Training Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) on LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer Issues

- an interview with Kathleen Jordan MSN, Pre-Service Manager, Office of Medical Services

Last spring we were contacted by Kathleen Jordan from Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services (OMS). She was looking for resources to help her develop and deliver a component for this year’s (2009) Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) Continuing Medical Education (CME) that would provide information and resources to PCMOs about meeting the medical and emotional needs of LGBT PCVs. We provided her with contacts of current and recent LGBT Volunteers. We also developed and distributed an internet-based survey over our listserv. The survey was answered by 45 current PCVs and mostly recent RPCVs who serve or served in countries around the world. We sent the results to Kathleen.

LGBT RPCVs:
What prompted your project to develop a component in the 2009 CME addressing the medical and emotional needs of LGBT Volunteers?

Kathleen Jordan:
Several PCMOs indicated that they would welcome training in this area. Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services always aims to provide training to PCMOs that will assist them in effectively caring for all Peace Corps volunteers and addressing volunteers’ specific needs.

LGBT RPCVs:
Where and when were these training sessions held this year? How many PCMOs attended?

K. J.
Two were held this year: one in Washington DC in July and one in September in Thailand. All Peace Corps PCMOs worldwide attended these sessions.

LGBT RPCVs:
What did you learn from LGBT PCVs and RPCVs that helped you develop your training?

K.J.
We learned that peer-to-peer networks specific to LGBT Volunteers were very helpful and that it is important for LGBT Volunteers to have individuals within the agency to whom they can comfortably discuss the unique challenges they face in service. Returned Volunteers and currently-serving Volunteers can play a key role in this support.

LGBT RPCVs:
Were you able to include any current LGBT PCVs or RPCVs in the training sessions?

K.J.
Yes. Two LGBT RPCV staff attended the CME in Washington and 4 currently-serving LGBT PCVs attended the CME in Thailand. The participants were able to answer questions and facilitate small group work. The PCMOs greatly appreciated their participation and interaction.

LGBT RPCVs:
What kinds of questions did you get from PCMOs during the training?

K.J.
The majority of the questions revolved around how PCMOs could best meet the specific needs of LGBT Volunteers and the most appropriate ways to provide appropriate emotional support.

LGBT RPCVs:
Did the subject of establishing LGBT PCV support groups in countries of service come up? Tell us something about these discussions.

K.J.
Yes – During small group work, PCMO’s from various countries shared their thoughts about the best ways to provide support to LGBT PCVs. One option discussed was to utilize peer-to-peer networks to provide an accessible PCV support system. Another option discussed was to ensure that all Trainees were provided adequate private time to meet and speak with staff members about any confidential concerns and circumstances.

LGBT RPCVs:
Homosexuality is seen differently in countries around the world where Peace Corps serves. Some countries like Thailand, South Africa and some Latin American countries are more accepting and protect the rights of LGBT people. In other countries, particularly in Africa, homosexual acts are criminal offenses and homophobia is strong. What sort of discussions came up about these issues?

K.J.
Our discussions focused on how best to keep PCVs and Trainees safe. The PCMOs appreciated having a chance to openly talk about the specific circumstances in their countries and that the fact that they represent an important link between HQ in Washington, DC, the Volunteer and the new community in which the Volunteer will live. The PCMOs appreciated the opportunity to discuss the circumstances unique to their individual countries and best practices for effective LGBT PCV support.

LGBT RPCVs:
What sort of response did you get from the PCMOs after the training?

K.J.
They were very appreciative and they rated the session very highly.

LGBT RPCVs:
What are the plans to continue this training and maybe add to it?

K.J.
We hope to include it in the Medical Officer Staff Training that newly-hired PCMOs receive each year and are considering other ways to include it in the future.

Managing a Long Distance Peace Corps Relationship

- PCV, Ecuador

Editor’s Note: This is a slightly edited version of a response to a recent question that showed up on our listserv. A Peace Corps nominee had been in a relationship and was wondering whether she should hold on to it while in the Peace Corps or give it the old heave ho. She asked for some perspective and advice. I found a response from a current volunteer in Ecuador particularly thoughtful. Questions about managing or relinquishing relationships while an LGBT volunteer is abroad comes up fairly frequently. We’re publishing this as a newsletter item and will keep it on our web site for future reference for our sisters and brothers facing this situation.

