HIV Positive and Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer

-Elizabeth Tunkle, RPCV, Zambia and Lesotho

When you join the Peace Corps, many people ask you why. I never had a very good answer. But the truth is something way down deep inside of me told me that is what I needed to do and I listened. I really had no idea what I was getting into. I thought 2 years would go by in a flash and I would come home better for having gone so far from home and for having done such a noble thing. Two years did not go by in a flash and I came home changed but not how I thought I would.

I started out my service in Zambia and after getting posted to my village, as I was settling in, I met my future boyfriend. When we started dating, I asked him if he had been tested for HIV. He told me yes. He told me his test was negative just 1 year before and he had not had unprotected sex since his last test. We mutually decided it would be safe for us to use birth control and not condoms. We were wrong. Despite the fact that I knew all about HIV prevention I had unprotected sex with him anyway.

A few weeks later, I decided we should get tested. I had a bad feeling. I tried telling myself that it couldn’t be me. I was going to be fine. Too many times in my life I had played with all kinds of fire and survived. Not me. I was too nice and honest and fun and giving and I practiced yoga and meditation. We get bonus points in life for being good, right? No, I guess we don’t. HIV doesn’t just choose mean people or people who tell lies. It turned out it chose me. We found out my boyfriend was positive and that I was also infected. As if that news isn’t devastating enough, the Peace Corps told me I had to go home and that I would not be able to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore, anywhere. I was too shocked to fully understand what was happening, but I did feel like the Peace Corps was acting contrary to what they teach us. “Fight the virus not people with it.” “Treat people with HIV just like you would treat anyone else.” But yet, here I was going home. I felt like a weed that had been violently ripped out and was being thrown away.

I was shocked and traumatized and had to pack up my things and say goodbye to my life in Zambia. I felt like a failure. I had come to teach prevention and here I was infected. I was asking myself that why question all over again. Why did I come to Zambia, did I come to ruin my life? Who did I think I was coming over to Africa to tell people how to live? I didn’t even know the meaning of my own words.

PC Washington told me that I would be evaluated and then separated. I asked my nurse who worked for PC if it was possible for me to continue to serve and she said no. If I was positive I would have to be separated. However, after I had been home for a month PC changed its mind. Why? My friend was digging around on the Internet and found a story about another volunteer who had been sent home earlier that year because of an HIV infection. He felt like his rights had been violated and had asked the ACLU to help him out. ACLU went to the PC and told them that their policy discriminated against people with HIV and they needed to be more accommodating (see our August 2008 article for information about the Jeremiah Johnson case and changing Peace Corps policy related to PCVs with HIV.) They just told me they were considering clearing me. Everyone seemed to agree that I was physically and mentally well enough to go back.

It was suggested that my asthma was reason enough to keep me from going back to Zambia but I could go to Lesotho if I wanted. I was faced with a big decision. At first, I was not given a choice and now I was. What did I want to do? It seemed like a difficult decision at the time but I think I knew all along that I wanted to finish. That I was not going to let some illness or my shame stop me from returning to do the work I had set out to do. I even had a hint of an idea that I could do it better the second time around. So I said yes!

I was in a plane flying to a new country in Africa. Lesotho was going to be my new home. I arrived and met a whole new group of staff and volunteers. I made the most of my new home and my new family. I started making friends but I kept my status to myself. I felt alienated for having to keep such a heavy secret. I wasn’t sure I wanted to share my status at all. I felt too vulnerable and I wasn’t sure how I would be received. After only 2 months in Lesotho, I went to a volunteer training session. Volunteers were struggling with the emotional toll of living in a country where so many people were infected. We had a session to talk about it. I sat in knowing that no one in the room knew about me. One guy shared, “I found out my counterpart was positive and I am trying to give him support and but it is emotional for me to know.” They were all being so honest and I wanted to run out of the room screaming. After so many people had shared, our director said, “One good thing about all this is that you have each other. We are all in the same boat.” I then did run out of the room screaming. Well, ok, not screaming. I walked actually. But I left the session early and went to the medical office and talked to the only people who did know. “I am not in their boat,” I said. I felt even lonelier and more left out than I had before and I hadn’t thought that was possible.

After I calmed down a bit, I went to see the Country Director. I told him I had been thinking and I wanted to share my status with all of the Peace Corps Volunteers, all 87 of them. We were going to have an All-Volunteer conference in January and I wanted to have a session all to myself to share my story. I knew I couldn’t keep it a secret and this way I could control how the information got to them. I would not be gossip. I would just tell them. So, January of this year (2009) marked my big coming out ceremony. The day of my talk, I was terrified. I knew that I was going to be taking my most personal and private reality and laying it bare for everyone to see. I started my talk with a news article about the ACLU case against the Peace Corps. Then, I told them my story. I told them I knew better than to have sex without a condom. I told them I knew all the things they know that make them feel immune and I still got infected. In the end I asked them to make good use of me. I was the first infected person in service and I wanted to tell people what happened to me so that maybe they could learn from my mistake and not repeat it. That was, after all, why I returned to Africa

