Challenges Facing LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer

Editor’s Note:

Our listserv has over the years provided a forum for applicants, nominees, current and former PCVs to advise and support one another. A few months back a current volunteer posted a message asking for some advice about handling  feelings of isolation and alienation. There were six or eight responses from recent volunteers offering their experiences and excellent advice. We have chosen three of them that seem to summarize the best of all those responses. They are very slightly edited to removed location and other personal identity information. You can subscribe to the listserv by accessing lgbrpcv-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

The initial post:

Throwing a bone out to you all, because I’m starting to hit a wall. Perhaps that wall is the door of the closet slamming shut right in my face, all over again. I’m four months in country, homosexuality is illegal and it’s considered so unquestionably wrong in this culture that it’s not even thought of. I guess I identify somewhere between bisexual and queer – suffice to say I’ve loved men and women and find both attractive. But it didn’t really come up…or out… in my training and there isn’t an active LGBT support group in-country.

So, here I am attracted to the local population but realizing I could never have a real discussion about who I truly am with them, so feeling alienated. Feeling comfortable and supported by some PCVs but like I regressed back to high school and am afraid to tell the truth, so feeling alienated.

I just want to talk with someone about this and I really don’t think there’s much save for one or two in country so here I am. How did you keep your sanity during round two in the closet? And, to also get your ideas about how I can improve this situation and work on creating a safe space for LGBT PCVs in my post.

Thanks for the listening ear.

The first response:

I felt for you when I read your e-mail.  I vividly remember thinking, “What the f— did I get myself into?” Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer for you.  I did develop strong relationships with a few supportive PCVs, though that didn’t relieve the stress of the feelings of being alienated from my community – because, in fact, even though I had a few supportive relationships, I did remain alienated from my community. It really sucked, primarily because I was an alien to my community, and the only thing I could do was learn to live with the feelings of alienation. The good thing was that I discovered an inner strength I never knew I had. The bad thing was that I discovered an inner strength that I know I never wanted.

Take it one day at a time.  Try to maintain an objective perspective – the reason it feels challenging is because it is challenging.  And don’t forget to breathe!

Good luck!

Another response:

Congrats on making it four months into country so far. I’m sure you’re doing well. 4

Four months in can be a good moment of general existentialism, self-doubt and major loneliness/disconnect. It’s hard. But, I think that bringing up your feelings honestly to this listserv is a good start. I think one of the most difficult parts of PC is coming to realization that your value systems is just so different, conflicting with the people you’ve made a commitment to help.

I think the key will be to just hold out. I don’t think you’re betraying yourself if you’re keeping yourself safe. And don’t feel bad relying on using your supportive PC friends to talk about these issues. I was the only gay guy in both of my trainings and it caused me to have a mild freak out in regards to that. I felt whiney being like nobody understands how hard it is for a gay volunteer, but it’s a legitimate feeling. I felt even crankier when my lesbian friends started dating guys.

But, I guess I’ll say the main reason I made it was because I did rely on my friends who were supportive, not local people and I patiently waited to hear what local friends and colleagues would say. I did come out to a few of them, but not until the end of my time in each country (I was in two different countries).

As for creating a safe place in PC as an organization, I know that there are safe place trainings that take place. I would suggest speaking with someone who you trust about it. I think a lot of Country Directors are open to this. I found a lot of support through PC staff both local and American. from HCN staff and American Staff.

Also, to help your sanity: journal and make art about it. Have friends from home visit, get out of the country for a, shall we say, vaygaytion. But, please don’t be afraid to send messages back to people you know support you in PC.

I hope this helps and isn’t too rambling. I really hope you can find a way to process these tough feelings. But, I’m sure you’ll find resilience and a creative way to make this situation dealable and possibly better for others in your situation.

Best,

And Another Response:

It sounds like you are going through something that just about any LGBTQ Volunteer has experienced at some point during their service. I had taken it for granted that I lived my life as an openly gay man in the States before I went to my host country and found I had to hide that part of myself to the locals. While I knew I would have to do it, I found it took much more of a toll on me than I had anticipated over the course of my service.

I never came out to any local people, and I chose not to come out to any PC staff, American or not. I did, however, come out to other volunteers in my training group and eventually most other volunteers that I met throughout my service. I found everyone to be very supportive and that was crucial to my success and sanity as a Volunteer.

Additionally, in my country of service we had what is called a Peer Support and Diversity Network (PSDN) which is a completely Volunteer organized group that trains a selected group to deal with any personal issues that may come up with volunteers that they may not want to go to PC staff with directly. I was a member of this group, as well as an officer. It was very rewarding as we were able to help fellow volunteers as well as provide some diversity training for PC staff. If this does not exist in your country, I suggest you look into it and possibly start to organize such a group there. That may help you to take what you are feeling and put it into some positive action. A quick Google “psdn Peace Corps” didn’t come up with too much, but it might get the ball rolling, and someone on your country’s staff will probably be able to get you some more information.

