Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps
June 27, 2015 Leave a comment
The following is the introduction from Jim Kelly’s thesis on gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps, “Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps.”
I was born on June 29, 1947 in a country hospital in a tiny southern Minnesota farming town. The complicated and dangerous delivery almost cost both my mother and I our lives. For the first 15 years of my life, every Sunday after church the ugliest, kindest nurse in history would, without invitation, give me a huge hug and say, “How’s my miracle baby today?” If someone tells you often enough that you’re special, you’ll come to believe it yourself.
However, I kept the most “special” thing about me fiercely protected from discovery. As far back as I can remember I knew that I was different: I felt about boys the way boys were supposed to feel about girls. I also instinctively knew I was in danger if my secret got out. At great psychic cost, I protected that secret for 21 years. I was a college senior when I said out loud for the first time to another human being that I was gay – my academic advisor.
I don’t regret growing up in a small town. Many values I still hold were developed there – values that I believe ultimately led to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer..My parents belonged to just about every board and organization in town. From them I learned the values of community service and civic engagement. I learned what unremarkable people can accomplish when they work together and acknowledge their interdependence. I experienced the power of generosity, and the empowering effect of respect for others.
The darker side of human nature in a small town is that those values really operate only within a sphere of sameness – by and for people who look alike and act alike. My town was at the northern end of a migrant route of Mexican summer farm workers. Over the years, a small permanent community established itself. They were the “other,” and that’s how I learned about prejudice and the impact of marginalization. It helped me realize that I was “in, but not of” that sphere of sameness. I was also an “Other!” Difference is dangerous! Theirs’ was obvious, mine was hidden; but the impact on me was profound. I had learned to empathize.
“Otherness” and the preoccupation to avoid discovery was the driving influence in my life for years to come. Yet, as my world expanded in college during the late 60’s, I realized there were movements everywhere to restore peace, celebrate differences and work on behalf of justice. In my senior year, a woman in my friendship group who had graduated the prior year was sending us letters about her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador.
I was mesmerized and felt called. Peace Corps was still in its first decade and the ideals on which it was founded were inspiring. I applied. About half-way through that endless application, I crashed into this question: “Do you have homosexual tendencies?” In that instant I remembered my PC friend in El Salvador remarking that after she applied, FBI agents ran routine background checks and interviewed people who knew her.
I checked the “no” box, fully aware I was lying. Moreover, I was obligated to ask my academic advisor to collude with me in this lie if he got asked that question by the FBI.
For longer than Peace Corp’s first decade of existence, applicants aware of being gay or lesbian had to perjure themselves to the federal government to even be considered for this opportunity to serve others and represent the best America has to offer.
In 1969 I completed pre-service training and began my service in a rural village in El Salvador. Almost 47 years later, I still view my Peace Corps service as one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Nevertheless, camouflaging my sexual orientation while in the Peace Corps caused me considerable psychological and emotional pain. During my training and Volunteer service I never experienced permission from trainers, other Volunteers or Peace Corps staff to be open about who I was. I believed the Peace Corps assumed all Volunteers were heterosexual. The cross-cultural adaptation training we received about male and female roles and interpersonal relationships was directed at heterosexuals. The men and women had separate training sessions about sexual mores, do’s and don’ts. I clearly remember a trainer reciting to the men names of brothels that were on an unofficial “hygienically approved” list.
In spite of the cost of my silence, I succeeded. I extended my service until 1972. No one ever knew about my profound sense of alienation induced by fear that my “secret” would become known. No one in Peace Corps ever knew that eventually I did discover the El Salvadoran gay subculture and was able to develop a wonderful friendship and support network. Although never regretting being a PCV, I also never forgot how I felt during training and Volunteer service about the omission of attention to some of my most fundamental gay-related needs and concerns as they related to my ability to serve Salvadorans.
Quite serendipitously, about five years after leaving El Salvador, I became associated with Peace again, first as the Training Coordinator for Peace Corps Chile’s pre-service training center. That experience led to a referral in 1981 to CHP International, an Oak Park, IL company which, under contract to the Peace Corps, staffed and operated pre-service training centers in countries of destination (eventually managing centers in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa). I remained with CHP until my retirement 25 years later.
My work with CHP kept me in constant contact with our Peace Corps training centers, curriculum development projects, the evolution in Peace Corps’ training philosophy, Peace Corps staff, and with networks of serving and returned PCVs. The anecdotal accounts of many gay and lesbian friends I made in the informal networks of Peace Corps staff and RPCVs made me wonder how much had really changed in the Peace Corps’ understanding as an institution of the special challenges that Volunteer service presents to gay and lesbian Volunteers.
Towards the end of my first decade with CHP, I decided to obtain an advanced degree in cross-cultural training – acutely aware that I’d already I’d been called to serve again by conducting and publishing this research. As the thesis dedication says:
To the gays and lesbians who have served
as Peace Corps Volunteers
1961 – 1991
We have a voice now
Click Kelly, James B (1991) to read complete copy of Kelly’s thesis on our website.