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

A Night in the Chadian Rainforest

– Michael Varga, RPCV, Chad

Editor’s Note:

This is an excerpt from Under Chad’s Spell, a novel by Michael Varga, based on his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad. 726 PCVs served in Chad over several years in four different segments. Peace Corps is no longer active in Chad because of security issues. PCVs now serve in other African countries in west and central Africa and no doubt could have experiences like the ones described here. Madison the character mentioned here is a Peace Corps Volunteer.

About a month earlier, Madison made one of his rare visits to Medina’s hut.  She lived with another woman who had similarly muddled her standing among Chadians in crossing the color line with a French soldier.  Medina invited Madison to come and have dinner with her and this other woman and their numerous children, brothers, cousins and other hangers-on who lived in the nearby huts.  It was a big event for them to entertain the nasara, and just about anybody who even had a passing acquaintance with Medina or the other woman had shown up to eat, but more importantly, to watch and perhaps talk to the nasara.

Madison was startled to see how many people had gathered to eat with him.  The two chickens that had been killed for the meal would barely allow a sliver for each person, but Medina pulled some large pieces of the chickens from their bones and put them in front of Madison.  After all, he was the guest of honor.  As was the Chadian custom, all the men sat together while the women served.  If there was anything left from the men, the women and children would share that afterwards, removed from the men.

The men kept asking Madison about the unrest in the capital.  Rumors continued to fly that a coup was imminent, that Muammar Khadafi, Libya’s leader, was intent on making all of Chad part of Libya.  They were vehement in denouncing Libyans, although not one admitted that he had ever met one.  Madison jokingly asked how they would recognize a Libyan, and the men sat in silence, evidently not finding any humor in such a challenge.

After the men ate, someone put a radio on and they started pressing Madison to dance.  As the women and children nibbled on the leftovers, Madison called Medina over, and as they started to move rhythmically to the static-filled sounds from the radio, other men grabbed other women and soon the hut was surrounded by bodies swaying to the beat.  There were many more men than women so a number of the men danced together or danced alone.

As the night wore on and the beer ran out, Madison grew a bit uncomfortable with sitting in the presence of all of these Chadians, staring at him.  They had covered the topics they could discuss, so no more words were being exchanged.  They had danced to more than a dozen songs.  The food had long ago run out (long before the beer), and Madison felt he could graciously take his leave.  He shook the hand of every person present.  Medina said she would accompany him.  Madison told her he was sure she was tired from all the cooking and preparations and it was better if he went home alone.

Medina’s hut was only a couple of kilometers from Madison’s house and Madison had walked the paths several times in daylight, including earlier this evening.  But this was the first time Madison tried to find his way home at night and, unfortunately, there was no moon.  The night was a black sheet, broken only by the dim beam of his flashlight.  Strange whining animal calls and falling branches seemed to be always just behind Madison as he stepped forward.  He gripped the flashlight, pointing it in a wide arc as the path twisted and turned.  He tripped on a branch that had fallen across the path and grew more unsure whether he was heading in the right direction.  Where was his Virgil to lead him into the clear?

He circled the pathways for a half hour, passing clusters of huts that he thought looked familiar, but when he spied a person smoking some tobacco before one hut, then a woman cleaning pots next to a fire, he realized he’d been mistaken and these were not the huts he thought they were.  He was lost.

He considered retracing his steps to find Medina’s hut, but he wasn’t sure he could even do that.  He heard a boy’s voice calling out “Petrol! Petrol!”  He waited for the boy to come closer, thinking he might know Medina and be able to lead him to her hut.  He turned the flashlight beam on his own face so that the boy would see him.  But when the boy saw him, evidently shocked at seeing his white face lit up in the black night, he cried “Kaii!  Nasara!  Kaii!”  In fear, he ran in the other direction, spilling the kerosene as he fled.

Madison decided he had to be methodical in finding his way back to Medina’s hut.  He turned around and started heading back in the direction from which he had just come.  He wasn’t certain he was making the right move, but as he walked, he thought things looked a bit more familiar.

“Monsieur Madison?”

He shined the flashlight toward the sound and saw the face of a young man he didn’t recognize.  For a second, he thought it might be one of his students, but despite the size of his classes, he knew every student’s face and he did not recognize this one.  Yet there was something familiar about it.

“Who are you?”  Madison asked in French.

“Medina’s brother, Bousang.  Are you lost?”

Madison was loath to admit that he was, but he knew there was no point in pretending he could find his way home on his own.

“I am.  Do you know how to get to my house?”

“Walk this way.”

Bousang turned and led Madison back up the narrow path. The thick ropy vegetation limited the path to the width of just one person.  After about fifteen minutes of walking in silence through the darkness, the path widened as they neared the center of Baibokoum.  Madison walked next to Bousang. He took his hand.  Madison had grown at ease over these months with the Chadian custom of men walking together, their hands loosely touching in a slight grasp of each other’s fingers.  There was nothing more than friendliness implied in two men walking with their hands touching.  A man and a woman would never touch each other in public, whether they were married or not, but two men or two women would always have some physical link to the other person if they were friends.  It was the Chadian way.

Bousang’s hands were rough from working in the cotton fields around Baibokoum.  Madison asked him how he spent his time.  He told him he worked the fields, but he had been to school and had hopes of returning.  His French was good and that impressed Madison.  Bousang couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, and Madison realized now that he had talked briefly with Bousang earlier in the evening at Medina’s.  He was the one who had asked about African-Americans, how they managed in America and whether they ever thought about coming back to live in Africa.  Madison answered that slavery had been a crime and that the younger generations of African-Americans he knew were too far removed from life in Africa to want to return.

When they got to Madison’s house, he turned off the flashlight.  As they stood side by side in the darkness, Madison thanked Bousang for helping him, asked him if he wanted a drink of water or a Fanta before he headed back home.  Without answering Madison, Bousang let go of his hand.  In the darkness, Madison could sense Bousang was moving closer to him.

Under Chad’s Spell is available at Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback editions. Michael Varga can be contacted through his website www.michaelvarga.com


Peace Corps Program, Not Jordanian Hospitality, Temporarily Suspended

– Sarah Bender, RPCV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serving as the First: A Same-Sex Couple Perspective

By Jessica and Khayla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 155 other followers