Love Is Love: Azerbaijan RPCVs Confront Stigma Towards LGBTQ Community

Reprinted from National Peace Corps Association with Permission

Release Date Thursday, April 17th, 2014

By Jake Winn

From Prague to London, LA to NYC and across Azerbaijan itself, photos are pouring in from all over the world with 3 simple words: Love Is Love.

It is a powerful message that Sabina Kurgunayeva, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) Mike Raybourne and Jake Winn, and a number of their Azerbaijani colleagues wanted to see spread like wildfire across the Internet following the tragic loss of their friend and LGBTQ-rights activist Isa Sahmarli. Sahmarli, cofounder of Azad LGBT, took his own life on January 22, 2014. Although only 20 years of age, Sahmarli was proudly openly gay and one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent activists.

Social stigma against the LGBTQ community in Azerbaijan is deeply entrenched and treatment of LGBTQ people remains severely oppressive, especially outside of the capital city of Baku, where confidential spaces for support are almost nonexistent. It is Sahmarli’s death that has prompted those closest to him to turn to online digital spaces in order to seek support and begin a dialogue about the repression faced by LGBTQ people and allies in Azerbaijan and abroad.

The online photo campaign ‘Sevgi Elə Sevgidir’, translated into English as ‘Love Is Love’, is meant to pay tribute to Sahmarli and send a message to other LGBTQ individuals in the country that they are not alone. On Valentines Day, the campaign began releasing hundreds of photographs of people from all over the world holding this message.

Thus far, the results have been extremely encouraging. To date, over 400 photos have been shared. Many Azerbaijanis have bravely shown public support for the campaign by submitting photos of themselves, some even anonymously for safety reasons. A young college student in the UK, with no prior connection to Azerbaijan, submitted 75 photos of her classmates holding the sign.

For Sabina, Raybourne, Winn, and Azad LGBT, this heartening start is only the beginning. From entering film festivals to opening a new website to offering anti-bullying classes and course material, the Love Is Love has big plans moving forward. The founders also hope to expand the project into other Peace Corps countries.

To get involved in the Love is Love movement, visit the campaign here or contact sevgielasevgidir@gmail.com.

Please visit the National Peace Corps Association to view the original and comment. 

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

Weather … or Not

By – Wayne Hill, RPCV, Micronesia

I’ve been following the weather reports on the Boston Globe web site recently to see how things are going in my home town. Not well, unless you think that two feet of snow is just as good as it gets. I don’t which is why, starting with Peace Corps Micronesia, my adult life has been spent in and around the  Pacific Basin. Sure, Japan has winter, but it’s not “New England winter.”  Otherwise, San Francisco’s once-in twenty-years snowfall is as far as I go. But just because there’s no snowfall, the tropics are no more free of tragic weather events than is Boston, just of a different sort.

Tacloban_Typhoon_Haiyan_2013-11-14

Debris lines the streets of Tacloban, Leyte island. This region was the worst affected by the typhoon, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Caritas is responding by distributing food, shelter, hygiene kits and cooking utensils. (Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas)

This past fall, the Philippines, where I now live with my common law spouse, Julius, suffered what some have said was the worst typhoon on record. Haiyan, locally named Yolanda, slammed into the city of Tacloban with incredible force, levelling almost everything in its path. If the storm had swung further south, we would have shared in the devastation, but luckily we had nothing more than a few hours of very heavy rain and virtually no wind.

The post-storm pictures from Tacloban brought back vivid memories of another typhoon named Jean which plowed into the island of Saipan on April 11, 1968, when I was a volunteer there. Typhoon Jean had sustained winds up to 175 MPH, we were told, and 75% of the buildings were seriously damaged. My own house was picked up off its foundation and dropped a few feet to the south, but when the storm had passed, my home was still a house.  My neighbors found only piles of rubble from which they had no choice but to build some kind of structure to live in for the time being.

We were very lucky because the US Navy from Guam flew to our rescue within a day and set of soup kitchens and tents for those with nowhere else to stay. My fellow volunteer Karen was preparing to marry her Saipanse fiance only two weeks after the typhoon hit, and the wedding went on as scheduled, but her family had to cancel their plans to attend and the blessed event was catered by uniformed Navy men.

With the schools all destroyed or greatly damaged, we were put to work assisting with the relief efforts and ended up much busier than our TESL duties had kept us. I remember how hot is was all that summer because no leaves were left on most of the trees and therefore, no shade to be found. That summer of 1968 was really busy and fulfilling, more so, I would say than teaching ESL, knowing that our work had such an immediate effect.  By September things on Saipan had returned to something like “normal,” back to teaching, and yes, welcoming in a brand new typhoon season.Typhoons come and typhoons go, but I’ll never forget Typhoon Jean!

