Safe Zone Training in Senegal: The Queer Quiz

– a current PCV

One of my proudest achievements in service, thus far, did not include attempts to end malaria, to promote nutrition for small children, or even to introduce an alternative fuel source. No, instead, my moment of glory came in the administration of a quiz, a “queer quiz,” to be exact.

At the tail end of June 2011, Gay Pride Month in America, five other volunteers joined me at the Thiès Training Center to deliver a day-long seminar on sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles. Our target audience was a group of local Peace Corps staff members whose job it is to provide language training and cultural support to Peace Corps Trainees. Also in attendance were other key members of the Peace Corps Senegal staff, including the Training Director, Safety and Security Coordinator, and the Medical Officers. This training (called Safe Zone Training) was originally put together by volunteers in The Gambia, the small country that cuts through the middle of Senegal, and was shared at our Gender and Development Summit a few months earlier. The Gambia version was itself a version of Safe Zone Training developed by volunteers in Guatemala. It focuses on increasing the staff’s awareness of different sexual identities and instructs them on how to support volunteers that come to them with personal issues. Homosexual acts are not only considered immoral by the religious leaders here, but they are also punishable by law. In 2007, 96% of the Senegalese population surveyed said that homosexuality should be rejected by society and, in the past 3 years, 14 Senegalese men have been arrested and 5 imprisoned for illicit homosexual behavior. Just two months ago, several of my friends and I were stunned upon reading a front page news article declaring a “jihad” on homosexuality, wherein one of the most prestigious religious leaders suggested that those found guilty of this heinous crime be stoned on the streets.

They say that serving in the Peace Corps is the “toughest job you’ll ever love”, but when that job comes with the challenge of masking your true identity for fear of personal harm or imprisonment, as it did for 14% of the volunteers who swore in last year, that makes the job even tougher and, frankly, this just didn’t sit well with me. I was raised to be open-minded and accepting of people’s differences and I include in my “circle of love” many people whose lifestyles differ from my own. My mother recalls a phone call she received from me in college after I’d witnessed a KKK march where little kids stood next to their parents holding signs with anti-gay slogans. I was livid at them; she was proud of me; and yes, I said KKK, as in Ku Klux Klan. I’m not blind to the fact that discrimination is still alive and well in our great nation, but I’ve never been one to tolerate it. When I arrived in Senegal, and realized that many of my friends who had been “out” at home had to go back into the closet here in order not to offend their host families or, worse, subject themselves to possible danger or arrest, it made me feel as uncomfortable as they did. Living in this foreign culture is hard enough without the added burden of trying to change who you are. So, I took matters into my own hands and pushed to have this training.

The SeneGAD (Senegal Gender and Development) Board met at the beginning of May and approved my proposal. Shortly thereafter, we had full support from our Country Director, and we formed a Safe Zone Committee of interested volunteers from around the country to review and modify the training materials we’d gathered. In less than 2 months, we conducted our first day-long session to 12 attendees. We covered basic vocabulary, issues faced by homosexual volunteers, current gay rights around the world, the stages and difficulties of coming out, testimonials shared by current volunteers, and anti-gay behavior. We spent the last hour of the session discussing the definition and role of an “ally” and how our staff can be supportive of volunteers who have issues related to their sexual orientation. At the end, we passed out the “queer quiz”, which was really just an evaluation form, asking attendees about how their perceptions may have changed from the beginning of the class. Across the board, the participants demonstrated an increase in understanding and a willingness to discuss these issues. We had lively and open discussion throughout the day and everyone agreed that this was a topic that no one had felt comfortable broaching before and that this training was long overdue.

We may not have changed a nation’s attitude, but we connected with a room full of people who provide daily support in the lives of future Peace Corps Volunteers as they struggle to understand a new language and acclimate to a new culture. We “helped promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” which is the second goal John F. Kennedy defined for the Peace Corps. Even though most of our participants still hold strong to their religious/legal beliefs regarding these matters, they’re open to accepting and supporting others whose beliefs are different from theirs. Like all countries where Peace Corps is present, Senegal is a developing country with a young democracy, so of course there is room for improvement when it comes to many rights and the concept of equality.

Even we, in America, don’t quite have this right yet, as we were reminded by the late Coretta Scott King, but we’re trying. “We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say ‘common struggle’ because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”

Senegal Safe Zone Training materials.

