A Rainbow Week at Peace Corps Connect

In conjunction with the National Peace Corps Association(NPCA)’s annual gathering, Peace Corps Connect, LGBT RPCV participated in a variety of different social and educational events. Below is a brief summary of each of the events.

Rainbow Happy Hour
THURSDAY – With collaboration from Spectrum, Peace Corps’ ERG, LGBT RPCV hosted a happy hour for our collective membership and guests at Nelly’s Sports Bar to begin the weekend of Peace Corps filled activities. We had over four dozen guests join us; from RPCVs that served in the first decade of Peace Corps inception to invitees leaving for serve in a few days. The event provided a casual evening of fellowship and networking for DC-area locals as well as a warm reception for guests out of town. We always enjoy being able to provide the space for our community to come together in-person and create strong connections. If you’re interested in hosting something similar in your area, CONTACT US, and let us know!

Rainbow History of Peace Corps
FRIDAY – As part of the NPCA’s conference theme of “Peace Corps Beyond”, LGBT RPCV was proud to host a session on the rich history the Peace Corps has in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity(SOGI) diversity. Panelists included James “Jim” Kelly, whose 1992 master’s thesis titled “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps” provided much of the foundation for early conversations with Peace Corps on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity; Ralph Cherry an “unlimited” employee at Peace Corps headquarters, where he played various roles in the volunteer delivery system, from recruiting to placement to staging. He completed his 28-year career as a Country Desk Officer in the Africa Region and as Acting Deputy Chief of Operations. In all these capacities, he was witness to, and a direct facilitator of, the evolution of policies affecting LGBT volunteers and staff and; Daniel Hinkle, the current same-sex couples initiative coordinator with Peace Corps’ Office of Overseas Programming and Training, who discussed his role with Peace Corps and his thoughts on the future of where SOGI will continue to shape and influence Peace Corps’ operations.

In the spirit of historical celebration, this session engaged participants to collectively reflect just how far the Peace Corps,as an agency, has come in dealing with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it provided a space for allies among the RPCV community to become better educated about the current same-sex, transgender, and other LGBT-related initiatives Peace Corps is currently engaged in.


Honoring of LGBTQ Peace Corps Pioneers

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(L-R) Ralph Cherry, Jim Kelly, Manuel Colón,and Daniel Hinkle

FRIDAY – As a token of appreciation, Spectrum hosted both Jim and Ralph to an afternoon reception at Peace Corps headquarters to thank them not only for their participation on the day’s panel and their involvement with this week, but their decades of experience and work that has contributed to the positive progression of inclusion for LGBTQ+ individuals in the Peace Corps Corps community. The reception was attended by members of Spectrum, LGBT RPCV,and their guests. Jim and Ralph were also presented with certificates signed by the Director, Carolyn Hessler-Radelet. They read as follows:

 

 

For James Kelly:
With respect and gratitude for your invaluable contributions and exceptional dedication to the Peace Corps and its LGBT family. Throughout your over 25 years of work at Peace Corps training centers around the world, publishing and sharing your influential Master’s thesis, “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps,”with the agency, and helping to foster a more supportive and inclusive Peace Corps for LGBT people, as well as your Peace Corps service in El Salvador, you have achieved a record of dedication that reflects the highest ideals of the Peace Corps.jimkellycertificate

For Ralph Cherry:
With respect and gratitude for your invaluable contributions and exceptional dedication to the Peace Corps and its LGBT family. Throughout your over 28 years of work at Peace Corps Headquarters, your effort to influence and create inclusive policies for LGBT staff and Volunteers, being a catalyst to the foundation of the LGBT RPCV group, and helping to foster a more supportive and inclusive Peace Corps for LGBT people, as well as your Peace Corps service in Ghana, you have achieved a record of dedication that reflects the highest ideals of the Peace Corps.

