What Kyrgyzstan Gave Me Travels Far

– Bryce Wolfe, RPCV

In pre-service training, we received a handout welcoming us to our “two-year crisis” in the Kyrgyz Republic. It charted the roller coaster of emotions, thoughts and physical manifestations that Peace Corps volunteers usually experience over the course of service in the remote, mountainous former Soviet republic. We laughed at it, and then dutifully posted it on our bedroom walls (or, for those of us lucky enough to have them, refrigerators) and now and then referred to it to make sure that our present flavor of anxiety / boredom / frustration / madness met standards of normalcy. Now I wish I had kept a copy of the handout, so I can track my journey through the stages. I like having corroborated evidence that being overwhelmed by the yogurt aisle is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.

Recently the latest stage. When I got the call, that the house was on fire, I didn’t panic. I was on a train in a tunnel under the San Francisco Bay. There was no point in speculating, in conjuring up worst-case scenarios of charred ground and burnt bodies, when I had no real information. I started making a mental list of who to call, what to do, and where to go once I got off the train. The second call informed me that my partner was in the hospital. I remember taking the news with a sort of third-person detachment. There was nothing I could do for him. I started making phone calls.

The next 24 hours was a blur of headlights on roadways, hospital hallways, Red Cross volunteers, fire investigators, property managers, insurance agencies, utility companies, long-distance calls to family, and the open arms, beds, and advice of friends… That first 24 hours was like the start of training. There was no going home. Everything was open.

But the excitement of training wears off, and becomes the restlessness of waiting for site placement, to get on with it, to earn some responsibility and some permanence in having one site and a mission to fulfill. We wonder: where will we live? Who will we work with?

In the days after the fire, my partner and I salvaged our belongings, and our lives became logistics. Every day: where will we sleep? How much can I carry?

I’m viewing it as a new opportunity.

In the Peace Corps, everything is new. We can reinvent ourselves, or revert to our base instincts. Some volunteers drink. Others cope with serial re-runs and internet memes. Most, I think, reach out and forge relationships that make us stronger.

I faced an additional worry as a volunteer that my being transgender would affect my safety and hurt my relationships with other volunteers, staff and host country nationals. I felt like I had a secret to keep. Instead, my gender identity turned out to be an asset. I related to local LGBTQ folk because, in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, we shared the understanding of what it means to be born in a body that doesn’t fit and a culture that doesn’t approve. I was able to offer my ideas, skills and experience with gender towards training, resources and events. Serving in the Peace Corps brought out the best in me, and I saw the kind of person I could be.

Looking back, I would have appreciated more guidance from Peace Corps trainers. My group had no Safe Zone Training, and when I conducted it myself, I hadn’t yet made connections with the LGBTQ community to invite them, who could have given their perspective, and insight, and offered opportunities to work together. Instead, my introduction into the LGBTQ community was informal and sort of hush-hush. There was no continuity but a word-of-mouth history of so-and-so who dated so-and-so who’s this activist trans guy… Only once I got to know people, and got a better handle on the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, did I feel comfortable taking on projects. And I do think it’s absolutely vital to have community involvement.

Silence is shaming. LGBTQ rights are human rights, and volunteers can benefit from having information about the rights, efforts, and issues facing LGBTQ groups in their country of service, whether those volunteers work directly with LGBTQ groups or not. I would encourage more outreach to non-LGBTQ volunteers. In my group, it was the straight volunteers – or at least those who appeared the most “normative” – who seemed to have the most success in opening a dialogue by acknowledging and supporting LGBTQ rights, and ultimately reducing stigma.

I understand silence. It’s easier than answering all the questions. It’s easier to let someone else do it.

I want transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people to know that it is possible to travel, live and serve abroad – successfully, and vocally – and that we should as we are.

It’s a process.

According to that chart of the two-year crisis, when the excitement grinds down, you’re left with the uncertainty, boredom and depression of the long haul. You ask yourself: Can I really keep doing this? Am I doing anything at all? Just what am I doing here anyway? This usually comes at the 1-year mark in service. After a few weeks of moving from couch to couch, cleaning greasy and possibly asbestos-laden dust off my belongings, navigating a bureaucratic tangle of renters’ rights, housing, insurance and all, I asked those questions again. I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and close my eyes and just not open them.

You always have the option to early terminate.

Before I left America, I had decided that this was not an option for me.

It still isn’t.

I can handle marshrutkas (minibuses) and parasites and impromptu tea breaks in the middle of class, airport chaos, muggers, icy turnpikes with no guardrails, cartfuls of dead puppies, eyeball toasts and long hours scrubbing laundry with my knuckles and a bar of soap, government paperwork and vast amounts of VAST budgets, with humor and diplomacy. If nothing else, the Peace Corps prepared me to thrive in situations where I have no control. That, and dance. I’m grateful for that.

