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

Waiting 30 Years for Peace Corps and Ukraine

-Edwin S. Patout, RPCV, Ukraine 2005-07

The name conjures up a compelling sense of overseas service and adventure, motivating the interested spirit with an inspiring challenge. Peace Corps volunteers bound together by this irresistible fusion have answered life’s call. Peace Corps service is the sum total of many experiences, shared by all who are branded RPCV. I am profoundly proud to be in that distinguished and distinctive herd.

My first real connection with Peace Corps is a special memory, and no doubt that fateful encounter played a part in my eventual reconnection. As a college student from rural south Louisiana I was given the opportunity to work for a sugar plantation on the island of Hawaii. It was 1969, a summer of the unimaginable. A summer bookmarked, not by my personal experience, but the televised broadcast of man’s walk on the moon. Watching the amazing accomplishment from a small Hawaiian village on the Hamakua coast seemed as exotic as a moon walk itself. I had recently been transported to an island paradise, its tropical landscape breathtakingly beautiful, and the engaging inhabitants a blend of cultures with whom I shared a similar economic history, the production of raw sugar. Yet, this new state with its burgeoning tourist trade and spiraling property values was preparing to embrace a more modern economic base. The plantation system was nearing an end.

Change also brought assimilation and the demise of ethnic entertainment, such as the local movie house where I spent Saturday afternoons with co-workers watching, while speed reading subtitles, outrageous Japanese B movies. I lived near the Honokaa sugar mill, amongst acres of sugar cane, off the old scenic road that meandered through the lush coastal cliffs from Hilo, the big island’s largest city. Five miles up from where I lived this road ended. There at cliff’s edge one could behold the spectacular view of Waipio Valley.

This vista took in mammoth coastal cliffs as they dropped thousands of feet to create a jungle floor with lush green foliage and colorful fruit plants canopied by large protruding red blossomed flame trees. The massive valley fronted the ocean with a black sand beach, to the back dramatically rising terrain produced waterfalls highlighting this natural wonder.

A hike down to the valley floor required careful negotiation. On some of trips the winding dirt road showed signs of being tracked by all terrain vehicles, but on my several visits few vehicles or people were sighted. The steep graded trip down ended near the beach. Overgrown paths heading back into the valley invited trespass. This cautious trod revealed several isolated taro farms, and continuing further towards the middle of the valley the discovery of what appeared to be an abandoned native village. I later learned it was a Peace Corps training camp used for volunteers headed to Micronesia. The secluded spot complete with tree houses, rope ladders, and luau pits could have easily been the set for Treasure Island, an impression not easily forgotten.

Returning to Louisiana to finish school future possibilities seemed unlimited. Peace Corps service, a commitment to cultural exchange and global understanding imbedded in a naive young mind.

Idyllic college days ended the next year as real life drama was delivered to my door. The draft board notice to appear for a physical in New Orleans produced a shutter of disbelief.    Had I been in denial, thinking my low draft lottery number would not be called? This diminutive closeted homosexual was going to be conscripted sustenance, new nourishment for a misguided military machine. Being drafted for service in Vietnam was not an option. Time was short and the local draft board was unwilling to delay induction pending a Peace Corps application. The urgent matter required immediate action. I decided to end this torment and enlist in the National Guard. I was fortunate. This momentous decision appears innocuous today, but for a twenty-one year old man child boarding a bus headed for basic training, it was horrific. Sentenced to prison for something I was not involved in. I had never before experienced the deprivation of free choice or self-determination.

The arrival at Fort Polk is burned in my memory banks. The shouted commands and frantic exit from the army green school bus deposited me in front of a raging army drill sergeant, tall muscular black man whose raspy vocals yelled, “Sissy, hit the ground for fifty push-ups.”  That night I lay to rest on a cold bottom bunk in an old army barracks. Peering up at the rack’s springs, motionless in my open cage. Manhood earned.