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

Safe Zone Training in Jordan

We recently heard from Peace Corps volunteers in Jordan about continuing Safe Zone Training there. This year’s session had some additional changes to the training script so that it fit better within a Jordanian context. Like Safe Zone sessions in other Peace Corps countries, this was based on the Safe Zone training developed and taught by volunteers in Guatemala a couple of years back (available here). Jordan volunteers conducted their third Safe Zone training this September with the new PCV members of their Peer Support Network and several staff members who had not yet been through the training conducted last year. Two new volunteers will be trained in the coming months as Safe Zone facilitators to take the place of volunteers who are completing their service at the end of 2011. The files included with this article contain an updated trainer script, Power Point slides and a participant packet. Volunteers in countries with similar religious and cultural backgrounds will find this training package a good starting place for developing examples within the context of their individual countries.

Jordan volunteers are also training Language and Cultural Facilitators (local trainers who will train the new volunteers) on American and Peace Corps diversity issues. Included in this training are issues of “covert” diversity and specifically the experiences confronting LGBT and Jewish volunteers. Volunteers who have been involved in Safe Zone and Diversity training for local Peace Corps staff comment on the success of these sessions.

Questions about the Jordanian sessions can be directed to editor, Mike Learned, learned_mike@yahoo.com.

Training Materials:

The History of Safe Zone Training in Peace Corps

- Mike Learned, RPCV, Malawi, Editor

I first heard of Safe Zone training in 2004 when we featured the article “The Double Life of Gay Volunteer in Kenya” by Eric Shea, who had just returned from his PC service in Kenya. He and his PCV colleagues had created a training package to train the local Peace Corps staff about issues of American diversity, including gay people. I quote a short paragraph from his article.“I became part of the volunteer-run Diversity and Peer Support group, using it as a tool to break down the walls in Peace Corps Kenya. With barely any support from senior administration and no budget, DPS has trained all permanent staff on issues regarding American diversity and Peace Corps’ policies. Among other things, we have facilitated diversity panels and peer-support workshops. Through DPS, the ideal of diversity has gained respect and understanding from staff and volunteers, raised awareness about Americans and established a solid Safe Zone for all people committed to Peace Corps Kenya.”I had become more aware of Safe Zone training since then. A year ago we put an article and Safe Zone Training attachments on our web site authored by PCV, Guatemala, Grant Picarillo and his PCV colleagues. Here is Grant’s explanation of Safe Zone training.

“Safe Zone” is a LGBT sensitivity, acceptance and awareness training exercise designed to promote understanding and promote ally development among our straight peers. Subsequently, the mission is simple. By facilitating a better understanding of LGBT issues among Peace Corps staff, LGBT trainees and volunteers will feel more supported, comfortable and accepted in their individual interactions with staff members and thus in their service as a whole.”

Since that time LGBT PCVs and their Volunteer supporters have hosted or are planning Safe Zone training or versions of it in several countries: The Gambia, Jordan, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. What I find incredibly amazing about this is that this has all been spear-headed, developed, adapted and trained by LGBT PCVs and straight PCV allies. These are not training packages developed by PC HQ in Washington. Our Peace Corps volunteer compatriots have seen a need for this and “done it.”

I recently met with Bryan, back from his PC service in Jordan. He was one of the PCVs who provided Safe Zone training to new PCVs and Jordanian staff at the Peace Corps office in Amman. He told me how one of his PCV colleagues had seen the Safe Zone training developed by Guatemala PCVs on our website, then adapted it for training sessions for both new PCVs arriving in Jordan, but also much of the Jordanian PC staff. These sessions were quite successful, much more active participation than the six PCVs (both gay and straight) who conducted the training expected. Bryan described seeing the Safe Zone stickers posted throughout the PC office afterward. There are plans to continue the training this year, and to continue to adapt it to better fit cultural norms in Jordan. We plan to have this Middle-East version on our website at the end of the year, after these further adaptions.

We have recently added to our website two additional resources, Marnie Florin’s Gambia package (add the Gambia link address here) and Brad Mattan’s and his PCV colleagues’ Ecuador brochure. All of these pieces can be adapted for any Peace Corps country. No one has to start from scratch.