The Rainbow History of Peace Corps

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LGBT RPCV is proud to once again present a session at the National Peace Corps Association’s annual gathering, Peace Corps Connect. This year, our presentation is titled “The Rainbow History of Peace Corps”. A brief description will be provided below. To learn more about registration, CLICK HERE.

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When Peace Corps was founded in 1961, all prospective volunteers were required to disclose any homosexual tendencies they had – which would bar hem from service. Today, Peace Corps actively trains host countries for intercultural and diversity competencies to host same-sex couples. How did we get there? Where did we come from?

James Kim Kelly (El Salvador 1969-1972) will discuss his 1992 master’s thesis titled “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps” which provided the foundation for early conversations with Peace Corps on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

Daniel Hinkle (El Salvador 2010-2012), the current same-sex couples initiative coordinator with Peace Corps’ Office of Overseas Programming and Training, will discuss his role with Peace Corps and his thoughts on the future of where SOGI will continue to shape and influence Peace Corps’ operations.

Ralph Cherry (Ghana 1969-1971) was fortunate enough to become an “unlimited” employee at Peace Corps headquarters, where he played various roles in the volunteer delivery system, from recruiting to placement to staging. He completed his 28-year career as a Country Desk Officer in the Africa Region and as Acting Deputy Chief of Operations. In all these capacities, he was witness to, and a direct facilitator of, the evolution of policies affecting LGBT volunteers and staff.

In the spirit of historical celebration, this session will engage participants to collectively reflect just how far the Peace Corps agency has come in dealing with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it will assist allies among the RPCV community to become better educated about the current same-sex, transgender, and other LGBT-related initiatives Peace Corps is currently engaged in.

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LGBT RPCV will also be teaming up with Spectrum, Peace Corps’ LGBTQ Employee Resource Group, to sponsor a social mixer for our members, friends, and supporters. “Rainbow Happy Hour” will be on Thursday, September 22nd at 5:30pm at Nellies’ Sports Bar, 900 U St NW Washington, DC 20001. We can’t wait to see you all there!

 

Rainbow Happy Hour

The Power of Video Stories

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In September 2010, Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, uploaded the very first It Gets Better video to YouTube. Within months, one video would grow to over 50,000, converting Dan and Terry’s single video into one of the largest collections of LGBT stories in the world. In hindsight, their original goal of one hundred videos – “best-case scenario: two hundred videos”[1] – was a major underestimate, to say the least.

So what happened? How did just one video – and two stories (Dan & Terry’s) – become one of the most successful social media campaigns for social good of all time?[2]

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Some of this success can certainly be attributed to various external factors at play at the time. In 2010, the LGBT community was growing in political strength, and YouTube and other social media platforms were rising in popularity. These elements helped attract pro-LGBT celebrities and political figures to the campaign, which invited mass media coverage to follow. Without these things, the It Gets Better Project might never have become what it is today.

But to give them all of the credit would be wrong. These external factors alone can’t attest for the continued influence of the It Gets Better Project around the world today, or to the seemingly endless support and love we receive from contributors near and far. We attribute that sort of success to one thing: the power of story.

As one researcher put it at the time, stories like those contained within It Gets Better videos have the potential to “set up possible ways of being in the world, [inviting] one to the realization of [their] possibilities.”[3] That’s something incredibly important for people who are LGBT. Although we may frequently identify with one another and can adopt shared cultural values, there is no simple way to do that across generations. As a result, younger LGBT people can have a difficult time connecting with LGBT adults and with finding appropriate role models in times of need.

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The It Gets Better video campaign helped change that. It gave LGBT adults the opportunity to tell their own personal stories, some for the first time. Simultaneously, it provided a portal through which LGBT youth could connect directly with the voices they were in need of hearing the most. That’s why what seemed like a simple idea to Dan and Terry at the time was actually revolutionary. Much more than just telling a story, Dan and Terry were helping to build a community.