Active duty ended and I returned home ecstatic to learn I had been accepted into law school. The first year of law school, a subject prolifically portrayed in books and movies is exactly as presented. I made the cut, the pressure was off, and the headiness of college days returned, monthly warrior duty notwithstanding. All was good as I entered my senior year, but short-lived when tragedy came calling.

The words from the receiver pierced my soul. The dropped phone twirled as I slumped and moaned from hearing the unexpected news of his death. Best friends since high school, the unrecognized nature of our relationship and the sudden loss of this requited but unspoken love shattered me. He departed without talk or touch, leaving me to bear an internal languish sure to linger until my own death.

I graduated and returned home alone disguising the torrent of emotion I suffered. Coming to terms with being gay would have eventually determined the nature of our relationship, but heart wrenching speculation is unnecessary. I was coming out, confused and disconnected by all that I had known. The anesthetized pleasures of French Quarter gay bars provided comfort. It was 1974, my subsequent survival through the next decades a miracle. An angel cared, the recurring tearful memories kept him looking on.

Being gay is always filled with complicated challenges quantified by the closet door. Mine was neither locked nor off the hinges, more of a swinging door, opened if you want to come in. Early on I was out to close family and friends and my social life revolved around them. Satisfying as that was I had separated professional life from private life and the increasing anxiety generated from weighty business engagements drew in the storm clouds. Balancing acts get tiresome, especially public intercourse that limits you from revealing your nature. Long term committed relationships share this burden, kudos’ to my brother and his partner

For thirty years I practiced law in the small town where I was born. I had prominently served my community, recognized for pro bono legal services to the economically disadvantaged and people suffering with HIV/AIDS. Despite my success a crisis of sameness was smothering me. I literally collapsed under the provincial weight of my circumstance. Seeking the help of a therapist and support from close family and friends the painful state was shared. With their support I began a deliberate process for life change. Change can happen.

Lifting the window shade I stirred in the plane seat after hours of semi-conscience thought. Blinding light poured in. My eyes slowly adjusted to a framed view of the earth’s curve looking like the top of huge white cone covered in brilliant azure blue. We were preparing to land in Kiev on a cold winter’s day. The in-flight meditation awoke to the reality and the enucleation from the familiar took hold. I was overcome with joy. Dream fulfilled.

It was March 2005 when I arrived in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was 56 years old and gay. Except for a tiny storage unit back home I carried what remained of my physical possessions, a large duffel bag and back pack.

I presented myself for service with no expectations and certainly none that included what gay life would be like. Although cultural exchange is an important piece to Peace Corps service I had a more parochial view that did not include promoting gay rights in a repressed former communist state. Leave that issue for the human rights activist. Personal matters were important, wanting to make sure Peace Corps staff and fellow volunteers knew I was gay. Thankfully this task was helped along at our arrival confab. An excellent presentation from the PCV GLTB support group, it was a WOW event. How tremendous, easily making friends with my gay brothers and sisters. I embraced my new name Papa Bear.

Rumors aside, placement in a rural Ukrainian village was not to be. Assigned to a university teaching post I boarded an overnight train in Kiev rumbling to a real life fantasy. L’viv, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains is an ancient eastern European city located near the Polish border. It escaped the ravages of WWII and consequently a protected UNESCO world heritage site. Dating from the 13th century (I celebrated its 750th anniversary in 2006) historic orthodox churches, spires like needles atop onion domes, dominate the cityscape. Layered throughout the city were massive ornate buildings including an opulent opera house and prince’s palace. The exquisitely preserved town square rivaled any in Europe. Architecturally not much had changed since 20th century’s first occupying power, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire were removed following WWI. I lived in the center of this time capsule.