Coming Out and Safe Zone Training in The Gambia

-Marnie Florin, RPCV, 2008-2010

Author’s Comment:
Alongside this article should be everything you need to conduct the Safe Zone Training in your own country: a detailed lesson plan, the hand-out, a message from the country director, a vocabulary list, power point slides and much more. Even though some of the content is specific to The Gambia, it could easily be adapted for other countries.
Training Materials

Prior to arriving in The Gambia in November 2008, I had no idea that homosexuality was not only illegal there, but also punishable by death—the president made a public statement that he would behead any known homosexuals in the country. It was not a big issue for me as I was not “that gay” at the time. In fact, I did not even mention being gay in any of my Peace Corps interviews. As a result, I had no idea that lying about my sexuality for two years would be one of the hardest parts of my service. I also never could have imagined that, after spending two years in a conservative, Muslim country, I would go back to America gayer than ever.

Unlike a lot of my peers in Orange County, CA, I have very liberal, Jewish parents and have had the same gay hairdresser since age four, so I always knew gay people existed and vehemently believed that they deserved the same rights as everyone else. But, I never had one gay female or male friend, even after I left Orange County and attended college at Emory University in Atlanta. During my Peace Corps service, I befriended so many different kinds of people: environmentally aware hippies (I had never heard of Leave No Trace, nor had I ever met anyone that wore Chaco’s), androgynous boys and girls and, most importantly, lots of gays.

I have heard many of people say it and have said it a lot myself: You will never find a more open and accepting community than the PC Volunteer community. As conservative, scary and judgmental as the Gambian political climate is, that is how non-judgmental the Gambian PCVs are. I did not have a plan as to when or how I was going to come out to my fellow trainees, but everyone was so welcoming that despite my being unable to say, “I am gay,” a month earlier in America, I ended up doing just that during my first week in country.

After that initial “out,” I became more and more comfortable with my sexuality. I later learned that exposure to and acceptance into the gay community is an extremely important step for completing the Acceptance Phase of the coming-out process. While it felt great to be able to say, “I am gay,” the more comfortable I became with my sexuality, the more difficult it became to live a lie in my village. I was starting to develop really close friendships with several host-country nationals (HCNs) in my village and among the PC staff, and wanted more than anything to be honest with them about who I was (in fact, I think I would have extended a third year if I did not have to lie about being gay).

Unfortunately, I was always warned not to come out to HCNs in my village, as it could lead to my being removed from village, and possibly the country, if anything went wrong. But, after hearing from several PCVs that a younger, female Gambian PC staff member, whom I was close with, was an ally, I came out to her. She was incredibly helpful and definitely served as a great asset to us PCVs in trying to reach the other staff members. A little later, two volunteers carried out a Diversity Training with the language/cultural trainers (LCFs). The training did not focus too much on homosexuality, but during the session, one volunteer bravely came out to the LCFs. Not long after that, I came out to two more female, Gambian staff members.

Learning to embrace my sexuality, I began to develop a strong urge to work on gay issues in any capacity possible. During my second year, I became the head of PC Gambia’s LGBT Committee and joined the LGBT RPCV listserv. While on their website, I discovered material used in a Safe Zone Training in Guatemala. I pitched the idea of doing the training with PC Gambia staff, explaining that this is an American institution and as such, all staff members must adhere to American laws while working in their capacity as PC employees, including anti-discriminatory laws. Several members of our direct-hire staff (non-locals – Americans and other expatriates) were against it. They did not think that the Gambian staff was capable of accepting homosexuality in volunteers and they didn’t think we PCVs were capable of pulling the training off. The Gambian staff, go figure, was 100% supportive of the training and wanted all staff members (drivers, cleaners, etc. to be present). I could not have been more impressed. A compromise was finally reached and it was decided that the training staff and senior staff members would attend the training. Although I wanted more staff to go, I was extremely happy with the end result.

I and the other ten members of the LGBT Committee were given five hours to carry out the training. Using the initial training material and PowerPoint provided on this website as a foundation (THANK YOU PC Guatemala for the idea and all the materials!), I spent countless hours over several months creating an interactive curriculum appropriate to this country that included role-plays, skits, games, etc. Each committee member was then assigned one or more sections and spent a lot of time making sure his/her sections were the best they could be.

