Peace Corps Northeast Celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month

Reprinted with permission from Peace Corps Northeast

In celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month, Peace Corps Northeast Recruiter Zoe Armstrong discusses how her experience living and working as an LGBTQ Volunteer in the post-Soviet Caucasus region helped to fortify her sexual identity. Zoe served as an NGO Development Specialist for a women’s advocacy center in Southern Armenia and currently recruits for the Peace Corps in Vermont. Her story – titled“International Outing: How serving in the Peace Corps led to a personal awakening”– was first featured in the October 2014 issue of Curve Magazine.     

Zoe Armstrong worked as an NGO Development Specialsist in Armenia during her Peace Corps service. She currently recruits for the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office in Vermont.

Zoe Armstrong worked as an NGO Development Specialist in Armenia during her Peace Corps service. She currently recruits for the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office in Vermont.

When I received my invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia, all I knew of the country was Armenian music from my belly dancing experience and the history of the 1915 genocide – of which the band System of a Down raised awareness through their music. I went in armed with my New England work ethic and stubbornness – and enough Equal Exchange chocolate to last two years. Little did I know the lasting impact that this tiny, post-Soviet, primarily agrarian nation would have on my life, and how it would alter my perceptions and my queer identity. Living in mid-coast Maine, I had relative political freedom as a queer person, but a level of expression of my queer identity was missing at that point in my life, and I knew going into the Peace Corps that I would need to internalize my queer identity even more. For safety and acceptance, on a case-by-case basis, I would need to make some hard choices about how honest I’d be.

For two years my post was Goris (pop. 15,000), in Syunik Marz, four hours north of Iran, in a beautiful valley in the Caucasus Mountains. I was assigned to the Goris Women’s Resource Center, initially funded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). My closest counterparts, the board of directors, consisted of nine dedicated Armenian women aged 30 to 60. I was 32.

Armenian society has strictly defined gender roles. Women who seek freedom, travel, expression, and education outside their established roles are often seen as trouble, undesirable, a threat to tradition and a destabilizing force in their families. This resource center – a space run by and in the service of women – in rural Armenia was in itself a revolutionary act. Through sheer grit, we connected women to educational and economic opportunities in Armenia and abroad, built a micro-finance artisan project, created a small research library and computer lab, held health workshops, hosted domestic violence awareness and outreach services, and participated in civic engagement initiatives, including election monitoring and anti-corruption programs.

I didn’t come out in my community, though I tried to once, to one of my closest counterparts. We were working late on a grant proposal, and I received an e-mail from an old college friend who had recently transitioned. My friend shared his new name with me and I cried a bit. I explained my tears to my colleague and how my friend had transitioned from F to M. It was a lot for her. She’d heard of it, but only as a faraway idea – not as a reality in a friend’s life. I wanted to come out to her then. We had been friends for over a year.

I felt like a fraud. I hit a heteronormative wall as I weighed the possible consequences. I had heard of a Peace Corps Volunteer in neighboring Azerbaijan who had decided to come out to her service community. I was impressed, but I had invested so much and been through so many defeats and victories, both personally and with our programming goals, that I wasn’t ready to take on an unknown wave of reactions from a very large group of women in my small town. They are modern women, and they can learn, adapt, and change like any of us. Sometimes I feel I was cowardly; other times, I feel it was a simple, logical choice in a seemingly impossible situation.

I was out to Peace Corps staff, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and the local urban queers. But in my post, Goris, I was closeted, which is often the case for Peace Corps Volunteers serving in regions where sexual and gender minorities are not supported or socially understood. On the books, homosexuality became legal in Armenia around 2007. But there were still hate crimes, including those targeting local LGBTQ citizens in the capital. In Armenia, there is a repeated soul-and flesh-bruising trajectory of progress toward equal rights for LGBTQ people; Armenians who choose this fight knowingly put themselves at great risk in a society that many say is “not ready” for them. In the face of such daunting odds, they are making progress.

