfied with an answer, they walked away. I’m pretty sure they settled a bet.

You need to have a thick skin. You can’t sweat the small things. I knew this before I boarded the plane and, like all volunteers, I’m willing to sacrifice some personal comfort in exchange for the experience of a lifetime. Of course it isn’t easy. I can’t speak freely. I’m always vigilant. I avoid the public baths, and groups of idle young men. But I’m fortunate. I’m a foreigner, and therefore I can “get away” with a lot of things that my local friends can’t.

Establishing a connection to the LGBTQI community in country tangibly changed my life here. Not only is my work more fulfilling, knowing that I’m supporting NGOs that support people like me, but I’ve made close friends, who have literally clothed and fed me in times of need. They inspire me with their strength and courage and good humor. I had thought I would spend two years isolated. A local friend, also transgender, reminded me, “We’re everywhere. We’ve always been here, and we’ll always be here.”

This has been the most uplifting and depressing aspect of my service so far: being welcomed into this community, and seeing first hand the kind of life necessitated by a government whose laws will not protect you and a culture whose norms will not accept you. In America, I can walk down the street knowing I am, in general, safe. I can work where I want. I can love who I want. I can wear boxers without my sex being called into question.

If I make no other impact during the course of my service, I feel I’ve at least opened the minds of people around me. From high school students who agree that boys can bake and girls can box, to volunteers who confess I’m the first transgender friend they’ve had, to my counterpart who knows and accepts me for who I am – I feel, more than anything, that my gender identity has been an asset to me as a volunteer. After you’ve struggled to fit into your own skin, you find you have the flexibility, resilience and open mind to fit just about anywhere.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” This is the chorus of my life. I listen to it in another language now, but the answer is the same. I say, “Yes.”

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

It’s Not That Bad in Paraguay

- Manuel Colon, former PCV

My application and recruitment process for Peace Corps did not prepare me properly for serving as an out Gay man in Paraguay. Prior to my arrival in country, it was very unclear to me whom I could disclose my orientation (or if I should at all). I was really concerned about staying closeted for two years, and really prepping myself to be a celibate hermit. I can’t speak for all of the Queer volunteers, but I do know that those who I have spoken with have also echoed my initial preoccupations and reservations about being ill-prepared to handle their “out” identities in Paraguay. My local recruiter seemed pretty positive about my sexual orientation and service, although, she did gave me the standard warnings about cultural and gender norms in Latin America. But, I also received a follow-up call from the Paraguay desk staff in Washington really driving home the idea that I’ll need to prepare myself for being closeted for two years and the general non-acceptance of gays in the country I was being invited to (she wouldn’t disclose Paraguay over the phone).

I suppose if I had done some really good research, I could have resolved some of my concerns and uncertainties about being out in Paraguay on my own. But, I doubt it would have been effective. After living in-country for 20 months I now know that there is very little (accurate) information about Paraguay on the internet (and even less in English). Which is why I was inspired to write this piece. I want anyone who is reading this; the local recruiter, the Washington Office desk officer, the interested applicant, the recent invitee, etc, to please know, it’s not that bad!

I commonly use an example from our staging in Miami that demonstrates the general discomfort and confusion about how candid and honest we can be about our sexual orientation when coming to Peace Corps. My training class was pretty big (47 total) and it has come to light that at least 6 of us openly identified as Queer prior to coming to Paraguay. Though, when we were in Miami and running through the classic “Biggest Hope”/ “Biggest Fear” activities, only one of us mentioned her sexual orientation. One, only one of six! It clearly was on my mind and a definite fear of mine (and I would imagine the five other’s too). But, between the conversations I had with my recruiter and the Washington Office desk officer, I understood that I had to keep quiet about my sexual orientation and stay in the closet. I didn’t know if that meant to everyone, other volunteers, staging staff, in-country staff, or only host country nationals… to whom exactly?

During training you’re in a small bubble, with little information about what really is going on Paraguay and with other volunteers. Among my training group, little by little  my peers opened up about their sexual orientation and we’d talk about it together; what our experiences were back home, what we expected in Paraguay, who we had told so far, etc. But, as luck would have it, it turned out there was a volunteer-led diversity advocacy group, Jopara, that offered safe space for Queer volunteers (and other identities) and apparently there was a tradition after every swear-in to go dancing at a Gay club in the capital. Wait… Let’s unpack that a little. There is a Gay club here in Paraguay? Volunteers know about it? And frequent it? Where was that in my Welcome Handbook? And wouldn’t you know it, there isn’t just one Gay club, there are several. In fact, two new ones have opened up since I’ve been here. Additionally, there are several Queer NGOs, Pride/Equality rallies and marches, and LGBT movie festivals.