Here’s one scholar’s explanation for why collective storytelling can be so important for groups like the LGBT community:

“We celebrate storytelling, and especially personal storytelling, for its authenticity, its passion, and its capacity to inspire not just empathy but action. Everyone has a story, we often say, and that makes for a discourse with uniquely democratic possibilities… In telling the story of our becoming, as an individual, a nation, a people, we define who we are.”[4]

On a community level, it’s this “capacity to inspire” that makes the It Gets Better Project so successful. That leaves us with one lingering question: beyond being valuable to the identity of the LGBT community as a whole, does collective storytelling really help LGBT youth in need?

IGB5As a writer at Vox.com recently put it, “[It Gets Better] is not just something celebrities and other famous people say to make the world feel good. It’s something that’s been backed by empirical research.”[5] Here are just a few of the things that research has told us about the impact of storytelling and positive messaging in general on LGBT youth:

  • Inquiries Journal (2010): Online social support can be an incredibly effective means for helping teens mediate stress and find inclusivity.[6]
  • Public Relations Journal (2013): By effectively utilizing commons-based peer production, the It Gets Better Project has helped teens identify with a greater online community, which in turn can help them combat social isolation and adversity.[7]
  • Clinical Psychological Science (2014): Convincing kids that things can change for the better helps them dodge depression, assists with aggression, and improves general health.[8]

This is what the It Gets Better Project is all about: making the lives of LGBT young people better, one video at a time. To bring it back to the words of Dan Savage: “Let’s all commit to making things better right now, let’s all do what we can to create a world where no child, gay or straight, is bullied for being different…Do your part. Give ‘em hope.”[1] Sometimes all that takes is a story.

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[1] Savage, D., & Miller, T. (Eds.). (2011). It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living. New York: Dutton.

[2]  Skarda, E. (2014, September 16). What You Need to Know About the 5 Most Successful Social Media Campaigns for Social Change. Retrieved from NationSwell:http://nationswell.com/social-media-campaigns-successful-at-change/

[3] O’Connell, Sean P (2001). OutSpeak: Narrating Identities That Matter. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[4] Polletta, F. (2006). It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

[5] Lopez, G. (2016, April 15). LGBTQ study finds it really does get better. Retrieved from Vox: http://www.vox.com/2015/1/29/7945603/it-gets-better-study

[6] Dietrick, Cindy (2010). Online Social Support: An Effective Means of Mediating Stress. Inquiries Journal.

[7] Ward, Jamie A (2013). The Next Dimension in Public Relations Campaigns: A Case Study of the It Gets Better Project. Public Relations Journal: 157-186.

[8] Miu, Adriana Sum and David Scott Yeager (2014). Preventing Symptoms of Depression by Teaching Adolescents That People Can Change: Effects of a Brief Incremental Theory of Personality Intervention at 9-Month Follow-Up. Clinical Psychological Science.

Living & Working Abroad as an LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteer

On Wednesday, July 1st, Peace Corps Diversity Recruiter Travis Bluemling held a live streamed webinar with four panelist regarding their experience in service as it relates to their their LGBTQ identity. If you missed it, don’t worry, it was recorded and hosted on YouTube – link below. Countries of service represented were Indonesia, Liberia, Paraguay, and Thailand.

The event was advertised as such:
“Please join us as we connect with currently serving and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to discuss what it is like to serve as someone that identifies within the LGBTQ spectrum.  Hear their first hand experiences of living and working abroad! “

CLICK HERE to watch the recording of the webinar.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1iCuGyCwWg

Pride and Prejudice: The LGBTQ Volunteer Experience

Republished with permission from Peace Corps West blog

Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, personally identifiable information (including names) of current Volunteers has been changed.

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When serving abroad, all Peace Corps Volunteers face challenges of new living arrangements, novel foods, and different attitudes. LGBTQ Volunteers often confront additional challenges because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

An Education Volunteer currently in his second year of service in Asia, “Joseph Mercier” identifies as gay and trans-questioning. Out to family and friends since high school, Mercier is also open to Peace Corps staff and several students and friends in his urban community, located in an isolated and conservative area.

