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.

 

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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

Coming Out in Paraguay: the Post-Peace Corps Experience

By: Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill

The last day in my Paraguayan community was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had. I had been going around the last month to say goodbye to different families and community members, but the last day was the hardest because I had to officially say goodbye to my host family. I lived with them for the whole two years of my service, which is unusual for a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay. Over those two years, I was closer to them than even my own family at times because they experienced the inevitable highs and lows with me during my service.

My host mother and I, my last day in site.

My host mother and I, my last day in site.

The person I grew the closest to during my service was my host sister. She was only three years older than me and we lived together in the same house. She is incredibly smart, independent, and ambitious, which is an unusual combination for many women in my community. We both felt like we didn’t exactly fit in due to the strict gender and cultural norms in Paraguay. We would talk about things, such as our hopes for the future and life goals, that we felt that we couldn’t really share with other people and have them understand. However, the hardest part was when we would talk about dating or sex. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my sexual identity because I was unsure of her response and I didn’t want to lose her as a friend or a sister, so I usually just changed the subject when she would ask me about my romantic life or why I didn’t want a boyfriend.

 

Being closeted became harder when I started dating my girlfriend my last year of service. My host family would joke that I must have a secret boyfriend because I was more bubbly and I spent hours texting and talking on the phone each day. When my girlfriend came to visit me in my site, I introduced her to my family as “my best friend” and she would occasionally come to stay with me a couple days in my host family’s house. My family never really said anything to me about my relationship with my “friend” and life went on as usual. However, it pained me that I had to keep my relationship a secret from people I considered a part of my family, particularly my host sister.

 

As much I disliked being closeted for two years of my life, it was surprisingly easy as a woman in rural Paraguay. There were very few moments I felt worried about people finding out because many Paraguayans in my community didn’t have a very robust understanding of female sexuality and the idea of a romantic relationship without a man probably seemed impossible to them. My community would gossip about men they suspected to be gay, but never once did they gossip about women in this regard. Thus, while there was always a little fear in the back of my mind, I felt somewhat comfortable having my girlfriend around my host family and other community members.

My host sisters and I celebrating my 23rd birthday.

My host sisters and I celebrating my 23rd birthday.

My last day in site, my host sister drove me to the bus terminal in the nearest city about an hour away. During that hour-long ride, we reminisced and talked about how much we would miss each other and keep in contact through texting and photos on WhatsApp and Facebook. Then there was a moment of silence as we approached the city, my sister finally said “you know, you can tell me anything about your life. I won’t care because you’re my sister and that won’t change. We will always be your family.” So I finally confessed that I was gay and the “best friend” that would come to visit me was really my girlfriend.

 

She burst into laughter and told me everybody in our family already knew and how they loved me anyways. She said how our mom knew, but she kept denying it when the rest of the family would bring it up. She compared it to how our mom knew she wasn’t a virgin but wouldn’t ever say it out loud. I was shocked. While I suspected my host sister might figure out I was gay, I never suspected that the rest of my host family would figure it out too, especially my host mother.

 

My host sister and I talked the rest of the drive about my girlfriend and what I thought would happen when I got back to the States. Then she proceeded to ask me several questions, including how long I knew I was gay, if I was certain I was not attracted to men, if I had ever tried to be with a man to make sure, and then, my favorite, how specifically did women have sex without a man. When she dropped me off at the bus terminal, she gave me a big hug and told me she loved me and how she would miss her sister. It was emotional and I felt this huge weight lifted off my shoulders by coming out to her.

 

Shortly after arriving in the States, my girlfriend and I did break up. Even though I knew it was probably for the best, I was a mess. There’s such an extreme bond you form with your romantic partner in Peace Corps because they understand so intimately a part of your life that nobody else can truly understand, even your closest friends in Peace Corps, and to lose that person is painful. I didn’t very feel comfortable talking very much about my breakup to my friends in Peace Corps because my girlfriend had several months of her service left and I didn’t want it to be a topic of gossip in the volunteer community. I also didn’t really know how to explain how intense the breakup felt to my friends in the States.

