A Pride Month Interview: The First Known Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Speaks Out
July 31, 2009
-June 17, 2009 — Amy Potthast, Idealist.org
This interview appeared on the New Service blog as part of a celebration of LGBT people in various forms of volunteer service. The blog is especially dedicated to current or former term of service program participants, including AmeriCorps,AmeriCorps*VISTA, Peace Corps, City Year, Teach For America, HealthCorps, fellowships, faith-based programs, and many, many others. The staff of New Service aim to offer resources useful to career counselors, service corps program staff, and future Corps members as well. The New Service is a joint project between staff from Idealist.org and partnersNorthwest Regional Educational Laboratory, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the National Service Inclusion Project, and Innovations in Civic Participation.
A recently-Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and the first known transgender person to serve, writes about his experiences—first on the website for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group(also known as the LGBT RPCVs), and now in an interview with my intern Sara Lozito and me.
The interview here is timed to appear on the same day as our podcast interview for Pride Month. The RPCV has chosen to remain anonymous for security purposes.
To give you a little background here are some excerpts from the LGBT RPCVs website:
My desire to become a Peace Corps volunteer stemmed from not only believing in the mission and goals of PC, but because I wanted to gain valuable international experience in my field and figure out if I wanted to continue my career path abroad. Like many PCV’s before me, I wanted to test myself. Did I have what it took to work in international development? Could I really live and work in rural Africa for two years? And, of course, I wondered if my being trans would make a difference in my quest to answer these questions.
One thing I must make clear is that my non-disclosure was due to necessity. While homosexuality is seen as potentially life threatening in some village societies, having undergone a “sex-change” is undoubtedly so. Within a few days of arriving I met with my Country Director, who was concerned for my safety. Through that conversation, it became clear that the only way my CD and I felt comfortable with my service was if no one knew about this particular aspect of my past. Gossip is rife in PCV life and our close connections to host country nationals can cause people to become cloudy in our judgment about disclosures. We didn’t want a well-meaning friend to pass on a bit of juicy gossip that could inadvertently cause me physical harm and/or to be pulled out of country by the local Peace Corps office for my safety. While I agreed with my CD about my need for non-disclosure, knowing that if people did find out that I would be sent home immediately, was a great deal of added pressure. And so from the outset I went about my service in the proverbial closet.
What advice/words do you have for other trans folks considering service through the Peace Corps? Any basic survival skills you want to share for anyone else contemplating a similar adventure? Resources you relied on?
I would say that it’s important to have a thick skin, meaning, don’t take things too personally. Think of yourself as an educator and a team player (with the Peace Corps Medical staff) in your health care. Going along with that, learn about how to take care of yourself, your physical and mental health: Peace Corps Volunteers need to be able to do that anyway, if you are transsexual you definitely need to know what makes yourself tick as it is unlikely that your Peace Corps Medical Officer* will be as knowledgeable about your body as you are.
I also give the advice that you should be prepared to not be able to disclose to people you are friends or serving with. I talk about this in the article, and since I’ve gotten a fair amount of questions about this I want to be clear: I don’t think that it is essential for someone to be totally “stealth” or “closeted” as a trans Peace Corps Volunteer, each service circumstance is different and different people feel comfortable taking different risks with disclosure. I only say that it can be quite likely that trans Peace Corps Volunteers could be serving in areas where it is quite dangerous to be known as a trans person and therefore it could be necessary to avoid disclosure. Since trans people and our unique circumstances are still a bit of an unknown to Peace Corps staff it is unlikely that they can let you know what the situation is on the ground before you get there.
[*The Peace Corps Medical Officer is the primary care giver of Peace Corps Volunteers in their country of service.]
In your article on the LGBT RPCV site, you say “Of course there were times when I felt that it might have come up for me to disclose my trans status were I not in service…” Can you talk about that conflict a little more?
Sure. What I was essentially referring to was that I made some really good friends while in Peace Corps, people who I believe I will remain lifelong friends with. I probably would have disclosed to them at some point or another while serving if the circumstances were different. Disclosure during service was something that I felt not only might put me at risk but put the person I was telling in a difficult place: giving someone a secret that they cannot tell anyone or if they do, might create a dangerous circumstance… well, that was a position I didn’t want to put myself or my friends in.
