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.

Peace Corps Program, Not Jordanian Hospitality, Temporarily Suspended

– Sarah Bender, RPCV

I tend to enjoy watching people’s eyes grow wide when I share with them I served in the Peace Corps in Jordan (not every lesbian’s top choice for a stint abroad). Their surprise always grows when I then express my extreme gratitude for my placement, as I met my now fiancé during Pre-Service Training.

The “temporary closing” of Jordan’s program was devastating to Steph and me. Peace Corps has had a profound effect on both of our lives (in addition to introducing us). In the four years since our COS (Completion of Service0, not a day passes in which I do not remember some aspect of my service, or use a skill I was able to develop while living in Jordan. I am the definition of a “proud RPCV:” my fiancé and I have marched with Peace Corps in local PRIDE celebrations, attended recruiting events, and I even have a 24×36 Peace Corps poster hanging in my office. In reflecting on the program, my experience there, and the temporary suspension, I think of the Peace Corps Jordan staff members who are left in the lurch, of my Jordanian friends and family whose lives do not get a “temporary suspension” from the uncertainty of daily life, and of my increasing desire to book a trip home to Jordan.

Stephanie and I have wanted to return to Jordan since about the moment we set foot back on American soil. We both developed extremely close relationships with families in our communities, and had close friends who live in the capital. We had not yet set up our life together in the U.S., but had done so in Jordan – why would we not want to return? Over the years that followed our COS, however, we struggled with reconciling our desire to visit with our growing discomfort around potentially having to re-closet ourselves. Steph and my relationship continued to progress unbeknownst to our Jordanian families, as we found ourselves ducking and deflecting questions from our counterparts – sometimes forsaking calls altogether so as to avoid the white lies and non-truths we felt (with panic) threatened the authenticity of connections to our friends and family abroad. To our conflicted disappointment, four years have passed without our promised visit.

In the months since our engagement, however, we have begun to discover that perhaps our fears had been misplaced. Since we first began our service, both of our social media sites have been on “privacy lockdown,” so that any photos showing our same-sex love, or other potentially “culturally inappropriate” behavior would not impede our ability to integrate into our communities. After COS, as we settled into our new life together in the States, we were ever so cautious about photos, news articles, or anything posted on to social media that would “out” us. Several years later, however, as we were celebrating our engagement, we boldly decided to share our news with everyone – privacy settings aside.

Several days after our announcement, Steph and I received a message from her community counterpart and good friend in Jordan. Looking at the inbox, without opening the message, we were immediately engulfed in anxiety and regret for sharing our news so publicly. As we read the message with trepidation an intentional day or two later, though, our worries eased with every line. The message was congratulatory, loving, and supportive of our relationship. For all our anguish, we realized that the human-to-human connections we made in Jordan surpassed even the most striking of cultural differences, a testament to the power and integrity of what the Peace Corps eschews.

I am confident that my fiancé and I will return to Jordan (perhaps for a second wedding celebration?) and just as confident that Peace Corps will return as well. I had long hoped that Jordan would be one of the pioneer countries placing same-sex couples, and I still see that in the program’s future. The suspension of the program is disappointing for many reasons, one of which being that Americans serving in Jordan have the unique experience of being able to come home and share positive stories of hospitality from a region so frequently and incorrectly viewed as violent and terror-ridden in our society. For now, I can only call upon all of my fellow RPCVs from Jordan to continue to share these stories – more frequently and honestly than we had before.

Sarah Bender can be contacted at sarah.bender42@gmail.com

Serving as the First: A Same-Sex Couple Perspective

By Jessica and Khayla

My partner and I knew that we always wanted to join Peace Corps. Like all those who have come before us, it was a dream. We didn’t want to become another person in their aging years proclaiming “I should have… I would have…. I could have…” So we did. Knowing we couldn’t serve together we tried in our interviews to at least get placed on the same continent. As we received our invitations our hearts broke. Africa and South America. It doesn’t get much farther. With one of our staging dates coming 6 months before the other, we were going to be apart for 32 months. Thirty two. Even now the number is hard to grasp. But this was our dream, how could we not take the leap? So I went off to staging first, and that was the first time I truly felt my heart break. It wasn’t for another 16 months that my heart would be whole, when thanks to the wonderful staff of Peace Corps and Peace Corps Ecuador that I was able to put my pieces back together.  I am incredibly grateful and proud to be a part of one of the last couples that will ever have to feel the pain of being separated.  The pain that comes only because I fell in love with someone who checks the same box as me on forms. Female. It’s a huge and scary leap that Peace Corps is taking into the new age, but if you spend 10 minutes with my partner and I, and see our relentless love and gratitude to be serving together, you’ll know it’s the right choice.

Jessica and Khayla share their success story as a same-sex couple in the Peace Corps.

Jessica and Khayla share their success story as a same-sex couple in the Peace Corps.