Southern hospitality reigned as I regularly entertained the GLTB support group and many other traveling volunteers. Weekend parties, sleepovers, all the camaraderie helped through the long winter stretches. Often I was in contact with a nearby gay volunteer, younger with much better language skills. He had connected with a couple of gay Ukrainian students in L’viv. Through the students we learned that a gay group from Kiev was coming to L’viv for a HIV fundraiser. Never mind that it was a school night, it was gay life to behold. After traditional vodka shots we trotted ourselves out for the midnight event. Buzz the door, down the steps and into the dark mirrored room blaring sounds of familiar disco music. This one event was the only community gay life I experienced in L’viv. Kiev was where it was happening, with one large disco located just outside of town and two smaller downtown bars. It was the gay epicenter of Ukraine. A twelve hour overnight train ride made the Kiev trip difficult but I would try to get there for the quarterly GLBT support group meeting. More accessible was gay life in Ukraine revealed through internet surfing at my home desk. Fortunately, L’viv was a tourist destination for adventuresome travelers. I registered on several gay websites and received occasional hits from gay travelers coming from all parts to visit L’viv. Several meetups led to some interesting and lasting connections. That was fun, but community gay life was non-existent, two years arrived just in time, I was starved to reconnect with my culture and community.

My Peace Corps experience was amazing and I returned home with a healed

spirit and a renewed appreciation for American culture and values. The experience was about service to country and the goodwill that comes from the exchanging knowledge and gaining understanding of people from another country. Peace Corps challenges you to step into this adventure no matter your age or orientation. I did and it’s the best part of my life’s story.

Edwin Patout is living, working and volunteering in Washington DC. He can be contacted at edwinpatout@yahoo.com

Ukraine to Mozambique – a World of Difference

-Jeffrey Janis, RPCV, Ukraine, Group 26, 2004 – 2006

I recently went to visit Zachery, a Peace Corps Volunteer friend, in Mozambique in southeastern Africa. I know that in my two years in Peace Corps in Ukraine people often teased me about being in the “Posh Corps” and that it wasn’t hardcore – like Peace Corps Africa. Well, in some ways they were right, but not in the ways I expected. Here are a few impressions of my trip.

The official language of Mozambique is Portuguese so I was able to read most of the signs and understand them, even with my poor Spanish. It was much easier for Zachery to learn than our learning Russian or Ukrainian. But his being white makes him totally stick out. There are very few white faces on the streets and they are typically either tourists (very few) or mostly aid workers. The EU sends more money to Mozambique than almost any other country because it is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Throughout Mozambique I saw lots of UNICEF, World Vision, Save the Children, etc. vans and met quite a few people who work for these organizations. You can pretty much assume that most white faces are with one of those organizations. So when people there looked at us, they did not see “rich Americans” but rather people there to help them. This made it easier as people don’t see Zachery as a spy, like they did me in Ukraine. On the other hand it seemed much harder for him to blend in and make friends like I could during my time in Ukraine.

Throughout the entire vacation we took only local transportation (chapas). I have never seen so many people cram into a tiny minibus. They make the Ukrainian minibuses (marshrukas) seem nice. People were all over each other and just when you thought they couldn’t get one more person onboard, the driver would stop and pick up 3 more people. My time there was their winter so I can not begin to imagine how unbearably hot and smelly and dirty the chapas are in the summer.

When we got to Zachery’s village, I looked at him and said “Oh my god – we’re in Africa!” Most of the homes in the village are mud huts. Some of them have thatch walls and tin roofs.  His home has a concrete floor and electricity, yet no running water, but the “bathroom” (read hole in the ground) and “shower” (read bucket baths) are actually quite comfortable and clean. Since it was now winter (highs around 85 and lows around 55) it was comfortable taking a shower later in the day.

I know I would not be able to deal with Mozambique’s hot summers. Zachery said that he could never deal with the Ukrainian winters I described. Most days in Mozambique were sunny and beautiful. I was 100% healthy the entire time I was there, yet his food options are incredibly limited. Zachery has an empregada (maid) who cooks most of his food, cleans his house 3 days a week, takes care of his dog and cats, goes grocery shopping for him, and does his laundry. He pays her $20 a week. Sure makes his basic quality of life much easier than what I had it in Ukraine!

