Follow My Dream: Letters from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania

– William M. Trunk, RPCV

Imagine having a well-paid career as a Finance Manager at a large multinational industrial company for 17 years. And then you leave the company to join the Peace Corps to pursue a dream. Everyone is shocked and amazed at your decision. But does your experience in the Peace Corps actually live up to your dreams?

That is what I did at the age of 43 in 2007. Shortly after arriving in Albania to begin my two years of service as a Peace Corps Community Development Volunteer, I decided to send monthly email letters to my family and friends. Those monthly email letters helped me remain connected to my family and friends after moving to Albania to begin Peace Corps. It was also a tool that I used to implement goal #3 (i.e. to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people) for Peace Corps.

The feedback from my monthly emails letters was very positive. Many individuals suggested that I even write a book about my Peace Corps experience. So that is what I did. Overall my experience in the Peace Corps truly was a dream come true for me despite the challenges in my personal life as a gay volunteer in Albania. And I hope that you consider purchasing my book  and sharing it with others.

This article summarizes some key points related to my experience as a gay volunteer in Albania that are incorporated into the book. The other two Albanian articles from 2008 and 2009 on this website provide more details about my experiences.

My search on the internet for the LGBT community in Albania began even before I left the US for Peace Corps in Albania (March, 2007). Although I was disappointed to find virtually no information online, I did find a postal address for a gay NGO (non-governmental organization). So I mailed them a letter. And after about five months in Albania, I met the director of this gay Albanian NGO.

After this NGO received funding for a project, I took on the role as its Finance Officer for the first year of the project’s funding. My responsibilities as Finance Officer centered on preparing the budgets and monthly financial statements and then advising the director about the implications of the NGO’s programming activities. During the second year of the project, the funding level was severely reduced. As a result, the activities implemented by the NGO had to be cut back. In addition, the NGO was required to hire an Albanian as Finance Officer. So my role in the second year was limited to a financial advisor.
At the same time that I was working with this NGO, I collaborated with some other LGBT PCVs and Peace Corps staff in Albania to create a LGBT Committee for PCVs in Albania. It was a peer group of LGBT volunteers and their supporters. Our main goals were:

  • Provide peer support for existing LGBT volunteers.
  • Provide advice for new volunteers about realities in Albania and identify coping strategies.
  • Work with Peace Corps staff to provide diversity training for Peace Corps staff and volunteers on LGBT issues.
  • Do outreach with LGBT organizations in Albania.

The LGBT Committee met each quarter to support one another. Just getting together periodically to share the challenges that we face was very beneficial to each one of the committee members. The committee also provided written advice for new LGBT volunteers coming to Albania. But the biggest accomplishment of the committee was probably having a different committee member “come out” to the staff and new volunteers each year as part of diversity training and sharing our story of what it is like to be a LGBT volunteer in Albania.

Given my limited role with the gay NGO during the second year, I began to do more outreach to the gay community in the capital city, Tirana. I met some individuals with another gay organization through an American NGO consultant whom I worked with previously. However, this other gay organization was basically inactive as well. Nonetheless, I learned more about the gay community in Tirana (capital city of Albania) by meeting some representatives from this other gay organization.

So what did I learn about the LGBT community in Albania as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2007 – 2009? The good news is that from a legal perspective, homosexuality in Albania became legal in 1994. Therefore, Albanian gay or lesbian individuals cannot legally be imprisoned for their sexual orientation. However, do not be misled by the legality of homosexuality. Generally Albanians are sadly, deeply homophobic and generally never discuss the topic. The LGBT community in Albania is very underground and there are no gay bars in any city in Albania including the capital city, Tirana. The code word they use for gay is “communist.” Although homosexuality exists in Albania, few individuals have a “gay” identity similar to what we find in the United States or other developed countries. Given the social stigma to being gay in Albania, it was very important for me to be discreet about my sexual orientation.

During my outreach to the gay community, I also met an American lesbian couple who lived in the capital city. One of the women worked at the US Embassy in Albania. Shortly after I met them, the US Ambassador to Albania asked the American lesbian couple to meet with him to discuss their recommendations for what he should do as the US Ambassador to Albania to support the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. When this couple told him that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been working with the gay community in Albania, he asked them to invite me to the meeting.

At our initial meeting we agreed upon some actions to address the human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania. The highlights of these actions were for the US Ambassador to include sexual orientation when he spoke about human rights in Albania. In addition, the Ambassador supported conducting some type of roundtable meeting regarding “human rights of gays and lesbians in Albania.”

Shortly after this meeting, this advisory committee attended the First Albanian Human Rights Debate Conference in Tirana. It was sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN’s declaration of human rights. The topics covered were human rights for women, children, and sexual minorities. It was the first time that a human rights conference in Albania had included the topic of sexual minorities.