They started using me immediately. I went to a Diversity Camp in Butha-Buthe district. 20 something teenagers came together to learn to be more accepting of the differences around them. I was one of the key speakers. I asked them to brainstorm words that came into their mind when they heard “HIV.” “Don’t censor yourselves. Just say what ever comes to mind. Good or bad!” They did. I heard words like prostitute and sex, anger and fear, stigma and blood. We made a long list. And then I told them my story. I told them everything. They were teenagers and statistics said they were all probably having sex already. They really listened. Afterwards, they asked me questions. One woman asked me, “How do you have so much courage to stand up in front of us and tell us these things?” I just looked back at the list we made and said, ”If I feel too afraid to speak about this to all of you then I let this list define me. I refuse to let this illness keep me locked up in my own world of shame. And if by sharing my story with you, maybe one of you rethinks having unprotected sex then I have accomplished something out of this.” For the first time, I felt like I hadn’t become infected for nothing. Maybe this happened to me so that I could share it with people. Maybe it had a purpose in my life.

I did that many more times in my time in Lesotho. I went to 4 Diversity Camps. I spoke at schools and youth centers. I had one audience as big as 140 students. I spoke to peer educators, youth groups, and students. I spoke to primary schools and secondary schools. I even traveled 2 days up into the mountains to speak to a HIV+ support group about a healthy way to deal with hard and dark emotions. People really heard me. I felt connections with the people of Lesotho like I had never felt in Zambia. People came and shared their stories back with me. They asked me questions and invited me to their homes. I felt the force of belonging to a community.

I spent my second year of the Peace Corps speaking my truth over and over again. The fact is none of that would have been possible if it weren’t for the courage of other Volunteers who stood up to the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps did something they had never done before and let me, an HIV+ volunteer serve out my time in Africa. I received more from sharing my story than I could have ever given to the people of Lesotho. I think the Peace Corps is like that. We go to far away lands to give of ourselves, to help, to make something better but it is the people who house us and love us and work beside us that truly give to us. They gave me a sense of purpose. They made me believe that something good could come out of getting a very scary, chronic illness diagnosis. And I believe that it did. I would never had asked to become infected with HIV but without it the community of people living with the virus around the world would be just out of reach and I want to connect. I want to cross over the line that separates and make a connection. So here I find myself. My service is complete. I am back in America. I served my country. I told my story. Somehow I think I answered my “why.” The work I did as a volunteer in Zambia was forever on the outside looking in. Later, infected in Lesotho I felt as though I had stepped through an invisible barrier and was welcomed with open arms.

Elizabeth can be contacted at elizabethtunkle@yahoo.com.

LGBT Advocacy in Lesotho

- Darrin Adams, PCV

“I think Africa will be a good break for me, a nice break from LGBT advocacy,” I said to a friend as we rode down an escalator. We were at the National Gay/Lesbian Journalist Association convention. I was a board member of the D.C. Chapter and preparing myself for Peace Corps service. Ready to move on to new frontiers of advocacy, I was willing to set my life aside and discover new adventures.

Three years later, LGBT advocacy found me. When I entered my service in Lesotho, I thought that I would be an undercover homosexual. This didn’t bother me too much. I was out to my PC friends, which was fine enough for me, and I told my community that I had a girlfriend (my best friend who was a lesbian). Serendipitously, I met an openly gay person in the capital city and from there met many of the gay friends I have even today.

It was through this network that many people wanted to have a group of their own. The first meetings were held in houses privately, consisting of only three or four people. As the word got out, more and more people came to see what this informal discussion group was all about. Today, the meetings are held in a private, rented space and the number of members is well over 50.

Unofficially, the group is called The Discussion Group (TDG), yet the leaders of this group are pushing themselves and others for recognition. The board and other select members are poised to sign a registration and constitution that will make them an official organization of Lesotho.

Is homosexuality illegal in Lesotho? Nobody is quite sure. The constitution is silent. There is nothing that explicitly states that same-sex relations or the acts of these relations (i.e. sodomy) are outlawed. There clearly is no protection for these statuses either.

There is a consultant here who assists TDG with finding and writing grants. A United Nations grant is in the works that will fund them getting their own office, hire one full-time coordinator, support them in doing outreach to other parts of the country and fund a small “men who have sex with men” (MSM) research study.

I leave the more formal work to the consultant and I work with group leaders on leadership development, training and sexual health and building general organizational capacity. Often I am a sounding board for new ideas and assist members of the group in networking with other LGBT groups in the Southern Africa region.

The work that I am doing with TDG mirrors the work I did as a student at Baylor University. Baylor is the largest Baptist school in the world, and that environment for gay people reminds me of my first year as a PCV – discrete encounters mixed with occasional moments of bliss and freedom. Then a group of us banded together, had small meetings and then grew to have over 100 members.