I am about 8 months into my service and so about a year ago I was in basically the same situation. My boyfriend and I opted to stay together.  We have our reasons for that, but let me tell you it was scary as hell at the time. As another listserv poster said, communication is key. In my case, my boyfriend knew I was already deep into the Peace Corps application process at the time we started our relationship. It was perhaps a little more than foolish to start a relationship in those conditions. However, it helped that I was very straightforward about my imminent departure for Latin America (turned out to be Ecuador.) We had a few conversations about it and both understood that it was a risky thing, but that we wanted to give it a try. I think it helps to be a very realistic about the whole thing. Going away to another country to live does not necessarily mean a “goodbye forever,” however it will have an impact on you both whether you break up or not. It may even have unforeseen benefits. One of them is that such a relationship forces you to develop other aspects of your relationship which may not have been discovered, much less developed during the time together. I feel like being a PCV in a long distance relationship (and I’m by far not the only one in my omnibus) has helped me get to know my boyfriend and me in ways that other circumstances probably wouldn’t have allowed.

I don’t have anything to say with respect to whether you break up or not. It seems to me that you have decided tentatively to break up together, though you personally may be unsure. I’ll share some ideas that may or may not be helpful whichever way you go.

If you do decide to break up, I think it would be helpful to talk about the details of “when” and “how” together just as you seem to have negotiated the “what” (i.e. to eventually break up.)

If you do end up trying to “see how it goes,” don’t listen to what others tell you unless you find it useful. This goes for what I’m writing right now too. I wrote to the LGBT listserv before departing for Ecuador for advice about long distance relationships and received a very condescending “you are an idiot” kind of email from one member. If you and your partner have talked about it and agreed upon it, don’t let people from outside change that decision for you.

At any rate, here are some ideas about long distance relationships (they don’t necessarily have to be romantic relationships) that I would have liked to have received last year. They have been helpful for me and my boyfriend, though obviously every relationship is different. As I said, take it if you find it useful. (Just an FYI, I am still with my boyfriend and I’m going to visit him in June 2009!)

  1. Set up a designated day and hour to talk and/or write. Latin America generally has easy-to-find internet and cheap international calling, but this could vary in other parts of the world. This helps to establish a sense of stability in the relationship.
  2. Don’t talk or write all the time. Both partners need to live their lives where they are too. This happened to a fellow PCV who eventually broke up with her girlfriend in the US because she felt smothered.
  3. Get a support network. That is, find friends with whom you can be open, whether PCVs or local friends you can trust. It helps a lot to be able to share your struggles and rewards with good friends. I have found it especially supportive to talk to other PCVs who are in long distance relationships, particularly during pre-service training. There are inevitably fights in long distance relationships and so having that support network helps to weather them. Also, being a gay foreigner in most Peace Corps countries isn’t always that great, as you can probably imagine.
  4. Be sure to share all the boring and fascinating details of your life abroad but don’t be surprised if the other doesn’t write back much. You probably already know the kinds of things that are going on “back home.” On the other hand, the other likely has no idea what your life is like overseas. Perhaps that’s why they say it’s always harder for the one that stays behind. Informing about all those details (without being asked to) helps to fill in those blanks to keep the relationship going in the present. You don’t want to spend all of your time reminiscing.
  5. Do little things to let the other know you love him/her. Postcards, emails, text messages, gifts, etc…
  6. Try to visit or have the other visit you if possible.
  7. Have something that only you two do together when you talk. My boyfriend and I speak in Spanish pretty much exclusively and we have lots of inside jokes. Those little things help.
  8. Talk about dreams and the future, but not too seriously. This also keeps from getting stuck in nostalgia.
  9. Be prepared to be sad and lonely. That goes without saying, really. However, it does help to remind yourself that other PCVs are going through similar kinds of things, though not always with a significant other. Surprisingly, you do get used to the physical absence after a while, though it’s no walk in the park.
  10. Above all, be a good volunteer and take care of yourself. If you’re happy, those you talk with will also be happy. For me, this has meant not working all the time and trying to foster relationships with HCNs (host country nationals).

