LGBT RPCV is proud to once again present a session at the National Peace Corps Association’s annual gathering, Peace Corps Connect. This year, our presentation is titled “The Rainbow History of Peace Corps”. A brief description will be provided below. To learn more about registration, CLICK HERE.
When Peace Corps was founded in 1961, all prospective volunteers were required to disclose any homosexual tendencies they had – which would bar hem from service. Today, Peace Corps actively trains host countries for intercultural and diversity competencies to host same-sex couples. How did we get there? Where did we come from?
James Kim Kelly (El Salvador 1969-1972) will discuss his 1992 master’s thesis titled “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps” which provided the foundation for early conversations with Peace Corps on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). Daniel Hinkle (El Salvador 2010-2012), the current same-sex couples initiative coordinator with Peace Corps’ Office of Overseas Programming and Training, will discuss his role with Peace Corps and his thoughts on the future of where SOGI will continue to shape and influence Peace Corps’ operations.
Ralph Cherry (Ghana 1969-1971) was fortunate enough to become an “unlimited” employee at Peace Corps headquarters, where he played various roles in the volunteer delivery system, from recruiting to placement to staging. He completed his 28-year career as a Country Desk Officer in the Africa Region and as Acting Deputy Chief of Operations. In all these capacities, he was witness to, and a direct facilitator of, the evolution of policies affecting LGBT volunteers and staff.
In the spirit of historical celebration, this session will engage participants to collectively reflect just how far the Peace Corps agency has come in dealing with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it will assist allies among the RPCV community to become better educated about the current same-sex, transgender, and other LGBT-related initiatives Peace Corps is currently engaged in.
LGBT RPCV will also be teaming up with Spectrum, Peace Corps’ LGBTQ Employee Resource Group, to sponsor a social mixer for our members, friends, and supporters. “Rainbow Happy Hour” will be on Thursday, September 22nd at 5:30pm at Nellies’ Sports Bar, 900 U St NW Washington, DC 20001. We can’t wait to see you all there!
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! “
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?
By Philip Rodenbough, doctoral candidate in chemistry at Columbia University. Twitter:@prodenbough
Note: This article is reproduced with permission from RightsViews.
The Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) is a program organized by the US Department of State through which students work part time on a project under the direction of a mentor at State, USAID, embassies abroad, or other government agencies. The e-internship is completed entirely online, so anyone can participate from anywhere. During the previous academic year, VSFS offered over 300+ positions to students, many of which were human rights related projects.
Through VSFS, I was fortunate to participate in a project with USAID entitled “The Being LGBT in West Africa Project.” Throughout the 2013-14 academic year, I researched country conditions, collected media reports, conducted interviews, and authored original detailed descriptions on the LGBT experience in West Africa. This research will be used to form baseline data that informs USAID on the needs of the local LGBT communities, in addition to assessing the impact of future programming.
USAID has always been committed to global prosperity, and in recent years that commitment has grown to include a focus on LGBT communities. On December 6, 2011, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum directing all federal agencies abroad to ensure that US diplomacy promotes and protects the human rights of LGBT persons. Later that same day, Secretary Clinton delivered an historic speech on the human rights of LGBT individuals while commemorating Human Rights Day. Secretary Kerry continued to advance this cause by participating in the first UN ministerial event on LGBT rights. USAID has responded to such leadership by launching its LGBT Vision for Action as part of its policy framework for 2011-2015. Perhaps most hearteningly of all, Secretary Kerry recently announced the appointment Randy Berry as first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. It was a pleasure and a privilege to complete this research project in the broader context of increasing inclusiveness of LGBT issues at the US Department of State and at USAID.
During the course of my research, I found homophobia is rampant, discrimination is frequent, and stigmatization is common against the LGBT persons in West Africa. In some countries, legal barriers prevent LGBT persons from equal treatment. Where no formal barriers exist, strong negative social attitudes are often strong and pervasive enough to achieve the same end. Political leaders are generally hostile towards LGBT persons and virtually all countries in the region categorically reject official calls from the UN to respect the human rights of LGBT persons.
LGBT communities do vary from country to country within the West Africa region. Based on the research in this project, the situation for LGBT persons is best in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Cote d’Ivoire, where there is relative tolerance and freedom. The situation is worst in Senegal, Gambia, and Nigeria, where LGBT persons are actively castigated and/or imprisoned. The case in Nigeria is particularly troubling due to the recent enacting of more severe anti-LGBT laws. Mauritania has the harshest anti-homosexuality laws and the subject remains strictly taboo, as it similarly does in Niger and Guinea.