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

The Life of a Transgender PCV: Are You a Boy or a Girl?

- Bryce Wolfe RPCV

Last year my host mother called the Peace Corps medical officer. She had seen my boxers drying on the line, she said, and had doubts about my gender. She feared I was actually a man, and was now concerned for the safety of her two young daughters. The notion that I would ever harm my host sisters disturbed me; the doubts about my gender did not. I have long hair. I have a deep voice. I have an hourglass figure. I have facial hair. It confuses people. The medical officer assured my host mother that I am, in fact, female, and that she has no cause for concern. Boys and girls both may wear boxers, the medical officer explained, and Westerners frequently wear clothing of the opposite sex. When I learned about this phone conversation, I wasn’t upset; instead I was glad that my host mother took the initiative to call the medical officer. This way, rather than harboring fear or spreading rumors, she learned about the fluidity of gender.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” People ask.

Technically, I’m intersex. I identify as transgender. Currently, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer serving in a predominately Muslim country.

In this culture, your sex determines your life. It influences what you do for a living, what you do in your free time, what you absolutely must do and what would be an absolute shame for you to do. Men interact with men differently than women interact with women, and inequalities exist. To speak the language, you must identify yourself as a man or a woman.

I took a good, long look at myself before I joined the Peace Corps. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. There would be the constant questioning, the lack of privacy and the need to change my appearance and behavior. There would be the stares and the possibility of even physical violence. All volunteers face this. What I couldn’t find, was much information about the unique challenges faced by volunteers who don’t fit neatly into “male” or “female”. For all I knew, I would be the only one. This was okay. I never let a fear of the unknown hold me back. Still, who would I trust? How would I dress? Would I commit a grievous faux pas and be stoned to death?

I was prepared to live undercover for twenty-seven months. Now, looking back, I’m amused to think I considered hiding who I am, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to.

In my first month as a volunteer, I facilitated a diversity training session for staff and found that both Americans and host country nationals wanted to know how they could be allies to LGBTQI volunteers. I met gay and lesbian and otherwise queer volunteers already serving in country. When I walked the office halls, I saw rainbow stickers of support on office doors. Their support has been unwavering and, while I tested the waters in the beginning, I’m now open about my gender identity with all volunteers and staff members.

Still, I’m not open in my community. This is a conservative country, and I don’t know who I can and can’t trust. I teach English at a secondary school, and I don’t want to be accused of “converting” children, as others have been accused. The level of violence and harassment against LGBTQI individuals here is high, and the law enforcement is no help.

Last month two law enforcement officers approached me on the street. I reached for the ID in my bag, expecting them to ask me for identification. Instead, they asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” and, once satisfied with an answer, they walked away. I’m pretty sure they settled a bet.

You need to have a thick skin. You can’t sweat the small things. I knew this before I boarded the plane and, like all volunteers, I’m willing to sacrifice some personal comfort in exchange for the experience of a lifetime. Of course it isn’t easy. I can’t speak freely. I’m always vigilant. I avoid the public baths, and groups of idle young men. But I’m fortunate. I’m a foreigner, and therefore I can “get away” with a lot of things that my local friends can’t.

Establishing a connection to the LGBTQI community in country tangibly changed my life here. Not only is my work more fulfilling, knowing that I’m supporting NGOs that support people like me, but I’ve made close friends, who have literally clothed and fed me in times of need. They inspire me with their strength and courage and good humor. I had thought I would spend two years isolated. A local friend, also transgender, reminded me, “We’re everywhere. We’ve always been here, and we’ll always be here.”

This has been the most uplifting and depressing aspect of my service so far: being welcomed into this community, and seeing first hand the kind of life necessitated by a government whose laws will not protect you and a culture whose norms will not accept you. In America, I can walk down the street knowing I am, in general, safe. I can work where I want. I can love who I want. I can wear boxers without my sex being called into question.

If I make no other impact during the course of my service, I feel I’ve at least opened the minds of people around me. From high school students who agree that boys can bake and girls can box, to volunteers who confess I’m the first transgender friend they’ve had, to my counterpart who knows and accepts me for who I am – I feel, more than anything, that my gender identity has been an asset to me as a volunteer. After you’ve struggled to fit into your own skin, you find you have the flexibility, resilience and open mind to fit just about anywhere.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” This is the chorus of my life. I listen to it in another language now, but the answer is the same. I say, “Yes.”

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

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