 

However, the person I felt most comfortable talking and opening up to was my host sister. We would text back and forth about my breakup and she would comfort me. She was also the one who supported me when I started dating again. Then she continued to be there for me when I went through another breakup. Even when I came out to my host sister my last day in site, I never imagine us having this close of a bond and the freedom to talk about my relationships. It even has gotten to the point that when I get on Tinder, I send her screenshots of profiles and she gives me her opinion to swipe left or right (even though we rarely agree). Definitely not what I thought my RPCV life would look like.

Representing Peace Corps at Pride in Kentucky

Representing Peace Corps at Pride in Kentucky

It’s amazing how my host sister continues to feel like my family. She still drives me crazy. She is still the one I can talk to about things I feel I can’t share with anyone else. I feel so grateful that I was able to share a part of my life I never thought I would be able to share with any Paraguayans from my community and have such a positive response. It has made my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and my experience in Paraguay all the more special and invaluable to me. I went to another hemisphere preparing to give up the openness I felt about my sexual identity in the States, but I came back from the experience with so much more confidence and acceptance of myself, including my sexuality, than I knew was possible.

Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill currently coordinates educational programs and other social services for the children of migrant farm workers in Kentucky. She served as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Paraguay from 2013–2015. She can be contacted at jmohlkehill@gmail.com

Bringing the person I love home to America

Republished with permission from Peace Corps Stories
By: Kyle Livingston

We first met in July 2012 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. He sent me an SMS saying, “Hey Guy!”

1st

Film and Kyle teaching at a gender empowerment camp, 2013

I had no clue who this person was… and seriously, who writes, “Hey Guy!”? Through five degrees of separation, a Thai national, Film, had heard about me and wanted to meet.

Throughout my time in Thailand, Film and I met in Bangkok and Ayutthaya (his hometown). We went out to dinner and had dates just as if I were back in the U.S. The summer between my first and second year of graduate school, I interned at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and we spent lots of time together. After my internship finished we went to Singapore for our first real vacation. It was then, being with him and seeing his unconditional love for me, compassion, and genuine warmth, that I knew I wanted spend the rest of my life with him.

Fast-forward to May 2015: Two years after completing my Peace Corps service, I was a newish master’s degree recipient and had just gotten engaged to Film. Yet he was still in Thailand. We need to fix that. The fiancé(e) visa, aka the K-1 non-immigrant visa, is the official way to bring your unwed, foreign-born partner into the U.S. to marry. (There are other options for those who are already married in a foreign country.) Here’s our timeline and what I did, from start to finish, to bring the person I love to America.

P.S. Because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act), same-sex couples follow the same steps as different-sex couples for the K-1 visa regardless of if same-sex marriage is legal in the foreign born partner’s country. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Thailand.

February 2015: I (as the sponsor) submitted the I-129F “Petition for Alien Fiancé(e)” form to United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). I also included form G-1145, “Notification of Acceptance of Application/Petition,” which specifically asks USCIS to notify me when they receive my application. I also sent proof of my relationship and proof of our intent to marry with the I-129F form: Photos, SMS messages, call logs, emails, and preliminary wedding plans, etc., all help. There was a $340 filing fee.

March 2015: I received notification that USCIS had received my I-129F form.

April 2015: USCIS sent me a case number. I set up an account on USCIS website to receive case status updates.

May 2015: Film, already holding a 10-year multiple-entry tourist visa, arrived in the U.S. for two weeks to attend my master’s graduation.

May 2015: Film and I got engaged at Constitution Gardens in Washington, D.C., in front of family and friends.

Film and Kyle’s engagement bracelets. Photo: Alex Snyder

Film and Kyle’s engagement bracelets. Photo: Alex Snyder

August 2015: I received a letter from USCIS requesting additional supporting evidence that Film and I were in a legitimate relationship and intended to marry. I asked close friends to write notarized letters on my behalf confirming our relationship and that they had heard of or were involved in our pending wedding. I also gathered engagement photos, additional letters, and Facebook posts as supporting evidence and mailed everything to USCIS.

September 2015: USCIS approved my I-129F petition and forwarded my case to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. They also sent me a Bangkok-specific case number (different than the USCIS case number). Whew! That’s done and out of the way.