In comparing Haiyan and Jean, Haiyan was somewhat stronger, but not a heck of a lot. Each storm approached its targeted island from the open Pacific to the east gaining strength every mile of the way, but Tacloban suffered thousands of deaths and Saipan one.  Why?  Well, it’s all because of a whim of geology.  The entire east side of Saipan is cliffs and rocky slopes and in 1968, everyone lived in the towns strung along the west coast, away from the brunt of the storm. There are also a whole network of caves built by the Japanese during World War II which serve as typhoon shelters. Tacloban, on the other hand, is on the east side of the island of Leyte, facing directly into the wind with no protection and the wind and waves came plowing in and destroyed the city and the lives of the people living there. If Saipan’s geology had been reversed, you might not be reading this, at least not written by me!

Wayne Hill can be contacted at waynzwhirld@aol.com

Nine Years Later: A Love Letter to Ghana, Continued

- Joel Parthemore, RPVC

Author’s Note: All names have been changed: both those who would not wish to be named and those who wouldn’t care.

The last time I came to Ghana, I was still employed with Peace Corps Washington. I used the excuse of a few days’ work in the Lome and Accra offices to travel on my official passport, which saved me the headache of getting a visa.  I don’t remember who, precisely, met me at the airport any more, but I can think of who was probably there: my brother Josh, now completing a master’s degree in Trondheim, Norway; my friend Tony, one of the first people I met when I took up my station at Gbledi Gbogame in the Volta Region; and Kwesi, my friend and more than a friend: still the only man I’ve ever proposed to.

I had not heard from Kwesi for several weeks before traveling, so I was not necessarily expecting him at the airport. I was, however, expecting Tom (American expat who’s lived in Ghana since time before when) and Tony.

In the end, there was no welcome delegation.  I went to the hotel desk and had them book me a room at the Hilltop Hotel (130 cedis, USD $65) and arrange a taxi (25 cedis).

Kwesi came by the hotel in the morning and stayed until evening. It was an oddly bittersweet reunion: his words said one thing, his body language quite another.  It was he who brought up the matter of my marriage proposal, saying that he was heterosexual, that nothing I could say would make him a homosexual, and that I had lured him into our former relationship. I said only that I did not remember things that way.  I could have added, and didn’t, that we had both been adults; that much of what happened between us was very much on his initiative (I think of the time we were traveling and, without fanfare, in not the most private of locations, he gave me a most revealing view — with only a comment that “oh, I forgot and left those at home”); the rest was at least as much on his initiative as mine; that he had once answered a woman’s question whether he was, to use the quaint Ghanaian phrase, “walking with me”, in the affirmative; that he had, indeed, taken my proposal seriously, going as far as asking his minister what he thought of same-sex marriage (to my surprise).  His minister had nothing good to say about it (no surprise).

He says he wants to “just be friends”, the way I’m friends with Josh and Tony.  I wish him the best with his marriage plans (sincerely) and tell him that I will always think of him the way we were when we more than friends, that nothing can change the past.

In the months leading up to my visit, Kwesi had assured me, repeatedly, that he would have no trouble at all getting the time off to travel with me throughout my visit. Now he said he would be able to spend Sunday/Monday with me, but that Tuesday he would need to ask again about the leave.  We arranged to meet at Tony’s place in Tema on Saturday night.

In the end, he did not make it to Tema, nor did I see him Sunday or Monday.  He called on Monday to say I should precede him to Anamabo (where I wished to greet my brother Paul, whose family hosted me in pre-service training) and that he would join me en route to Wenchi (my second Peace Corps posting).

I traveled on my own to Wenchi and saw the computer lab I had helped set up, still running though facing some very critical issues. I was happy, at least, to see it finally on broadband, after the dialup connection I had established ended pretty much with my departure in 2001.  I strolled the campus taking photos with which to update the school website, and met one of the campiest students I have ever met, trying to be quite macho about disciplining one of his juniors and somehow failing miserably.  I greeted Kwesi’s father, a lonely old man on retirement, spending his days at home while his wife is away at work. By this point, the plan was for Kwesi to join me for my final excursion, to Gbledi. But on my way back through Accra, we met up for dinner; he introduced me to his latest fiancé, and now the plan was to join me in Hohoe and travel together back to Accra via Tema. Of course, that did not happen, either.