FAQ of a Former Peace Corps Recruiter

- Kate Kuykendall, PC Recruiter, RPCV China

Q: When you were a volunteer in China did you ever think about becoming a recruiter or other PC staff afterwards?
A: I never really thought about it because I wasn’t aware of the possibilities. I had very limited contact with my own recruiter, so I didn’t even realize that such a position existed! I will say, however, that I was voted “Most Likely to Star in a Peace Corps Informational Video” by my fellow volunteers, so they all saw it within me!

Q: How did it happen that you became a recruiter in San Francisco?
A: I was actually looking for recruiting jobs at large organizations and then I saw the job posting on the Peace Corps web site. I decided I would much prefer to recruit people to the Peace Corps than to a corporation!

Q: How did you get on as an openly gay recruiter with your Regional Manager and the other members of the San Francisco staff?
A: Well, it certainly hasn’t been a secret! My co-workers and my supervisor were extremely supportive, especially since my partner is also an RPCV.

Q: What was your sense of the number/proportion of gay and lesbian applicants who were showing up?
A: This one is difficult for me to answer objectively because I think that my co-workers often referred gay and lesbian applicants to me for questions, so I definitely talked to a disproportionate number of them. But I would definitely say that the LGBT community in the Bay Area, as a whole, is a great pool of Peace Corps applicants for our office and is generally very responsive to the Peace Corps message.

Q: How did you work out being open to LGBT applicants (either stated or perceived) to encourage their questions about how they would fit in?
A: This is always a tricky issue, especially because I always had to state that I’m gay for people to even really think about it (they don’t ever just guess!). But in any kind of in-depth conversation about my experience, my sexuality would come up because it played a significant role. I just chose to highlight that more with some applicants than others. There have definitely been situations, however, when I spoke openly about my experience in the hopes that it would elicit questions from an applicant I thought might be gay and that applicant never pursued the matter (I could very well have guessed incorrectly, of course!). The other way in which it surfaces is that I was very often asked if I would ever do Peace Corps again, and I always say, “If and when the federal definition of marriage changes and I can serve with my partner, then I would love to do Peace Corps again.”

Q: What were the major concerns voiced by LGBT applicants?
A: The most common question is, “Will I have to go back in the closet?” I think the idea of being in the closet, especially after having worked so hard to get out of it, is really overwhelming to many prospective volunteers and actually keeps a fair number from even applying. And, of course, there are also delicately phrased questions about whether they will have to be celibate for 27 months!

Q: How did you answer them?

A: I try to answer all questions as honestly as possible, and on this particular topic that often means telling people what they don’t want to hear. There are definitely sacrifices involved in being a Peace Corps Volunteer and having to be much, much more discreet about your sexuality is one of them.

Q: What sort of LGBT-specific informational and recruiting events have you been involved in?
A: I’ve coordinated the Peace Corps Pride booth here in San Francisco the past few years. I’ve also given presentations at university LGBT student centers. Last July 20th our office co-sponsored an event called “Have Rainbow, Will Travel: The LGBT Experience in the Peace Corps” at a local public policy forum. We had four panelists participate in that program and I felt they all did a marvelous job talking about the sacrifices but also the rewards of serving as a gay Peace Corps Volunteer. We had about 50 people attend, and I had wonderful feedback as a result.

Q: What were the highs of your recruiting assignment?

A: Pretty much every single person I come in contact with through my job is someone who has already been a Peace Corps Volunteer or who is contemplating becoming one. That is a wonderful segment of humanity to work with – there’s not many other jobs in the world where you get to work with such internationally and civic minded individuals, and that is what I’ll miss the most.

Q: What were the lows?
A: The only part of the job I didn’t like was writing up hundreds and hundreds of interviews with applicants. The interviews are great, but the paperwork was no fun.

