Is Peace Corps Safety Too Safe? And What Today’s Safety Culture Means For The LGBT Community
August 13, 2011 2 Comments
– Selim Aritürk, RPCV, Tanzania, 2000-2002
One of my favorite professors used to begin his introductory economics course with a controversial question: “What is the optimum number of airplane accidents per year?” He’d list how many accidents there had been last year, and the year before that, and ask us what the optimum number should be for this coming year. We would say “zero,” because nobody wants to see anyone get hurt. Then he’d walk us through what you would actually need to do in order to reduce the number of air accidents.
You could, for example, require all airplane seats to face backwards, because we know that facing backwards is safer in the event of a crash. But he pointed out that we are less comfortable (and would spend more on dry-cleaning) if we all had to ride that way. You could force parents to buy seats for their babies and you could force the airlines to provide those families with child seats so that babies in the air are held just as tightly as babies on the road. But forcing families to buy another ticket would also drive up the cost of flying to Grandma, and then more families would instead choose to take to the road. Given that driving is far more dangerous than flying, this would have the unintended consequence of getting even more people hurt or killed in the year ahead.
The point is that any action you do to improve safety will have some sort of a cost; either a financial cost that drives people to a less-safe alternative or a cost that diminishes the experience (such as gratuitous airsickness). Finally, he’d make the point that the only way we could ensure the class’s desired goal of “zero accidents” this year would be to ground all aircraft, because any time we fly there is going to be at least some risk.
I worry that today’s Peace Corps has not fully grasped this trade-off, and that far too many important things are being sacrificed to a culture that has become safety-obsessed. Nobody wants to lose a friend. We lost two volunteers when I was in Tanzania, and it was very difficult for all of us. But the only way to ensure the number of volunteers lost overseas is zero is to ensure that number of volunteers sent overseas is zero, and nobody among us would argue for the shutdown of Peace Corps. Likewise, I strongly believe that today’s Peace Corps culture has made us so safety-obsessed that we can’t see what we have traded away.
When I arrived in Tanzania, I found a wonderful and successful Peace Corps program. Our directors had decided to place as many volunteers as possible on their own, without a site mate. There were a few exceptions, but by and large, most of us were the only American in our village. As trainees, we worried this might make us lonely; we were assured it would be quite the opposite. One of the Volunteer Leaders at my training told me “when we placed volunteers together, they tended to stay together because the community would think ‘oh – they’ve got each other – I’ll leave them alone,’ and so the volunteers did not get as absorbed into the community as we would like.” My experience proved her right: in my first weeks at site, it was not possible for me to spend a single evening alone, because every family would invite me to join them for dinner. They got to know me, and they taught me how to take care of myself, and what to watch out for in the village. They helped me learn to be the best teacher I could be at their secondary school.
When I was in Tanzania, we had a handful of volunteers in large towns or cities, but far more of us in tiny communities where everyone knew our names. If you got off the bus at my village and asked for Mr. Selim, you would be guaranteed to find someone at the bus stop that knew me. One friend asked for directions, and was led to me by a student who knew me so well that he followed my footprints to the village shop where I was buying beans.
I recently spent two years in Azerbaijan for my current job, and while I was there I got to be friends with a few of the Peace Corps Volunteers and staff. Azerbaijan is a country of contrasts: flat deserted plains and lush mountains, the wealthy capital where I lived and the poor villages where the PCVs served. The rat-race cities full of post-Soviet aggression, and the small communities full of Azerbaijani hospitality. On one road trip through the South, we saw a beautiful dirt road winding up a mountain and said, “let’s turn here.” That spontaneous decision led us to about two hours of driving where we didn’t see another car. We got hungry, and it was obvious these small towns had no restaurants, so we asked where we could buy some bread. “I have an oven! I will give you my bread! Come have tea!” was the response. An Azerbaijani friend in the car insisted on paying, but the homemaker would have none of it.
A Peace Corps friend was in the car, and I said “this is what Peace Corps should be doing. Stop putting volunteers in the big cities where they get jeered at, and start putting them out here – where the village will take care of them.” “It would never happen,” she said. “Look – there’s no paved road, and the rules say a PCV should be on a paved road so that there can be all-weather access in and out. There’s no reputable bus company here, only villagers with run-down taxis. And there’s no cell phone coverage – how would the volunteer call us for help?”
