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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The Power of Video Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living & Working Abroad as an LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteer

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

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

CLICK HERE to watch the recording of the webinar.

 

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

Pride and Prejudice: The LGBTQ Volunteer Experience

Republished with permission from Peace Corps West blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

AsylumConnect Launches New Resource Catalog for LGBTQ Asylum Seekers in the U.S.

By: Katie Sgarro
*Article originally published on 2/18/16 in The Huffington Post (HuffPost Impact):
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katie-sgarro/asylumconnect-launches-new_b_9240180.html?utm_hp_ref=impact&ir=Impact

Technology has the enviable ability to revolutionize for-profit business, non-profit impact, and everything in between. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center entitled “Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline“ found that today cell phones are as common in South Africa and Nigeria as they are in the U.S. According to Mashable, an estimated 5 billion people will use mobile phones by 2017.

Cell phones continue to act as lifelines for marginalized and impoverished populations. One such population is LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. LGBTQ asylum seekers are people who are coming to the U.S. due to persecution in their home countries based on their sexual orientation or gender expression. Just a year ago, there was no online, centralized database specifically designed with the purpose of connecting LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. with basic human needs service providers in their city.

Co-founded in July of 2014, AsylumConnect is a volunteer initiative that seeks to empower LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. through providing them with much-needed information. AsylumConnect is creating the first website and web-friendly mobile application to feature an online, centralized database of service providers useful to LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. The AsylumConnect catalog will help LGBTQ asylum seekers find basic human needs resources upon their arrival in the U.S. This simple idea has the potential to directly benefit an estimated 300,000 asylum seekers. The AsylumConnect catalog is piloting in Seattle, Washington.

The version 2.0 of the AsylumConnect catalog is now live for the Seattle area. The catalog 2.0 features new search functions and improved visuals. It also includes an updated verification model aimed to better ensure that each resource listed is able to accommodate LGBTQ asylum seekers. The resources listed in the new catalog underwent a standardized and more comprehensive verification screening. Specifically, the AsylumConnect team strives to verify that each resource listed is: 1) active, 2) friendly to LGBTQ community members, and 3) will serve LGBTQ asylum seekers.

A revised catalog platform features improved search capacity, information visualization and aesthetics to help connect catalog users with useful resources in their area.

1. The catalog 2.0 landing page for Seattle, WA
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2. New and improved subcategories will make it easier for users to find the resource(s) they are looking for
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3. For instance, user selects “Mental Health” – “Support Groups”
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4. User is able to browse a list of relevant support groups in the Seattle area
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5. User can then select a specific resource to find out more information. Resource will expand with additional information (such as description, population served, location, mailing address, email, website, etc.)
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The launch marks the beginning of a testing and observation period during which AsylumConnect staff will assess the efficacy and accessibility of the catalog, and engage with users to guide quality improvement. Lessons from this pilot will be applied to future versions of the catalog, and eventually towards expansion of the catalog into additional U.S. cities.

The long-term vision of AsylumConnect is to harness the power of technology to transform how LGBTQ asylum seekers connect with basic human needs service providers in the U.S.

Follow AsylumConnect on Facebook, Twitter (@AsylumConnect), and Instagram (@asylumconnect).