Disclosure is a touchy subject: some people really feel they need to disclose to people they are close to, and some people feel that way at some point in their lives and not others. I feel that the decision to disclose is such a personal one for a trans person that I very much respect an individual’s decision. That said, I think that people should be fully informed on the realistic consequences of that disclosure. I have come to the point where while I don’t feel like my being trans is really that huge of a deal, I don’t disclose to many people because of my lifestyle and work. More people who I am close with would know that I am trans were that not the case.
What excited you about service through Peace Corps? Did your experience differ from your expectations?
When I signed up for Peace Corps I believed in the message and goals of Peace Corps service. I was excited to utilize and grow my skills overseas with some of the people in the world that most need them. I still believe that the only way to peace is through cross-cultural communication and positive development is only achieved through cooperative change. If I didn’t know it already, through my service I learned that there is no easy road to peace or development. I suppose that’s a complicated way to say that I am not sure if my experience and expectations matched or not. I definitely feel like I got a huge amount from my Peace Corps service, and I hope that the people I worked and lived amongst also benefited from knowing and working with me.
In the podcast episode launching the same day as this interview will appear, Chad Jeremy, who served in AmeriCorps NCCC, says that before he showed up on the first day of his service term, he was nervous about how others would perceive him and treat him because he’s gay. In the end, he says, his desire to serve was stronger than his fear. How does that sentiment compare with what you felt as you got on the airplane to meet your Peace Corps group for the first time, or when you left to live in your host site?
Sure, I was nervous about my service. In fact I secretly thought I was a bit mad to being going into Peace Corps Africa. But, I lived with fear for a long time in my life and at this point I have a very interesting relationship with that emotion; if I am afraid of something I allow it to have very little effect on me. One cannot live in fear or one forgets to live. In the end, when I got on that airplane I felt only joy and freedom. It was a hard-won battle to get my clearance to serve, and it was a long personal journey that got me to the point where I knew I could serve successfully.
I’m curious to know if there’s any kind of transgender scene going on in the places you’ve lived in Africa — and if the scene is underground, how you’d find out about it if you too are underground about your identity. Did you see any evidence of transgender people in the places you’ve lived?
The simple answer to this question is “no”, there was no evidence of transgender/transsexual/gender queer people where I served. I know that this is not true everywhere but no, I saw nothing like that where I was. Funny enough, I got an email a few years before I left for service from a trans guy in Zambia talking to me about being a transsexual African and his struggle (eventually he did get to go on hormones and physically transition — and amazingly had the support of his family to do so). And there is a fairly well known transgender support services organization in South Africa. So yes, of course trans people exist all over Africa, I just never saw them. Maybe my ignorance about trans people during [my service term] has to do with my lack of disclosure but really there is no way of knowing if that is the case or not.
Did you find Peace Corps policies open to the diversity you represented? As for the restrictions your country director placed on you, or asked you to abide by—after learning more about your host community, would you have made the same decision?
That is a really difficult question to answer. Peace Corps policies were not at all equipped to deal with transgender or transsexual volunteers. I am happy to say that this is shifting. I have been fortunate enough to be contacted by Peace Corps headquarters staff to help design Peace Corps Medical Officer Washington, DC, staff training for trans awareness and help with adapting the pre-service medical questionnaire to be trans inclusive. I believe that this goes a long way to making it easier for trans people to apply for service. The next step is to have in-country staff educated so that it is easier for us to serve.
I would have absolutely made the same decision that my Country Director asked me to abide by. While in our own ways this decision was a difficult one for both of us to come by I still believe that it was the best decision for myself and PC in my country of service.
How do you think Peace Corps could better welcome trans folks into service?
Educating the Peace Corps staff in Washington, DC, and in host-countries would go a long way toward welcoming trans people into service. As it was during my application (and I think it still is this way) the Country Director and Peace Corps Medical Officer in country must sign off on accepting a prospective trans person into that country of service. This is after the medical and legal clearance, and irrespective of suitability in any/every other way to service. I think this practice is essentially unfair inasmuch as I believe that trans people are thus rejected from countries solely because of ignorance of what a trans person might face or need during service.
It is not only unfair to the prospective volunteer but to the in-country staff as well: how can they make the best decision for the volunteer’s safety or medical needs (which is the PC rationale behind the practice) when there is no education offered to them as part of their training? I do know that as more trans people are applying, more Country Directors are seeking information on how to best help trans people. While commendable, this speaks to the increasing need for Country Directors and in-country Peace Corps Medical Officers to be trained effectively in trans awareness and basic trans health; we should not allow these professionals to be solely trained either anecdotally or by self-directed research.