WATCH: Peace Corps Response Volunters raise LGBT awareness in Jamaica

Reprinted with permission from Peace Corps Passport

Peace Corp Response Volunteers serve communities around the world engaging in specialty projects. Watch how these dedicated Volunteers work with Jamaicans on HIV/AIDS awareness and LGBT awareness.

“The work and the input that Peace Corps Response Volunteers has brought to Jamaica cannot be quantified realistically in dollars and cents but the impact that they’ve had on various NGOs is remarkable.” – Dane Lewis, J-FLAG (The Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays) Executive Director

The Boatman: An Indian Love Story

-John Burbidge (burbidge@centurytel.net), author.

Although I was not a member of the Peace Corps, I have a strong affinity for it since I have lived in the US for 27 years, am married to an American, and belonged to an organization whose work paralleled the Peace Corps in many ways.

The Boatman: An Indian Love Story is a memoir of the six years I spent working as a volunteer with an international NGO in India and my coming out as a gay man in that society. It describes my roller-coaster journey of sexual adventuring while living in a tightly knit community and playing a public relations role for the organization, and the delicate balancing act this called for.

The Boatman took 13 years to write and its publication in India in February last year was most timely. Shortly before I arrived in New Delhi for its launch, the Indian Supreme Court reinstated a law criminalizing homosexuality that had been repealed by the Delhi High Court four years before. One of the main justifications for this action was that the law only affected a minuscule portion of the population. In the words of one journalist, “The Boatman provides a much-needed reality check of that view.”

A new edition of the book with an afterword that places it in the context of the current Indian political situation has recently been released. It is available from Amazon.com as a print and e-book.

For RPCVs in the Seattle area, I will be doing a reading at the University Bookstore in the U District on September 18th at 7:00PM. I would love to meet you there. CLICK HERE for more information.

Details of all events are on the book’s Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/theboatmanjohnburbidge
More information about The Boatman is at http://www.theboatmanamemoir.com

The Boatman

Returning to Honduras

Elizabeth Fuhrman, RPCV

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 80’s, we didn’t have a lot of tools to capture and share our experiences.  No video camera or cell phone to record and upload images to the internet for family and friends.  All I had was a 35mm camera. It would only become apparent later that this system was pretty inadequate for capturing the real-feel of the biggest adventure of my back-then young adult life.  Just imagine, as volunteers in those days, we would have to hunt for film in the capital city or wait for a care package with film. I remember sending my film off to the cheapest company in America to get processed because we didn’t trust the quality of film processing “in country”. Even still, my negatives or slides would arrive with streaks or scratches, leaving me with spotty prints and memories.

Also, the people in my village rarely got the chance to view my “take” on things even though I tried to get double copies of pictures and gift these.  

Long story-short, over the years, the images of my two year stint in Honduras as a volunteer faded and disappeared under my subsequent life journeys.  So in 2006, when handheld video cameras evolved to the size and weight of what we have today, and I no longer had to worry about loading it with big cassettes, ha-ha, I said “adios” to my spouse for a few weeks and took this journey back to my village in Honduras.  My number one goal was to resurface that rich Peace Corps experience, and record it good and proper so I could relive it and share it with loved ones. And I can say that this journey turned out just as I dreamed; this video    “Que Le Vaya Bien”   is now my proof that it was amazing.  Never will I forget my Honduran village or friends now.

I’d like to add that once I finally posted my video on Youtube and shared it via Facebook with family members of Dona Iris, they started me daily.  The girl who is twelve in the video now has a three year old child.  I count on the tone in my voice (in the video) to convey my affections for the island and its people.  Gotta love how technology helps us not only rekindle friendships with our host country friends but also spark new relationships with the next generation.  I pray that the violence and corruption preventing travel between our two countries comes to an end with Godspeed because I hope to return.

Diversity’s hidden dimension : gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps

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.”

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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


Click Kelly, James B (1991) to read complete copy of Kelly’s thesis on our website.

Peace Corps Northeast Celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month

Reprinted with permission from Peace Corps Northeast

In celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month, Peace Corps Northeast Recruiter Zoe Armstrong discusses how her experience living and working as an LGBTQ Volunteer in the post-Soviet Caucasus region helped to fortify her sexual identity. Zoe served as an NGO Development Specialist for a women’s advocacy center in Southern Armenia and currently recruits for the Peace Corps in Vermont. Her story – titled“International Outing: How serving in the Peace Corps led to a personal awakening”– was first featured in the October 2014 issue of Curve Magazine.     

