Why Peace Corps Pride celebrations are essential: thoughts of an openly gay Peace Corps Volunteer

Reposted with permission

My husband and I serve together as Peace Corps volunteers. We’re happy to work in our tiny community on the rice plains. We’re glad we could choose the country we serve in. One of the really nice things the Peace Corps has done over the past few years is to allow applicants to choose their country of service.

For openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender volunteers, this means we can avoid being invited to serve in countries where, because of religious or cultural influences, the people we serve could be motivated to attack and even kill us. Or, at the least, we can more easily avoid service where people would suspect in some way that we are worthy of condemnation and therefore decline to work productively with us.

It’s great to be able to avoid heightened risk of attack and murder. However, other lgbt-related pressures still confront us soon after arrival in our host country.

The usual dynamic of any American volunteer immersed in host country culture — looking, sounding, and feeling out-of-place — is magnified for openly lgbt volunteers. Our extra level of minority status, defined by differences in gender roles and sexual orientation, at times leaves many lgbt volunteers feeling like a super-aliens. Much of this distance may be because of host country unfamiliarity with American-style lgbt relationships.

Marriage and personal relationships are a fundamental element in every culture, and are a ubiquitous area of curiosity and discussion. Related conversational exchanges are part of forming personal relationships and are a natural part of bonding with host country friends. Yet openly lgbt volunteers often find these exchanges are unavailable, and such absence can cause loss of opportunity to build close friendships.

It seems to me that the missing conversations likely begin something like this:

  • I have a cousin I think you’d like to meet …
  • What kind of women are you like to date?
  • Are you dating someone?
  • How long have you and your husband been together?
  • What first attracted you to your wife?

It’s difficult for me to describe dynamics that result from the absence of something. But the dynamics are distancing. Lgbt volunteers describe how such distance creates a steeper climb for them as they work to integrate with their coworkers, neighbors and community. Openly lgbt volunteers of color or with disabilities have an even steeper climb. The volunteer may ask herself:

  • Is it just me, or are my colleagues keeping their distance?
  • Is the lack of connection because I’m lgbt, or is it because my language skills are inadequate?
  • Am I the first lgbt person this guy has met? Does he think I’m strange because I’m lgbt?

In other words, part of the steeper climb involves self-doubt. Self-doubt and feeling negatively about yourself is in no way an unusual dynamic in the history of lgbt people. Historically and even in the present day we have been marginalized, have been treated as criminals, we’ve been brutalized and executed, diagnosed as mentally ill, and regarded as sinners by the majority culture.

We have long felt like super-aliens, even at home. Cumulatively this is quite tiring and when added to the rigors of Peace Corps service, it becomes overwhelming at times.

Thank goodness for Pride! In June 1969 gay men in New York fought back against gay-hating police and lgbt people have celebrated Pride Day annually ever since. During one celebration each year, we show each other our solidarity and support. We feel the safety of our numbers, and the warmth and love of our non-lgbt friends, families and co-workers.

But Pride celebrations aren’t easily found in areas where Peace Corps volunteers work. So when a Pride celebration is available, it’s a big deal for lgbt PCVs. It’s great to feel the support of Peace Corps staff and of US officials at the local Embassy. To those Peace Corps and consular staff who make an extra effort to help lbgt volunteers feel affirmed, supported and loved: thank you.

 

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

Why The Peace Corps Needs LGBTQ Safe Zone Trainings

Reprinted with permission from The Vulnerable Traveler

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?
Jorge: 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.

 

More information:

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?

Connect with us at our facebook page, instagram, google drive of resources, and at Pcvni.star@gmail.com!

Char Stoever is a queer, Mexican-American travel writer, artist, and Wellesley College graduate. She has tutored at-risk youth with City Year San Antonio and taught at Brooke Charter School in Boston. She is interested in mental health, whether at home or abroad. Contact: Cjohnso3@wellesley.edu

Dear Friends: A Story from Ethiopia

By RPCV Ethiopia, 2012-2014

Dear Friends,

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.

With love,
A friend.

If you would like to contact the author, please email lgbrpcv@lgbrpcv.org

A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday

A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday

Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum

Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum

Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa

Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa

Peace Corps Program, Not Jordanian Hospitality, Temporarily Suspended

– Sarah Bender, RPCV

I tend to enjoy watching people’s eyes grow wide when I share with them I served in the Peace Corps in Jordan (not every lesbian’s top choice for a stint abroad). Their surprise always grows when I then express my extreme gratitude for my placement, as I met my now fiancé during Pre-Service Training.

The “temporary closing” of Jordan’s program was devastating to Steph and me. Peace Corps has had a profound effect on both of our lives (in addition to introducing us). In the four years since our COS (Completion of Service0, not a day passes in which I do not remember some aspect of my service, or use a skill I was able to develop while living in Jordan. I am the definition of a “proud RPCV:” my fiancé and I have marched with Peace Corps in local PRIDE celebrations, attended recruiting events, and I even have a 24×36 Peace Corps poster hanging in my office. In reflecting on the program, my experience there, and the temporary suspension, I think of the Peace Corps Jordan staff members who are left in the lurch, of my Jordanian friends and family whose lives do not get a “temporary suspension” from the uncertainty of daily life, and of my increasing desire to book a trip home to Jordan.

Stephanie and I have wanted to return to Jordan since about the moment we set foot back on American soil. We both developed extremely close relationships with families in our communities, and had close friends who live in the capital. We had not yet set up our life together in the U.S., but had done so in Jordan – why would we not want to return? Over the years that followed our COS, however, we struggled with reconciling our desire to visit with our growing discomfort around potentially having to re-closet ourselves. Steph and my relationship continued to progress unbeknownst to our Jordanian families, as we found ourselves ducking and deflecting questions from our counterparts – sometimes forsaking calls altogether so as to avoid the white lies and non-truths we felt (with panic) threatened the authenticity of connections to our friends and family abroad. To our conflicted disappointment, four years have passed without our promised visit.

In the months since our engagement, however, we have begun to discover that perhaps our fears had been misplaced. Since we first began our service, both of our social media sites have been on “privacy lockdown,” so that any photos showing our same-sex love, or other potentially “culturally inappropriate” behavior would not impede our ability to integrate into our communities. After COS, as we settled into our new life together in the States, we were ever so cautious about photos, news articles, or anything posted on to social media that would “out” us. Several years later, however, as we were celebrating our engagement, we boldly decided to share our news with everyone – privacy settings aside.

Several days after our announcement, Steph and I received a message from her community counterpart and good friend in Jordan. Looking at the inbox, without opening the message, we were immediately engulfed in anxiety and regret for sharing our news so publicly. As we read the message with trepidation an intentional day or two later, though, our worries eased with every line. The message was congratulatory, loving, and supportive of our relationship. For all our anguish, we realized that the human-to-human connections we made in Jordan surpassed even the most striking of cultural differences, a testament to the power and integrity of what the Peace Corps eschews.

I am confident that my fiancé and I will return to Jordan (perhaps for a second wedding celebration?) and just as confident that Peace Corps will return as well. I had long hoped that Jordan would be one of the pioneer countries placing same-sex couples, and I still see that in the program’s future. The suspension of the program is disappointing for many reasons, one of which being that Americans serving in Jordan have the unique experience of being able to come home and share positive stories of hospitality from a region so frequently and incorrectly viewed as violent and terror-ridden in our society. For now, I can only call upon all of my fellow RPCVs from Jordan to continue to share these stories – more frequently and honestly than we had before.

Sarah Bender can be contacted at sarah.bender42@gmail.com