Return to Paraguay

– Manuel Colón, RPCV 2010-2012

2014 has been a big year for me in terms of reflection and introspection, largely because of a few life “shifts” that I’m currently in. Specifically, as of May, I have spent more time out of college then the four years that I have spent in it. Additionally, at the end of year, I’ll have passed the mark 27 months from my close of service (COS) from Peace Corps – more time NOT being a PCV than the time served as a Volunteer.

It’s interesting to think of how quickly two years after Peace Corps seems like it flew by so quickly, however the 27 moths of service seem as slow as molasses. Many people keep asking how my trip was and the best way I can describe it is as such – it was strange at how comfortable it all felt. That is, I felt so at ease and able to just jump into daily life and culture. I still remembered street names and bus lines and where to get on and off to transfer (with just one mishap). However, there were obvious changes and differences.

There is new leadership in the Peace Corps office, businesses were closed and/or moved, there was new development in the downtown area, and obvious upgrades to certain green spaces around the country, etc. On the topic of transition, the timing for the visit was just perfect. I was able to go to the swear-in ceremony of the newest training group. In fact, it was the group that was replacing the group that replaced my group – very meta. It was great to speak with the Volunteers nearing COS, who were just green trainees when I was there, and hear their experience with their community and their successes (or failures) with their projects. On the flip side, it was rejuvenating to hear from the newly sworn-in Volunteers about their hope for site and expectations of their future projects. As dynamic and idiosyncratic as the Peace Corps experience, there are always some common threads that persist.

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Manuel with friend, Cristhian Fretes, who was a counterpart on his Paraguay Verde project and currently works for a Peace Corps as a Technical Trainer.

In fact, I actually got to meet and speak with some of the Volunteers who are carrying on some of the projects that I started. I imagine that it’s every RPCV’s hope that their projects continue and make meaningful impacts, so it was refreshing to actually meet with the people that are making that a reality for projects that I had a hand in. And this is just thinking about “work” stuff! One of the Volunteers I met with wanted to work on a comprehensive Ally Training for PCVs and Staff. What started out a simple chat between her and I somehow evolved to an impromptu business meeting with the Director of Training and the Country Director. It was so nice to hear their support of the training and their personal commitments to diversity and creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ Volunteers. I took advantage of the influence in the room to ask their thoughts on if they envision Paraguay ever being a host country for same-sex couples. We collectively agreed that it likely be a tough decision to move forward with, but a worthwhile one to considering exploring seriously.

Paraguayan hospitality is one that I think is rivaled in very few places. I had forgotten that one of my main contact’s wife works at the airport. So, imagine my surprise when, after landing, before even going through customs, I see a familiar face awaiting my arrival. She helped us collect our luggage and even negotiate the taxi fare into the city. My host family had a room prepared and waiting for me, still remembered all my random quirks about morning rituals, and cooked all my favorite meals. My community contacts welcomed me with open arms, ushering me into the Mayor’s office to announce my return, and setting up a barbeque to recount all the updates and progress of the town.

All in all, it was great visit and I can’t wait to go back again!

You can contact the writer at macolon2@gmail.com

 

PINK Embassy / LGBT Pro Albania on LGBT Issues in Albania

Peace Corps Albania Same-Sex Couples Initiative

Peace Corps Albania Same-Sex Couples Initiative

Last month, Peace Corps held a week-long training on the Same-Sex Couples Initiative with the support of representatives of PINK Embassy / LGBT Pro Albania and training staff from Peace Corps Washington. Together, the trainers introduced LGBT topics for the Peace Corps staff as well as other subjects related to promoting diversity, and understanding the concerns and challenges related to the LGBT community in Albania, as well as those of LGBT Volunteers serving abroad.

Peace Corps worldwide is currently exploring the possibility of having same-sex couples serve as Volunteers in countries where being LGBT is relatively safe, and in preparation of this initiative, they are holding trainings with local staff members. Two representatives of PINK Embassy presented on the LGBT situation in Albania, the movement, challenges and prejudices faced by same sex couples in the country.

The training educated staff on LGBT issues in Albania, fostered a discussion on discrimination faced by the community, the services being offered, the views of political parties, religious communities, and the media.

Story and photograph reprinted with permission from Peace Corps Albania Facebook Group.

Serving as an LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia

– Krista M. Mastel, RPCV 2011-14

I thought serving as an LGBT volunteer in Mongolia would be difficult. Sure there were challenges, but it turns out serving in Mongolia was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Already at staging and on the flight over I connected with four other LGBT trainees. We were nervous of course, but glad to have found each other. We weren’t sure what arrival in country would bring, but we were excited.