Zoe Armstrong worked as an NGO Development Specialsist in Armenia during her Peace Corps service. She currently recruits for the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office in Vermont.

Zoe Armstrong worked as an NGO Development Specialist in Armenia during her Peace Corps service. She currently recruits for the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office in Vermont.

When I received my invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia, all I knew of the country was Armenian music from my belly dancing experience and the history of the 1915 genocide – of which the band System of a Down raised awareness through their music. I went in armed with my New England work ethic and stubbornness – and enough Equal Exchange chocolate to last two years. Little did I know the lasting impact that this tiny, post-Soviet, primarily agrarian nation would have on my life, and how it would alter my perceptions and my queer identity. Living in mid-coast Maine, I had relative political freedom as a queer person, but a level of expression of my queer identity was missing at that point in my life, and I knew going into the Peace Corps that I would need to internalize my queer identity even more. For safety and acceptance, on a case-by-case basis, I would need to make some hard choices about how honest I’d be.

For two years my post was Goris (pop. 15,000), in Syunik Marz, four hours north of Iran, in a beautiful valley in the Caucasus Mountains. I was assigned to the Goris Women’s Resource Center, initially funded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). My closest counterparts, the board of directors, consisted of nine dedicated Armenian women aged 30 to 60. I was 32.

Armenian society has strictly defined gender roles. Women who seek freedom, travel, expression, and education outside their established roles are often seen as trouble, undesirable, a threat to tradition and a destabilizing force in their families. This resource center – a space run by and in the service of women – in rural Armenia was in itself a revolutionary act. Through sheer grit, we connected women to educational and economic opportunities in Armenia and abroad, built a micro-finance artisan project, created a small research library and computer lab, held health workshops, hosted domestic violence awareness and outreach services, and participated in civic engagement initiatives, including election monitoring and anti-corruption programs.

I didn’t come out in my community, though I tried to once, to one of my closest counterparts. We were working late on a grant proposal, and I received an e-mail from an old college friend who had recently transitioned. My friend shared his new name with me and I cried a bit. I explained my tears to my colleague and how my friend had transitioned from F to M. It was a lot for her. She’d heard of it, but only as a faraway idea – not as a reality in a friend’s life. I wanted to come out to her then. We had been friends for over a year.

I felt like a fraud. I hit a heteronormative wall as I weighed the possible consequences. I had heard of a Peace Corps Volunteer in neighboring Azerbaijan who had decided to come out to her service community. I was impressed, but I had invested so much and been through so many defeats and victories, both personally and with our programming goals, that I wasn’t ready to take on an unknown wave of reactions from a very large group of women in my small town. They are modern women, and they can learn, adapt, and change like any of us. Sometimes I feel I was cowardly; other times, I feel it was a simple, logical choice in a seemingly impossible situation.

I was out to Peace Corps staff, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and the local urban queers. But in my post, Goris, I was closeted, which is often the case for Peace Corps Volunteers serving in regions where sexual and gender minorities are not supported or socially understood. On the books, homosexuality became legal in Armenia around 2007. But there were still hate crimes, including those targeting local LGBTQ citizens in the capital. In Armenia, there is a repeated soul-and flesh-bruising trajectory of progress toward equal rights for LGBTQ people; Armenians who choose this fight knowingly put themselves at great risk in a society that many say is “not ready” for them. In the face of such daunting odds, they are making progress.

In Yerevan, I was fortunate to meet a network of academics, artists, and activists connected to Women’s Resource Center Armenia. I met local LGBTQ advocates, who collaborated with me to teach tolerance initiatives at the growing Goris Women’s Resource Center. A few advocates worked for Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK), a nonprofit dedicated to equal human rights for LGBTQ citizens in Armenia and the Caucasus region (including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Russia). These advocates, and my daily Peace Corps life, opened my eyes to reality for LGBTQ Armenians.