November 2015: Film had not received any information from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok so he reached out to the visa unit to find out the next steps. The visa unit promptly replied and told Film that his information packet was in the mail. Two weeks later, when nothing had arrived, he reached out again and politely asked for an electronic copy. Film received an electronic copy of the packet; however, he needed a personalized cover letter with his case number for the Royal Thai Police to conduct a background check, which he then requested. In the meantime, we started filling out the other many required forms for the packet together:

  • Passport (Luckily, Film already had one.)
  • Birth certificate
  • DS-2001, specific to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok (“Notification of Applicant Readiness” form)
  • DS-160 form confirmation printout (Electronic visa application form)
  • Marriage status certificate (proving Film is indeed single. Thankfully, he is.)
  • Lots of color passport photographs (so happy Film is photogenic)
  • Confirmation printout of the Global Support Strategy Registration (and receipt to show that Film paid the fee [about $375])
  • I-134 Affidavit of Support (Evidence of financial support)
    • The petitioner (me) had to fill out this form and provide tax returns, stock holdings, bank statements, pay stubs—anything that proves that Film will not be a financial burden on the U.S. public. This also includes any debt the petitioner might owe (student loans, etc.).
  • Military records (Thailand has a lottery conscription process; since Film wasn’t selected, he had to submit his military lottery exemption records.)
  • Official translations of any document not in English (i.e., EVERYTHING)

December 2015: The personalized cover letter arrived and Film went to the Royal Thai Police to get his background check started. He was told it would take 31 business days to complete… great.

January 2016: Film received the police background report a week early (it’s always good to check in periodically; the forms might be done sooner than you think!). He mailed off the packet, careful to separate originals from certified copies (the embassy requires copies of some forms and originals of others).

Enjoying San Francisco together, June 2015

Enjoying San Francisco together, June 2015

*Tip: It’s worth paying for priority mail and confirmation* 

Two weeks later: Film received the final packet with four medical forms: DS-2054DS-3025DS-3026, and DS-3030. He had already made an appointment to make sure his vaccinations were up-to-date as we knew this was a requirement. He was also given a tentative visa interview date of February 9 in the event all of his medical forms were returned on time.

*Wait to receive your packets before making any medical appointments*

February 2016: Film went to all of his doctor appointments. Bringing his passport, photographs, vaccine records, medication lists, and a family medical history sheet (for his reference), he spent close to three hours at one of only two embassy-certified hospitals. He was told he needed a few follow-up tests as well, which would take about two months. The total cost was about 11,000 Thai baht, about $310.

Congratulations on graduating, Film!

Congratulations on graduating, Film!

March 2016: I went to Thailand for Film’s undergraduate graduation (in Thailand graduation ceremonies are held one year after classes end) and we started looking for wedding venues in Thailand. Film received a new interview date for April 4.

April 4, 2016: Armed with additional supporting evidence of our relationship, our wedding venue confirmation, his medical forms, and some interview prep, Film went to his interview at the embassy.

That same day (15 minutes later): Film was approved for the K-1 visa! YAY! The embassy kept and processed his Thai passport, authorized the visa, and said they would return everything within two weeks.

April 18, 2016: Film received his Thai passport back with the visa sticker inside! Film now has five months to come to the U.S. He also has a packet he absolutely cannot open and must hand-carry through immigration. He will bring the packet, his passport, and K-1 visa to the Customs and Immigration officer at the airport where everything will be checked one last time. Once admitted to the U.S., we’ll have 90 days to get married. Good luck to everyone thinking about or going through this process. It’s long and tedious but worth it in the end.

Kyle Livingston is a social media specialist for Peace Corps in Washington, D.C. He served as a Community-Based Organizational Development Volunteer in Thailand from 2011–2013. Kyle graduated from American University with his M.A. in International Affairs in Southeast Asia with a focus on U.S. Foreign Policy in May 2015. He was born in Daegu, South Korea.

Social Justice in Today’s Social Environment

Prepared by Byron Williams

SocialJusticeEvent

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.

 

PANELIST BIOGRAPHIES

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.

PANEL QUESTIONS

  1. What do you do (career path/employment and why do you do it)?
  2. How do the concepts of social justice and inequality vary across generations within a similar group?
  3. What risks and rewards are associated with adopting explicit social justice stances (ex: calling out oppression and discrimination when you encounter it)?
  4. 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?
  5. What have been some of your successes and challenges for you in your field?
  6. 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 bwilliams2@peacecorps.gov