As a result of all our efforts, the training was a huge success. Given The Gambia’s views on homosexuality, much of the training’s content was sensitive and potentially divisive. Fortunately, all the staff members were extremely participatory: we facilitators were blown away by their insightful comments and open-mindedness. The staff’s concern for and desire to support volunteers was very evident, especially among the Gambian staff, whose own culture and religion largely shun homosexuality. I would like to share some highlights from the evaluations, which were completely anonymous:

  • Seventeen of the twenty staff participants indicated that their opinions on LGBQ# issues had “absolutely changed” from the start of the presentation. The other three participants had already identified themselves as allies before the training.

We asked participants before the training, and after it was finished, “What do you think of when you hear the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’?” Here are the pre- and post-training responses from two participants:

  • Pre: “Scared, embarrassed and confused.”

Post: “Fine happy knowledgeable.”

  • Pre: “Some one’s way of expressing their sexuality.”

Post: “Each human being has the right to express your sexuality in any way youchoose.”

The following are some of the answers to the question, “In what ways, if any, has your opinion changed?”:

  • “The people are made with different opinions which are to be respected.”
  • “More prepared and ready accept the homosexuality from now on.”
  • “I have a clear view of what homosexuality is, and how to prepare to support them.”
  • “LGBQ have right to exist.”
  • “That they exist and that they need to be supported”

Here are some responses to the last question, “Any other comments, concerns, or unanswered questions?”:

  • “Wonderful presentation and it has really broadened my concept about the gay community.”
  • “Every staff should respect the LGBQ and be friendly to them so as to have a comfortable stay in the country.”
  • “Every member of PC staff needs to go through this training, it is very helpful.”

These comments are part of a larger report on the training.

I would also like to add that I did eventually come out to one of my best friends in my village, an HCN. This did not happen until a few months before I completed my service. She and I were very close (she named her baby after me) and I could not stand lying to her anymore. It was killing me. I trusted my instinct that she would be ok with my being gay and she was 100%. I cannot tell you how amazing it felt to be honest with her. Then, about a month after being back in America, I told another one of my very close Gambian friends over Facebook chat. One of my few literate friends, he runs the internet café in the town near me. He wrote me back an email that said in huge letters, “Homosexuality is OK to me.” It made me cry. I am not saying you should tell every HCN about your sexuality, just be smart about it. Test the waters and trust your instinct, just as you probably did when you were first coming out to people in America.

I urge everyone to try and conduct this training and if you have any questions at all, please email me:marnie.florin@gmail.com.

Safe Zone: Making Peace Corps Havens for LGBT PCV/Ts Worldwide

-Grant Martin Picarillo, PCV, Guatemala, 2008-2010

Overview:

“Safe Zone” is a LGBT sensitivity, acceptance and awareness training exercise designed to promote understanding and promote ally development among our straight peers. Subsequently, the mission is simple. By facilitating a better understanding of LGBT issues among Peace Corps staff, LGBT trainees and volunteers will feel more supported, comfortable and accepted in their individual interactions with staff members and thus in their service as a whole. On a recent Monday early in the New Year, Peace Corps Guatemala completed an all staff Safe Zone training. Sparking dialogue, engaging questions and presentation of new and real facts about LGBT people, Safe Zone in Guatemala was a great success. Here’s how and why we did it.

Why Safe Zone in Peace Corps is Necessary:

An inclusive and accepting environment of mutual support and acceptance is vital to relationship building between PCV/Ts and PC administration and staff. This fact can be particularly true when it comes to LGBT issues such as “coming out,” personal sharing, feelings of safety and security, self-esteem, and mental health. Dealing with a LGBT identity can be hard in the United States, let alone in a different and often more “conservative” culture of Guatemala. All this is going on while dealing with the other adjustments that being a PCV entails. Speaking from personal experience, I found dealing with my sexual orientation identity in this new environment to be one of the hardest adjustments in my transition from American to Guatemalan living. One of the mediating factors to this challenge has been my interaction with Peace Corps staff. While I can’t say I have ever felt discriminated against or unsupported there have been moments of uncertainty and doubt. For example, questions such as “Is it OK if my APCD knows that I’m gay?” “Can I openly talk about my boyfriend with a Spanish teacher when we share stories in language class?” “What if I have to ask the nurse a question that “outs” me?” While some of these questions are applicable to my own case and others not, I can promise that all of these and more have been concerns to countless volunteers. The negative ramifications of these feelings and hesitations can be harmful to the volunteer and to her or his ability to thrive in their community. Compounding this situation is the sad reality that we non-straight identifying volunteers (for the most part) must live a lie in site for two years; acting as heterosexual for the sake of our safety and integration. To have few obvious outlets to be open and honest, neither on site nor in our interactions with staff could be extremely damaging to one’s Peace Corps experience.

