Sankofa, Peace Corps’ Black/African-American employee affinity group, felt the need to compose a panel based on the conversations many members have had with other people of color and wanting to address how these events affect employees, directly and indirectly, on a regular basis, including the work environment. Spectrum, Peace Corp’s LGBTQ employee affinity group, added value by enlisting Kevin Jones who was an excellent part of the panel and helped create a stronger intersection of diversity and inclusion by speaking on his identity as a gay Black man, how his current job utilizes data to properly allocate and focus resources to DC neighborhoods in need, and his strong body of advocacy for LGBT rights and respect. Roughly 50 staff was in attendance.
PURPOSE OF EVENT
Recent events across the nation (the murder of Freddy Gray in Baltimore, events in Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere) have brought forth the issue of racial inequality through different lenses – law, education, entertainment, socioeconomics, among others. As the Peace Corps strives to create a diverse and inclusive environment for both staff and Volunteers that encourages an active and effective exchange of views, it’s important that Peace Corps employees have space to discuss and address these issues that are now in the national and international spotlight.
Kevin Jones – For the past 20 years, he has worked with community groups and nonprofit organizations to use data to inform public health and educational strategies embedded in liberation and social justice. A highlight of his work includes traveling to Gaborone, Botswana to train professors and graduate students in using qualitative research methods for developing HIV prevention programs for young people. Prior to moving to Washington, DC in 2012, he established the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia to collect, preserve and exhibit history. He currently serves as the Chief of Data and Evaluation for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, overseeing performance measurement activities for its antipoverty strategies for students and families. Jones is originally from Detroit, Michigan. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, and received Masters’ degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania.
Sozit Mohamed – Sozit Mohamed is a graduate of San Francisco State University (SFSU), where she received her B.S. in Political Science in 2009. The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants who instilled the value of education at an early age, Sozit became the first in her family to attend college. Through an academic scholarship and a part-time job, Sozit was able to finance her education all while maintaining the high G.P.A required of her academic scholarship. In addition to working and studying, Sozit became an active leader with various student groups at SFSU – including the Black Student Union and the Muslim Student Organization.
Mohamed is currently an intern with Peace Corps’ Office of Civil Rights and Diversity and a Juris Doctorate candidate at the Howard University School of Law. She is a member of various student groups at Howard including the International Law Society and the Immigration Law Society, African Law Student Association and served as the Vice President of the Muslim Law Student Association during the 2014-2015 academic year.
Christina M. Parrish – Christina Parrish joined Girls Inc DC as the Program Director. After graduating from Georgetown University in 2008 as a Culture and Politics major, with a focus on youth and education, Christina remained in the District and worked as an Education Director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington where her passion for youth development was enlivened. As the Education Director for the FBR Branch Boys & Girls Club in Southeast Washington D.C., she developed and implemented programming fit to the needs of area youth ages 5-18. At the Boys & Girls Clubs, her primary areas of programmatic focus included exposing participants to international cultures, college access and career exploration.
After working for the Boys & Girls Clubs, Parrish went on to pursue an M.P.P. in Social Policy and International Development with a focus on Education Policy at the Maryland School of Public Policy. Parrish most recently worked for Georgetown University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions where she was responsible for multicultural recruitment efforts and working on issues of college access for students from underserved communities, many of them first generation college-bound students. Christina is excited to continue to advocate for youth, specifically girls, with Girls Inc DC- an organization that creates a space for girls to be strong, smart & bold, so they become women who are healthy, educated and independent.
What do you do (career path/employment and why do you do it)?
How do the concepts of social justice and inequality vary across generations within a similar group?
What risks and rewards are associated with adopting explicit social justice stances (ex: calling out oppression and discrimination when you encounter it)?
If the struggle for social justice takes a toll on oneself, how do you manage to continue to advocate? And what can one learn from it?
What have been some of your successes and challenges for you in your field?
How do you incorporate social justice practices in your daily life (workplace, school, personal, etc.)?
Byron L. Williams, from Las Vegas, NV, is a Diversity Outreach Specialist for the U.S. Peace Corps. Along with his team in the Office of Recruitment & Diversity he is responsible for crafting the outreach and awareness strategies for the recruitment of historically under-represented peoples and communities. Byron served twice with Peace Corps, the first time as a Youth Development Volunteer in Lesotho 2003-2005 and then with this wife, Denise Williams, as education volunteers in Ukraine 2011-2013. He can be reached at email@example.com
As the coordinator of the Sexuality Training Awareness and Response (STAR) Peace Corps Volunteer committee in Nicaragua, I train staff and volunteers on LGBTQ issues.
