Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps

The following is the introduction from Jim Kelly’s thesis on gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps, “Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps.”

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I was born on June 29, 1947 in a country hospital in a tiny southern Minnesota farming town.  The complicated and dangerous delivery almost cost both my mother and I our lives.  For the first 15 years of my life, every Sunday after church the ugliest, kindest nurse in history would, without invitation, give me a huge hug and say, “How’s my miracle baby today?”  If someone tells you often enough that you’re special, you’ll come to believe it yourself.

However, I kept the most “special” thing about me fiercely protected from discovery.  As far back as I can remember I knew that I was different: I felt about boys the way boys were supposed to feel about girls.  I also instinctively knew I was in danger if my secret got out.  At great psychic cost, I protected that secret for 21 years.  I was a college senior when I said out loud for the first time to another human being that I was gay – my academic advisor.

I don’t regret growing up in a small town.  Many values I still hold were developed there – values that I believe ultimately led to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer..My parents belonged to just about every board and organization in town.  From them I learned the values of community service and civic engagement.  I learned what unremarkable people can accomplish when they work together and acknowledge their interdependence.  I experienced the power of generosity, and the empowering effect of respect for others.

The darker side of human nature in a small town is that those values really operate only within a sphere of sameness – by and for people who look alike and act alike.  My town was at the northern end of a migrant route of Mexican summer farm workers.  Over the years, a small permanent community established itself.  They were the “other,” and that’s how I learned about prejudice and the impact of marginalization.  It helped me realize that I was “in, but not of” that sphere of sameness.  I was also an “Other!”  Difference is dangerous!  Theirs’ was obvious, mine was hidden; but the impact on me was profound.  I had learned to empathize.

“Otherness” and the preoccupation to avoid discovery was the driving influence in my life for years to come.  Yet, as my world expanded in college during the late 60’s, I realized there were movements everywhere to restore peace, celebrate differences and work on behalf of justice.  In my senior year, a woman in my friendship group who had graduated the prior year was sending us letters about her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador.

I was mesmerized and felt called.  Peace Corps was still in its first decade and the ideals on which it was founded were inspiring.  I applied.  About half-way through that endless application, I crashed into this question: “Do you have homosexual tendencies?”  In that instant I remembered my PC friend in El Salvador remarking that after she applied, FBI agents ran routine background checks and interviewed people who knew her.

I checked the “no” box, fully aware I was lying.  Moreover, I was obligated to ask my academic advisor to collude with me in this lie if he got asked that question by the FBI.

For longer than Peace Corp’s first decade of existence, applicants aware of being gay or lesbian had to perjure themselves to the federal government to even be considered for this opportunity to serve others and represent the best America has to offer.

In 1969 I completed pre-service training and began my service in a rural village in El Salvador.  Almost 47 years later, I still view my Peace Corps service as one of the most transcendent experiences of my life.  Nevertheless, camouflaging my sexual orientation while in the Peace Corps caused me considerable psychological and emotional pain.  During my training and Volunteer service I never experienced permission from trainers, other Volunteers or Peace Corps staff to be open about who I was.  I believed the Peace Corps assumed all Volunteers were heterosexual.  The cross-cultural adaptation training we received about male and female roles and interpersonal relationships was directed at heterosexuals.  The men and women had separate training sessions about sexual mores, do’s and don’ts.  I clearly remember a trainer reciting to the men names of brothels that were on an unofficial “hygienically approved” list.

In spite of the cost of my silence, I succeeded.  I extended my service until 1972.  No one ever knew about my profound sense of alienation induced by fear that my “secret” would become known.  No one in Peace Corps ever knew that eventually I did discover the El Salvadoran gay subculture and was able to develop a wonderful friendship and support network.  Although never regretting being a PCV, I also never forgot how I felt during training and Volunteer service about the omission of attention to some of my most fundamental gay-related needs and concerns as they related to my ability to serve Salvadorans.

Quite serendipitously, about five years after leaving El Salvador, I became associated with Peace again, first as the Training Coordinator for Peace Corps Chile’s pre-service training center.  That experience led to a referral in 1981 to CHP International, an Oak Park, IL company which, under contract to the Peace Corps, staffed and operated pre-service training centers in countries of destination (eventually managing centers in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa).  I remained with CHP until my retirement 25 years later.

My work with CHP kept me in constant contact with our Peace Corps training centers, curriculum development projects, the evolution in Peace Corps’ training philosophy, Peace Corps staff, and with networks of serving and returned PCVs.  The anecdotal accounts of many gay and lesbian friends I made in the informal networks of Peace Corps staff and RPCVs made me wonder how much had really changed in the Peace Corps’ understanding as an institution of the special challenges that Volunteer service presents to gay and lesbian Volunteers.

Towards the end of my first decade with CHP, I decided to obtain an advanced degree in cross-cultural training – acutely aware that I’d already I’d been called to serve again by conducting and publishing this research.  As the thesis dedication says:

To the gays and lesbians who have served
as Peace Corps Volunteers
1961 – 1991
We have a voice now


Click Kelly, James B (1991) to read complete copy of Kelly’s thesis on our website.