***

In Yerevan, I was fortunate to meet a network of academics, artists, and activists connected to Women’s Resource Center Armenia. I met local LGBTQ advocates, who collaborated with me to teach tolerance initiatives at the growing Goris Women’s Resource Center. A few advocates worked for Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK), a nonprofit dedicated to equal human rights for LGBTQ citizens in Armenia and the Caucasus region (including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Russia). These advocates, and my daily Peace Corps life, opened my eyes to reality for LGBTQ Armenians.

Reflecting on their experiences led me to new caverns of thought. It twisted my own queer identity. My priorities shifted. The reality of desperation and the silencing of souls en masse shook my core. I gained a firsthand understanding that what I was seeing in Armenia is happening in so many nations: Gender outlaws, queer academics, and activist bloggers are trying to push their nations forward while the weight of tradition and social norms embedded in our globe’s elder cultures are holding firm.

Returning to my American queer “family” has not been a smooth transition. My voice in the community does not feel the same, or come through as easily. If I say I see a sense of privilege in the queer politics in the U.S., it is perceived as criticism. But what I am able to see now are the very real opportunities embedded within that privilege. If we don’t take these privileges and do all we can with them, when so many others do not have that access, then we are taking something very precious for granted.

Zoe Armstrong, far left, worked for a women's advocacy center in Southern Armenia while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Zoe Armstrong, far left, worked for a women’s advocacy center in Southern Armenia while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

How has your service as a Peace Corps Volunteer shaped your work as a Peace Corps Recruiter? After completing my service, I knew I wanted to work for Peace Corps. The two-year experience provides a rare opportunity to really know another culture. The more citizens of the United States who go through this experience, the more will know that every tiny fold of the world is precious to someone and should be respected and honored. The more Americans who come home with an ability to work cross-culturally, the stronger our nation will be. My favorite part of this job so far, looking back at my three years as a Recruiter, has been inspiring people of all ages to listen to that call inside of them and go forth into the world and bring us back great stories of our fellow humans.

As you explain in Curve, you had to stay closeted as an LGBTQ Volunteer for two years to not risk cultural resistance from your host community. How did you make that transition from being open with your sexual identity to projecting an identity that was more expected from your host community? People stared at my Merrill hiking boots, a lot. Women in Armenia wear heels, high heels. My community was very confused by my footwear. It made me think of that old Robin Williams joke, “You cannot call them lesbians anymore; It is just ‘women wearing comfortable shoes.’” I stopped wearing them, I had my mother send me some Danskos I had left from a past restaurant job. Also, I grew my hair out, which the women I worked with loved, and they would do my hair sometimes or play with it. I was a Goth back in high school, so it was not too much of a stretch for me to start wearing make-up again – although I had not for many years. (Plus, the gothic essence of my make-up skills worked well in a very Russian-fashion influenced environment.)

So with lipstick, eye-charcoal, and “girl shoes,” I fit in fine and became very close with my colleagues in Armenia. Internally at times, I felt like an actor or a clown, but as time passed, the role I was acting became normal life. Since returning to the United States, I have kept the eyeliner, but am very happy to have my comfortable shoes back!

What challenges or insights did you encounter when omitting that part of your identity from service? Now, looking back on your service, do you wish you weren’t closeted as a Volunteer? Sometimes I think about how different my service would have been if I had come out of the closet. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would have reached out to that Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan or other Volunteers who had come out while serving in the post-Soviet Union to learn about their experience and see if I could do it. There is a risk to any LGBT villagers if a Peace Corps Volunteer comes out because we can never foresee how our realities will intertwine and end up revealing a person unintentionally.

I could have come out near the end of my service, and I discussed this with my closest Peace Corps Volunteer friend in Armenia. He had decided at the end of his service to tell people – including the women at my center – that his sister is queer. I think he even showed pictures of her with her female spouse. He said it generated disappointment, confusion and curiosity equally.