STAR formed in 2014 because Peace Corps Nicaragua was one of three countries that agreed to host a same sex couple. In light of this agreement, LGBTQ volunteers in country wished for their identities to be acknowledged and supported.
In 2015, STAR led four LGBTQ safe zone trainings. Our first training was nerve wracking, yet rewarding. During these trainings, we realized what a great need there was for staff to learn about the differences between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ before moving on to more complex topics like ‘gender expression’ and ‘sexual orientation’. We trained Nicaraguan and American office staff, as well as our hotel and hostel staff. Last but not least, we trained several of the taxi cab drivers that make sure we travel through Managua safely.
Here are reasons why the Peace Corps needs LGBTQ Safe Zone Trainings. I will use the term “queer” and “LGBTQ” interchangeably. In this context, the term “queer” is a reclaimed term to refer to anyone who does not identify as heterosexual.
Some countries criminalize homosexuality.
I’m lucky I can even say the words “I am a lesbian” out loud in Nicaragua. Other Peace Corps host countries around the world still criminalize homosexual behavior. This reinforces the misconception that homosexuality is an act, not an identity. Homosexual acts in Nicaragua aren’t criminalized, though. During our trainings, we share how being queer forms our identities and affects our service. We didn’t “choose” to be queer. We were born this way, and it’s a harsh reality that some queer people don’t apply to the Peace Corps for safety reasons.
We think critically about gender. “In a relationship, you normally have a man and a woman. Who is the man- the dominant one-in a lesbian relationship?” A curious taxi driver asked during a trainings. I realized that we had to analyze gender roles in heterosexual relationships. I explained that in a lesbian relationship, just like in a straight relationship, it depends. More women are working to support their families. Women are waiting longer to have children. “Now, it’s more common to see a father walking down the street, holding his son’s hand. You didn’t see that nearly as much 20 years ago, right?” The cab driver nodded. Just as gender roles aren’t fixed for straight couples, they aren’t fixed for queer couples. We use the genderbread person toolhelp us.
Being queer affects our service.
STAR is made up of queer and allied volunteers because volunteers want to support each other. I didn’t come out to any Nicaraguans in my small training town, but I came out to my colleagues. I kept it to myself because I was in a new country for the first time, and I didn’t want to feel unsafe for my first three months. I didn’t enjoy telling my host family that I did not have a boyfriend, and not being comfortable enough to explain Ionly dated women. I lied to protect myself. It’s a difficult balance to strike as a queer volunteer. You want to be completely honest about who you are, but you don’t want to compromise how locals view you and your work.
Peace Corps staff can surprise you. While homophobia exists everywhere, STAR is making an unprecedented effort to have open, honest conversations with the people who support PCVs. We are helping them understand what language to use in order to welcome people who aren’t straight. Two months into my service, my Spanish facilitator asked me “Are you texting your boyfriend?”. I wanted to say, no, I’m a lesbian, but I didn’t know how she would react. If she had used the word “partner” instead of boyfriend, then I would’ve opened up to her. Six months later, I came out to her during our first safe zone training. She ended up coming back to our third training because she had enjoyed the first one so much. If I’d known how open she was, I would’ve come out to her earlier.
Staff walk in LGBTQ volunteers’ shoes.
During each training, staff break up into small groups and perform role plays on topics such as:
• Practicing volunteer confidentiality
• Using LGBTQ-inclusive language
Watch the role play between Pablo, our safety and security officer, and Jorge, our taxi cab driver (and a great actor!). Pablo played a PCV. He talks to Jorge, who plays a housekeeper at the Peace Corps Office.
Jorge (Housekeeper): Listen to this! My fag of a neighbor robbed me!
Pablo (volunteer): Oh yeah?
Pablo: Listen, I understand that you’re upset because he robbed you, but I don’t appreciate you using that word. I have a lot of gay friends, and they are good people.They’re my friends, and I don’t like you using that word, especially here at the Peace Corps office.
Jorge: Listen brother, I didn’t mean to offend you. I respect sexual orientations of all kids. It was just an expression. I’m just mad at my neighbor.
These role plays are fun because staff members jump right in and practice what they’ve learned. It’s neat to see a group of grown men and women perform situations and use words like “gay” and “lesbian” in positive ways, as opposed to using the word “cochón” (fag), which people use without knowing how offensive it can be to someone who is actually gay.