First, let’s touch on the challenges that come as a same-sex couple serving abroad. With regards to being out at site, my partner and I have made the decision to not tell any host country nationals about our relationship. The decision was a personal one, and ultimately was made to maintain our safety in country.  I work with three wonderful women, whom I’ve witnessed talking positively about homosexuals in Ecuador, but I still have reservations about telling them because of the gossipy nature here. I don’t think my coworkers would ever maliciously tell anyone about our relationship, but everyone I’ve met separately in Loja seems to know each other in one way or another. So, one small piece of gossip could become a universal truth in less than a week. We each go to the other person’s organization/school to help when we have the day off from our prospective jobs (Health and TEFL are our respective programs) and each of our colleagues loves the other. Any time either has an after-hours event or social gathering, they make sure we are bringing our lovely roommate and friend. Keeping this secret is absolutely a challenge; finding new reasons for why I don’t want an Ecua-boyfriend, dodging blind-dates from host family members, and above all having to watch as men make passes in cafes or bars at my partner and not being able to tell them that not only is she taken, but that she’s with me!, can be trying.

Another challenge is not being treated the same as married couples, with staff and other Ecuadorians. When my partner and I are booked for a hostel room in the capital city for medical purposes, the hostel staff is just doing their job when assigning another female Volunteer to our room or requesting that we move into a room with another female Volunteer, because that is their standard procedure.  But if we were a heterosexual couple, no one would ever be added to the room. We wouldn’t have to worry about acting “normal” in front of strangers, or explaining when we slip up and call the other one “honey”. This can be helped by the Peace Corps staff by keeping the couple in mind and making sure the hostel puts them in a double room. I know it’s an extra step, but being treated as a normal married couple will gain the unyielding respect of your future same-sex couples. When we encountered this situation for ourselves, Peace Corps Ecuador handled it quickly and professionally, something we appreciated and a feeling of support that we will never forget. Additionally, if a same-sex couple puts in a reimbursement for the cheapest double room they could find on their way to mid-service, when they could have spent less if they had stayed in a dorm room with strangers, be kind and accept the receipt.

Again, it’s the little things that will make your couple feel safe and welcomed.

Although we have to watch what we say and how we act around our landlord, one of the advantages of living in Ecuador as a same-sex female couple is that everyone who knows we live together is overwhelmingly supportive and genuinely relieved that we have each other for company. This is definitely a cultural advantage for us. However, that’s not to say that male couples would be subject to suspicion. Because we are foreigners in a new country and culture we would recommend more than anything that a same sex-couple be aware of their site’s views on homosexuality when making decisions about how to act and what information is shared with host country nationals.

Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, other challenges that we’ve faced have originated with other PCVs. Again nothing that has happened was done maliciously, but because they aren’t constantly thinking about their sexuality or trying keeping their relationship private. For example, sometimes we will invite another volunteer over for dinner and they show up at our door with an Ecuadorian we’ve never met. At this point we have to run and shut two doors (one to our actual bedroom, and one to the room we tell others is my room, which sorry to digress, but same-sex couples will most likely need to rent two-bedroom homes if they want to invite host country nationals over and maintain their relationship privacy) and hide anything around the apartment that may hint that we are a couple, like an anniversary banner I once had hung up in the kitchen. PCVs don’t immediately see why it would be important to mention they are bringing someone over whom we don’t know, because it’s not something they’ve ever had to think about. They also may forget themselves and make passing comments about our relationship around others, creating a stressful moment as we wait to see if the other guest didn’t hear, or if we need to explain ourselves/think of a quick lie. In another situation my partner was outed to one of her colleagues by another Volunteer. This placed her in a difficult situation, not knowing what her counterpart would think, say or do with this newfound information. Thankfully everything turned out okay; my partner’s Program Manager was incredibly supportive, met with her and her counterpart (who ended up being both understanding of the delicacy of the situation and accepting of our relationship) and to this day we haven’t had any problems. That being said, most Peace Corps posts have begun preparing LGBTQ couple specific training for the office staff, but it’s important to remember sensitivity, respect and outing training for Volunteers as well. Despite having listed the above challenges, we want to mention that more than anything they’re just things to think about. Things to be aware of to help anticipate and prevent any potential bumps in the road.

The good! Let’s talk about the good! My partner and I are ecstatic to be serving together, and all of the volunteers close to us are happy to have us here as well. About twice a month we host small dinners at our apartment for the local PCVs, we take a poll and cook whatever people are craving. I love to cook and my partner loves to bake. I wouldn’t say we are the best chefs in the world, but you certainly won’t hear any complaints from the Loja area volunteers! We also adopted a kitten a few months ago named Milo (pronounced Meelow, the Spanish way!)  He’s adorable and always the hit of the party when we host group dinners. Additionally, my partner and I have taken on a secondary project teaching two classes a week at the Universidad Nacional de Loja. Each class is three hours long, and we are teaching students who are studying to become Ecuador’s future English teachers. They are so driven and dedicated; it’s an honor to be a part of their education. All in all, my partner and I couldn’t be happier. We are living a dream we never imagined could or would ever become a reality. The opportunity to live and serve together as Peace Corps Volunteers is absolutely incredible! We feel complete and happy and beyond appreciative. But at the end of the day, we’re still Volunteers, the same as any other couple serving in any country; we just have to put a little more thought into our actions when we are out in public. The majority of our interactions with PC staff are the same as with any other volunteer; VRFs, questions for program managers, calling medical when ill, etc. We go to work, interact with our communities, plan projects, engage in mutual cultural exchanges, and truly love being a part of Peace Corps. We recognize that introducing same-sex couples to Peace Corps is scary.

But it’s also unbelievably exciting. If you have any specific questions or concerns please let us know. We are more than happy, if not eager, to engage in a dialogue about our experiences and insights.

Serving as an LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia

– Krista M. Mastel, RPCV 2011-14

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

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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,

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