During the sexual minorities’ panel discussion, the panel members from several organizations made a strong case for why human rights of LGBT were important. Despite the success of the conference, a major problem was that there were no representatives from the Albanian LGBT community at the session due to their fear of disclosure.

After the sexual minorities’ session, I spoke with some of the individuals leading it. The moderator of the session was the director from an Albanian NGO called Albanian Human Rights Group. I was very impressed with her commitment to this issue as a straight woman. I shared with her my experience in Peace Corps working with some Albanian gay NGOs plus starting the LGBT Committee for volunteers. I also suggested that the key method to change people’s acceptance to LGBT issues in Albania was to have LGBT people share their stories anonymously (because they feared negative ramifications from disclosure).

Shortly before I completed my Peace Corps service, we had a meeting at the US Embassy with the organizations working on LGBT human rights issues in Albania. Most of the participants at the meeting were individuals whom I had met during the First Albanian Human Rights Debate. This first meeting focused on brainstorming about the possible activities these various organizations could implement and collaborate together to support this initiative. I shared with others my recent experience of providing diversity training for new volunteers and Albanian staff and how we could utilize Peace Corps volunteers around the country to share LGBT educational materials in their communities.

Prior to completing my service, I introduced the new chairperson for the LGBT Volunteer Committee from Peace Corps Albania to these organizations. Therefore, Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania were able to continue to collaborate on this important project to improve human rights for LGBT in Albania after I completed my Peace Corps service.

Overall I was very pleased with my unique opportunity that Peace Corps gave me to advocate for the LGBT community in Albania.

You can contact Bill Trunk at willyt2000@hotmail.com.

Machismo and Gay Slurs in the Dominican Republic

– A Peace Corps Volunteer

Recently, Blue Jays’ shortstop Yunel Escobar painted the words “Tú ere maricón” into his eyeblack for a game against the Boston Red Sox. Once the North American audience realized what that meant (you’re a faggot), outrage ensued. The Blue Jays suspended him for three games, and he has agreed to donate money to GLAAD.

Setting aside the fact that Escobar is Cuban rather than Dominican, I hope this incident somehow prompts a conversation about homophobia here in the DR. I’ve been living here for over a year now, and can tell you that only incautious observation and a loose grasp of Spanish are necessary to feel the machismo, sexism, and homophobia permeate the very air (though that could also be the exhaust from muffler-less vehicles). Suffice it to say, being a closeted lesbian in such an environment has not been a picnic. Neither is being a single woman, a childless woman, and a woman living alone. “Have you gotten married yet?” is a common question heard by single female Volunteers. We also are told we’re becoming jamonas (old maids), that we shouldn’t live alone ever, and that we need a man.

The male-centered machismo even has a presence in the Dominican LGBTQ community. At gay pride last July, I saw approximately 10 male-bodied people for every woman. All the speakers, performers, and award recipients were either male-bodied or an attractive, straight female ally.

For the past year, as the only lesbian I knew in this whole country, I have had no community. It hasn’t been so bad, though. During a mandatory discussion in my local school about sexuality, the teacher declared to her 7th grade class that being gay is totally fine, that it isn’t a choice, and that no one should ever demean someone for being gay. When she met resistance from some of the students, she reaffirmed in no uncertain terms that she was serious and that she wouldn’t stand for any intolerant comments. With some Dominicans, I have been honest about my orientation, and the reaction has been mostly positive. My friend Wilson has been adamant about finding me a girlfriend (though he has had no luck so far). Lastly, Placement seems to have sent a few queer Trainees, so I’m really looking forward to making friends with them.

In the meantime, I’m going to bring up this Escobar thing with my youth. Who knows? Maybe they’ll start to think gay slurs are uncool.

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

Reconciling Development Work and the Closet in Paraguay

–Fiona Martin, now an RPCV 

I looked at my Facebook page recently, and I realized just how… well, gay it had become in the last year and a half. Well over half the links I post are about equal rights, and LGBT news stories. It didn’t used to be that way. In the States, due to my open-minded community, loving family and accepting college town, being queer simply wasn’t a big deal. I rarely considered if and how being queer influenced my interactions with people, my safety, or my future. Liking women (and men) was part of who I was, but it wasn’t a big part. Occasionally I might sign a petition or speak up in a conversation if it seemed necessary, but all-in-all I was very casual in my LGBT identity. Because it was rarely something I felt ostracized for, it was never something about which I sought support.

However, in my impoverished rural community in Paraguay, I am not openly gay. One of the absolutely most important reasons to be out is that, when people realize they personally know someone who is gay, they begin to revise their opinions. They realize that their votes and prejudiced comments directly affect someone one they know as a person, not just as a sexuality. One of the questions I struggled with for a while, was why doesn’t this apply to me in Paraguay? Shouldn’t I be open here for the same reason I’m open in Indiana?