Training was intense. All the usual pressures and challenges and frustrations were slamming us. But we also felt overlooked. Sessions on health, safety and relationships focused on heterosexual relationships. Could we ask about LGBT circumstances? And to whom could we ask? We knew hardly a thing about Mongolian culture, much less about the status of LGBT people in country and how our staff would react. Then an ally piped up, asking what we weren’t sure we could. The floodgates opened.  Others chimed in.  Mongolian staff urged caution and tactfulness. American staff self-identified as allies and provided safe zones. We were thrilled. And in that moment, an idea was born.

Together with two other LGBT volunteers, we founded the Peace Corps Mongolia LGBT Task Force. Our goals were three-fold: to support fellow LGBT and ally volunteers, to conduct staff trainings so they are better prepared to support LGBT trainees and volunteers, and to raise awareness about LGBT issues in our communities.

Our first goal was born out of our feelings of isolation and confusion during training.  We knew we didn’t want any incoming trainees to feel as we had.  Instead, we wanted a welcoming, visible group to let future generations of volunteers know that no matter where they were in their process, they had support and resources around them. Part of trainees’ arrival schedule now includes a dinner for LGBT and ally trainees to interact with currently serving LGBT and ally volunteers and learn about life as an LGBT volunteer in Mongolia.

The second goal also came from those feelings during training. Because we weren’t sure who we could turn to on staff, we also weren’t sure how we’d be supported during service. We didn’t know how much our staff knew about LGBT issues or how they felt about it. With the support of our Director of Programming and Training, we facilitated the first-ever Safe Zone training for staff. Staff welcomed the training just as much as we welcomed their participation. They were hungry for information about the LGBT experience and how to best support volunteers. The training has been facilitated thrice more at the time of writing this article, as staff has changed or upon staff request for more information.

Lastly, the third goal came from discussions of Peace Corps’ Second Goal and how to best represent the diversity of America. We developed contextual, respectful and collaborative (with a Mongolian LGBT NGO) materials that volunteers could use to talk about, even champion LGBT issues in their communities while remaining apolitical. We attended LGBT art exhibitions and film festivals, the first-ever Pride, and networked with international organizations like the United Nations Population Fund to develop inclusive initiatives. Turned out, the climate in Mongolia wasn’t as un-friendly as we may have thought and worried about as trainees.  With little in the way of religious objections, we soon learned that LGBT people and issues were more misunderstood or even unknown, rather than feared or hated.

But in addition to all that, it was the personal experiences I had that defined my time in Mongolia. At the gay bar in the capital I was free to be myself. I was not afraid to come out to the staff of the LGBT NGO. I developed a network of LGBT-identifying Mongolian friends. And after over a year and a half of friendship and assessing her tolerance (thanks to Adam Lambert), I came out to my best Mongolian friend in my community. We cried and hugged and she thanked me for telling her about the “real” me. It was the relief and release I needed.

Then something unexpected happened. I had extended for a third year, moved to the capital, taken on a new role within Peace Corps and was looking forward to starting work with a new agency. I wasn’t looking for it; it never even occurred to me that something like this could happen during service. Wasn’t I going to be in the closet and celibate the entire time? But there she was: a fellow volunteer. Before we knew it, we fell in love.  It’s nearly two years later and we’re happily together in the US with great jobs and acceptances into graduate school. Serving in the Peace Corps in Mongolia gave me more than I ever could have imagined. I am forever grateful for the relationships I built and the experiences I had. Are you ready for the experience of a lifetime in Peace Corps?

The writer can be contacted at krista.mastel@gmail.com.

Love Is Love: Azerbaijan RPCVs Confront Stigma Towards LGBTQ Community

Reprinted from National Peace Corps Association with Permission

Release Date Thursday, April 17th, 2014

By Jake Winn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Placing Same Sex Couples (SSxCs) in Peace Corps Ukraine

– A Peace Corps Volunteer

Introduction

Peace Corps has a long history of embracing diversity and equal opportunity.  It is long standing PC policy that, “that no person will be denied equal opportunity under applicable laws for employment or Volunteer service opportunities because of his or her race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (over 40), disability, sexual orientation, marital status, political affiliation, union membership, or history of participation in either the EEO process or grievance procedure.”

On May 21, 2103, Peace Corps announced that we would be accepting applications from same-sex couples for Volunteer service beginning June 3. At a teleconference with Country Directors, it was explained that this new policy applies to every country except where homosexuality is criminalized. In the Eastern Europe, Mediterranean and Asia region (EMA), Morocco is the only country excluded on this basis. Ukraine decriminalized homosexuality activity in 1991. The first placements will begin in about a year. Each country was asked to develop a plan with a discussion of safety and other possible concerns as well as how to mitigate those concerns. Washington said that a trainer would come to train staff on how to support and place SSxC in countries where they will be accepted. Also each couple will have a pre-arrival phone call with the CD during the placement process.

