Welcome to Peace Corps! Welcome to Training!

-Roy Schachter, RPCV Honduras, Peace Corps Staff Latin America

“Hi, I’m going to be your small business technical trainer. Nice to meet you, so glad you’re here.” And so begins the process of getting acquainted with a new and enthusiastic group of Peace Corps trainees. “Oh, by the way, I’m gay, so if any of you are curious about gay issues here in Guatemala (or El Salvador, Honduras, or Bolivia), I’d be happy to share my perspective. And if anyone in the group is interested in information about gay life in the local community or support available in the Peace Corps, we can talk about that also.”

But the reality is – I was never “out.” I worked six cycles of technical and one of cross-cultural training in four Latin American countries from 1993 to 1996. Although I’m sure some trainees and staff knew about me, it was never discussed. I attended meetings of the LGB Volunteer’s support group in Guatemala (Cuates). I went out to gay bars in countries that had them. I socialized openly with other gay people, both local and volunteers. During one training cycle, I even came by the Training Center with my partner (my friend, as I introduced him). But I was only really “out” to some of the Peace Corps nurses, telling them that I was available as a resource for trainees who revealed they were gay.

Ideally, a gay trainer would be out and available for any of the trainees who could use his/her guidance or insight on gay related issues in a particular foreign country/culture. But it’s not so easy. It’s interesting that gay or bisexual volunteers, who are open with their sexuality, often feel quite comfortable sharing this within the Peace Corps community, but rarely at their assigned work sites. Most feel that being out in their work environments in a culture usually less accepting than our own problematic society would adversely affect their acceptance and integration into their communities. And they’re right. But in Peace Corps, a volunteer can find a piece of Americana, usually with acceptance, respect and compassion toward gay volunteers by many of their fellow volunteers and the American Peace Corps staff. In fact, if they come across any overt discrimination within the Peace Corps they can make an issue of it and fully expect Peace Corps to back them and support them.

Ironically, for a trainer, the Peace Corps community is her/his “site.” For many of the same reasons that volunteers choose not to be as open at their sites, I felt that it was not in my best interest to share the fact that I was gay. I often worked closely with local staff to coordinate training activities. Most of the training staff were local people who often carried with them the same mixed bag of acceptance and prejudices as the local community. Staff at the Peace Corps office was also predominately local. From time to time I heard or heard of homophobic comments or attitudes, only confirming my suspicions about the risks involved. Being out could very well have presented problems. Some trainers and volunteers are out and open about their sexual orientation, and I admire those who were. I wish I could have been a bit stronger, a bit more self-confident and taken on this additional challenge. But, I wasn’t ready at the time.

One of my favorite training sessions was on diversity, an issue close to my heart. Who better to understand what it’s like to be different? It was a challenge to select, adapt, and develop activities that would generate worthwhile discussions and have people truly examine the whole range of diversity, including sexual orientation. All too often diversity or sensitivity training is met with resistance. Many people don’t think they need it, and others are unwilling to examine or consider changing values, beliefs, and behavior. The irony of addressing these issues with Peace Corps volunteers is that the volunteers welcome being thrust into working and living in a foreign country, and almost always come with open minds about learning and accepting a very different culture. But, they are often unaware of the unique challenges faced by other volunteers because of individual diversity issues like gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, marital status, age, political or religious beliefs – those issues that identify a volunteer as a minority within the majority Peace Corps community.

Sometimes these diversity sessions worked well. Generating discussion and having people consider the challenges and advantages of diversity and the perspectives and problems faced by others was rewarding. But on other occasions it was very hard to get staff or volunteers to truly consider how their behaviors and attitudes affected others. It was strange conducting diversity sessions and not being out about my own diversity. I imagine that some of the participants wondered about my enthusiasm for the topic.

Sexual orientation, other than heterosexual, is an intriguing diversity issue, because it’s often a “hidden” diversity. In one session, a gay volunteer pointed this out, advising the group to be aware of inadvertently insulting a gay person, regardless of their feelings about homosexuality. I think most lesbians, gays and bisexuals have experienced this kind of situation. After this session, I overheard one of the trainees discussing his problems with gay sexual orientation. “But it’s abnormal, completely abnormal,” he said. I stepped up and asked what he had been referring to. “Nothing,” he responded. I pursued the issue until he confirmed that he thought “it” was “just abnormal.” Not ready to reveal myself, I asked him how he would deal with working with a gay person in his volunteer assignment. He responded that he would limit the interaction strictly to work issues. I thought that he would probably not be able to hide his bias. And here was this future volunteer, telling me, his trainer, that I was abnormal. I wasn’t hurt by this, but disappointed. How do you get someone like this to reconsider?

Weekend visits by the trainees to current volunteer sites were scheduled soon after this diversity session. Another trainee assigned to visit the gay volunteer who participated in the session expressed serious reservations about spending two nights in this volunteer’s house. Understandable, amusing, sad? Feeling that his fears were unfounded, I reassured him. He did go, and I heard no more about it.