Therefore, it is my strong belief that should the general knowledge of LGBT issue be raised and should any number of staff members sport the “acceptance symbol” (see attachment as a model to one we could design on our own) on their door or in their office as a symbol to say “I’m a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues,” the PC community in Guatemala would be healthier, safer, and more inclusive. Note: as is also outlined in our safe zone script, PC-Washington also states that all PC-Centers must be supportive and accepting places for volunteers. So from the PCV community up and the Washington headquarters down PC Posts worldwide have little excuse not to engage their LGBT volunteer community.

How We Did It:

Starting with a proposal from our LGBT representative on our Gender and Development – Committee (GAD), the Safe Zone idea was presented to our Peace Corps Training Officer (PTO) and Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO). While they were initially receptive to the idea, I followed up by modifying and combining various LGBT centric resources I had, including a Safe Zone training script I received while at college from New York University’s LGBT resource center, to create a Peace Corps Specific Safe zone module. From there, GAD presented the proposed 2-hour agenda of activities to the aforementioned staff contacts. Impressed, our PTO and PCMO gave me the green light to present our “Safe Zone” training to staff. Seeing the importance of this training, our staff liaisons coded the upcoming Safe Zone training as a mandatory event for all staff (they rightly assumed that should this not be mandatory some staff would choose not to attend because of the subject matter at hand…which is exactly the point of the training! To raise staff “comfort level” with LGBT issues). From here, our organizing committee reached out staff members we already knew to be allies to as them to facilitate parts of the workshop. With buy-in from various staff members – Guatemalan and American – and not just the token gay volunteer and socially liberal American staff, we were able to communicate before even starting that it’s OK… “cool” even, to be an ally.

With our safe zone script finalized and sticker logo printed (see attachments) it was game time. Coming together, myself, our GAD chairwoman, PTO, PCMO, Country Director (CD) and 2 other Peace Corps Alphabet soup facilitators executed the 2 hour safe zone training on Monday the 25th of January, 2010 to a captive, curious, and willing to engage (SUCCESS!) audience.

Conclusion and Follow Up:

An important part of Safe Zone for Peace Corps Guatemala was ensuring the change was not just internally processed staff member to staff member…but that PCT/Vs were able to more obviously understand and see that our PC center was a place of total acceptance and support. Therefore, as a concluding part of our training, we allowed staff to take our in-house safe zone logo (circle of rainbow colored hand prints) and stick it up in a visible place somewhere in their office or workspace. Low and behold, the majority of attendees took not just 1 but two stickers to hang up, as did they take all copies of other LGBT/GAD resources I had previously created: “How to fight homophobia in site,” “What to expect as an LGBT PCV,” and our fall 2008 “Gender Blender” newsletter containing upwards of 5 articles about homosexuality in Guatemala. With stickers in place our Peace Corps office and training center is a visible safe zone, with more staff then not sporting their rainbow stickers implicitly saying “I’m an ally… a safe person to talk to about LGBT issues.”

We here in PC-Guatemala are hoping to have some follow up dialogue about the many questions raised during our session. Most pressing of all, were perhaps the many questions from APCDs concerning either: a) how to select a site for a LGBT volunteer and b) what to do when they believe the volunteer is struggling with sexuality issues in Guatemala but has yet to come out to them. These are all good questions that GAD and our PCMO are working on addressing more concretely in the near future.

While many hours of work were involved in “making this happen,” I have been thrilled with the immediate results and ongoing dialogue. We all have unique PC experiences and challenges and while helping LGBT volunteer mitigate some of the potential landmines of service is just one step in the right direction, it is an important step, and one we must take. Saludos from Guatemala!

Workshop Materials:

Contact Grant regarding any questions about the Safe Zone training, accessing Spanish translations and/or implementing a Safe Zone at your post at gmpicarillo@gmail.com.

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