Reflecting on their experiences led me to new caverns of thought. It twisted my own queer identity. My priorities shifted. The reality of desperation and the silencing of souls en masse shook my core. I gained a firsthand understanding that what I was seeing in Armenia is happening in so many nations: Gender outlaws, queer academics, and activist bloggers are trying to push their nations forward while the weight of tradition and social norms embedded in our globe’s elder cultures are holding firm.

Returning to my American queer “family” has not been a smooth transition. My voice in the community does not feel the same, or come through as easily. If I say I see a sense of privilege in the queer politics in the U.S., it is perceived as criticism. But what I am able to see now are the very real opportunities embedded within that privilege. If we don’t take these privileges and do all we can with them, when so many others do not have that access, then we are taking something very precious for granted.

Zoe Armstrong, far left, worked for a women's advocacy center in Southern Armenia while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Zoe Armstrong, far left, worked for a women’s advocacy center in Southern Armenia while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

How has your service as a Peace Corps Volunteer shaped your work as a Peace Corps Recruiter? After completing my service, I knew I wanted to work for Peace Corps. The two-year experience provides a rare opportunity to really know another culture. The more citizens of the United States who go through this experience, the more will know that every tiny fold of the world is precious to someone and should be respected and honored. The more Americans who come home with an ability to work cross-culturally, the stronger our nation will be. My favorite part of this job so far, looking back at my three years as a Recruiter, has been inspiring people of all ages to listen to that call inside of them and go forth into the world and bring us back great stories of our fellow humans.

As you explain in Curve, you had to stay closeted as an LGBTQ Volunteer for two years to not risk cultural resistance from your host community. How did you make that transition from being open with your sexual identity to projecting an identity that was more expected from your host community? People stared at my Merrill hiking boots, a lot. Women in Armenia wear heels, high heels. My community was very confused by my footwear. It made me think of that old Robin Williams joke, “You cannot call them lesbians anymore; It is just ‘women wearing comfortable shoes.’” I stopped wearing them, I had my mother send me some Danskos I had left from a past restaurant job. Also, I grew my hair out, which the women I worked with loved, and they would do my hair sometimes or play with it. I was a Goth back in high school, so it was not too much of a stretch for me to start wearing make-up again – although I had not for many years. (Plus, the gothic essence of my make-up skills worked well in a very Russian-fashion influenced environment.)

So with lipstick, eye-charcoal, and “girl shoes,” I fit in fine and became very close with my colleagues in Armenia. Internally at times, I felt like an actor or a clown, but as time passed, the role I was acting became normal life. Since returning to the United States, I have kept the eyeliner, but am very happy to have my comfortable shoes back!

What challenges or insights did you encounter when omitting that part of your identity from service? Now, looking back on your service, do you wish you weren’t closeted as a Volunteer? Sometimes I think about how different my service would have been if I had come out of the closet. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would have reached out to that Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan or other Volunteers who had come out while serving in the post-Soviet Union to learn about their experience and see if I could do it. There is a risk to any LGBT villagers if a Peace Corps Volunteer comes out because we can never foresee how our realities will intertwine and end up revealing a person unintentionally.

I could have come out near the end of my service, and I discussed this with my closest Peace Corps Volunteer friend in Armenia. He had decided at the end of his service to tell people – including the women at my center – that his sister is queer. I think he even showed pictures of her with her female spouse. He said it generated disappointment, confusion and curiosity equally.

I know some of them would have been supportive; some would then have dismissed me as an undesirable human, and would not have spoken with me again; others may have been confused that I had not told them. None of them would have been surprised as they all wondered why I did not have a husband and children so “late in life.” So, in that milieu, I made the choice I made and have no overt regrets.

What would you tell other LGBTQ people who are looking to join Peace Corps about serving overseas? It will be hard, but hard in a way that is so crucial to the evolution of our LGBTQ family here in the United States that you will never regret it. A lot will be asked of you personally that is a unique burden, but you will have a cohort of LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteers, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and allies with whom to process these lessons. Serving in Peace Corps helped me realize that any burden I ever feel from being queer may pale to the pain of most queers on planet Earth. Holding compassion for their struggle in my heart helps keep my own challenges in perspective.

Click here for more about Zoe’s service in Armenia and current role as a Peace Corps Recruiter. To learn about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer or as part of a same-sex couple, visit our website at www.peacecorps.gov.

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