All in all, there is a whole bunch of Queer positive activity happening in Paraguay. Like most progressive movements, these activities are concentrated in the capital. But, hell, why didn’t anybody tell me that they existed in the first place? I distinctly remember being on a new site visit and a fellow trainee and I were taken to a Gay karaoke club in the capital where we ran into some other volunteers. When Glee’s version of Madonna’s “Vogue” played across the screen I thought to myself “If this is Peace Corps Paraguay, I’m going to be alright”.

I understand that recruiters and desk officer need to paint the toughest possible picture of service, because it is a reality that some volunteers will have to live. In fact, while I seem to be ranting and raving about the progress that exist in the capital, I don’t know any volunteers (myself included) who actually are out to their communities. However, just like lots of other concerns and worries about your service that are created before even getting in country, I think they can be alleviated before arriving here too. No one should come into service thinking it will be a walk in the park, much less Queer volunteers. But, there needs to be no confusion over who a volunteer can be out to during their service. Peace Corps Paraguay wants to support its volunteers, all volunteers! And if that involves you disclosing your sexual orientation, that’s okay! As with any new setting you should be cautious about individuals who may not receive the information well. But, it’s okay to tell your trainee peers, your sector bosses and general office staff. The PC medical officers will probably be the first you’ll disclose it to, or at least it was for me. During my mandatory, arrival medical check-in I was asked about my plan for contraception, I replied “Homosexuality.” I find it very unlikely that I’ll be getting anyone pregnant here and I thought it was important they knew that. Invitees and interested applicants need to know that the in-country staff is supportive of diversity issues and are open to having that conversation.

I just want to let whoever is reading this know, that upon entry to Peace Corps Paraguay you’ll be greeted by a community of Queer volunteers and straight allies that want to make sure you have an excellent and meaningful service and an office that supports you too. Really, it’s not that bad.

The writer can be contacted at macolon2@gmail.com

Confession of a Peace Corps Spokesperson

- Hale Sargent, RPCV, Armenia

After five years working at Peace Corps, here’s my juiciest insight: it’s full of good people. Sorry, but that’s all I got. From top, down, inside the agency and out, boosters and even the critics, when your motivation is the Peace Corps mission, you’re probably a decent sort.

For five years, I worked a busy corner. As public affairs specialist in the Peace Corps Northern California recruitment office, I sat at the intersection where Peace Corps met the American public.

As all RPCVs know, most Americans have a fond awareness of the Peace Corps, but not a ton of knowledge or, frankly, interest. The Peace Corps occupies the same space in most brains as 4-H and Smokey the Bear. So I and the small team of recruiters I supported, with the tremendous help of RPCVs, worked to raise local awareness of our agency and to find the next generation of volunteers.

Have you ever wanted to be a Peace Corps recruiter? Here’s a recruiter’s life: In a given day she shows up early in a college town. She knocks on doors all morning, trying to meet with forestry professors, overworked career counselors and student diversity groups. Mid-day she runs over to set up a career fair table where she’ll talk nonstop for three hours. That evening she’ll organize a community panel discussion with local RPCVs. In the spaces between she’s interviewing and processing applicants, giving classroom presentations, and organizing her upcoming trip to another town. It’s routinely a 13-hour day several days a week.

The average career lifespan of a recruiter is 18 months, but in our Northern California office they regularly stayed the full five year limit, exhausted, but passionate. Our recruiter with the most seniority got to make the Hawaii circuit, a trip that was so tiring (five campuses in five days) it literally sent one recruiter to the hospital.

As I write this, the number one movie in America is Act of Valor, a feature-length film starring real Navy SEALs. Commissioned by the Navy. Released in theaters. The Peace Corps recruitment budget, by contrast, allotted us a box of public service announcements and some promotional pens. But we’re the Peace Corps. We do a lot with a little. And we like hitting the road. My job had me talking about the Peace Corps everywhere from Honolulu TV stations to Las Vegas convention halls to the floor of the California State Senate. Some audiences (Santa Cruz) thought we were imperialists. Some (Fresno) thought we were freaks. But working to bring stories from around the world into local communities was a hoot.