Everywhere we went people smiled on the streets and said hello to each other. There is a warmth and sincerity toward total strangers. Unlike living in Ukraine, I was not constantly in fear of my knapsack being stolen, or the house being broken into, or someone mugging us on the street. I felt totally safe. Mozambique is a beautiful country and there is not the constant oppressive feeling I felt daily in Ukraine from the drab, gray, cold, soviet style block buildings.

Most PCVs in Mozambique don’t really have long and demanding schedules. Although I didn’t work 40+ hours a week in Ukraine, I still felt like I was at work a lot and got a lot done. My life in Ukraine felt very familiar and similar to my life in the US, only on a different continent. Zachery’s life is totally different than anything anyone would ever live in the US, and that is both exciting and exhausting.

And there are beautiful places to go on vacation in Mozambique. We spent a few days farther north at Bara Lodge. Bara is along a beach and is gorgeous! It’s a resort area and incredibly beautiful, relaxing, and great food. After two days of relaxing we left and it took us eight hours on various chapas to get back to his village. At one point we were trying to transfer at a bus station. We were literally on 5 different chapas at this one station. The first one tried to leave and they couldn’t get the engine started. The next one decided it didn’t want to take us all where we wanted to go. I lost track of what all the issues were. All I remember is that we kept taking our bags and transferring to another chapa. We both had nothing to eat and little to drink as we didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom as they don’t make bathroom breaks. Finally around 4:00 pm we bought some crackers and ate them.

By the time we arrived back to his village it was dark. We were hot, tired, dehydrated, dirty, and walked in the pitch dark the 2 miles back to Zachery’s home. His empregada had dinner waiting for us. It was a mush of beans, fresh coconut milk, and a root vegetable. It was actually quite tasty but not terribly filling. It was too dark and cold to take showers. We played cards for a little bit and then it started to rain, and then pour.  And since his home has a tin roof, it sounded like the house was being shot at by gun fire. It was an amazing sound. And then the power went out. About 15 minutes later, at 10:15 pm we realized that it was probably time to call it a day. I decided to go to the outhouse one last time before I went to sleep. I was greeted by a frog sitting right by the hole in the ground.  I squatted, did my business and went back in the house. I looked at Zachery and said “This was a long hard day. I don’t know how you do it. I am not sure I would want to do this. And this was the best day of our trip. I had so much fun.”

It was hard to be in Mozambique and not compare it to my life in Ukraine. There are about 120 PCVs in Mozambique and they are almost all under 30. (Ukraine has 300+ PCVs and about 20% are over 50 years old.) Their PC office is only open Monday – Friday from 9-5. (The PC Ukraine office was open 6:00 am – midnight 7 days a week.) Mozambique is huge, almost the length of Los Angeles to Chicago and the volunteers who live in the far north either need to travel for 2 days on chapas to get to the capital or pay $250 for a plane ride. The PCVs can travel within Mozambique as much as they want and it does not count towards their vacation time. (Not true for PC Ukraine.) Their country director is loved by all PCVs and there is minimal tension within the office.(Not true for PC Ukraine – our country director had many PCVs who strongly disliked him and many staff members confided in me that they were not impressed with his managerial style.) The staff in Mozambique is helpful and treats the PCVs with respect and dignity, and they don’t feel that there is a constant heavy eye leering over them as PCVs. Most PCVs I met there liked the PC staff and spoke highly of Peace Corps as an organization. (Most PCVs in Ukraine would get together and complain about PC and certain staff members.)

Zachery would hear my stories about life in Ukraine and Peace Corps staff and tell me that he could never be a PCV in Ukraine. I actually think that in many ways, Mozambique is Posh Corps! And yet, somehow, as much as I hated certain aspects of my two years in Ukraine, I would choose to be there in a second over Mozambique. An amazing trip with many realizations! Peace Corps assignments can be so incredibly different from one another.