Washington asked posts to share any local press or other reactions in host counties following Peace Corps announcement of the same sex couple policy. To our knowledge, there has been no coverage, pro or con, in Ukraine to date.

LGBT Issues in Ukraine

Homophobia runs deep in Ukrainian society with most LGBT people deeply closeted. In 2012, there was the first attempt to hold a gay parade in the capital, Kyiv, but it was canceled and the organizer was severely beaten. Also in 2012, a bill was introduced in the Parliament to ban advocacy of LGBT rights, but no action was taken after protests from Western embassies.

In 2013, a bill was introduced to give equal rights, but it received no action after public protests. Despite various objections from city officials, courts, and the Orthodox Church, the first ever gay pride rally did take place in Kyiv outside the city center on May 25. About 100 Ukrainian gay rights activists were protected by police who arrested 13 people for trying to break up the march. In response to criticism that he was too tolerant of gays, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church recently stated that the “sin of homosexuality is comparable to that of murder.”

According to some sources, support for LGBT rights has declined in Ukraine in recent years. Nash Mir (Our World) Gay and Lesbian Center coordinator Andriy Maymulakhin in his 2012 analysis said: “Over the past five years, the number of people who support granting equal rights to homosexual citizens has decreased from 42.5 percent to 34.1 percent. The number of people who think that homosexual citizens should have the right to register their relations as a conventional couple, has decreased from 18.8 percent to 15.8 percent. The number of people who think that homosexual citizens have a right to raise children has decreased from 21.5 percent to 17.1 percent.”  

In addition, “a Gorshenin Institute study done the same year showed 72 percent of Ukrainians had negative attitudes towards sexual minorities.” At the same time, the Kyiv Weekly (September 13, 2013) interviewed gay people who stated that their lives are gradually getting better over time. There have also been recent attacks in Ukraine against gays. Strong resistance to LGBT rights have also emerged in other former Soviet countries including Russia.

In Ukraine, there is a general lack of tolerance towards sexuality discussions in general, and LGBT issues in particular.  LGBT issues are tolerated less than HIV/AIDS discussions.  An example of how challenging HIV/AIDS discussions are is the situation with Ukraine’s only national clinic for HIV-positive patients located in the Lavra, a complex of monasteries in Kyiv, which has received extensive pressure to be relocated.

LGBT Volunteers in Ukraine

Despite these challenges, many LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers have served successfully in Ukraine during the post’s 21 years, although most have functioned “in the closet” without informing Ukrainians, except perhaps their very closest friends. Of course, living as a couple it will be much more difficult to avoid recognition of sexual orientation. This creates challenges that will likely be somewhat greater than those faced by single LGBT Volunteers.

Peace Corps Ukraine (PCU) staff has been trained and many are self-identified allies. The  GAD (Gender and Development Working Group) LGBT subcommittee serves as liaison between the PCV community and PC Ukraine office. This group has been worked on safe-spaces for PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) and PCVs and also provides plans and resources to Volunteers seeking to incorporate LGBT awareness into their service.

The GAD LGBT subcommittee also produced a video explaining the realities of living in Ukraine with tips for LGBT Volunteers in Ukraine, and this has been shared with Washington. The video states: “Being LGBT in Ukraine is not fair. . . it is taboo. . . You probably can’t be open with many host country nationals.” The video suggests using the Volunteer experience as an opportunity to promote tolerance in general, not just towards LGBT people, as that may attract unwanted attention.

The SSxC Working Group

The Peace Corps country office gathered a group of Peace Corps Ukraine staff, Volunteers, and interested US Embassy diplomats who met on September 27, 2013 to explore this issue further and help make recommendations as how to best proceed in Peace Corps Ukraine.   Participants were five PC Ukraine staff, five PCVs (including Volunteer Advisory Council leaders), and two American diplomats who are an SSxC.  The working group considered these questions and other relevant topics:

  • What are the safety risks for same sex couples in Ukraine?
  • Can the risks be reasonably mitigated (for example, placement in capital city only, female couples only, separation of couple during training, clustering, avoid school placements, etc.)?
  • Is it possible for a same sex couple to live together in Ukraine without attracting undue attention?
  • What training with be needed for staff, Volunteers, counterparts, host families, etc?
  • What training/information will need to be provided to the same sex couples?
  • How can LGBT couples best placed during PST?  What expectations would need to be set and relayed to the invitees regarding training and their ability to live together?  Would it be appropriate to separate LGBT couples during PST?
  • How might having SSxC impact housing standards and requirements?
  • Is it appropriate (or practical) to ask LGBT couples to live in the closet for the duration of their service?
  • Will LGBT couples do better in bigger cities? If so, how do we reconcile this with PCU’s plan to serve more underserved communities?
  • Should more emphasis for SSxC service be on goal 1 rather than goal 2 to avoid unnecessary conflicts/safety risks? (This might parallel the idea that embassy employees who live in Kyiv are here to work, and cultural integration is a much lesser priority than for PC). And, if so, how would this affect PST and would this mean setting up a “separate class” of PCVs?
  • How will government and community partners react? Is Peace Corp obligated to tell them we are placing same sex couples?  Does transparency help or hinder?  What about the press?
  • To what extent is PCU in general, and LGBT couples specifically, expected (or not) to advocate for America values on LGBT rights in Ukraine?
  • Is there any downside risk to the Peace Corps reputation in Ukraine if LGBT couples are invited?  Does PC appear too “political” or trying to impose our values?