Now it is the next to final night, and I sit in a hotel room in Hohoe, looking back on the past two weeks.  More than my previous visits, this time I have felt out of place, awkward, unsure where I fit in. Where before I traveled with more companions than I knew what to do with, this time I have done all my traveling on my own – except that Tony will likely join me from Kpeve (where he is running a computer lab of his own now) to Tema.

I have taken fufu and banku with both palm nut and ground nut (peanut butter) soup, eating them with my hand (right, of course; no spoon) in the proper local way. I have had jolloff rice and fried yam with hot pepper and “meat pies” with not a trace of meat to be found in them, and beans and gari (with fried plantain where available) nearly every morning.  I have listened to “Touched by an Angel” more times than I care to count.  I have spoken by phone with my former headmaster (who went on to be the director general of Ghana Education Service for a while) and talked over beer with my former paramount chief.  I have promised to do what I can for Chris, my former student, for many years now helping oversee the computer lab, to help him further his education. I have re-established dormant contacts and, perhaps, made a few new ones.  I have met some incredibly beautiful men; but then, I seem to manage that wherever I travel in the world.

Still, I am left with the question that, I suppose, we all must face sometime before we die: what difference have I made; what have I left – what do I leave – behind here:  surely something, yes, but what?   …Hopefully more than a computer lab always on the brink of falling down; hopefully more than a mural I and the students painted on the wall outside the lab years ago, part of it since re-painted, the rest peeling away badly. (The world map we also did has long since been painted over.)

That Kwesi should consider my former proposal and his entertainment of it as a youthful whimsy is no surprise; his feelings on the matter have, over the intervening years and emails and phone calls, ranged all over the map.  He is, as Josh says, a conflicted individual; and I should well know, from my mother’s experience with my father, the impossibility of changing someone you love. His fiancé may strike me as an improbable match, but she is intelligent and educated and, as the saying goes, has her heart in the right place, if our dinner conversation is anything to go by.

Ah, Ghana:  you stole my heart, years ago, and yet I ran away, back to America.  I suppose I cannot complain at your present seeming ambivalence.

The author can be contacted at joel@parthemores.com

Serving in Moldova, a Mixed Blessing

- A Current PCV

Moldova FlagSunday, May 19th, Moldova had a gay pride parade. While it only lasted half a block it was still deemed a success and many international organizations helped support the local LGBT crowd. I joined our ambassador and country director for the event, feeling safer knowing that they were there, but my biggest worry was ‘what would happen at site?’ Well now that it’s the next day and I’m in my village I still am concerned. How many people saw the news? How many will confront me? Will I be able to stay here for my second year or will I have to move?

Being an LGBT volunteer in Moldova is what I imagine being an LGBT person in the 60s. Believe it or not there is a gay scene in Moldova but it is very underground. You have to know the right people to ‘gain entrance.’ We do have one club that is very LGBT friendly – they even have a rainbow painted around their doorway to let others know and within are various stickers protesting homophobia. Other than that many of the LGBT people tend to hang out with various EVS (European Volunteer Service) people and PCVs, since they know that we are LGBT friendly.

I’m very lucky that I have a great support network within the PC world and staff (HCNs – host country nationals and U.S.) who are open and supportive of me and my unique service. But when I come back to site I am a completely different person. Not only am I lying about who I am attracted to but also who I am at my very core. My village has accepted me for the most part – my coworkers at school come to me and seem genuinely seem interested in talking to me – but how can I develop a relationship with someone if they don’t even know who I am? Knowing that if they knew the truth, they would shun me or take me to the priest to be ‘healed.’ Knowing that when I return to the states to begin my gender transition, I will never be able to keep in contact with them, except by email, for once I start hormones my voice will change.

I live with a grandmother who happens to be very open. We enjoy each others company and we’ve had some great times. Once, over a few shots of home-made rakiu, I even changed her mind on gay-marriage by telling her that love is love and this world is hard enough alone. If you can find someone to share your struggles, and victories, with then you should be allowed to marry them. You see even during pre-service training I was somehow ‘popular’ with many of the HCNs even though I dressed oddly. I guess the one good thing about being a stranger in strange lands is that you are a stranger. How do they know that what you are doing is odd, different, or strange?

It’s a mix of a blessing being in a country full of such ignorance but also a curse. People tend to see what they want to see, you could walk around with a LGBT flag and they would comment about how pretty the colors are, but once the words LGBT are involved then it’s a completely different story.

You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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