Our office also sat at the intersection where the volunteer requests from our host countries (French-speaking certified teachers who grew up on farms) met the reality of our Peace Corps applicants (vegan sociology majors). We had great applicants, of course: interesting, dedicated, and willing to stick through a long and unpredictable process. We worked with naturalized citizens, pageant queens, teen geniuses who had finished college early, dot-com retirees, carpenters and everyone in between. You would be proud to know the quality and diversity of those representing our country as Peace Corps Volunteers.

One of my fondest applicant memories is of Alice, a Bay Area woman. Alice had been born in Ghana, and as a young girl she had a Peace Corps volunteer for a science teacher. The Peace Corps stayed in her memory, even as she settled in the US and raised a family. Alice attended our recruitment events for four years as she approached retirement. My position lasted just long enough to see Alice retire, apply, get accepted, return to Africa, and finally become a PCV herself.

Lastly, my job sat at one of the many intersections where Peace Corps met RPCVs. RPCVs are a strange lot. I’m one of them, so I can say it. Driven by their fond memories and passion for the Peace Corps, RPCVs run 10Ks in host country dress. They drive three hours with a day’s notice to cover a rural community college career fair. They adopt highways. They volunteer weeks’ worth of time to run RPCV associations and organize community festivals. I saw RPCVs do all these things. And yes there are others who, driven by a 20-year grudge against their country director, hover by your career fair table, poisoning the air. I met them, too. But we’re all family.

Nearly every RPCV association meeting I attended included an existential crisis: “Why are we a group?” I witnessed RPCV groups wax and wane, usually due to the presence of some highly motivated members. Whatever its size, I always considered the LGBT RPCV Association to be a model group. From a recruiter’s point of view, the group is a real asset. Think of all the considerations to serving as a queer PCV that would never arise naturally in the general application process. It’s invaluable for prospective volunteers to have the LGBT RPCV Association to turn to for specific questions and concerns. How wonderful would it be to have an equivalent service for Asian American applicants? Or retirees? Muslims? Those kinds of support and advocacy groups don’t exist, and I think the LGBT group should be very proud of the special service it provides.

As for the intersection of Peace Corps and global LGBT equality, I don’t know if or where that lies. Obviously as an issue of equality, it’s important for Peace Corps to begin accepting applications from same-sex married couples. I must note that, behind the scenes, it’s pretty difficult to place ANY couple into a Peace Corps assignment. It broke recruiters’ hearts to see wonderfully skilled couples sit in the queue two or more years because no country lined up with their combined skills and language abilities. As a practical matter, recruiters may prefer that we stop placing any couple, rather than cast a wider net. I think placing same-sex couples is on Peace Corps’ wish list, but there are many items on that wish list. Most reforms that rise to the top of any government agency’s to-do list will be those accompanied by budgetary, Congressional or White House pressure.

A reporter for an LGBT newspaper asked me, “Why doesn’t Peace Corps have queer volunteers work with queer NGOs?” I’ve learned through the LGBT RPCV Association that, in fact, fate has dealt that hand to a few PCVs. But to me, the power and mystique of the Peace Corps is the organic way in which you can combine any PCV with any community and let the ripple effects go where they may. Women’s empowerment, youth empowerment, and LGBT empowerment can sprout wherever people make a friend who makes them see the world in a different light. And in return, I’ve met gay and allied RPCVs who have stereotype-busting opinions of countries like Jamaica and Uganda based on the friendships they formed there.

By law, you can only work for Peace Corps for five consecutive years, and so I inevitably reached my time to pass the baton to another. I’d carried it during two presidential administrations, growth spurts, budget crunches, the 50th anniversary and more. I loved every minute.

Hale Sargent recently became a member of LGBT RPCVs Steering Committee (our board). He can be contacted at nhsargent@yahoo.com

LGBT RPCVs’ Annual Report for 2011 – Activities and Achievements

- Mike Learned, Group Leader (RPCV, Malawi)

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

Mentoring Program: Since 1994 LGBT RPCVs has managed an electronically-based Mentor Program. LGBT applicants, nominees, trainees and people curious about joining Peace Corps connect with our Mentor Program on the Mentor page of our website (www.lgbrpcv.org). We provide specific directions to readings from our website and instructions on how to direct questions and concerns to more than 600 people who post on our listserv. This continues to work well with many requests for information and support this last year. Concerns are usually about homophobia and anti-gay discrimination in host countries but also can focus on the more mundane. Sometimes there are small numbers of responses, but on occasion advice and ideas come from a dozen or more respondents. We would be happy to share with other NPCA affiliates the way our Mentor Program functions. It would work particularly well with Country of Service groups that have or would initiate a listserv.