Results of the Discussion and Additional Observations

There was not 100% consensus on many issues, but there was excellent, high quality discussion. There was general agreement that this is a worthy goal, and Peace Corps has an important role to play in advancing basic human rights.

The VAC had previously requested PCV input and received eight comments with a wide variety of opinions on the feasibility of SSxCs in Ukraine. While there was no consensus, the general feeling among these PCVs, if SSxCs are invited, is that public displays of affection would not be acceptable, big cities are safer, and female couples would have it easier.

The diplomats asked if PCVs in Ukraine are viewed as having special status that would socially protect them. The consensus is that PCVs are culturally expected to assimilate so this type of protection would not apply to Ukraine the way it might in some other countries.

PC staff expressed the view that SSxCs would need to be in the closet in order to be safe; culturally, Ukraine is following Russia’s lead to some extent. The US Embassy is advocating for LGBT rights so this might have some benefit over time.

One LGBT PCV said that SSxCs can live safely in cities, but not openly. He noted however that there is generally no “gay-dar,” that people never assume he is gay which is helpful.

Another PCV observed that SSxCs probably could not work as school teachers, and would have to work at NGOs or perhaps universities.

There was discussion of whether it is appropriate (or practical) to ask LGBT couples to live in the closet for the duration of their service?  In joining the PC, you need to adapt to cultural norms, but this could be very emotionally challenging for these couples.

Will staff ask counterparts and communities about acceptance of SSxCs as part of the site identification process and, if not, would this be “institutional deception?” It was noted that we do not identify PCVs as Jewish or having other characteristics.

One PCV asked if Peace Corps considered that, if there was the same safety risk for all PCVs as there would be for SSxCs, would the agency accept that risk?  He thought perhaps not.

There was discussion of housing and registration challenges in placing SSxCs. Most agreed that female couples pose less safety risk, although there have apparently been cases of Ukrainian men raping gay women to, in their view, convert them to heterosexuality.

It was stated that splitting up couples during PST would be preferred as it would be very challenging to find host families.

In addition to safety and practical concerns, the group discussed the risk that this might alienate the general public and create ill feelings toward Peace Corps, even perhaps leading to our being asked to leave Ukraine if there were incidents that resulted in bad press. How far do we go in trying to advocate for American values as opposed to assimilating culturally? What is the right balance?

One staff member, who was unable to attend, raised the question as to whether having SSxCs could perhaps harm our educational programs on tolerance. He referenced a discussion with the chairman of a leading LGBT NGO in Kyiv that supports NGOs in nine regions of Ukraine, who said: “Peace Corps’ purpose of promoting peace and friendship in Ukraine might be jeopardized by one single scandal related to a parent outraged by the fact that his or her child is taught by a gay man or woman. There are other methods to educate people about LGBT tolerance, and placing same-sex couples in schools is probably not the best method.”

This Ukraine LGBT leader also mentioned that some oblasts are more tolerant to LGBT issues than others. He cited Lviv oblast authorities as particularly non-tolerant, while Chernihiv city administration was more welcoming for LGBT NGOs. But, he expressed concern that a PCV who is open about sexual orientation may be perceived as someone pursuing the goal of “perverting” Ukraine youth.

Although not present for the discussion, the Peace Corps Ukraine Safety and Security Coordinator shared comments that he believes inviting SSxCs to Ukraine at this time is premature, high risk, and may result in physical assaults of PCVs.

To conclude, accept SSxCs is a worthy goal and Peace Corps has an important role to play in advancing basic human rights, but, at the same time, there is a significant risk to accepting SSxCs in Ukraine, both in terms of PCV safety and the future of the Peace Corps program in Ukraine. However, it may be possible to mitigate these concerns to some extent by:

1)    Fully advising SSxCs interested in Ukraine of the significant risks involved and that they will need to exercise caution and discretion for the duration of their service

2)    Accepting female SSxCs in preference to male couples

3)    Placing SSxCs in large cities only

4)    Separating these couples during PST for placement in host families

5)    Focusing on Community Development same-sex couples for placement in NGOs; avoid placement in secondary schools (although universities might be considered in some cases).

You can contact the writer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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