Q: Now that you’ve left this assignment, what words of encouragement/advice do you have for LGBT volunteers and RPCVS who might be considering a recruiting or other PC staff job as their next career move?
A: Go for it! The Peace Corps is a wonderful agency to work for and, particularly for LGBTs, a very supportive and queer-friendly place. Although we may be a government agency, we’re an agency made up of wonderful and open-minded people, not the policies and politics of our government.

Q: And what’s next for you?
A: My partner and I are going to travel overseas for 6 months and then move to a small town in East Texas in the spring of 2005. We’re going there to spend more time with my 78-year-old grandma, to experience life in small-town USA, and to try and be more creative about how we approach earning a living (we’re going to experiment with some small business ideas). Wish us luck because we’ll need it! It’s kind of like another Peace Corps assignment to us – East Texas is sort of a foreign land and culture, with its own special language.

Kate Kuykendall can be contacted at katekook@yahoo.com.

She’s Finally Gone Over the Edge

-Rose Rosely, RPCV Ghana

Why would somebody quit a perfectly fabulous career working in the animation business in Los Angeles, making enough money to fly up to San Francisco every other weekend if she felt like it, to take a job where she earned about a hundred dollars a month? Or why give up a spacious rent controlled apartment at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, which all her friends couldn’t believe she got in the first place, for a two-room mud hut? Why sell her brand new car for half of what it was worth, give away or sell almost every possession she owned, and kiss a lover of thirteen on-and-off again years goodbye promising to write? It sounds crazy ridiculous, downright stupid. If my grandmother were still living she would have asked, “Honey, are you okay?”

In retrospect, it all makes sense. I have found that I love living life one adventure after another. At the time, though, I’ll admit it did seem a little absurd. Here I was about to turn 40 in a couple of years and all I had was 70 lbs. of material possessions that the airline would allow me to take along to Ghana, West Africa where I was to be an environment volunteer in the far north of the country. My qualifications for being an environmental candidate? Well, I’d had a few ornamental gardens at houses that I’d owned along the way and living in LA I could certainly vouch for the ugliness of a smoggy sky.

This article is a result of my response to an inquiry on the LGB RPCV listserv from someone who is considering joining Peace Corps. He was asking our collective community of RPCVs what we thought about his leaving his stable job because in his words, “at my age it may be professional suicide.” True, but in this day and age, some of the things that seem most stable seem to crumble and fall at our feet. Like me, he’s older than the majority of volunteers who are in their twenties, he’s afraid of what’s going to happen to his life after the two years overseas, and he’s gay. He’s having the last minute jitters before sending in his application. When I responded to him, I’d simply hit reply and so everybody else on the listserv got my two cents too. Michael, the editor of this newsletter, saw it and asked me to elaborate. So, let’s go.

Being a volunteer was the most amazing time of my life. I left Ghana thinking that if I died tomorrow, then it would be okay. Seriously, because I’d lived enough in the last three years to consider it a wonderful life. Nothing I have done has compared to my experience living in a rural community in a developing country. My brain and all my senses were summoned every morning when the roosters crowed and they were working until I fell asleep at the end of the day out under the stars. I actually looked forward to the sun coming up, knowing that it would get hot enough to brew tea on my front porch. Then there was the long ride to town 15km down a bush path on a bicycle, the soup made from baobab leaves that we ate from one bowl, the small market that happened every three days where I could buy tomatoes and onions, and the women who came to the literacy class I started. Some days you’d reel because you were bombarded with too much reality: a kid convulsing from malarial fever, a thief being beaten under the mango tree or a crippled man dragging himself down the road. You learn to let go, to let the day unravel, to exhale, to be blown by the winds from the Saharan desert during harmattan, to just be.

To feel full up, spilling over with the everyday of life, is something that we all chase but rarely have the opportunity to catch. I ran after it and grabbed and didn’t let go. Right before leaving Ghana, I wrote home to friends and family that it was a good thing that stories didn’t weigh anything or else I’d have to leave too much behind. My head and heart were overflowing with memories and feelings. In the three years living and working with another culture (the Ghanaian people who are the friendliest people on the planet) was a heart expanding, mind blowing, soul rejuvenating, self challenging experience that will always make me feel full up.