Jeffrey Janis can be reached at jeffreyjanis@yahoo.com

 

Gay and Jewish: Two Closet Doors Slammed Shut in Ukraine

-Jeffrey Janis, RPCV Ukraine, 2004-2006

I think we all believe that we had a “unique” Peace Corps experience – different from all other PCVs. In my case, my unique niche seems to be that I left for Ukraine at age 44 as an activist in both the LGBT community and in the Jewish community. Knowing I was going to a country that was part of the former Soviet Union, I suspected that I would have to go into the closet as a gay man. And I was placed in a country with one of the worst histories in terms of its treatment of Jews. There were more Jews killed during WWII from Ukraine than any of the other former Soviet republics. A recent study shows that from 2004 – 2005, there was a 50% increase in violent anti-Semitic attacks against individuals in Ukraine and 36% of Ukrainians do not want to see Jews as citizens. I realized that I might also have to go in the closet as a Jew.

Upon arrival it was clear to me what I felt I had to do. Being a gay and Jewish activist gave me the unique challenge of going back into the closet after a life and professional career dedicated to openness and reconciliation with identity. Although I came out of the closet more than 20 years ago, I didn’t struggle with the decision to go back into the closet as a gay man as I knew it was my only choice if I wanted to be accepted in Ukraine. And due to the rampant anti-Semitism, I knew I had no choice but to go in the closet about being Jewish. In fact, the Peace Corps advised me to not tell my host family that I was Jewish.

In Ukraine, being Jewish is a nationality or ethnic identification. Under the Soviet time, Jews had their passports stamped “Jewish” so I was not viewed as being a Jew, even by the Ukrainian Jews. I was the American. And my Ukrainian (non-Jewish) friends felt free to relate to me Jewish jokes, as for them I was not Jewish – I was the American. This made me question my own identity – was I an American or a Jew first?

Much of their homophobia is tied in with their sexist attitudes. I was appalled to see women often dress in clothing normally reserved for prostitutes walking the streets of Hollywood Boulevard with 5 inch stiletto heals, mini skirts showing their red thong underwear, and fishnet blouses. Most Ukrainians believe that women should not be paid the same amount as a man even for doing the exact same job. Signs on restaurants seeking “beautiful girls aged 20-27” are just the beginning of the discrimination that women there face. I was totally closeted to my Ukrainian friends and most of them told me they had never met a gay person before. Every Ukrainian I met asked me “Don’t you think Ukrainian women are the most beautiful in the world? When are you going to get married?”

I got so comfortable living in the closet that I sometimes forgot that I was gay. I will always remember when my close friend Rob came from America to visit me. He talked to my English Club about being in a 23 year relationship with another man. They were all not sure how to react to his stories. I looked at the group and said “Why should I care that Rob’s gay? It doesn’t impact me on any level.”

Upon arrival, I faced many of the same struggles that all Peace Corps Volunteers in Ukraine endure. The culture shock was so intense that I often slept 12 hours a night. I had to learn a complicated new language. I lived for three month intervals with two randomly selected host families. After more than 25 years of not eating red meat, I learned to subsist on pork and salo (raw pig fat). I learned how to drink multiple shots of homemade vodka and not get drunk. I lived through the Orange Revolution and secretly joined in when more than one million people were protesting in the streets in the dead of winter. I had to deal with the bird flu and the health implications of the fallout from Chernobyl. I lived on the average wage of most Ukrainians, less than $200 a month. I took bucket baths and had to hand wash all my clothes in my bathtub. All of this made being a Peace Corps Volunteer difficult.

