Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, personally identifiable information (including names) of current Volunteers has been changed.
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.”
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.
“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 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 ofservice 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.
“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.”
 By definition, pansexuality separates sexual attraction from gender identity and biological sex and implies increased fluidity.
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
2. New and improved subcategories will make it easier for users to find the resource(s) they are looking for
3. For instance, user selects “Mental Health” – “Support Groups”
4. User is able to browse a list of relevant support groups in the Seattle area
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.)
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.
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?
On behalf of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, I want to invite you to formally affiliate with our network via the National Peace Corps Association. As of January 2016, basic membership for both NPCA and LGBT RPCV are free! If you’re already an NPCA member, login to your account and make sure to select LGBT RPCV as an affiliate group associated with your profile. If you are not a member of NPCA already, navigate to http://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/membership/ and sign up today – making sure to select LGBT RPCV as an affiliate group associated with your profile.
As an incentive, all members to affiliate with LGBT RPCV via NPCA by March 31st at 11:59pm will receive a specially ordered, limited edition Peace Corps pin that features the American and Rainbow flags. Our listserv boasts 643 addresses, we have 361 members in our Facebook group and 495 followers on Twitter – yet only 48 members via NPCA. Join us today!
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?