Survey of LGBT RPCV Followers

LGBT Follower Survey 2015To take the pulse of what LGBT RPCV followers think about our mostly virtual organization, a survey was announced through our listserv as well as via Facebook and Twitter. Seventy-seven (77) people responded to the short survey (12% of our listserv membership).

Of the 77 respondents, just over 80% are returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), with about 13% being current volunteers.

The feature of our organization most appreciated is the listserv (62.5%) followed by Facebook (51.4%) and our webpage (37.5%).

For the listserv, the top 2 postings appreciated are Learning about Peace Corps-related news and events (73.5%) and LGBT world news (67.7%). Also appreciated were learning about job postings (38.2%) and countries of assignment (30.9%).  65.7% of respondents judged that the number of listserv postings is about right, with 22.4% saying there are too many posts and 11.9% too few. When asked how we can improve the listserv, the top suggestion was to consolidate the postings into either a daily or weekly summary to cut down on the frequency of posts, and possibly including questions for discussion about the posted issues. Many suggested adding more stories of LGBT PCVs and RPCVs and to include links to all that is posted, although a current PCV asked for the opposite: to post full articles since Internet service is weak and opening links can be a challenge. A few comments commended what we are now doing.

On the mentoring program, 58.2% of respondents didn’t know such a program existed, but would be interested in participating. Very few had participated in the program either as a mentor or mentee. The few notable comments were that people had tried to participate but were never contacted and that it may be worth considering having current volunteers mentor one another. It was also suggested that RPCVs who had served in specific countries could be made available to share their experiences with those who may be going to those countries.

Key suggestions to improve the Facebook group, Twitter posts and our webpage were to close the Facebook page because having it open to the public may compromise current volunteers where host country nationals can see that they are members and to increase the number of job posts.

Other things that followers would like to see LGBT RPCV doing that would be useful:

  • Enable more connections among RPCVs such as organizing more local and regional events of interest to LGBT RPCVs, including social events and job fairs and pride events.
  • Make links to more external groups that share similar interests to ours, including working with US-based LGBT organizations to support projects.
  • Make more efforts to reach potential PCVs.
  • Explore having RPCVs visit current LGBT PCVs.

When asked about interest in becoming more involved in LGBT RPCV in leading our community, 9 people stepped forward with their contact information. No one had a specific idea about what they wanted to volunteer to do, but one respondent who has already been very active noted that he has taken part in LGBT RPCV events such as Pride celebrations and Peace Corps anniversary occasions. He said that he is “proud of our organization and its ongoing supportive involvement in Peace Corps. I consider my own service as a pivotal point in my own life that keeps me closely connected… Surely PC’s own evolving comfort and active support of LGBT volunteers has much in our organization’s existence and work…”

LGBT Follower Survey 2015

LGBT RPCVs Annual Report for 2014 – Activities and Accomplishments

Editor’s Note: These reports have been submitted to NPCA as part of our affiliation renewal with them for 2015. We have posted them on our website each year.

Electronic Infrastructure Improvements:

Website visitors

Click to enlarge

We have had an internet presence since the mid-1990s and have published hundreds of articles from LGBT volunteers about the countries where they served: about what life is like back in the states; or new adventures since their Peace Corps experience, including visits back to their countries of service. Currently our website contains about 225 timely articles from 50 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe.

Our website had close to 22,000 visitors in 2014.

Our fastest growing media presence is on our Facebook group at https://facebook.com/groups/lgbrpcv/ We now have close to 250 members who are current and former volunteers, along with applicants, and nominees.

Our Yahoo Group has been in operations since the late 1990s and currently has about 630 participants and averages 40 messages a month.

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.

Third Goal and Other Accomplishments:

Our electronic improvements and the high number of visits to them is a sign of our strong commitment to Peace Corps third goal. We have provide and enormous amount of information to the LGBT community about joining Peace Corps, what to expect during Peace Corps service, and resources available in and out of Peace Corps to cope with homophobia and insensitivity in the developing world where Peace Corps has programs.

Cooperation with Peace Corps and other NPCA affiliates during gay pride festivals across the country:

We regularly provide written informational materials for Peace Corps staff to use during recruiting and informational events during gay pride season. We did this again in 2014 which saw an unprecedented level of Peace Corps participation in such events. Through our Yahoo Group, Facebook, Twitter and other sources we communicated such events and ways for LGBT people to participate.

We also appreciated and supported the Atlanta Area RPCV group’s participation in Atlanta’s Gay Pride parade last fall. We also contributed $325 to them which was our sponsorship of a film shown in a film festival they sponsored, Call Me Kuchu, which is a powerful documentary about the difficulties and challenges facing the LGBT community in Uganda.

LGBT RPCV – Financial Report 2014

Beginning Balance:         $3901.45

Income:

  • Dues from NPCA    $645.00

Expenses:

  • NPCA Reaffiliation   $40.00
  • Post Office Box        $128.00
  • Internet Hosting         $13.00
  • Domain renewal for nine years                  $314.91
  • AARPCV film
  • Sponsorship of film for AARPCVs    $325.00

Total Expenses:                    $820.91

Income Minus Expenses    ($175.91)

End of Year Balance:         $3725.54

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.

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

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