Supporting Peace Corps at LGBT-Related Recruiting and Information Events: During 2011 LGBT RPCVs assisted regional Peace Corps offices and Headquarters staff at several recruiting and/or informational LGBT-related events around the country. This involved preparing a printed package of materials. We also located LGBT RPCVs to help staff at recruiting and information tables (most notably at Gay Pride events in the summer and fall of 2011) to answer questions and provide support for Peace Corps staff. Peace Corps staff, LGBT RPCVs and others marched as Peace Corps contingents in the Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. Gay Pride Parades. We have also assisted in supporting and communicating about Peace Corps webinars and other smaller scale events.

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

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

Financial Management: We discontinued requiring membership fees in early 2008. We continue to receive a “rebate” ($15 per person) from NPCA for members who identify us as their NPCA affiliate. 59 NPCA members joined or renewed during 2011 naming us as their affiliate. We include in our membership anyone who was a paying member in the last five years and anyone who has joined us electronically since we changed our membership fee policy. Our operating expenses are now less than $600 a year. We currently measure our membership at about 350. We have lost track of some members because of (now) invalid email addresses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start of Year (2011) Balance:   $2550.85

Income:
NPCA Memberships:                           $735.00

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

Income Minus Total Expenses:            $87.60

End of Year Balance, (2011):    $2638.45

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

20 Years after an HIV Scare in Africa

– Brian Guse, RPCV, and PC Trainer, Mali

I was perusing the National Peace Corps Association site on Facebook today and saw a post urging readers to check out an RPCV’s blog titled “No Going Back – There Is Only Forward.

The author is a young woman who was recently med-separated from Peace Corps after contracting HIV while in country (Zambia). Her story is one of courage and strength and she is an inspiration to all – Peace Corps or not, HIV positive or not.

After reading her blog I couldn’t help but think back to where I was 20 years ago and the intersection HIV made with my own Peace Corps experience. By no means do I compare my “scare” with what she is going through, but I think some of you might be able to relate to the story I am about to tell.

20 years ago, almost to the day, I was sitting on an airplane crossing the Atlantic on my way back to Mali. I had been away from my village, my friends and my Malian family for more than 45 days – on medical evacuation for a serious life threatening illness. After having spent a week in Georgetown University hospital, another 2 weeks recuperating in the Virginian Hotel in Rosslyn, VA (Washington, DC) and a couple of weeks fattening up back home in the Midwest, I was anxious to get back to my mission and finish my remaining months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

To many of the other PCVs I met on medevac, the time spent in DC was like a vacation – time to recuperate from whatever ailed them, job hunt or visit the sites of the Nation’s Capital. For me, those weeks in DC were some of the most frightening days of my life; a time when I thought I was going to die.

As a sexually active gay man in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I was extremely aware of and paranoid about the prospects of acquiring HIV. Nonetheless, safe sex was a concept but not always a reality for me. Getting tested for HIV was a nerve wracking affair yet throughout college I had been pretty good about getting tested on a regular yet anonymous basis. Then, as now, Peace Corps required a full physical including an HIV test in order to be placed in a country. Before submitting to the full physical, I went to a city health clinic and was tested anonymously one last time. I tested negative. I was ready for the real deal, the official, named and documented HIV test. I tested negative.

I was living in Chicago the day the acceptance letter arrived. Mali, West Africa. Never heard of it. Still, what a happy day. I sat at my favorite Chicago hotdog stand and cried tears of joy and relief as I opened the acceptance letter. The moment the invitation package arrived, the HIV testing stopped. I wanted nothing to get in the way of being a PCV. I knew testing positive would put an end to my dreams of joining Peace Corps so I put it out of my mind and assured myself that I was and would remain negative. If later I discovered I was positive I would be compelled to disclose the information to Peace Corps and end my PCV experience before it ever began. Better not to know. In four non-celibate months I would be on the plane to Mali. Nothing to worry about.

I wasn’t sure of my HIV status the day I flew to New Orleans for pre-service orientation. Stupidly or rather naively, it never occurred to me that Peace Corps would require one final HIV test before allowing me to get on that flight to Mali. The test took place on the first day. I lost sleep in New Orleans. While my fellow trainees were out enjoying their last few nights in the US, I sat in my hotel room shaking with fear. I wasn’t afraid for my health or even my long-term future. Testing positive meant only one thing to me: the end of ever being a Peace Corps volunteer. I tested negative.