Paved roads. Reputable bus companies. Cell phone coverage… to ask for help from someone hours away! How many of those did the PCVs need 50 years ago to be safe? How many of those did I need 10 years ago? The point is that someone somewhere has made a list of what a site needs to be “safe” and “caring village that will look after PCV” somehow ended up lower on the list than cell phone coverage. Some of the volunteers would tell me they were in cities with good-quality roads, good cell phone coverage, reputable bus companies… and urban communities that barely noticed they existed when they needed help.
This is a Peace Corps issue, but this is also an LGBT issue. We’re more than halfway through President Obama’s first term, and we still see a Peace Corps that’s overdoing it with a take-no-chances policy – a Peace Corps that still won’t allow same-sex couples to serve together. I’ve heard Peace Corps staff and LGBT RPCVs alike say “we can’t let LGBT couples serve together overseas – they might get hurt.” Stop and think about that statement for a minute. Take out the words “LGBT couples” and put in another minority group. Put it up on the Peace Corps website and say “these sorts of people should not apply.” We would never accept that – why do we accept this for ourselves?
No matter what Mahmoud Ahmedinejad might want you to believe, there are LGBT people in every country. And we can be sure that not all of these LGBT people are single. If we can find LGBT couples that manage to stay under the radar, can’t we as Americans also stay under the radar? During my Peace Corps service, a few volunteers did have a site mate of the same gender. Some of them even shared a home with their site mate. Why would it be necessary to announce to the entire world the sexual orientation of a volunteer, or of a couple?
Current Peace Corps policy only allows gay and lesbian volunteers to join if they come as a single. But what happens if they meet someone while overseas? The policy on that is unclear. Should a volunteer be ordered to stay closeted? I am told that some country directors have said yes, and specifically told LGBT volunteers not to come out.
When we started the Peace Corps, we were given briefings about the safety situation in Tanzania. We were taught what “relationships” meant in Tanzanian society, and how living with respect for the host culture is the only way to ensure safety in the host country. Women were taught how women dress in the host country, and men were taught how men dress. We were also taught how host country nationals date. But how do gay people in Tanzania stay safe? How do they dress? How do they date? We were not taught the answers to these questions, but a few of us figured out the answers on our own. In a big chunk of the world, the answer is blend in. Stay under the radar. Don’t get noticed. We saw how some Tanzanians got shunned or hurt – and we learned from their sad experiences.
There’s a difference between giving safety tips and banning certain activities. When I taught HIV prevention, I didn’t teach abstinence-only. I taught the Peace Corps-approved “ABC” method: Abstain, Be faithful, and/or use a Condom. Abstinence is safest, but if you’re going to have sex, it’s safer to be faithful to one partner, and no matter how many partners you have, a condom can only make you safer. We taught the ABC method because it worked; because we knew that when you empower people with knowledge, they make the decisions that are best for themselves.
Why can’t we follow our own advice when it comes to LGBT issues? The person who should decide whether or not a PCV should come out is that PCV him/herself. That PCV knows his community. That PCV does his homework. That PCV is the one who will be in danger if something goes wrong, and that PCV should be the one to decide what is and is not safe. If the volunteer truly thinks safety will not be a concern, and if the volunteer truly thinks he/she can do something to make life better for LGBT people in the host country by volunteering with a local NGO, then he/she should be the one to make that decision. Would I have come out in my village? Absolutely not. But we don’t live in a world of absolutes, and not every village is exactly like my village.
To come back to my professor’s example, the only way we can ensure that no LGBT volunteers get hurt is to ensure that no LGBT volunteers are sent overseas. None amongst us would accept such a policy for LGBT individuals. Why do we accept it for LGBT couples?
Talking about gender is nothing new for Peace Corps. Countries don’t change overnight, and some people might never accept our ideals, but that hasn’t stopped us yet. On the contrary, Peace Corps has made a real difference for women worldwide. We’ve talked about stopping female genital mutilation, we’ve talked about the importance of keeping girls in school, and we’ve had our neighbors watch in shock as straight American couples share the housework. We’ve talked about all kinds of gender issues. It’s time we look at gender to include not just male and female but everything in between. It’s time we end the ban on couples. It’s time we let LGBT volunteers be who they are, and it’s time we arm them with the information they need to make the decisions that only they have the right to make.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org