The trainings apply to our lives. Our trainings are different from your typical “This is what to do if you get diarrhea” trainings. Our trainings push people to think of gender and sexual orientation in new ways. All of us know someone or are related to someone who is queer. During the breaks, I’ve had staff come up to me and ask me “I have a family member who came out to me. What do I do?”. I reassure them that just by making their family member feel comfortable enough to come out to them, they are in the right direction. “You may not have the best advice for them, but just listen to them. We cannot solve our loved one’s problems, but being understanding is important”, I assure them.
The trainings are sustainable.
After our safe zone trainings, we gave our taxi drivers rainbow colored “safe zone” stickers that they stuck to their windshields. These stickers benefited the drivers’ business because queer Managuans were more likely to hop inside the cabs, knowing their identies would be respected during their cab ride home. They are also a great conversation starter for anyone hopping in. I’ve had great conversations with the drivers. The stickers give the drivers a chance to share what they learned about LGBTQ identity with others.
I hope that more LGBTQ or allied Peace Corps volunteers are aware of the small steps they can take within the Peace Corps sphere to create more accepting work environments. Here is a list of resources you can use if you are interested in STAR trainings.
This is how safe zone trainings apply across the four Peace Corps Nicaragua sectors:
TEFL, Business, and Environment: These trainings can be given during teacher trainings for specific efforts, such as anti-gay bullying awareness. More broadly, the trainings can just start a conversation between teachers about lgbtq identity or gender roles.
Health: Confidentiality is not enforced in pharmacies or health centers. These trainings can share the importance of creating safe zones for people how may not feel safe coming out. Sometimes, gay male host country nationals will donate blood through the Red Cross to test for HIV because getting an HIV test at a health center is not confidential.
This training also went well during Camp GLOW for Nicaraguan teenage girls. Here’s how.
How would LGBTQ safe zone trainings apply to your work?
Jeremy Haber (Paraguay 2013-2015) is from Franklin, TN and currently works as a part-time Peace Corps Recruiter and full-time graduate student in Business Analytics at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. He served in Villa Hayes, Paraguay as a Community Economic Development volunteer. Jeremy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had a few crushes during my Peace Corps service. And while these crushes never made it past friendships, they did have a lasting impact on my life.
My first crush was on a Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator, a third year extension position. He gave our group a condom demonstration (on a banana, of course). What stood out the most were his quirky lapses in memory of common English words and his energetic presentation. It was so refreshing to hear him speak after months of dull, plain talks on health, safety, and security.
After the presentation, I emailed the Coordinator thanking him for his great presentation. In the signature, I added a code JUBX FXDUM HXD URTN CX PAJK BXVN LXOONN BXVNCRVN. He responded, “What is this? Is this a code? I like challenges.” But he never followed up more beyond that. A few months later he mentioned he was seeing someone so it made sense why he did not respond.
From this and many other experiences, I learned I was not so good at asking guys on dates because I am not very direct. During training, I made best friends with a Volunteer whose brother is Gay; she really pushed me to not live in my head and instead encouraged me to ask for what I want. In exchange, I helped her on how to use subtlety in conversation. Her problem was she would push dates away with her blunt comments, always trying to be correct. We were both lousy at getting dates, but during our Sunday brunch conversations we always learned from each other.
My second crush happened on my second day in site, after I finished three months of pre-service training. I met my primary contact, a Director of a local cultural center. The first thing we did was take his small pickup and drive to the native cultural center located in the middle of a deserted field about twenty miles away. On the way, in my bad Spanish, I asked him what music he liked. He said Mile Cyrus and Lady Gaga – I smiled. I remember my last interview with my Peace Corps Sector Director, telling her I didn’t care how big or small, difficult or remote the site I will be living in, I would be the happiest if she chose a contact I would work well with. As soon as I found out he loved pop divas in the first few minutes I met him, I knew my Sector Director chose a good contact for me. Although a great guy, our relationship remained professional, we had a very easy time working with each other, a common understanding of one another between guys who love pop divas and dancing.
It is said that ten percent of Volunteers may enter into a long term relationship (Paraguayan or foreign) during their service. So, having a sex life in the Peace Corps was somewhat expected. We were mostly twenty-somethings, now having enormous amounts of time on our hands, sex was almost guaranteed to occupy our time and our minds. Shockingly, I stayed celibate for four years, two years in the Peace Corps and two years while I studied in Asia for my MBA.
Why would I stay celibate? I did not plan on it, and I am not asexual. I just decided to stay with a host family and focus on myself rather than look for sexual partners. There were a few Gay Volunteers and locals, everyone still used social networking and dating sites overseas to hookup. However, I deleted these apps. It was not that I had a mission to not have sex or a relationship. I certainly had a few females and males come onto me. I would not call myself cold or standoffish, puritanical or prudish. It was maybe a calming down phase for me. I had a few crazy escapades, Gay cruises and parties overseas during a more exploratory phase of my youth. Maybe I turned into a mature Gay guy now.