It seems that I’m living life backwards. When I was twenty-something I bought my first house, planted a garden, dug into my career. It seemed that I was settled and successful. Now, that I’m forty-something I’m courting wanderlust and adventure and feeling like a rolling stone.

Even so, in the beginning, being around all the volunteers who had just finished college was not what I was expecting. You’d think, from the marketing that Peace Corps does, that the volunteers are just one big happy Benetton ad. Or? Most of the volunteers are young, white and straight. Or? I’d left gay Hollywood, where the queens from South America that lived in my building use to meringue around the pool on Sundays in heels, and ended up in the middle of West Africa feeling alone and out of place with one foot back in the closet. Horrified that I’d just ruined my life, thrown away everything that I’d worked so hard to get, I wanted to go home before training was finished. It took some time to find my feet, but when I did there was no more falling down.

The community of volunteers is like marrying into a big crazy family. You hate ‘em, you love ‘em but no matter what, you’re stuck with ‘em. So, figure it out. It’s actually one of the coolest things about Peace Corps. You end up getting to know people that you’d never give a second chance to in the States. I’d say that there are definitely some difficult diversity issues but most of them are complicated by how we ourselves deal with it. For me, once the shock wore off, I found myself relaxing and finding my place. I’ve made friends for life and am instantly connected to a myriad of interesting folks because of this experience.

Now, that I’m back, I’m having to figure out what to immerse myself in next. It’s not a piece of cake. In fact all the possibilities make my head spin. My mom says that I’m like a cat, always landing with my feet on the ground. Ground please? And another returned friend’s words, “yeah, some of us dream about living but then there’s those of us that live like we’re in a dream.” I’m just accepting that the beginning and the ending of things are a bit of a struggle like the butterfly emerging from its cocoon just before taking flight. I’m a little stuck at the moment, but not for long.

Rose Rosely returned home last November. You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

HIV Status and Application to the Peace Corps

-Mike Learned, RPCV Malawi

At annual Pride/Parade celebrations, many Peace Corps regional offices will have information and recruiting staffs present at such events. A question that always comes up on such occasions is “can people who are HIV positive, but otherwise healthy, apply for the Peace Corps?” For the last few years, the answer to this question has been, “yes.” HIV disease is treated as a medical condition. All applicants who are invited to take part in a Peace Corps program are medically evaluated.

Several things have to be determined. Will an applicant’s health allow her or him to serve in a particular Peace Corps assignment without jeopardizing his or her health? Are there medical resources available to support the medical needs of an applicant with a particular medical condition at a particular site, in a particular program, in a particular country? Can the applicant with a medical condition be expected to complete a full tour without undue interruption to his or her program or Peace Corps service?

Peace Corps considers HIV a chronic disease, as it does diabetes, high blood pressure and other medical conditions. Peace Corps does consider applicants with HIV disease, and Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services advises and has evaluated applicants who are HIV positive.

Our position as an organization is that Peace Corps treat HIV disease in a way similar to other chronic diseases and medical conditions. We understand that most Peace Corps assignments require rigorous good health. Would we recommend that a volunteer with HIV disease be allowed to serve anywhere? I think not. Many of us (young, energetic and healthy) experienced serious health problems during our service in remote and disease-ridden areas. Can you imagine what might have happened with compromised immune systems?

I have chosen not to ask the Office of Medical Services if applicants with HIV disease have served as volunteers. The reason – I don’t think it’s any of our business. If I were an applicant with HIV disease who was accepted, I would not want the Peace Corps or anyone else broadcasting my presence, even if I remained unidentified. On the other hand, if there’s an HIV positive applicant out there who feels he or she has been unfairly evaluated, and she or he wants to pursue that decision as discriminatory, that’s another issue, and we’d like to hear about it.

Mike Learned was a volunteer in Malawi. He can be reached at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

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