I realized that I have to be closeted in site in order to productively do the development work I came here to do. As an Agriculture Volunteer, I am here to work with everyone who has degraded soil on their farm or wants to improve their family garden or wants to start a worm bin. Bigots deserve access to development workers too. I already have to overcome so many cultural barriers to get someone to try something new on their farm, why add something else? I’m not Catholic, but I don’t advertise that to the community for the same reason. In order to work with as many people as I can, I want to present as few barriers as possible. If I were to come out at the end of my service, or several years from now when I come back for a visit, the community will know me as a person. They will know the work I did. They will have to reconcile the person they know with the sexuality they object to.

By not being out, I am able to reach more people and be more effective. But it means I cannot be a resource for the LGBT youth and adults that live in the community. No one is out, but I have my suspicions about a few folks. I can’t come out to them; because it could compromise my position in the community (one well-worn strategy for deflecting suspicion off yourself is to become an out- spoken homophobe). I can’t be a role model for them, because they don’t know what we have in common. This is the hardest part about not being out in site. There is a gay rights movement in Paraguay. Things are changing especially amongst the youth and in the larger towns and cities. But out here in the campo, there is still a long way to go. Poco a poco (little by little), I guess.

So now, perhaps due to being closeted, if I’m lucky enough to have an internet signal, I find myself trolling Huffington Post Gay news section for hopeful or shocking news stories. I have started to closely follow equal rights issues in the states (e.g. repeal of DADT, North Carolina amendment banning same-sex marriage, President Obama’s public support for marriage equality). I have become more interested in the advancement of equal rights and community acceptance of LGBT people because I now feel the lack of them. Ironically, having to hide my sexuality has made my sexuality more central to my identity.

This writer has written for us previously. You can read her earlier article at http://lgbrpcv.org/2012/01/28/building-my-own-closet-in-paraguay/

You can contact her at  fmmartin@gmail.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

From Canvassing to Closets: Life as a Lesbian in Jordan

– A Recent RPCV

Editor’s note: The author is unnamed because she still retains relationships in her country of service which could be compromised if her full identity were revealed.

“If you do not do conservative, Peace Corps Jordan is not for you.” This sentence was highlighted, capitalized, and in bold in our welcome letter from Peace Corps staff in Jordan. Listed in the paragraphs that followed were a variety of personal identifiers and characteristics that volunteers headed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan might have to either tone down, or hide all together. Amongst them, any sexual orientation or identity differing from heterosexual, or ‘straight.’ It was clear that PC staff wanted to make sure no one showed up at Pre-Service Training expecting to live two years in Jordan openly as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Armed with the knowledge that only two years after coming out of the closet, I would be heading right back in and locking the door behind me, I did my best to contact anyone who knew anything about being gay in Jordan and in the Peace Corps. After weeks of emailing, phone calls, and blog reading, I had come to only a few general conclusions: you cannot underestimate the challenge of going back into the closet (just because you’ve done it once before doesn’t mean it’s any easier now); I will be constantly approached by Jordanians about finding a husband; and that while some PC countries have LGBT support groups, Jordan does not. My research did not provide me with much comfort.

As I sit here writing this now, almost six months after my close of service, what I realize about the knowledge I had gathered prior to my departure is that however vague, it is pretty accurate. It is very difficult to describe the difficulty of going back into the closet, so the easiest thing to do is sum it up by telling people there is no way to prepare yourself. I did get questioned about my future husband on a daily basis, and there was no Peace Corps support group for volunteers who are LGBT in place when I arrived. Despite the confirmation of my fears, I want to make one thing very clear: while serving as a lesbian in Jordan was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, completing my service was simultaneously one of the most rewarding.

Contrary to common belief, homosexuality has been decriminalized in Jordan. Its legal status, however, does not relieve the strict social and religious beliefs marking it as extremely taboo. Violent hate crimes have been known to occur, and arrests of individuals who are suspected of or are known as being LGBT are sometimes made under the pretense of another violation. These types of assaults on identity however, are typically kept within the confines of the capital or bigger cities where certain bars are known to be gay friendly or underground “gay” parties are not an infrequent occurrence. While life in the villages and small towns where Peace Corps volunteers live can be seemingly less hostile, it is only because the gay communities are much smaller or even non-existent.