There were a few guys that came after me. I met the local English Teacher at the cultural center. I was greeted with a friendly conversation and an offer to go to lunch. The next day the same, and soon it became routine to go to lunch with him. We were becoming friends, and soon I received a few nice gifts. I learned he was thirty, not married, enjoyed listening to Madonna, and never had a girlfriend. I told him I enjoyed his company but that we were just friends. He understood.
Out of my whole Peace Corps experience, this English teacher was one of the most remarkable people I had met. By the time I left he became the most sought after English teacher in the Department. His childhood was tough, adopted by the grandmother who died a few months before I started my service. He gave up the Presbyterian Church and lost most of his friends when quitting a few months before I arrived. So we spent a lot of time together, and while I was in Paraguay, we traveled all around the country and attended all the Peace Corps parties together.
Peace Corps had its share of parties. The parties in the capitol occurred once every three months, and it was a night of live performances by Paraguayans and Peace Corps Volunteers. It was also a night where many Gay men stopped by the party. There was a high percentage of Gay Volunteers and mostly because Peace Corps attracted a more liberal minded person. So one Gay Volunteer could date a local from the capitol and leave after two years, but the local still could come to the party and then start dating the next Volunteer. It was like going to the foreign exchange parties in undergrad and you were always looking on making new German friends and sometimes hooking up with them even though they would leave in a few weeks.
There was in fact a German Volunteer group known as AFS and there were a lot of Gay guys in that group. These Volunteers were college age so they were quite young, but I know Peace Corps Volunteers who went on trips with AFS Volunteers and even dated a few of them. My rule being twenty-eight at the time was to not date someone who was under twenty-one, since I had the same rule for myself in the United States.
Peace Corps made Volunteers comfortable with uncertainty. There were many expectations, dreams, ideas of one’s life in the Peace Corps during the application process. “I’ll learn a new language, I’ll make wonderful friends, I’ll make a difference, I’ll try new foods, I’ll figure myself out. I’ll meet someone and fall in love. I’ll have wonderfully successful projects.” This honeymoon phase quickly disappeared the first few months in site. The first few months of service, was likes like jumping into a pool of ice cold water every day. It was quite uncomfortable every time, but it warmed up as the day went on.
Soon the water started to become warmer, and my classes filled up with lots of students. In Paraguay, a White male was thought of as handsome, and young girls flirted with me. They soon found out I was not interested. Younger Gay guys would come to class sometimes with their boyfriend and learn a little English. My second crush was on one student who was a hot Zumba teacher. He took all of my classes one year and was the only guy over twenty-one. I remember one English lesson involved clothing, and students yelled out different articles of clothing, and he yelled out underwear with the cutest smile. I blushed. It was great to see him and others so motivated, maybe they were originally coming for other interests, but I turned that motivation into learning English and they soon became some of my best students.
During the summer, a guy Facebook messaged me with a “Hooollllaaa,” and a smiley face emoticon, the common online flirting for young Gay guys. I mentioned to him I was Gay, but not into him because he was under twenty-one. Then an idea popped into my head. I really wanted to get out of site and go to a gender and diversity camp. So I invited him to the camp. He was brilliant and told his story at camp about how he came out at the hospital he worked at. Unfortunately, his coworkers started gossiping and the other employees made horrible comments. He ignored them for a while, but then his boss told him to think about leaving. After the camp the youth became a new person, empowered with confidence. He eventually became a leader in the community and even hosted a Volunteer after I left Paraguay. We became good friends and still chat on Facebook.
Every Volunteer got the option to request a follow-up Volunteer to further develop the projects the previous Volunteer started. The Volunteer to serve after me in my site asked me advice on dating in site. I mentioned relationships for volunteers with alternative lifestyles may be more accepted in the capitol versus our small town, so meeting guys or dating Volunteers in the capitol may be a better idea especially since he lived in the center of town. We went for coffee one afternoon out of site. Not really a date, but we shared some personal stories.
At my local cultural center, every Events Coordinator, and there were three when I served, were not a typical male for a small Paraguayan community. I did not know if they were Gay. They never came out to me, but we shared some unforgettable experiences and stories. One Events Coordinator went to a youth leadership camp with me before obtaining the Events Coordinator position. He was a great speaker, having a lot of practice leading the youth in the church. I learned his passion was to be a beauty pageant consultant. He knew about every Miss Paraguay and all the winners in Latin America. His goal for the future was to meet me in my hometown of Las Vegas and see the Miss Universe Pageant at Planet Hollywood. I told him I’ll take him to see the Britney Spears show if he comes and visits.