I know some of them would have been supportive; some would then have dismissed me as an undesirable human, and would not have spoken with me again; others may have been confused that I had not told them. None of them would have been surprised as they all wondered why I did not have a husband and children so “late in life.” So, in that milieu, I made the choice I made and have no overt regrets.

What would you tell other LGBTQ people who are looking to join Peace Corps about serving overseas? It will be hard, but hard in a way that is so crucial to the evolution of our LGBTQ family here in the United States that you will never regret it. A lot will be asked of you personally that is a unique burden, but you will have a cohort of LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteers, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and allies with whom to process these lessons. Serving in Peace Corps helped me realize that any burden I ever feel from being queer may pale to the pain of most queers on planet Earth. Holding compassion for their struggle in my heart helps keep my own challenges in perspective.

Click here for more about Zoe’s service in Armenia and current role as a Peace Corps Recruiter. To learn about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer or as part of a same-sex couple, visit our website at www.peacecorps.gov.

Why gay marriage matters

by Philip Rodenbough

Originally posted on Peace Through Chemistry: (Mis)Adventures in Guinea and Burkina Faso (philgoestoguinea.blogspot.com)  on  Friday, April 29, 2011

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” – Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in New York City“Ouvrez les frontieres, ouvrez les frontieres…” [open the borders, open the borders…] – Tiken Jah Fakoly
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined this for myself. The cultures are just too different, the language barrier is just too high, the potential just isn’t there, I would have said. But if my time in the Peace Corps has proven anything to me, it’s that life is full of surprises.

I would like to make a formal introduction. Readers, I present to you: my boyfriend, Norbert. He was born and raised in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. When he was 18 years old, he won a scholarship to study fashion design in Paris. He has since worked successfully in the fashion industry throughout West Africa and in France. His most recent project: creating and organizing Ouagadougou’s first ever fashion week (brush up on your French and read about it here under “promotion de la mode”).

Norbert is fun, thoughtful, charming, and vivacious. He understands Western culture to at least the same degree that I understand African culture, probably even better. We are comfortable navigating either culture, but both of us still have much to learn. We communicate exclusively in French; Norbert doesn’t speak a word of English.

We met through friends of friends while I was working in Ouagadougou in August. At the time, I knew I was bound for Conakry, so the sparks that flew were somewhat dampened. We saw each other a few times before I left for Guinea, but we didn’t think we’d see each other again.

Then I finally arrived in Guinea, only to get stuck in the strife there. I had the option to take a temporary leave of absence from my Peace Corps service. But where would I go? I took a chance, went out on a limb. I asked Norbert if he could host me for a while, if I came back to Burkina Faso. He considered it, then said yes. So I flew back to Ouagadougou.

We spent day after day together, week after week. We ate together. We travelled together. We lived together. We learned about each other’s lives, and we fell in love with each other.

Agreeing that what we had was too valuable to throw away, we started to discuss our future. Although I didn’t know what the immediate future held for me and my Peace Corps service, I knew that when my service was finished, I wanted to live in New York City and study at Columbia University. The idea of living in America had never before crossed Norbert’s mind, but it was now enticing. If he could move to America and learn English, that would open up a whole new world for his fashion work. After some reflection, he agreed that he wanted to come to New York with me. It made sense for both of us. After my studies there, we could move anywhere in the world.

And then, for the first time ever, I started researching immigration. For a citizen of Cote d’Ivoire (or of any African country), getting just a temporary visa to come to the United States is very difficult. Citizens of developing countries have to overcome the assumption of immigration intent by demonstrating significant ties to their current residence, and this is completely up to the discretion of officers at US embassies. The other option is to try for a long-term immigrant visa or green card, but that can be even harder. Marrying an American is one of the very few reliable paths to permanent residency.

