A Lesbian Volunteer in Mali
July 30, 2010 Leave a comment
–A Current PCV, 2008 – 2010
Gay rights in Africa have been in the spotlight lately with the male couple in Malawi who were convicted and then pardoned on June 1, 2010 for taking part in a same sex engagement ceremony, and in Uganda where they are currently debating anti-homosexuality legislation. Almost two years ago when I received my assignment to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, I started doing some research on African Gay rights. What I found was a little scary. Most countries in Africa, 38 to be exact, have laws against homosexuality and some with the death penalty. Mali as far as I can tell doesn’t have homosexuality on the radar yet. I looked at the legal status of homosexuality in Mali such as legal age of consent, and laws covering homosexual activity. The relevant section of the Malian Penal Code reads “Mali 1981: Article 179 – Sexual Offence, Public Indecency: Three months to two years of prison and a fine of 20 000 to 200 000 francs.” After reading this I breathed a sigh of relief.
Next I Googled Gays in the Peace Corps and got 33,700 results. I found the LGBT Returned Peace Corps Volunteer website (where this article now appears) with a lot of helpful information (http://www.lgbrpcv.org).
When I received my Mali Peace Corps welcome book the contents seemed a mixture of good news and not so good news. The good news was that Gays were on the Peace Corps Mali staff’s radar because they included a paragraph on Gays and Lesbians as part of Peace Corps Mali’s diversity. The not so good news was the dress code which states that women should wear skirts. Well I am a fem and even though I don’t wear dresses very often it sounded OK. Then two friends of mine said they would never go to Mali with the Peace Corps because they would never wear skirts. This started me thinking how much else of myself would I have to give up.
During the two and half months of language, cross cultural and technical training I was out to most of the volunteers but not the Malian staff. This invoked many interesting questions from volunteers like why I had a daughter who is 24 yet I had been out of the closet for over thirty years. There were a lot of questions about my partner of 15 years and how I could leave her to do Peace Corps. As liberal as the Peace Corps is, they didn’t allow same sex partners to serve as a couple. Matter of fact Peace Corps changed their definition of marriage shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Court granted the right for same sex marriages there. The policy change went from identifying married couples according to the laws of the different states to defining a married couple as a union between a man and a woman.
Earlier this year my partner’s mother became ill and she was told that her mother would not last long so she went back east to be with her. Peace Corps does have a family emergency policy for volunteers so I called the Country Director (CD) to see if those policies included domestic partners. My partner and I have been registered with King County as domestic partners for 15 years. The CD said he needed to call Washington DC and would get back to me by the end of the day. Several days later he called and apologized for net getting back to me sooner but the question had gone all the way to the legal department. He explained that while the Peace Corps staff was granted some domestic partnership benefits similar to those granted overseas State Department staff by Secretary of State Clinton, those benefits had not yet been extended to volunteers.
Peace Corps’ non discriminatory policy reads: “An important part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to promote a better understanding of Americans and our multicultural society in the countries where our Volunteers serve. Therefore, the Peace Corps places a high priority on expanding diversity not only among our Volunteers, but also among our staff members. The Peace Corps actively seeks to hire employees regardless of their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Our goal is to ensure that Peace Corps employees, Volunteers, and programs reflect and benefit from the diversity of the American people.”
On Peace Corps’ website this is the support and encouragement given to GLBT people: “Homosexuality is considered socially unacceptable or even illegal in some of the countries where the Peace Corps has programs. Moreover, Volunteers are subject to the laws of their country of service. Those realities can create special challenges for Peace Corps Volunteers, and Peace Corps has taken steps to address those challenges. During their three-month training process, new Volunteers take part in diversity training sessions, and many Peace Corps posts offer peer support networks for Volunteers. Volunteers learn techniques to manage cultural differences and are encouraged to support one another.”
It’s true the acceptance of GLBT people world wide is a cross cultural experience. I have been to gay bars in Germany, Cuba, Mexico and several other countries. When I traveled in Vietnam my partner and I were sure that one of our tour guides was a lesbian and we found several articles on gay men in Vietnam. Mali is different in that it is Muslim, less developed and very isolated from the rest of the world. What has helped me is talking regularly to friends and family back home. The people here in Mali have found their way into my heart. The fact is that men and women in Mali don’t socialize together very much. So my hi-light has been dancing with women at weddings while the men are all sitting off somewhere doing what ever it is they do.
As a Small Enterprise Development volunteer I feel like I have made a difference. My three major projects have been product development with a bogolan (a traditional woven textile) Malian association, literacy classes for artisans and teaching junior achievement in three schools. The bulk of my work has been with women artisans. Over the thirty some years I have been out of the closet I have met many challenges because of my sexual orientation and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Peace Corps has been an amazing experience for me and I don’t regret the decision at all.
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