I had a crush on another Events Coordinator of the cultural center, who left my site two years before I arrived. He returned to the cultural center only a few times. The first time we met, we spoke English and he invited me to his graduation at the Police Academy. He was the valedictorian of his class, and decorated with many medals in his police uniform. Who wouldn’t fall for this guy? We hung out two more times during my service. The first time we ate street food and had a stroll by the river after the sun set. We sat under the stars and talked about our time in high school in our respective countries. It was a fun night but did not amount to more than just chatting. The second date did not go over well. I chose an expensive Gay friendly café in the capitol, and he felt a little uncomfortable. We didn’t talk as much, maybe he wasn’t Gay. So we parted ways.
The last person I wanted to mention was my mentor. I had the best mentor in Peace Corps. He had been a Volunteer already for a year, and he gave me good advice on being Gay in Paraguay. He answered a lot of my questions over email before I started training in country. And then during training we spoke once a week to see how things were going. One additional conversation with someone in English and who went through the same thing I was going through as a Gay man made a big difference during that initial few months.
Now coming back to University of Tennessee being the Peace Corps campus recruiter, I am still very out and open about my sexuality. There is a huge rainbow flag on the wall of my office. I give recruitment speeches at Pride Week and joined LGBT commissions and Gay organizations. I quickly found out how fortunate I am to be back in an environment where students are extremely motivated to create positive change, however there is still a lot of change needed to be made.
In addition, as a recruiter, I find it important to share my identity as Gay in my class presentations. During job fairs, I lay my rainbow flag on my table where I have had students approach me because I reached out to them indirectly with the flag. There have been Transgender students and Gay couples who have come to chat with me about Peace Corps. While I am learning more and more in my role each day, I know sharing these stories about my friends in Paraguay have made the biggest impact on students’ decision to join Peace Corps. I also know my Paraguayan friends also had the biggest impact on making me a better person, too.
A youth and I showing our community map. He later became Director of Events for the cultural center in our community.
United States Embassy staff visits my local cultural center. The Director of the cultural center located in the middle.
Diversity and Gender youth summer camp. Many youth shared their stories about coming out in their community.
In February 2015, I gave my first LGBTQ safe zone training to Peace Corps Nicaragua Staff (Made up of American and Nicaraguan citizens) with STAR, our vounteer LGBTQA support group. Here is the post I wrote a year ago, which hilighlights my expectations and the reality of the training. It went so well that we ended up doing four total. On February 20th, 2016, we will do our first host famiy training.
Today marked my sixth month in Nicaragua. It feels like I’ve been here longer. Yesterday, I woke up and took the bus to Managua to meet with STAR (Sexuality Training And Response) committee members to talk about the workshop we would lead for the mostly Spanish-speaking Peace Corps staff. The goal of this training would be to break the ice between staff and volunteers and to begin a conversation about creating a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ volunteers.
This initiative began in July 2014, when volunteers and staff met to discuss the new same sex partner initiative. Peace Corps Nicaragua offered to prepare for the possibility of hosting a same sex couple. We still do not know when they will be here, but this was the first time staff and volunteers began to talk about what could be improved in terms of welcoming present and future volunteers. Staff thought that they were openly supportive of queer volunteers, but the volunteers felt as if their identities were simply being ignored.
The other STAR members and I were nervous. We didn’t know how the Nicaraguan staff would react to our training. We knew staff might be uncomfortable, and we didn’t want to impose our beliefs on them. The workshop would also be completely in Spanish, so some of us had to practice translating complex gender terminology that we’d only used in English. Words like “genderqueer” don’t have a translation (yet), so we made a point to explain them as we went. We chatted about the same sex initiative as well as ways in which we think facilitators (our Spanish teachers in training) and staff could be more inclusive of queer volunteers.
This discussion reminded me of my first day in Nicaragua. I almost didn’t come to Nicaragua because I’m a lesbian. Only a couple of hours after getting off the plane, all 42 of us met with Don Howard, our country director. He said that he and his staff were welcoming to anyone of any race, class, and sexual orientation. Just by mentioning that there were people in the room who didn’t identify as straight, I felt as if I were acknowledged. I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t being ignored.