But I think what surprises people the most is when I tell them that none of that was very difficult. I am convinced that the one common thread that all PCVs share was dealing with the loneliness. In so many ways, our Peace Corps experiences are so incredibly parallel whether we served in Ukraine, Kyrghystan, or Kenya. We all left our comfortable surroundings and went to a foreign country – probably one we have never visited before, didn’t know a single person, or speak a word of the language. We knew nothing about the culture or the people. And yet, most of us survived to come home and share our stories with our friends and families. And yes – it was hard to go back into the closet, but the truth is, it was harder for me to go in the closet as a Jew than it was as a gay man. I knew what it felt like to be in the closet as a gay man, yet I had no idea what it felt like to be a closeted Jew.

Now that I am home, my niche seems to be speaking about my Peace Corps experience at either gay and lesbian synagogues, or synagogues which are gay friendly. I have spoken at a few synagogues and people are amazed to hear my stories of dealing with the rampant anti-Semitism and homophobia. They are fascinated to hear how I lived and the work that I did. I can see them shifting uncomfortably in their seats when I talk about the widespread corruption and the mafia. Their eyes open wide when I talk about washing all my clothes in the tub and the brutally cold winters. And they love hearing stories about my secondary projects, especially my work teaching deaf Ukrainians American Sign Language.

There are aspects of my Peace Corps service that I loved, and aspects that I hated. The truth is, as much as I may have some issues with Peace Corps and how they dealt with certain situations, I also know that I am a better person because of my experience. I am more confident and resilient. I complain less and have more realistic expectations. And I am more content with life than ever before.

When I speak in synagogues, I certainly never bash Ukraine or the Peace Corps. Instead I tell my story and how it changed my life. I can not say that every Peace Corps Volunteer should go in the closet. But it was the right decision for me. I felt that if I came out, I would not be a successful volunteer and integrate into my community. I knew that every day I was having a tangible impact in other people lives. It’s something which got me out of bed every single day – knowing I was needed and knowing I was also truly making a difference. Isn’t that really what all of us want: to make a difference in this world, to be remembered? How often do we get the opportunity to see that we are making a tangible difference, and to feel that we are truly needed and have had an impact? And I talk about the importance of following your dream and doing something to make this world a better place.

Isn’t that what life is all about?


Jeffrey Janis can be contacted at jeffreyjanis@yahoo.com

 

The Asexual Route in Ukraine

-Josh Strauss, RPCV

On the first day of training, our group was cautioned that Ukraine is a unique country in the Peace Corps world. It is a place of transition where many things look familiar to the American eye, unlike in many other Peace Corps countries, but the reality of the place is very different. Our training director used the case of the telephone as a metaphor. He said it looks like a phone, it might even act like a phone, but as we would soon discover, it was not what we would consider to be a phone. You could pick it up and hear another conversation, you dial it and you get someone you were not expecting, or while talking to someone else, a third person could appear in the conversation.

For a gay person, this idea of the telephone extends to interpersonal relationships. Ukraine can be a very confusing place. From the most superficial point of view, Ukraine can appear to be a gay paradise. One can readily see women walking hand in hand down the street; men talking to one another practically nose to nose; and men wearing clothes so tight that, well, not much is left to the imagination. But, as you look closer, you see that you have not, in fact, entered a queer Eden. You simply realize that you are living in a country where the cultural remnants of the Soviet era and general Ukrainian culture remain in marked contrast to the country you have come from.

Even with this revelation, life can still be confusing. For example, you have to remember that your same sex friend who kisses you on the lips means nothing sexual by it, it’s just a sign of happiness or excitement or, when s/he lays his head in your lap, it’s just amicable intimacy, nothing more. There is no tendency in Ukraine, unlike in the U.S., to equate physical intimacy, such as that described above, with sexuality. In fact, for the most part, Ukraine can be categorized as the epitome of a heterosexist society. The idea of heterosexuality is not only the first to be assumed, the notion of homosexuality is rarely even considered.