“One question I get frequently asked is, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ To this I now respond, ‘No, but I’m looking for a boyfriend.’” Mercier said. “I’ve had to work really hard to get to this point, and am so thrilled by how well I’m being received.”

Although there are few formal ways to meet other LGBTQ individuals in his country, Mercier has created his own social and support network. Peace Corps staff have also encouraged him to be an advocate on the issue.

“We have been very open here at my post, thanks to the efforts of the Same-Sex Couples Working Group,” Mercier said. “During my service, I’ve convened PeaceOut!, a volunteer-led platform for the gender and sexuality diversity community serving here.”

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Mercier’s primary assignment is teaching university-level English, but he also leads a dance course and a community planning workshop. He’s gained new skills while navigating his country’s unique cultural landscape.

“In Peace Corps, you learn the art of advocating for yourself,” Mercier said. “If your needs are not being met, it is your job to identify contacts and convene resources in order to ensure your health, well-being and success. You learn the art of effective communication, a skill that will last a lifetime.”

For members of the LGBTQ community interested in pursuing service abroad, Mercier recommends being clear about your expectations.

“I knew that I didn’t want to live in the closet if I joined the Peace Corps, and I expressed that in my application materials,” Mercier said. “That being said, I explained that I was committed to fulfilling my duties as a Volunteer and would adapt to the norms of my host community in order to be an effective teacher.”

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Ty Manning identifies as a gay man and served as a Community Health Promotion Volunteer in Peru from 2011–13. Manning came out during his college years and was open about his sexual orientation with fellow Volunteers and Peace Corps staff during service. However, he chose to be closeted in the conservative mountain community where he lived and worked.

ty-in-peru_crop“Many of the communities were more concerned with infant malnutrition and the risk that excrement would seep into the water table and end up in their dinner table glasses,” Manning said. “The fact that I was contributing to tangible improvements in the health of my community allowed me to swallow my rainbow flag—at times, gladly so—and even laugh when told that I’d end up marrying a Peruana and stay there forever.”

Though his time in Peru was not without its painful moments, especially when exposed to adverse comments about homosexuality, Manning felt supported by the Peace Corps network and did not regret his decision to stay closeted.

“During my service, I realized that my sexual orientation is a very important part of who I am, but not revealing this to others in my community had very little impact on the depth of the relationships I formed,” Manning said.

Stephanie Nys had begun to understand herself as a pansexual[1] woman in 2011, just before departing for Peace Corps Liberia. While she felt supported by staff and many Volunteers with whom she was open, she found it difficult to navigate the challenges ofStephanie - Liberia2_cropservice in a country where her evolving sexual identity could conflict with local laws forbidding same-sex relations.

“I’m very glad I served but I do sometimes wish I had stayed in the states a little longer to have more time to come out in a safer environment, and to think about the challenge of what being closeted would look like in Peace Corps,” Nys said.

Karen Andrews completed sex reassignment surgery in 2001, well before becoming an Education Volunteer in Thailand from 2013–15. She served as an older Volunteer after retiring from a career as a real estate broker. Andrews preferred to be known simply as a woman, rather than actively revealing her sex reassignment or sexual orientation.

RSCN5341“Many PCVs didn’t know at the beginning, but learned on an individual basis later. Some were surprised when I told them,” Andrews said. “I had no idea if community members knew or not. Nothing was ever said to me. They were always respectful, protective and caring.”

Like other LGBTQ Volunteers, Andrews was able to confront the difficulties she faced in order to reap the countless rewards of Peace Corps service.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Andrews said. “I cannot express how thankful I am to the Peace Corps for being given this opportunity. I am forever changed.”

[1] By definition, pansexuality separates sexual attraction from gender identity and biological sex and implies increased fluidity.