Looking back, I just wished that a Nicaraguan staff member had said the same thing. I wished that I could have just heard this simple sentence from any one of them. Instead, possibly to avoid making anyone else uncomfortable, they would tell us that they supported us if we needed anything, and that they respected us. I realized how important it was to specifically mention sexual orientation as an identity, at least for those like myself who were nervous about how our identities would affect our service.
After we met, we split up into groups to work on our segments of the workshop. One volunteer and I worked on a poster that broke up a “Genderbread person” into 4 parts: Biological sex, gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. We had an interesting disagreement on what it means to be genderqueer, since this diagram placed it in between “male” and “female” in the gender identity section. I saw the term “genderqueer” as more of a rejection of societal gender labels, but he saw it as more of a biological term for someone whose hormone levels cause them to neither identify as male nor female.
I said that if society didn’t make me check off a “male “ or “female” box then I would probably just identify as genderqueer. Although my hormones pretty much tell me I’m a woman, I wouldn’t have to worry about walking into the “correct” bathroom. I also wouldn’t worry about being harassed on the street for holding hands with a woman, because no one would care about my gender and no one would expect me to hold hands with only a man. It was an interesting discussion.
After finishing up our posters, I sat at La Colonia’s comedor with two of the volunteers I would be presenting with. I bit into my enchilada and sipped on my coke zero. We chatted about how nervous we were for the workshop. “Let’s make it fun”, one of them wisely suggested. “I’m nervous, too, but this training is long overdue and it will help future volunteers feel more comfortable”, I said. That night I had trouble sleeping because I was so nervous. It was the good kind of nervous, though. The kind of nervous where you aren’t sure about what’s going to happen, but you know that it needs to happen for the good of those around you and for the good of those you’ll never even meet.
That morning at the Peace Corps Office, staff members, both American and Nicaraguan, were heading upstairs to the conference room for the workshop. This is really happening, I thought. I went to greet my Spanish facilitator, Nidia, who I had not come out to during training, but I would do so soon.
“If you’re impatient, Nicaragua is the best place to learn how to be patient.” The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my Spanish Facilitator, Nidia.
The workshop opened with a few words from Don Howard as he addressed the fact that in the U.S., times are changing and same sex marriage is being recognized, even in places as conservative as Alabama. While some countries still criminalize homosexual activity, countries like Nicaragua do not. Since same sex partnerships are being legally recognized in the U.S., this means that if a host country allows same sex activity, that the Peace Corps is opening up to the idea of having same sex couples serve together. The first female same sex couple in the Peace Corps just finished serving in Ecuador about a year and a half ago. One staff member asked if we would actually be having a same sex couple serve, and the answer to that was yes, but we just don’t know when. “Que bueno”, she said. Well, it looked like today was starting off on the right foot.
My group and I then began our presentation with a term and definition matching activity. Some people were given a term like “transgender”, and they had to find the person with the definition of the term. One by one, each partnership placed their term and definition on the whiteboard. This was when staff members began asking great questions. The only mistake one group made was to match “gender identity” with the definition of “sexual orientation”, but everyone else had the correct terms with their definitions.
As some staff members asked questions like “what’s the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘gay male’?”, others scribbled down what we were saying in their notebooks. I honestly didn’t expect them to be taking so many notes and to be so curious. Others asked “So, can you come out of the closet and go back in?”. Yes, we said, depending on how conservative of an environment we are in. I shared that didn’t have any queer female friends when I grew up in my conservative hometown of Moses Lake, Washington, so I didn’t come out until I was 19, after a year of being at the very queer friendly Wellesley College. Then, I went back into the closet in Nicaragua in order to protect myself and to adapt to this environment. I didn’t know how Nicaraguans would react. As soon as I began putting myself out there to the staff with these personal stories, I felt as if they trusted me even more. Making yourself a little vulnerable goes a long way.
We also explained the answer to “What’s the difference between transgender and gay?”. I explained that I was gay, but I’ve had biologically female friends in college who realized that they identified as male, so they began to inject themselves with testosterone. Their legs grew more hair and their chests flattened; some even had top surgery to remove their breasts. Staff members’ faces seemed surprised and attentive as I told them this.
Another staff member asked “If the goal of our work is to help volunteers practice their Spanish and make them feel welcome, how do you tell if someone even is gay?”. We mentioned that the most important part is to explicitly state that you are welcoming of people of all sexual orientations and identities, but that you should never force anyone out of the closet. If you create a safe space, then all you do is wait for the queer volunteers to be comfortable enough to come out to you, if they want to. I may have been the only openly queer woman in my group of 42 volunteers, but it would have been reassuring for a Nicaraguan staff member too acknowledge my orientation isntead of assuming I was straight. When you ignore a group of people, you exclude them, even without knowing it.
