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).

A Letter from Australia for Couples Considering Volunteer Service

-by Michael Tatham, May 1998

Editor’s Note: While we were preparing this issue, which focuses on questions that usually come up at the Gay Pride events, a related e-mail from Australia arrived out of the blue. The author has given us his permission to adapt it as an article.

I came across your web site recently and was interested in the issues you discuss concerning same sex couples and the Peace Corps.

I was a volunteer in Thailand with the Australian Volunteers Abroad Program administered by the Overseas Service Bureau with my partner Peter from 1995 to 1997. The experience was an interesting one. Whereas the OSB was ok about placing us (a lesbian couple was placed in Africa at the same time), the fact we were together was cause for some consternation with our host agency in Thailand. It was not until we received permission to move to separate organizations that we felt we were being treated on our own merits rather than as an oddity. Sometimes it seemed that our host felt obliged to accept us as volunteers in order to maintain an ongoing relationship with OSB.

The fact that we went to the same host organization (albeit different branch offices about 20 km apart) meant we were treated as being the same, having the same values and being stereotyped along the same lines – a fascinating experience, if a little wearing. And, as for the myth of universal acceptance of homosexuality in Thailand, yes it is – a myth.

There were many stresses on the relationship that would otherwise not have been there, and yes one did have a better job than the other, but we also had different attitudes to the placement as well, so coping was an individual as well as a joint experience. We were there for the duration of the two year program, and are still together.

There is a perception in Australia of a “free and easy” sexuality and acceptance of all diversity in countries like Thailand, sometimes perpetuated by Thailand’s own ambiguous tourist promotion as well as our own lack of in-depth cultural understanding. I sometimes feel I have to constantly remind people (including myself) that there is in Thailand, like in all societies, different levels of acceptance. We have wonderful Thai friends of all genders and persuasions. We were lucky to recently invite one friend to visit us who had a great time showing us our town from his perspective.

As far as I know, OSB continues to place gay couples if they can, so long as their skills and positions match. While this may be difficult to do in the countryside, in big cities it should be easy. I would recommend couples who want to be placed together keep trying to get through the discriminatory Peace Corps policy somehow, as ours was an experience unique and exciting in its realization.

Some Perspective for Gay Couples Considering the Peace Corps

-by Joe Terteling, RPCV, May 1998

Editor’s note: Joe Terteling, former volunteer in Sri Lanka, gay man, and former Peace Corps recruiter in Seattle, gives his views of questions most frequently asked by gay domestic partners considering Peace Corps. He offers suggestions and undermines some myths.

I fear domestic partners considering Peace Corps are down on their luck for a number of reasons.

Peace Corps doesn’t accept unmarried couples of whatever gender combination. Go figure. But even if Peace Corps did, the first strike against gay/lesbian domestic partners serving would be the same difficulty Peace Corps has in placing married couples overseas. Married couples have a notoriously difficult time landing a volunteer assignment, because Peace Corps must find some village on the planet with two official Peace Corps jobs waiting, one for which each spouse is qualified, and with housing for the couple available in the same location. Although meeting the job and housing criteria may sound easy, it isn’t. Couples applying to Peace Corps endure a wait easily twice as long as do individual applicants – if an assignment ever comes. Even spouses possessing red-hot degrees or experience in, say, agronomy and nursing, are going nowhere with Peace Corps unless some country has need of a couple possessing these skills.

Unable to serve, gay couples frequently ponder ways around the marriage barrier. Here are common schemes I’ve heard repeatedly from gay couples, and occasionally from unmarried straight couples, too.

We’ll both secretly apply for the Peace Corps at the same time, hoping we’ll be placed together. Please dismiss any dream of being assigned in the same place; much less the same country; much less the same hemisphere. If you’ve got different skills and interests and educational backgrounds, you’d be matched to different jobs. Some countries ask for certain skills, others don’t. Different programs start at different times. Programs get canceled. A volunteer pulled out of one country due to instability may be reassigned to the job “promised” to you: so you get bumped to a program leaving three months from now to Kazakhstan. Meanwhile your lover has a ticket for Ecuador in her hand.

Our love is so strong we can serve as volunteers in different places. I watched Donna and Alan, old sweethearts, serve in Sri Lanka and Kenya, respectively. In the first year Donna visited him in Kenya. He visited her in Sri Lanka the next. They’re now raising kids in Pennsylvania. But I imagine two years on different continents might strain any relationship.

I’ll just do Peace Corps while my lover waits for me back at the condo. Keep in mind that people of whatever sexual orientation in romantic relationships of whatever sort are statistically more likely to quit Peace Corps and come home early if they’ve left a love behind. It’s a human thing.

I’ll secretly fly my lover over once I’m settled in my village. I can’t recommend this approach due to lack of a job for your partner, lack of Peace Corps preparatory training and health care, possible social stigma, unavailability of housing, and the like. Every anecdote I know of a volunteer importing a lover ends in disaster. My friend Maggie brought her lover Richard to Nepal. They were married there, as the striking photos of Maggie in a red sari and dripping with gold jewelry attest. But Richard left after a few months. They soon divorced. Another thing that can happen is that an intimate relationship can impede language and culture acquisition. Instead of “getting into the culture” the partners spend more time “getting into each other.” And sometimes one partner bonds with the culture, and the other doesn’t.

Until Peace Corps accepts gay domestic partners, you do have avenues to working abroad, but you’ll have to research each thoroughly.

Ask your nearest Peace Corps recruiting office for its most recent list of alternative international agencies doing development and volunteer work abroad. There are many dozens of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) doing remarkable work overseas. Ask the Peace Corps office about volunteering for the United Nations. Consider short jaunts with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, thereby building up your resume of overseas experience. Check the library for books on how to work abroad.

Consider working overseas for a gay-friendly corporation which will support you both.

Bone up on a language together, travel to a place interesting to you where its spoken, and look together for some serious long-term volunteer work. The South Pacific might be ideal, where people are usually less shackled with sexual stigma than here. Our LGB RPCV Mentor Program can put you in touch with former volunteers who worked in parts of the world that interest you.

Attempt In-Country Admission. This is a real long shot, but possible. People wishing to be placed in a particular country can travel there and petition the Country Director, but success depends on positions available, your skills, availability of language and/or cultural training, available sites, your medical histories, discretionary Peace Corps Country budget, and many other details. In other words, you’d have to be extremely lucky, and the couple (gay, straight, or any combination) would need a wad of cash to live on while they wait to see if it works out. But strange things happen, even in the Peace Corps.

I regret the dour overview, but these are the realities as I see them. There are occasional stories of gay domestic partners assigned to different places in the same country and their impassioned weekend meetings, and there are anecdotes of gay volunteers who somehow partner-up in remote and isolated areas. But these happy tales seem much the exception.

I think it’s vital for gay domestic partners interested in Peace Corps to let Peace Corps know you’d apply if you could. I want the Peace Corps to know of the presence and interest of gay couples, for without a constant tap on the door I fear the agency will never consider such a possibility.

Finally, I want to note that as an individual your sexual orientation is a non-issue for Peace Corps. There are tons of gay people in the Peace Corps at all levels of the organization: in Washington D.C., the regional recruiting offices, staff overseas, and as volunteers in the field. You’re welcome as a gay person.

I encourage you to call or visit your nearest Peace Corps recruiting office and get a second opinion on my views. Good luck, and, as they say in Sri Lanka, “May the Triple Gems Bless You.”

Joe Terteling was a volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1984 to 1986.

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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