After getting settled into my rural village the fears of HIV passed and I focused on other things. In 1990, AIDS hadn’t penetrated land-locked West Africa yet. Peace Corps hadn’t even begun to build an HIV/AIDS sector yet. In my mind the next 2+ years would be a time free from worry. HIV would not get near me.

Several months into my service I received a cassette tape (yes it was the 90’s) from my best friend back home. We went to high school together and came out to each other at a time when coming out was not in vogue. Hearing his voice was wonderful; hearing news about our friends and families brought a smile to my face; hearing him cry as he told me had tested positive for HIV devastated me. HIV had returned to my life; it suddenly became of part of my reality albeit it through someone else; someone for whom I cared deeply but could not comfort in person. I immediately got on my motorcycle and drove to the capital. I placed a phone call to my mom asking her to arrange for my friend to call me from her home the next day. He and I talked for an hour. We laughed and cried and discussed how he became infected. We talked about the future – my future. I felt selfish and petty talking about the community garden I was working on when all he could focus on was whether he’d live long enough to see his 22nd birthday and avoid a slow and painful demise. The early 90’s were an especially frightening time for people with HIV. My generation witnessed the sudden loss of the gay generation before us to AIDS. We had no mentors; we had no role models. To us, AIDS meant death. He was positive. I was negative. He could only focus on the present. I was able to look forward; look to the future. Guilt.

Fast forward one year to three restless nights of fevers and sweats in my mud hut. I had already come down with malaria a few times while in country but this was something different. My Malian host mother had seen enough and insisted that I make my way to the capital to seek medical attention. She sent word by mouth from village to village until a nearby PCV learned I was ill and gave me a lift on his motorcycle to the capital. A few days later I was unable to eat; was losing weight too quickly; had abdominal pains and high fevers. PC sent me to several specialists – no one had an answer. During that time a close friend came to country for a visit. When he saw me at the airport his jaw dropped. I looked bad. In a way that only close friends can speak to one another he said, “You look like you have AIDS.”

Months before, as part of our mid-service physical, Peace Corps required an HIV test. I tested negative. Shortly after the physical I went on vacation to Europe and made up for sexual lost time. For the most part, I was safe. I had nothing to worry about. Until, “You look like you have AIDS.”

The Peace Corps medical unit was unable to diagnose what ailed me. The only choice was medevac. My heart sank. I knew deep down it was HIV. I knew that once it was confirmed Peace Corps would separate me and I would never again see my Malian family. I would never have the chance to say good-bye.

The Peace Corps doctor escorted me on the flight to DC where I was immediately admitted into Georgetown University hospital. I weighed 109 lbs. I had lost 50 lbs in less than a month. The fevers continued. I couldn’t eat. I was delusional at times. I called my mom and told her she needed to come to DC. The doctor spoke with her and said make it quick.

For days, doctors examined me. Phlebotomists drew blood. Nurses held my hand. Students studied me. Most had never seen my symptoms. One intern, I never got her name, boldly suggested a bone marrow exam. She had an idea. She was correct. Typhoid. Curable. Not HIV. No, that test came back negative. Twice. Called mom and said not to worry. “I’ll come visit you once I recover.” Bacon – the first solid food I ate in weeks. I love bacon.

A week in the hospital. Christmas and New Years in the Virginian hotel. Finally, home to mom. More bacon. I spent a good amount of time with my friend. I was embarrassed. I had been worried about myself. I was negative. He was positive. But in those months since sending me the cassette tape much about him had changed. He had come to terms with HIV and was under the care of a number of HIV/AIDS specialists. In the time since we had spoken on the phone he had become positive about life again. He was looking forward; looking to the future. He was not defeated.

20 years later he still is looking to the future. He has lived with HIV for over 20 years. He has suffered losses and buried a lover. He graduated from college. He witnessed his brother’s wedding and watched his nephews grow into fine young men. He bought a house and started a career. He and his partner adopted one too many pugs. Through his strength and perseverance he has inspired all who know him.

I remain engaged in international development. Over the past 20 years I’ve seen African nations fall victim one by one to HIV/AIDS. I’ve seen hope disappear and reappear on the faces of the farmers, students and professionals that I have come into contact with. This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to Mali. Not a day goes by where I don’t think how lucky I was to have a second chance on life – a second chance to complete my Peace Corps service – although really, come to think of it, do we ever really finish Peace Corps?

You can contact Brian Guse at bvguse@aol.com and visit the story on the blog that inspired this article “There is no going back, there is only forward.”

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