Why wouldn’t staff bring sexuality up in the first place? It’s a touchy subject. One staff member shared that they were uncomfortable bringing it up because it was against the rules to talk about sexual relations, just as it is against the rules to talk about politics or religion. Our supervisor clarified that talking about sexuality is okay, but talking about sex with volunteers is not.
I never would have thought to make this clarification, since I’m used to knowing the difference between these two different topics, but it made sense. Another fear from facilitators was that there could be tension between a queer volunteer and a homophobic volunteer in the class. We answered that it’s different because if we come from the same culture, then we are more likely to defend ourselves and demand respect from that person. The Peace Corps also does not allow discrimination against queer volunteers. I hadn’t thought about this concern before, mostly because I came out al the other Peace Corps volunteers without any homophobic backlash at all.
Throughout this four-hour workshop, I was blown away by the staff members’ engagement and openness to the discussion. They were curious and respectful, and they appreciated our personal anecdotes. It’s not always easy to come out to a roomful of people from a different culture, but in this case, it was totally worth it. The fact that I’d been through 3 months of training with them also helped me establish theconfianza (trust) I needed to talk about these issues with them.
We ended our session with two role plays. In the first, I played the role of a facilitator who began the Spanish class by asking the volunteers when they kissed their first boyfriend or girlfriend. I assumed all of them were straight, so when I asked the gay male volunteer when he kissed his first girlfriend; he ended up being so uncomfortable that he made up a story about how he kissed his first girlfriend while watching Spiderman at the movies. The staff laughed at our interpretation of this situation. We asked them “Was it the facilitator’s intention to make the gay male uncomfortable?”. No, the facilitator just wanted them to practice their Spanish.
Instead of saying boyfriend or girlfriend, a facilitator could use the wordpartner instead. Little changes in language toward volunteers like these seem so trivial, but can change how comfortable a volunteer is around their facilitator. This comfort level in turn affects how they learn Spanish, which affects their service.
Our last role play touched on the theme of confidentialiy. It is not okay to outing a volunteer from the closet. We pretended to spread the rumor that a volunteer was gay. Just because a volunteer comes out to someone does not mean that their identity should be shared with everyone. Gossip is a common form of entertainment, so this was another relevant role play.
My biggest takeaway from this session was this: there’s nothing as powerful as the human connection.
People aren’t convinced by logic; they are convinced by emotions. By making myself vulnerable, I opened up staff members’ minds. We made them feel comfortable enough to talk about sexuality in constructive ways. The staff’s priority was still the same: to make volunteers feel welcome and supported. The head Spanish facilitator thanked me afterward for my hard work, and she showed me her notebook. It was full of notes she had taken, along with a picture of the genderbread person.
I loved reading staff comments. Someone said that they felt empowered after this workshop, and thanked us for all of the hard work and thought that we had put into this presentation. It was an inspiring, productive day.
Don Howard shared one of his favorite quotes with me: “Tell the truth, and don’t be scared”.
Today, the volunteers and I told the truth, and I’m positive that our stories will help generations of LGBTQ Peace Corps volunteers feel more comfortable serving abroad.
I really enjoyed facilitating this workshop, and I’m excited to make the next one even better. I could definitely see myself focusing on these types of diversity trainings as part of my career. Today I felt like I was in the right place at the right time. Being a Peace Corps volunteer can make you feel as if you are a fish out of water sometimes, but moments like these make me feel as if I have a truth that must to be heard.
How would LGBTQ safe zone trainings apply to your work?
My second day in Ethiopia, our group of volunteers crammed into the basement of a hotel for what had been called a “Diversity Panel.” The doors were shut, he curtains pulled, and the session began.
I was nervous. I had done my research before stepping on the plane and knew your laws, sisters and brothers of Ethiopia. I knew about deportation and prison time—twelve to fifteen years—and, though I tried not to think of it, that there were other punishments for those unlucky enough to be caught by friends and family first. And I knew about Robel Hailu, Ethiopia’s first entry into the Mr. Gay World competition. He fled to South Africa and likely wouldn’t come back.
Two volunteers gave us background information on what “LGBTQ” means, struggles for Queer Volunteers, and ways straight Volunteers could be allies. Then the stories began; the leader of our Peer Support Network told us about an Ethiopian man whose friends took him to an alley and killed him. We learned of the Volunteer who outed another Gay Volunteer to an Ethiopian friend the next town over. Both were separated from the service and left the country. Finally, we learned that it wasn’t safe to come out to Ethiopian Peace Corps staff members; Our support could be compromised. Volunteers in other countries had put a Safe Zone training module together, but, so far, Peace Corps-Ethiopia’s staff had refused to implement it.