Earlier in my Peace Corps service, I had attended the marriage of a woman Peace Corps volunteer to a Burkinabé man in Gaoua, Burkina Faso. Their plan was to move to America shortly after the marriage. At the time, I never imagined anything of the sort for myself, but I was very happy for them, that they could share their lives together in the place of their mutual choosing.

And now I thought that I could do a similar thing for myself. Of course I couldn’t marry Norbert anywhere in West Africa, but I could bring Norbert to Massachusetts, get gay married there, and that would be that. We are totally ready to make that commitment. But then I researched more, and was surprised at what I discovered.

Although gay marriage is legal in several states in the US, these marriages are not recognized in any way by the federal government. That’s because in 1996, the US passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This act set the national definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, no matter what other legislative bodies say, be those legislative bodies outside the US, or inside the US. So same-sex couples who are legally married in Canada or South Africa or even Connecticut have no recognition of their marriage from the US federal government. That means they have no recognition of their relationship from US immigration law. But there must be some other options, right?

The fact of the matter is that although many countries in the world offer some legal avenue for same-sex couples to sponsor each other for immigration purposes, the US offers none. As far as the US government is concerned, my relationship with Norbert is nothing.

I had no idea.

I joined the Peace Corps for a lot of reasons, and pride for my country was an important one among them. I was excited about the cultural sharing, and to educate others about the land of the free and the home of the brave. Although I was deeply disappointed after learning about this bigoted immigration policy, I am still proud that I can raise my voice against it.

I could pick any single woman off the street and get her a fiancée visa to the US by simply declaring my intention to marry her. No matter who the woman is, the legal avenue is there. But because Norbert and I are both men, I have no legal standing to help Norbert immigrate to the US. That is wrong.

This is why gay marriage matters, to me. This is why the US needs to legalize gay marriage nation-wide. It’s the right thing to do.

There is reason to believe that DOMA will reach the Supreme Court, where it will be struck down. But things like that are slow, and my Peace Corps service is finishing soon. Even if congress passes the slightly-more-politically-appetizing Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would simply allow same-sex couples to sponsor their partners for immigration purposes, it probably won’t do so in time to alleviate our immediate worries.

Norbert is currently paying me an extended visit in Guinea. We know he is incredibly lucky. He applied for a US tourist visa in Ouagadougou, and it was granted. He is now allowed to travel to the US for a short amount of time. What will we do when that time is up? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. It frustrates me that our relationship has no recognition from my country.

But if enough people learn about this issue and take a stand, I am confident that, one day, we can achieve marriage equality for all.

~
Norbert and I in Ouagadougou

Norbert and I in Ouagadougou

“La Dame du Mali,” a mountain that looks like a woman’s profile near my village.

Norbert and I atop the Dame du Mali

Norbert and I atop the Dame du Mali

Norbert and I aren’t the only ones. Learn more about the struggles of same-sex bi-national couples by reading this Human Rights Watch document Families, Unvalued.

This movement needs as much exposure as possible. Get involved in the fight for immigration equality at immigrationequality.com, especially their action fund blog, and atstopthedeportations.blogspot.com.

Too many couples are being hurt through discriminatory US immigration policy. Call your congressperson in support of UAFA today.

Note since publication on “Peace through Chemistry”: 

Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was struck down by the supreme court on June 26th, 2013 in United States v. Windsor. Today, the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages for all purposes, including immigration. 

Click photo to view their wedding photo in the National Peace Corps Association Facebook Wedding Album. 

You can view their wedding photo in the National Peace Corps Association Facebook Wedding Album.

Lending a Hand to Peru, Returning to the Closet

– Tymon Manning, RPCV 2011-13

As a muscled male model playfully flits across the screen on my favorite Peruvian show, “Combate,” my host sister calls him, in English, a butterfly.

“Como se dice ‘butterfly’ en Español?” I innocently ask. “Homosexual,” she replies.

A smile is all I can think of as an appropriate response. To pursue this point any further would bring my own sexual orientation into question — or so I fear.

To ignore it, however, is to silently condone the stereotypes I openly fought back in the US. I am very clear on that point.

Welcome to the awkward world of reentering the closet as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Third World country.

I want to make clear at the outset that I would never accuse the Peace Corps of forcing its volunteers into the closet. To be sure, I have been encouraged to keep my sexual orientation to myself. But I was similarly urged not to date a Peruvian woman in the community where I live and work.

The advice regarding my sexual orientation is, unfortunately, appropriate, regrettable as that is. The suggestions regarding dating locals, I must confess, have actually come in handy as an excuse for not pursuing women here.

As an American, I am already viewed as an outsider in Peru. I have little doubt that being out as a gay man would make my work here impossible. I have known and heard of LGBT volunteers who headed home early because of problems, including harassment that ensued from their sexual orientation becoming known. Some who departed have publicly accused the Peace Corps of homophobia, of not supporting their LGBT volunteers, and of contributing to the ignorance about gay people in the places where they work.

My experience has been my own; I can’t speak to the experiences of others nor can I lay out exactly what future LGBT volunteers should expect.

When applying to the Peace Corps, I decided to discuss my sexual orientation with the recruiter, concluding that no good would come from dishonesty or obfuscation. My bigger concern, in fact, was my vegetarianism, but that is another issue — a failed one, at that.

From the time I came out in the application process, I received a very real picture of what life could and probably would be like for me were I to press on with my effort to join. Peace Corps personnel directed me to a range of helpful information resources and lauded me for my alleged bravery. I exchanged sporadic emails with current and returned volunteers from countries around the world, but without knowing where I would be placed, I wasn’t able to assemble a clear picture of exactly how my experience would play out.

As I later found out, no one can tell you what your experience will be like, and the advice I received from those initial emails was really no different than what I heard from volunteers in Peru once I learned of my assignment.

The information I drew from my correspondences and research fell into three general categories:

Your experience as an LGBT volunteer will vary primarily based on your country assignment and your work site.

 

The author with local youths in the Peruvian mountain community where he serves as Peace Corp volunteer.

The author with local youths in the Peruvian mountain community where he serves as Peace Corp volunteer.

I currently serve in the mountains of Peru’s poorest state, and it is a very conservative community. Except for the anecdote I described above and one other occasion with my host parents, sexual orientation has not come up in discussions with anyone in my town.

A fellow volunteer, however, has observed a gay community in her town. I can’t say for sure if I would reveal my sexual orientation were I working in her town, but it would present a completely different situation. She tells me she is free to discuss homosexuality in her classes and in working on her projects. Given the lack of discourse on the subject in my town, I frankly fear that broaching it would likely point the gay finger at me as it sometimes does even in places in the US where homosexuality remains invisible.

It’s worth noting that the advice I got talked about the significance of the country assignment, not the specifics of Peace Corp leadership on the ground. Peace Corps staff in-country play a huge role in our experiences, but they are well trained to be sensitive to LGBT issues. I have rarely encountered anything offensive from PC leadership regarding my sexual orientation, and have never come across any malicious intent.

In fact, I was recently invited to the Lima office to assist in an LGBT sensitivity training for our regional coordinators and Peace Corps volunteer leaders.

Gay life in Peru seems defined largely by the concentration of the nation’s population in Lima, the capital, where nearly 30 percent of its residents live. In fact, the capital’s preeminence has all sorts of implications for its culture. A gay night out means traveling to the Miraflores district in Lima, where gay clubs exist and same-sex couples hold hands in public.

I have also visited two of Peru’s other large cities, much less populous than Lima; gaycities.com offered nothing for me there and Grindr became a ghost town. One returned volunteer claimed other large cities besides Lima have gay clubs, but they have eluded me.

When I am in Lima, it screams progress. My tiny town does not. PC Peru is keenly aware of the differences, and its leaders’ advice that I use discretion regarding my sexual orientation where I live seems to me altogether sound.

You will likely feel conflicted about hiding your identity as a gay man and “reentering the closet,” so regular communication with friends who know you as a gay man is key.

dancing-with-lauraWEB

The author may be “flaquito,” but while dancing with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, he gets no other flak.

At times, I feel I am losing my integrity by hiding what I deem a very integral part of who I am. Foucault might kick me for saying this, but my sexual orientation has really helped me define who I am.

I am constantly reminding myself, however, that my job in Peru is not to spread the acceptance of openly gay lives but to improve the community in which I now live and work. It would be wonderful if bringing a boyfriend home to my host family meant they would worry about whether he was enjoying their meals rather than question my motives as a gay man in their community.

The Peace Corps has no Rural Homosexuality Promotion Program; many of the communities in which we work are more concerned with infant malnutrition and the risk that excrement will seep into the water table and end up in their dinner table glasses. The fact that I am contributing to strong, tangible, sustainable improvements in the health of my community allows me to swallow my rainbow flag — at times, gladly so — and even laugh when told that I’ll end up marrying a Peruana and staying here forever.

My fellow volunteers are as invaluable as the Starbucks Via packets and Girl Scout cookies my family sends me from back home. I text or call them daily and spend time with them whenever possible. With them, I feel free to discuss my sexual frustrations, the gorgeous Latin American fútbol players on TV, and the dire need for anti-bleaching laws to preserve Peruvian jeans.

I’ve heard a story about one volunteer who left partly because they felt it would be impossible to develop close relationships with locals in their community without discussing their sexual orientation. I disagree that it is impossible, but I do appreciate the difference between relationships in which this crucial information is shared and those in which it is not.

Back home, the relationship between my brother and me improved drastically after I told him I was gay, but it was not without any value before that. Similarly, relationships I am developing in my Peruvian community are meaningful despite my invisibility as a gay man.

You will be inundated with machismo and be expected to live up to hyper-masculine standards.

One day, my host family was talking about a man, who had drunkenly stumbled into a store, who they apparently felt was acting very effeminate. Trying to understand what they were referring to, I asked for details, and my host mom responded with what roughly translates as “he was acting as though he played for the other team.”

Got it.

My host dad then said that they call such people “macho menos” which is a play on the phrase “más o menos,” or “more or less” in English.

This was the only time my host parents have ever referred to homosexuality, and from their remarks I gleaned that they believe for one to be gay, one must also be less of a man.

Every member of my host family is as kind as my favorite people back in the US, and it pains me to hear them express something so offensive to me without knowing the hurt they are causing.

Machismo is a deplorable part of Peruvian culture, something that is challenged constantly in the press, media, schools, and through social programs. Sadly, I suspect that the impact of machismo on attitudes toward homosexuality will be the last vestige of it to disappear since it is the one least addressed openly. I can deal with a five-year-old friend I’ve met in the community saying my boat shoes are for girls, but it’s a lot harder to absorb in silence more potent stabs at my sense of self.

Thankfully, machismo has not been forced on me as a standard of manliness in my day-to-day life here. I’ve been able to cook, help my host mom with the dishes, run in really brief running shorts, and dance in skinny jeans without any insults, aside from being called “flaquito,” or too skinny. If I were known as a gay man here, I’m betting folks would have much more to say on the subject of my machismo.

For all my preparations and the helpful feedback I got, no one could have fully and adequately prepared me for the community where I live. Volunteers are told of their placements only two to three weeks before we move to them permanently. But even with more time to investigate Peru, I couldn’t have anticipated how I would feel once I was living here.

Peace Corps staff have supported me through the early stages of my volunteer service. My silence about my sexual orientation has not always been a comfortable choice, and I’ll feel lucky if the occasional lie about not having a girlfriend anymore is the worst way I deny my identity. I can’t say for sure what the future holds, but with the support I’ve found among my fellow volunteers and the affection I feel for my host family, I feel reasonably well armed for my next year and a half as a reluctantly born-again closeted gay man.

You can follow Tymon Manning’s experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru at timeinperu.tumblr.com.

 

What it’s like to serve as a queer Volunteer – in Nicaragua

– Charleen Johnson Stoever, Current PCV

 Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on Peace Corps Passport. It is reposted here with the authorization of the Peace Corps Passport staff. You can read more stories from current volunteers at http://passport.peacecorps.gov

volunteeringwhilequeer“I don’t want to go to Nicaragua,” I grumbled to my mom as I sat in the passenger’s seat, wrinkling my nose. She had just asked me if I was excited about my new Peace Corps assignment. I still wasn’t sure if I would actually go, but I said yes, for the moment. It was around New Year’s Eve 2013, the end of a taxing year for both of us. It could only go uphill from here, I reminded myself.

We were driving our rental car through the surprisingly chilly New Mexican desert, a place that reminded me of Central Washington (where I grew up) because of its barren, beige-colored earth and open spaces. One thing was strikingly different: the cold, vast, cloudless, bright blue sky.

“Why don’t you want to go?” asked my mom.

“I just don’t know anything about it. It’s a conservative, Catholic country. I’m used to having all of my queer friends in Boston and not being afraid of hiding who I am. I won’t have that in Nicaragua. I’ll probably have to grow my hair out so that people don’t ask why I have short hair and everything. I won’t be able to be myself there. It’s taken me so long to realize where I belong. Not every place is as liberal as Boston.”

Concerned friends – who had never been to Nicaragua – warned me that I wouldn’t be able to be myself there and that I should make the safer choice to stay in Boston. I grew up in a Mexican household, and I was never comfortable enough to come out to my mom until college. She was fine with it when I told her, but I wasn’t comfortable to do so until I had met other queer people like myself. When you finally meet other people who understand you and where you’re coming from, you become more comfortable with yourself.

Hearing my queer friends’ successes and struggles with coming out to their friends and family inspired me to be more open about myself. In college, I not only met other queer women and transgender students, but most importantly to me, queer Latin@s. Leaving for Nicaragua meant losing the small network of queer Latin@s that took me so long to find, something I feared.

After six months in-country, I can safely say that Nicaragua has been amazing, to say the least. I feel as if I’m in the right place at exactly the right time in my life. When I Skype with my mom and friends back home, they can’t help but comment on how relaxed I look and feel. “Man, and I thought you liked Boston but look at you now!” my friend said last night during a Skype date.

I told her that being here has made me realize how happy I am while I’m living abroad. I love waking up every day and facing the challenges and successes that come with navigating a different culture. I love that each day there is something to learn, whether it’s learning to incorporate filler words like “Fijese de que…” or learning the proper way to write a cover letter in Spanish (hint: at the end, it is wise to say, “I wish you success in all of your daily activities” rather than the more American, “Thank you for your consideration”).

In response to my previous concern that Nicaraguans would be a conservative, unwelcoming lot: false, false and false! While this is a highly religious country, Nicaraguans are some of the most generous, friendly people I have met. I’ve become used to the two typical questions I get asked: “Are you married?” and “Are you Catholic?” My response: no and yes.

I am lucky to live in a large, relatively progressive city in the mountains, so dealing with homophobia and other –isms isn’t something I worry about as much as I would in a smaller community. There are lots of NGOs, women’s collectives, queer Latin@s and social justice work going on. I feel at home here because there’s a strong sense of people helping one another out, regardless of what they have.

As a TEFL teacher trainer, my job is to co-teach high school English classes with Nicaraguan teachers. I also lead teaching workshops to other Peace Corps Volunteers and staff, and teach English classes for teachers and community members. I’ve had plenty of time to integrate into my community, cook chilaquiles, teach English, eat pastel cuatro leches and go hiking. I’m looking forward to working with Fundación Uno, which sponsors weekend English classes for Nicaraguan English teachers. Doing these trainings will be a top priority for me, since my goal is to empower Nicaraguan English teachers. They will be the ones who will stay when and if I ever leave.

I can’t imagine being anywhere else at the moment, and am looking forward to overcoming life’s obstacles with more patience and optimism than ever. I’ve been lucky enough to find my queer Latin@ community in Nicaragua, and am grateful every day for it. For now, I don’t want to leave Nicaragua.

charstoeverCharleen Johnson Stoever is a 24-year-old Mexican American queer woman who is serving as a TEFL Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua (2014-16). She earned a B.A. in French and Women’s Studies at Wellesley College. She believes in the power of education as a tool for social mobility. 

Uganda Comes to Albany – a Book Review

– Mike Learned, RPCV, Malawi

 Dick Lipez is a RPCV, Ethiopia, former DC Peace Corps staff, longtime journalist and editorial writer, and keen observer of the political, social, and human rights issues that affect LGBT people around the world. He has just 41FtLSQy1gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_published the fourteenth mystery in his Donald Strachey series, Why Stop at Vengeance. His first, On the Other Hand, Death, was published 34 years ago. His protagonist/hero Strachey is an Albany, NY private eye in a longtime relationship with Timothy Callahan, who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in India prior to their relationship. Peace Corps values, experiences, insights crop up in almost all the books in the series. Timothy offers good advice and asks incisive often challenging questions. He’s that voice in the back of Strachey’s head keeping him on the proper path.

Lipez, writing as Richard Stevenson, actually Dick’s first and middle names has had his finger on the wide range of critical issues facing his LGBT brothers and sisters for the last three decades. Dick reflects these in his own life with his husband Joe, and Strachey and Tim have taken it all on,

This latest volume tackles the rabid homophobia that many Peace Corps Volunteers, straight and gay, face in many, many countries throughout Africa. In this case the setting is in Uganda, a country where 154 PCVs currently serve; 1405 volunteers since 1964. Strachey is contacted by a gay Ugandan refugee in Albany who wants vengeance against a conservative American minister who has preached the demonization of LGBT people in Uganda, and is involved in questionable transactions with corrupt Ugandan politicians who support the vile homophobic laws and agendas. The corrupt politicians, the manipulative American ministers, DC lobbyists; all have their hands in the till.

One of  Lipez’s (Stevenson’s) strengths as a writer is his wide read understanding of  what is behind so many of the human rights struggles in much of  developing world, much of it the developing world where PCVs serve. Although Lipez (Stevenson) in an Author’s Note says that although fiction, but the involvement of American missionaries and other clergy in anti-gay crusades in Africa and Eastern Europe is all too real.

Much of the books description of  the  raw, violent homophobic rhetoric of Ugandan politicians can be difficult to read, but it’s exactly what has been promulgated in that beautiful East African country in recent years. Lipez (Stevenson) rightly ties this rhetoric to the corrupt, long lasting political and social elites who want to keep hold of political and economic power in some of the world’s poorest countries. They sell homophobia as an answer to the problems of the people they should be serving rather than exploiting. PCVs who have served in Africa and other developing countries often despair of what has happened in countries in which we worked and truly loved. Why Stop at Vengeance tells us this story again.

During the course of the novel Don and Tim suffer some similar fates of LGBT people in Uganda including arson and intimidation.  But true to form Don and Tim come through another adventure in Albany. May they continue to live the challenges and celebrations of our times.

Lipez (Stevenson) recommends the ironically titled 2014 documentary film, God Loves Uganda

Might I also add the documentary Call Me Kuchu, which highlights the life and death of Ugandan LGBT activist, David Kato.

Print and Kindle editions of Why Stop at Vengeance, MLR Press, are available on Amazon

The author, Dick Lipez, can be contacted at poshmeadow1@aol.com

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