It is my absolute pleasure and pride to report with you the activities, energies, and progress that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (LGBT RPCV) have made this past year. In fact, one of the largest shifts we experienced was my personal transition from the Steering Committee as the New Volunteer Coordinator to leading the group as National Coordinator.
Since our inception, LGBT RPCV has been privileged to have the steadfast leadership of Mike Learned (Malawi, 1963-1965) in a variety of different capacities. Under his leadership LGBT RPCV has been working to promote Peace Corps ideals and the legal, political and social rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world. In June, Peace Corps Director, Carolyn Hessler-Radelet, presented Mike a certificate of appreciation for his “invaluable contributions and exceptional dedication to the Peace Corps” (see full report below).
2015 was a historic year for LGBT rights, equality, and struggle. With a strong social media presence, participation at a national conference, and supporting local Pride parades and activities across the country LGBT RPCV has been working very hard to be on the forefront of such important work. I want to thank each of our members, friends, and supporters for their positive contributions in making our organization a success and I look forward to continue our collective well into the future.
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!
The following is the introduction from Jim Kelly’s thesis on gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps, “Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps.”
I was born on June 29, 1947 in a country hospital in a tiny southern Minnesota farming town. The complicated and dangerous delivery almost cost both my mother and I our lives. For the first 15 years of my life, every Sunday after church the ugliest, kindest nurse in history would, without invitation, give me a huge hug and say, “How’s my miracle baby today?” If someone tells you often enough that you’re special, you’ll come to believe it yourself.
However, I kept the most “special” thing about me fiercely protected from discovery. As far back as I can remember I knew that I was different: I felt about boys the way boys were supposed to feel about girls. I also instinctively knew I was in danger if my secret got out. At great psychic cost, I protected that secret for 21 years. I was a college senior when I said out loud for the first time to another human being that I was gay – my academic advisor.
I don’t regret growing up in a small town. Many values I still hold were developed there – values that I believe ultimately led to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer..My parents belonged to just about every board and organization in town. From them I learned the values of community service and civic engagement. I learned what unremarkable people can accomplish when they work together and acknowledge their interdependence. I experienced the power of generosity, and the empowering effect of respect for others.
The darker side of human nature in a small town is that those values really operate only within a sphere of sameness – by and for people who look alike and act alike. My town was at the northern end of a migrant route of Mexican summer farm workers. Over the years, a small permanent community established itself. They were the “other,” and that’s how I learned about prejudice and the impact of marginalization. It helped me realize that I was “in, but not of” that sphere of sameness. I was also an “Other!” Difference is dangerous! Theirs’ was obvious, mine was hidden; but the impact on me was profound. I had learned to empathize.
“Otherness” and the preoccupation to avoid discovery was the driving influence in my life for years to come. Yet, as my world expanded in college during the late 60’s, I realized there were movements everywhere to restore peace, celebrate differences and work on behalf of justice. In my senior year, a woman in my friendship group who had graduated the prior year was sending us letters about her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador.
I was mesmerized and felt called. Peace Corps was still in its first decade and the ideals on which it was founded were inspiring. I applied. About half-way through that endless application, I crashed into this question: “Do you have homosexual tendencies?” In that instant I remembered my PC friend in El Salvador remarking that after she applied, FBI agents ran routine background checks and interviewed people who knew her.
I checked the “no” box, fully aware I was lying. Moreover, I was obligated to ask my academic advisor to collude with me in this lie if he got asked that question by the FBI.
For longer than Peace Corp’s first decade of existence, applicants aware of being gay or lesbian had to perjure themselves to the federal government to even be considered for this opportunity to serve others and represent the best America has to offer.
In 1969 I completed pre-service training and began my service in a rural village in El Salvador. Almost 47 years later, I still view my Peace Corps service as one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Nevertheless, camouflaging my sexual orientation while in the Peace Corps caused me considerable psychological and emotional pain. During my training and Volunteer service I never experienced permission from trainers, other Volunteers or Peace Corps staff to be open about who I was. I believed the Peace Corps assumed all Volunteers were heterosexual. The cross-cultural adaptation training we received about male and female roles and interpersonal relationships was directed at heterosexuals. The men and women had separate training sessions about sexual mores, do’s and don’ts. I clearly remember a trainer reciting to the men names of brothels that were on an unofficial “hygienically approved” list.
In spite of the cost of my silence, I succeeded. I extended my service until 1972. No one ever knew about my profound sense of alienation induced by fear that my “secret” would become known. No one in Peace Corps ever knew that eventually I did discover the El Salvadoran gay subculture and was able to develop a wonderful friendship and support network. Although never regretting being a PCV, I also never forgot how I felt during training and Volunteer service about the omission of attention to some of my most fundamental gay-related needs and concerns as they related to my ability to serve Salvadorans.
Quite serendipitously, about five years after leaving El Salvador, I became associated with Peace again, first as the Training Coordinator for Peace Corps Chile’s pre-service training center. That experience led to a referral in 1981 to CHP International, an Oak Park, IL company which, under contract to the Peace Corps, staffed and operated pre-service training centers in countries of destination (eventually managing centers in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa). I remained with CHP until my retirement 25 years later.
My work with CHP kept me in constant contact with our Peace Corps training centers, curriculum development projects, the evolution in Peace Corps’ training philosophy, Peace Corps staff, and with networks of serving and returned PCVs. The anecdotal accounts of many gay and lesbian friends I made in the informal networks of Peace Corps staff and RPCVs made me wonder how much had really changed in the Peace Corps’ understanding as an institution of the special challenges that Volunteer service presents to gay and lesbian Volunteers.
Towards the end of my first decade with CHP, I decided to obtain an advanced degree in cross-cultural training – acutely aware that I’d already I’d been called to serve again by conducting and publishing this research. As the thesis dedication says:
To the gays and lesbians who have served
as Peace Corps Volunteers
1961 – 1991
We have a voice now
In my new role as National Coordinator for LGBT RPCV, I decided to make it a point to reach out to each of the continuing Steering Committee members and have a chat. I’ve dubbed this my “listening tour.” I wanted the conversations to serve not only as a time for me to engage with each of the members one-on-one, but also to tap into their individual and collective knowledge of the group’s history and their thoughts on our future. I’m nearly complete, with only two or three more committee members to go, and I cannot be happier with the results thus far.
The conversations I’m having have been so informative, insightful, and, quite honestly, enjoyable! The knowledge and experiences that each one of our Steering Committee members brings to the table is absolutely great! However, there is a particular incident that has truly surpassed my expectations of what these chats could have produced. LGBT RPCV produces a newsletter that is shared with our followers and supporters on a quarterly basis and done so digitally. However, as you might imagine, when the group first started in 1991, the newsletter was print.
Dennis Gilligan, fellow Steering Committee member, informed me that he still had all the original print newsletters that the group had produced. In fact, he had been meaning to scan and digitize them, just never got around to it. Since our conversation, Dennis has sent me over 70 digitized pages of LGBT RPCV’s newsletters from its early days of inception. I was only two pages into the inaugural newsletter when I was stopped dead in my tracks to learn that in 1991, an RPCV named James “Jim” Kelly wrote a master’s thesis titled “Diversity’s Hidden Dimensions: Gays and Lesbians in the Peace Corps.”
James “Jim” Kelly and Manuel Colón
In my excitement to find Jim and his thesis, I looked in our university’s database, scanned what Google produced, and even searched Facebook. While I was unsuccessful in my digital search, all I had to do was scroll over to the next page to find Jim’s home address and phone number (as research would have been done in 1991, obviously). I wasn’t 100% positive that the number listed would still be active 24 years later, but it was! Jim answered the phone, was more than happy to chat with me, and, since we are both in Illinois, made time to meet in-person later that week.
I’ve invited Jim to contribute a piece to our website; so that he can expand upon his experience with Peace Corps and his dissertation work. Jim was also gracious enough to provide us with a digital copy of
his thesis (a task he, also, had been meaning to do, but hadn’t until I requested) and we’ll share the full report when we get his written story.
In the meantime, I was able to record our chat. I tried my best to edit it and have shared via SoundCloud. If you have about 45 minutes, CLICK HERE to take a listen.