I looked around at my fellow group members and wondered if there was anyone like me. I began to feel very alone. But you know all about what it’s like to wake up every day in a world that isn’t yours. When the session ended, I went upstairs for our coffee break and bummed my first Nyala cigarette off of another Volunteer.
We learned to use code words for ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in public, because we never knew when someone at a cafe might be sitting at the next table over, listening to the foreigners chat to practice English for an upcoming university exam. There were others who might be listening as well; our phone conversations, emails, and blog posts weren’t private. The night of the Diversity Panel, I asked another new friend if she’d pose as my girlfriend just in case anyone asked. All we would need to do was take pictures together at conferences and trainings so I could keep up my alibi. She agreed.
Occasionally, we volunteers caught glimpses of some of you in our day-to-day interactions:
There was a woman living in another training site who dressed like a man. Neighbors simply shrugged and said, “That’s her way.”
There was another woman I saw at a hotel in my site. I’d gone there with my site mates and my neighbor, and I saw her short hair and jersey for the national football team. I asked my neighbor, “Did you see that woman in the football jersey?” She scanned the room quickly and said, “What woman?”
There was a man working at the hotel I met after attending a counseling session. He had bright white teeth and a trimmed mustache. He lightly touched my wrists from behind the hotel bar, admiring the bracelets I’d bought. And he watched my eyes, just half a moment too long, each time we ran into each other in the hallways.
I lied to Peace Corps Medical office staff and told them I was having trouble coping with this new culture. The counselor I saw was born in Ethiopia but was adopted as a child, moving to the United States. She’d come back to the capital to open a practice. I told her everything, how it felt to be queer in this country. I told her about lying to my friends, and then I described the touches. I was confused about the physical affection Ethiopian men show each other. She heard what I was describing and said, “I know Ethiopian men are more affectionate than American men, but what you’re describing isn’t… typical.”
There had been other light touches like those on my wrists in the hotel bar. A neighbor’s hands brushing against my stomach in passing, a friend’s extra long caresses on my shoulders and neck. A man spilled beer down my leg at a community celebration once and brushed it off, letting his fingers linger on my calf. And I recognized some of you the way I recognize my American brothers on the street: something loose in the gait, that half-moment pause in the eyes as if asking, “Are you one of us?”
Friends, I still think of you often. I still see you on Facebook sometimes, friends of Volunteers who still live in Ethiopia. I envy those straight friends and what they can know. Why is it that my straight friends have always been able to know my people? What must it be like not to risk that?
But, one story: My neighbor up north was about twenty-two years old. She was from the capital and spoke fluent American English with little accent. We spent many evenings with my site mates, mixing our cheap wine with Coke and Mirinda to lessen the bitterness. We were sure she knew about me; no one could watch as much American TV as she did and not know. One Sunday, she told me she’d made too much for lunch and invited me over. She handed me a plate of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. I looked at the food and asked, “How long have you known I’m gay?”
“You’re gay?” she asked, incredulous.
“Oh, honey,” I said.
“But what about your girlfriend?!”
“Oh, HONEY,” I repeated.
I came clean. I told her about the alibi girlfriend, the counseling session, the touches. Other than the counselor, this was the first time I had ever been completely honest with an Ethiopian. I was worried; I’d done what we were told never to do.
She thought for a moment and said, “You know, I’m kind of proud of myself. I always thought I’d be okay with people being gay, and now I know I am! Gay people are kind of like celebrities. You know they exist, but you never think you’ll meet one. Now, let’s go get a bottle of wine and talk all afternoon!”
Dear friends, I ache for the time we couldn’t spend together. I wanted, so much, to know you, extending our solidarity and love to each other; our world has been treacherous and dark. But there are allies. They show themselves over time. I hope it’s true what the counselor told me:
“Right now in Ethiopia, it’s like the 1960s in America. The sexual revolution in America was so violent in the 1960s, but in time it calmed down.”
Peace Corps-Ethiopia was finally required by Headquarters in Washington, DC to administer Safe Zoning training to its staff. I had already returned to the United States by that point, but a Gay Volunteer, friend of mine, who was still there said the staff wished afterward that they didn’t know there were Queer Volunteers in Ethiopia. I still struggle to help my American friends understand my Peace Corps story. It was often heartbreaking and difficult; it was not what I expected. Some in the Peace Corps family are changing minds and hearts, and others are still waiting for the calm in the storm.
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A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday
Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum
Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa