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?
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 LGBT RPCV Association wants to share more voices during its Peace Corps Connect session in Berkeley. This is the annual gathering of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, and it is the first conference session we have hosted in many years. (The actual session time is TBD but likely Friday, June 5, 4:30 – 5:30PM)!
At our conference session we will lead the audience through a sample Safe Zone Training session, as well as give an overview of the work of LGBT PCVs through the years. We want to include you!
All are welcome, but we are especially looking for recently COS’d (last 3-4 years; or currently serving!) — and extra-especially anyone who participated in a Safe Zone Training while in service.
We invite you to participate by attending our session live*, or coming live via Skype, or emailing in your thoughts for us to share. If interested or for questions, please contact Hale Sargent @ email@example.com.
*You do not have to pay the conference fees if you are serving as a presenter and only coming for our session. To learn more about Peace Corps Connect, visit http://www.peacecorpsconnect.org.
Fifty-five AARPCV members and guests showed their pride by marching with Peace Corps host country flags for the annual Atlanta Pride Parade on October 12, 2014. An estimated 300,000 people lined up on the streets to watch the event. It was AARPCV’s first time marching with our new country of service flags, and our first time marching in the Pride parade. After a dreary, wet morning, the clouds opened to reveal sunshine and blue skies. AAPCV was joined by special guest, Angie Harris of the Tennessee RPCVs. Angie, RPCV Papua New Guinea, serves as the Southeast Regional Representative on the National Peace Corps Association Board. Other AARPCV guests came from as far away as Chicago and New Jersey. The parade was streamed live online by 11Alive, who gave AARPCV an enthusiastic shoutout as we passed by.
See more photos from Atlanta Pride on their website.
October is the gayest of months in Atlanta, starting with the LGBT Out-on-Film festival, followed by the Atlanta Pride festival, AIDS Walk Atlanta, and Halloween celebrations. The LGBT community is organized and active, working to connect people to fun, philanthropy, and services. Nearly every major company in Atlanta has an LGBT organization, and there are many LGBT-specific organizations. Atlanta is in many ways an oasis for LGBT persons living in the Bible Belt South.
AARPCV recently added an LGBT Liaison to its Board: Suzanne Marks, who also serves on the National LGBT RPCV Steering Committee
The Atlanta Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (AARPCV) is a group of 300+ people who served two or more years in the U.S. Peace Corps. AARPCV’s goals are to make a difference in the lives of people here through quarterly service projects, to make a difference abroad by funding overseas projects, and to educate and socially engage its members. Find out more atwww.aarpcv.org.
AARPCV recently added an LGBT Liaison to its Board: Suzanne Marks, who also serves on the National LGBT RPCV Steering Committee (our board). The national group mentors currently serving LGBT PCVs, facilitates communication about LGBT issues faced by PCVs through its newsletter and website, informs people about international issues facing LGBT persons through its Listserv, and advocates for U.S. Peace Corps’ policies that are supportive of LGBT PCVs and staff. Find out more at lgbprcv.org, join us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @lgbt_rpcv.
The Atlanta Regional Peace Corps Office had a booth, this year which AARPCV helped staff, in the Pride marketplace to recruit potential new PCVs. At least 50 interested individuals signed up for more information on Saturday alone; Sunday’s interest was even greater. The Peace Corps has had a booth at Atlanta Pride nearly every year for the past 17 years. This year 2014 was the first year that AARPCV participated in the Atlanta Pride Parade. Fifty-five plus people marched in the parade carrying flags from their Peace Corps countries of service. A local television station, 11 Alive, live-streamed the parade, including our flags’ display. AARPCV also is planning an all-day film festival, which will feature “Call me Kuchu” a film about being gay in which the National LGBT RPCVs has sponsored.
This article is based on input from Amber Davis Collins and Suzanne Marks.