This explanation does not preclude the absence of homosexuality in Ukraine as a whole. On national Ukrainian TV, I not only saw such gay themed films as “To Wong Foo,” “Pricilla, Queen of the Desert,” and yes, even “Rocky Horror,” but I also saw uncensored European films with rather graphic gay sex scenes. Homosexuality is not a total unknown, and is even legal. The Soviet statute that criminalized homosexuality was repealed early in Ukrainian independence, but as a ploy for acceptance by the European Union, not as an indication of a liberalized society. There are gay bars, a gay magazine, and even a gay political party, albeit with no influence, in the country. There is also a Ukrainian drag queen, Vera Serduchka, who has videos on Ukrainian TV as well as songs on the radio.

With this background information, I come to my personal experience. My choice was not an easy one, but, after only a couple months in country, I made the decision to partially reenter the darkness of the closet, as most other gay volunteers also chose, and continue to choose to do. I was placed in a relatively large city in the south of the country in a secondary school. I quickly realized how lucky my placement was because I loved my city, my colleagues, and my students. Other volunteers from my training group were not so lucky. I made the conscious decision that a good experience at site would make me happier than being out and having to deal the possible repercussions of coming out to my community, including having to leave it. One extreme example that played a large role in my decision was the fact that the Russian word for “faggot” also means “child molester.” With such a linguistic connection and connotation, I felt that I had to tread water carefully. I chose to be out to the other volunteers in the city, and in the larger Peace Corps community, but in my host community, I chose the asexual route.

This decision was a difficult one, but the Peace Corps experience is not supposed to be a cakewalk. Part of what made the decision even harder was that every Friday night, one of the bars in the city was a gay bar. The only problem with this was that it was in the neighborhood where I lived and worked, and where the vast majority of my students and their families also lived. The time where I could be me, then would have to be away from my work site.

I only had one true gay bar experience in Ukraine, and it was somewhat intimidating. The bar was unmarked and the entrance consisted of a blue metal door. You knocked on the door, a small window was opened to see who you were, after answering a few questions, the heavy door would swing open, and then you could go in. It reminded me of entering a speakeasy or a Mafia-run casino. In either case, I felt like I was breaking the law. I decided that I did not want to feel that I was a criminal, so I decided not to go back. On another night, I made an attempt to find another gay bar with another gay volunteer. We found the right place, but apparently we were there on the wrong night. There was no one older than 16 in the place, and they were all as straight as an arrow.

But, that was my experience. I know of other gay volunteers, both male and female, who did date in Ukraine, and who did form part of the underground Ukrainian gay culture. Most cities with a couple of exceptions had no gay bars. However, many cities had networks and get-togethers in private homes. The problem with this arrangement was that there was no public mechanism for announcing these get-togethers. You needed to know someone who was in the network and, even then, the overlapping networks could exclude, at times, your contact with a network. This was frustrating because you knew that there was a community, yet breaking into that community could be difficult.

Although gay life in Ukraine was not always that comforting a place, Peace Corps Ukraine is another story. The staff was very open and understanding of gay volunteers. In fact, because of the difficulties of being queer in Ukraine that I have already described, a gay and lesbian “support” group was organized. It was not a support group in the Kleenex, tear-jerking sense of the word. Rather, it was more of a forum for us to talk things out, to validate ourselves, and to come up with strategies of dealing with the inevitable “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” and “Would you like to meet my daughter/son?” questions. It was a forum where we could be ourselves and not have to really worry about the repercussions.

Although being gay in Ukraine can be difficult, it is by no means impossible. In fact, all the queer volunteers I knew finished their service and several, including myself, extended our service. I loved my experience in Ukraine and miss it immensely. Although partially entering the closet was difficult, it by no means negatively impacted my overall experience, and it seemed right at the time. There is no panacea for the difficulties that being gay in Ukraine or in Peace Corps in general can cause. One just has to find a place where s/he feels comfortable and go from there.


Josh Strauss is now in graduate school in New England. He can be reached atjoshua.strauss@tufts.edujoshua.strauss@tufts.edu.

 

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