Take care and good luck,

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

She’s Finally Gone Over the Edge

-Rose Rosely, RPCV Ghana

Why would somebody quit a perfectly fabulous career working in the animation business in Los Angeles, making enough money to fly up to San Francisco every other weekend if she felt like it, to take a job where she earned about a hundred dollars a month? Or why give up a spacious rent controlled apartment at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, which all her friends couldn’t believe she got in the first place, for a two-room mud hut? Why sell her brand new car for half of what it was worth, give away or sell almost every possession she owned, and kiss a lover of thirteen on-and-off again years goodbye promising to write? It sounds crazy ridiculous, downright stupid. If my grandmother were still living she would have asked, “Honey, are you okay?”

In retrospect, it all makes sense. I have found that I love living life one adventure after another. At the time, though, I’ll admit it did seem a little absurd. Here I was about to turn 40 in a couple of years and all I had was 70 lbs. of material possessions that the airline would allow me to take along to Ghana, West Africa where I was to be an environment volunteer in the far north of the country. My qualifications for being an environmental candidate? Well, I’d had a few ornamental gardens at houses that I’d owned along the way and living in LA I could certainly vouch for the ugliness of a smoggy sky.

This article is a result of my response to an inquiry on the LGB RPCV listserv from someone who is considering joining Peace Corps. He was asking our collective community of RPCVs what we thought about his leaving his stable job because in his words, “at my age it may be professional suicide.” True, but in this day and age, some of the things that seem most stable seem to crumble and fall at our feet. Like me, he’s older than the majority of volunteers who are in their twenties, he’s afraid of what’s going to happen to his life after the two years overseas, and he’s gay. He’s having the last minute jitters before sending in his application. When I responded to him, I’d simply hit reply and so everybody else on the listserv got my two cents too. Michael, the editor of this newsletter, saw it and asked me to elaborate. So, let’s go.

Being a volunteer was the most amazing time of my life. I left Ghana thinking that if I died tomorrow, then it would be okay. Seriously, because I’d lived enough in the last three years to consider it a wonderful life. Nothing I have done has compared to my experience living in a rural community in a developing country. My brain and all my senses were summoned every morning when the roosters crowed and they were working until I fell asleep at the end of the day out under the stars. I actually looked forward to the sun coming up, knowing that it would get hot enough to brew tea on my front porch. Then there was the long ride to town 15km down a bush path on a bicycle, the soup made from baobab leaves that we ate from one bowl, the small market that happened every three days where I could buy tomatoes and onions, and the women who came to the literacy class I started. Some days you’d reel because you were bombarded with too much reality: a kid convulsing from malarial fever, a thief being beaten under the mango tree or a crippled man dragging himself down the road. You learn to let go, to let the day unravel, to exhale, to be blown by the winds from the Saharan desert during harmattan, to just be.

To feel full up, spilling over with the everyday of life, is something that we all chase but rarely have the opportunity to catch. I ran after it and grabbed and didn’t let go. Right before leaving Ghana, I wrote home to friends and family that it was a good thing that stories didn’t weigh anything or else I’d have to leave too much behind. My head and heart were overflowing with memories and feelings. In the three years living and working with another culture (the Ghanaian people who are the friendliest people on the planet) was a heart expanding, mind blowing, soul rejuvenating, self challenging experience that will always make me feel full up.

It seems that I’m living life backwards. When I was twenty-something I bought my first house, planted a garden, dug into my career. It seemed that I was settled and successful. Now, that I’m forty-something I’m courting wanderlust and adventure and feeling like a rolling stone.

Even so, in the beginning, being around all the volunteers who had just finished college was not what I was expecting. You’d think, from the marketing that Peace Corps does, that the volunteers are just one big happy Benetton ad. Or? Most of the volunteers are young, white and straight. Or? I’d left gay Hollywood, where the queens from South America that lived in my building use to meringue around the pool on Sundays in heels, and ended up in the middle of West Africa feeling alone and out of place with one foot back in the closet. Horrified that I’d just ruined my life, thrown away everything that I’d worked so hard to get, I wanted to go home before training was finished. It took some time to find my feet, but when I did there was no more falling down.

The community of volunteers is like marrying into a big crazy family. You hate ‘em, you love ‘em but no matter what, you’re stuck with ‘em. So, figure it out. It’s actually one of the coolest things about Peace Corps. You end up getting to know people that you’d never give a second chance to in the States. I’d say that there are definitely some difficult diversity issues but most of them are complicated by how we ourselves deal with it. For me, once the shock wore off, I found myself relaxing and finding my place. I’ve made friends for life and am instantly connected to a myriad of interesting folks because of this experience.

Now, that I’m back, I’m having to figure out what to immerse myself in next. It’s not a piece of cake. In fact all the possibilities make my head spin. My mom says that I’m like a cat, always landing with my feet on the ground. Ground please? And another returned friend’s words, “yeah, some of us dream about living but then there’s those of us that live like we’re in a dream.” I’m just accepting that the beginning and the ending of things are a bit of a struggle like the butterfly emerging from its cocoon just before taking flight. I’m a little stuck at the moment, but not for long.

Rose Rosely returned home last November. You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

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