As a female volunteer in Jordan, social life is generally absent of sex and anything related to it. Marriage and family life is very frequently discussed, but sex education does not occur in schools or at home. Having heard horror stories from gay male volunteers about having to explicitly describe (fake) sexual encounters with females, I am grateful for the conservative nature of most of Jordanian females. The issue that came up most often for me in daily life was the constant talk of marriage. One of the first questions a Jordanian will ask you is if you are married, and why not? Even now, Skyping with my family and friends back in Jordan, it is still the number one topic. When I tell them I would like to visit, their response is always, “not alone! You better bring your husband! When are you getting married anyway?”

Despite the difficulties, serving as a lesbian in Jordan has some very unique positives, that many would not necessarily expect. One of the more conservative aspects of Jordanian culture is gender segregation. Men and women who are not blood relatives or married do not socialize together, sit on public transportation together, or interact in any public or private settings (with the exception of university classes). Because of this, heterosexual Peace Corps Jordan volunteers interested in dating each other were faced with quite a dilemma. If you lived in a village ten minutes down the road from your boyfriend or girlfriend, you might have to travel over an hour to the next biggest city or to the capital in order to see each other. Luckily for any LGBT volunteers, this was not the case. My girlfriend and I could visit each other several times a week, under the pretense of being close friends of course. In fact, our respective host families enjoyed our visits so much that they started suggesting we just live together. It is my personal opinion that if PC were to start placing same-sex married couples, Jordan would be the perfect place for them to serve. It is not only normal for two people of the same sex to spend all their time together, but expected, thanks to their unique tradition of gender segregation.

Another huge plus of being a gay volunteer in Jordan is that the biggest PRIDE festival in the world takes place in Jordan’s next-door neighbor. Jordan’s Peace Corps volunteers visit Tel Aviv in June every year to celebrate diversity during their PRIDE weekend. Having the ability to get away for a weekend and not only be yourself, but celebrate your identity can be a huge boost of energy and confidence, and a reminder that serving in Jordan is about a lot more than having to hide your sexual identity.

The ability to be open about my sexuality amongst the Peace Corps community while in Jordan was a huge factor in my ability to overcome the associated challenges. When I entered PST in 2009, there was no concrete support system for volunteers who were LGBT, but by the time of my close of service, not only were we implementing annual Safe Zone Trainings to American and Jordanian staff, we published a resource manual for volunteers, trainees and staff on the unique issues that LGBT volunteers face. I saw a lot of good change happen, and can now proudly and confidently tell anyone who is LGBT and interested in Peace Corps Jordan that there is a support system in place specifically geared toward our experiences.

Support from Peace Corps and the fact that Tel Aviv PRIDE is only a few hours away is key in helping LGBT volunteers through their service. This does not mean, however, that serving in Jordan as a lesbian is a piece of cake. Like I was told before I began my service, there is no way to adequately prepare yourself for the emotional stress of hiding your sexuality, whether it be the first time or again after years of enjoying an honest and open lifestyle. Personally, I took a big jump, from canvassing the streets of New York City with the Human Rights Campaign – announcing my sexual orientation to strangers on a daily basis – to sitting with Jordanian friends designing my future husband. Not only do you feel a little ridiculous lying constantly, but there is also a definite barrier between you and the people you are trying so desperately to create meaningful relationships with. These are things that no system of support or ability to visit your significant other freely can diminish. They do not simply go away after you finish your service, either.

We are a lucky generation of Peace Corps Volunteers – blessed with technology and Internet, keeping in touch with Jordanian friends and family is as simple as logging onto Skype. Maintaining relationships after your Peace Corps service is finished means maintaining the lies you told as well. The decision to accept an invitation to serve in Jordan not only has to come with the understanding that during your service you will remain closeted, but most likely after your service is complete as well. For me, the relationships that I developed in Jordan were just as, if not more, important than the projects I designed and participated in. The stress of having to continue hiding what is becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life from people I now consider family does not lessen after close of service. Yes, I signed up for two years of Peace Corps, but I also seemed to have signed up for a lifetime of hiding my identity from a portion of the people I love and care about.

There are plenty of pros and cons to serving as a lesbian in Jordan. The same goes for gay male volunteers, though due to cultural norms and expectations of men, their experiences can be very different. No two experiences are the same, but for me the pros outweighed the long list of cons. I learned about other aspects of myself apart from my sexual orientation. I also learned how important my lesbian identity is to me. I have a better understanding of what it takes to form true friendships, and how dishonesty can bring them down. I had my first two wonderful experiences at a PRIDE event, and now whole-heartedly appreciate the ability to celebrate diversity on a daily basis. Finally, of course, thanks to Jordan, and against all odds, I fell in love.

I frequently get asked if I regret going to Jordan, or if I would tell people who are LGBT to decline an invitation to serve there. No, and no, I always answer. Like I told myself a million times throughout my service – I am not the first gay volunteer to go to Jordan, and I will certainly not be the last.

This writer can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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