Baylor molded me as an advocate for the LGBT population, and the lessons I learned from the Baylor group (appropriately called Baylor Freedom) I have applied to The Discussion Group. One upcoming activity is a sexual health workshop that is less about HIV and more about talking about our bodies. At the end of the training, the trainers will discuss how to use local resources for their sexual health like how to turn a condom into a dental dam and where to buy lube at the local market.

The MSM study will be a great first step in having recognition for the LGBT community. There was a recent study in Southern African Countries about multiple concurrent partners. No mention, whatsoever, was given to same-sex relationships. It is my personal belief, because of my own network of people I know, that MSM and WSW (women who have sex with women) are one of the drivers of HIV.

Take it from a gender perspective. Men feel that they have to prove themselves to another level and cover up the fact that they have sex with men. These men have many more sexual partners than the average man. Most heterosexual men that are frank with me about their “concubines,” as they call them, tell me that they have one or two women on the side in addition to their “main” girlfriend or wife. The MSM I know always have three or more female partners on the side. And when it comes to male partners? I can’t even put a number on that figure.

Since most messaging around HIV is strictly heterosexual, most of the men in the general population (including heterosexual, homosexual and MSM) believe that HIV “comes from the woman.” Having sex with a man is in and of itself a form of contraception. Thus, most MSM do not wear condoms, or if the condoms break, don’t think to search out PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) or other treatment. Everyone I talk with about sexual health, I am sure to tell them that anal sex is one of the riskiest forms of transmission. Yet I am one voice in a sea of messages that simply talk about how “bad” HIV is and never mention levels of risk.

Women who have sex with women (WSW), though not as strong a driver as MSM, are drivers as well. There is very little research of WSW in Africa, but I think this is because transmission of HIV between women is extremely low. When looking at the issue from a purely biological perspective AND assuming that WSW only have sex with other women, I can see where this can be deduced. What about from a cultural perspective? Again, the cultural expectations that women must adhere to are just as strong, if not stronger, than men. A woman may have a girlfriend but she is expected to have a husband. In the multiple concurrent partner study, women were found to have just as many sexual partners as men. It is better for a woman to be called a prostitute than to be known as a lesbian. Being a lesbian has life-threatening consequences.

In South Africa, there have been more cases of what the press calls “corrective rape” and what I call RAPE. There have been many cases of women being raped and often murdered if they are suspected of being lesbians. And even when I talk to gay people around here about it they say how horrible it is but there is always a hint of words that somehow suggested that the women got what was coming to them. These women did not adhere to the secret code: they did not have boyfriends on the side, they were open about their sexuality to everyone and they dressed like a man.

Since LGBT issues are so much under the radar here, I have never heard of this kind of violence occurring in Lesotho. My gut tells me that it does occur, given the amount of domestic violence that is pervasive throughout the country.

These are the issues that most LGBT people here face. As I have been here, I see more and more people becoming more and more open. I tell them that a constitution and a group are both great, but what will really change your country is by being open with the people you love. Hearts and minds will alter the atmosphere much more quickly than a document. As evident by South Africa, with same-sex marriage a constitutional right, the laws are there but the people’s attitudes are not.

My work with The Discussion Group is a side-project. My primary assignment is working with clinics and hospitals in a male engagement strategy, which includes outreach, training and social marketing for men to be involved in reproductive health. The program, called “Men as Partners,” is a comprehensive program that seeks to transform the male gender norms of a culture to be more susceptible to gender equality through male engagement and men’s health.

Even in the trainings I give, there is always a LGBT module where I educate about sexuality, sexual orientation and homophobia. Over 40 people have been trained to give this program in their communities, and within it is an evaluation component. At the beginning and end of each training, session we give the same attitudinal survey which has questions about HIV, sexuality and gender. There is one “yes or no” question that asks, “I would work to promote the rights of gays and lesbians.”

After every workshop, this question ALWAYS has the biggest change, on average a 25% shift from “no” to “yes.”

This workshop is given in the most urban to the most rural of areas and there is always a huge shift in this particular survey question. People are hungry to know, and once they know and can relate, their attitudes shift dramatically. One workshop participant approached me and said that he wants to work in gay and lesbian equality and will talk to the Ministry of Gender about it. Even now, he is an ally for this blossoming group.

My life is blessed. My work takes me to the forefront of HIV prevention. Through The Discussion Group and my main work of male engagement, I see people transform in front of my eyes. Most PCVs talk about how great their service was after they leave. With me, I see how great my service is in the here and now, which makes my departure a difficult one.

Alas, I must leave. There is only so much I can do as a Volunteer. Working on the ground has its advantages and disadvantages. Yes, I work directly with people and help them to build themselves up. But I see that there needs to be a higher leadership in pushing these agendas through, making them a priority and empowering other organizations to follow suit.

After this year, I will leave Lesotho. By then TDG will have built itself up to a self-sustaining level and many people will be trained to lead the male transformative workshops. Though my time will be finished in Lesotho, I am heartened by knowing that the work will carry on.

The writer can be contacted at darrinjadams@gmail.com

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