During another diversity session, in another country, one of the trainees chose to excuse himself from a small group discussion about a hypothetical case study involving a non-gay volunteer who chose not to react to homophobic comments from a local counterpart, even though they weren’t directed at or about him. The volunteer, who said he found the attitudes expressed offensive, feared that if he spoke up in a situation like this, he could be perceived as being gay, and was concerned how that could affect his relationship with his workmates. I encouraged the trainee to express his views regarding the case study. During the report-back to the whole group, he explained his inability to discuss the case: “Look, I’m Catholic and the Pope says no to abortions and no to gays.” Both my co-facilitator and I were caught off guard. How could we respond to this? We all want to accept diversity of opinions, don’t we? What right does someone have to completely reject the very existence of someone else? We all have our own moral codes and standards. Who and what should we be required to accept, or in the absence of acceptance, respect as a right that someone else has? We simply acknowledged his different viewpoint without challenging it or exploring it further, afraid to open up a Pandora’s Box. This could have been a perfect opportunity to analyze what “celebrating diversity” really means. Instead of accepting the challenge, we left the issue unresolved with many in the group finding the trainee insensitive and closed-minded.

Even though I experienced many frustrations and uncertainties as a trainer, my overall experience has been that Peace Corps handles gay and lesbian issues progressively.

To make the Peace Corps a more gay friendly environment. I would like to see:

  • information about the gay and lesbian situation in the local country, and the support available to LGB volunteers provided shortly after volunteers arrive.
  • better diversity training for Peace Corps and training staff, which includes gay and lesbian concerns.
  • more discretion and sensitivity by everyone in the Peace Corps community about gay and lesbian issues.
  • more trainers, staff, and volunteers open about their sexuality, without being made to feel uncomfortable or threatened by this revelation.

Roy Schachter was a PCV in Honduras from 1983 to 1985. He served as a Peace Corps trainer in Latin America from 1993 to 1996.

Same-Sex Couples and the Peace Corps

-by Kevin H. Souza, May 1997

Since 1994 I have been coordinating a project that connects returned gay and lesbian Peace Corps volunteers with Peace Corps applicants and invitees. Most of the requests for an RPCV mentor come through our web site and the most common question is, “Can my partner and I join Peace Corps together?” The answer is no. Peace Corps does not currently place same-sex couples. Peace Corps only places legally married couples when they can match the couple’s skills with positions in the same or nearby locations.

Now having said that, let me add that it is not impossible for same-sex couples to serve together. If a couple can show that hey have carefully thought about their decision; if they have skills needed by the host country; if their recruiter, medical staff, and placement officer are aware of, and sympathetic to their situation; and if the Peace Corps can find a posting suitable and safe for a same-sex couple, it could happen. These postings are rare, and if all of these elements came together they probably would not stay in place for long. Most Peace Corps staff are limited to five years of employment and without a change in placement policy, such postings would continue to be unusual.

It seems to me that Peace Corps’ policy on the placement of couples is not the real issue. The bottom line for couples, either opposite or same sex, is that the Peace Corps experience is not usually couple-friendly. It is difficult to find a geographic location where both individuals can utilize their skills. It is difficult to find countries that will accept couples, and it can be difficult adjusting to life in the Peace Corps. Couples who apply must be flexible – very, very flexible. It’s usually not hard to match the skills of one person to a specific site, but it is uncommon to equally match the skills of both partners to one site. Usually one partner receives a “good job” and the other “a not-so-good job.” This leads to dissatisfaction on the part of the poorly matched volunteer and the couple often decides to terminate their service. Approximately 500 couples served in the Peace Corps between 1990 and 1994 and about 35% left service before meeting their 27 month commitment. Their reasons included job dissatisfaction and health issues.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and their were seven couples in my training group, all married. One couple had married the day before they arrived at pre-service training. Others were joining Peace Corps after longer marriages, even retirement. The newly married couple lasted six months. Their young marriage was strained by the new and difficult surroundings and he was bored by his Peace Corps assignment. Four other couples left during the first year for similar reasons. One couple split up, geographically speaking. The husband, a computer programmer, went home early because there were no computers to program, while his wife stayed on to finish her remaining eight months. Only one couple completed their full commitment, a retired couple. None of these couples were faced with keeping their romantic relationship a secret in homophobic southern Africa.

What lies ahead for same-sex couples in the Peace Corps? Some think the same-sex marriage issues winding their way through the courts and the legislature in Hawaii might dramatically change the rights of same-sex couples, including their treatment by the Peace Corps. That seems a speculative position. I believe Peace Corps will not make any moves to equate same-sex and opposite-sex married couples until the Supreme Court or the Congress rules favorable on these issues. This is unlikely to happen soon. In light of my experience as a volunteer, and the statistics of early termination of married couples, I see the difficulty of placing couples in Peace Corps assignments. But might there not be another approach to this issue? Why not open placement policies to include married, affectionate or non-affectionate couples in Peace Corps assignments if the skill match is there. This broadened placement policy could include members of traditional families like parent and child, siblings, or other relatives. It could include close friends, business partners, and of course same-sex couples. And this would be the case only if the couple placements were appropriate to the project/program/ site situation. A policy like this might even make it easier to place some couples and open the Peace Corps to a wider variety of talents, skills, and placement possibilities.

Kevin H. Souza served in Malawi from 1989-91 and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can contact him at lgbrpcv@yahoo.com.

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