Despite these challenges, there is still hope that the situation can improve. Most countries do have active pro-LGBT groups working to change the public mentality. Additionally, pro-LGBT opinion pieces do occasionally appear in local media. LGBT leaders in the region all express a common willingness to partner with development organizations such as USAID. Robbie Corey-Boulet, an Institute of Current World Affairs Fellow studying LGBT advocacy in West Africa (whose works are often cited in this project) argues that these groups are often in need of small seed grants in order to find and promote their voice. Donor requirements such as official recognition by the state and previous experience managing large grants prove problematic for these emerging LBGT organizations. Despite the difficulties they face, LGBT leaders in the region are optimistic that over time they can work together to build a more inclusive and more equitable society.
As a student in a highly scientific and technical degree program, this project was a great opportunity to gain exposure in human rights research. My interest in West Africa stems from my Peace Corps service—I taught high school chemistry in Guinea and Burkina Faso from 2009 to 2011. Although my doctoral project is focused on synthesis and characterization of clean energy materials, my interests extend into science policy, international development, and human rights. My work with VSFS has provided me a greater appreciation for commonalities in seemingly disparate communities, LGBT or otherwise.
May 21, 2013, a very important day at Peace Corps and for the LGBT Peace Corps community. It brought the announcement that Peace Corps would begin placing same sex couples together. This was the latest of many policy changes we have advocated for over the years. Now is a good time to look back and review the advocacy we have championed and how it has influenced policy change at Peace Corps and positively affected our community.
Inclusion of Sexual Orientation in Peace Corps’ Non-Discriminatory Statement
Same-sex marriage laws around the world. Wikipedia.
Even though Peace Corps had been accepting lesbian, gay and bisexual volunteers for many years, Peace Corps non-discriminatory statement which included the familiar race, nationality, age, gender, and disability language, did not include sexual orientation. In the early 1990s Peace Corps Director, Elaine Chow, visited San Francisco for an event that welcomed applicants, nominees, soon to depart PCVs, and the local RPCV community. A half dozen of us (active LGBT RPCV members) approached Director Chow (perhaps confronted would be a more descriptive verb) and presented her with a letter requesting that sexual orientation be included in Peace Corps non-discriminatory statement. She expressed surprise that it hadn’t been already. She took the letter, put it in her purse, and we never heard back.
The next Peace Corps Director we approached was Carol Bellamy. She was the first Peace Corps Director under President Clinton, and also the first RPCV to serve as Peace Corps Director. She had put together a much more progressive senior management team, and we had a couple of key allies among them and much lower level staff support. In 1994 Director Bellamy announced that sexual orientation would be included in the non-discriminatory statement. One down and a few more to go.
Accepting Healthy HIV Positive Applicants as Volunteers
By the late 1990s it became apparent to most in our community that people with HIV who were reacting positively to anti-retroviral therapies could live normal lives and be useful and skilled Peace Corps Volunteers. This was a much longer struggle. Over the years I talked with HIV+ applicants who had been turned down by Peace Corps Medical. One Peace Corps Medical Director I spoke with admitted that some HIV+ applicants could safely serve, but there were just too many questions. Then there was the issue that many countries where Peace Corps Volunteers served required volunteers to show proof they did not have HIV in order to receive work visas.
Although Peace Corps was not accepting HIV+ applicants, it had to deal with current Peace Corps Volunteers who became HIV+ while serving. There were several cases of this. They were brought back home their health evaluated and medically separated. In 2008, a very brave volunteer in the Ukraine, who became HIV+ during service was brought back to Washington, evaluated, and medically separated. He fought back and contacted the ACLU. They contacted Peace Corps and the press; suddenly every one was talking about the case. Shortly after, a volunteer in Zambia became infected. She was returned to DC, evaluated, and was about to be medically separated when Peace Corps (influenced by the Ukraine case, no doubt) said that since her health was good she could return to Zambia, or be placed for the last year of her tour in Lesotho. Her name is Elizabeth Tunkle, and she wrote a wonderful article for our website about her time in Lesotho actively speaking to high school students about her own HIV status and ways to prevent HIV. So another issue down and a few more to go.
Including LGBT PCV Examples in Recruiting Materials
This occurred during the George W. Bush administration under Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez. I had met Director Vasquez on a couple of occasions, and he assured me that he would never act in any discriminatory way toward LGBT volunteers or staff. He was a religious and political conservative, but I took him at his word. Every so often Peace Corps produces recruiting materials that features the racial, ethnic, gender, age, and disability diversity of Peace Corps volunteers in programs around the world. But they never featured an openly LGBT recent volunteer. Finally, one rather gentle story was added to some recruitment materials written by a gay RPCV who had served in the Philippines. Right before going to press the senior manager in charge ordered a “stop the presses” and “remove that story.” An ally at Peace Corps headquarters called me immediately. I went directly to Vasquez. He overturned his manager’s decision, and the recruiting brochure went to press as designed. One more down, but still some more to go.
Placing Transgender Volunteers
I had never heard of a Peace Corps policy that rejected or accepted transgender volunteers. I’d heard a few stories over the years about a couple of trans volunteers who served very quietly, but never heard more than that. Several years ago an older transwoman contacted us. She had transitioned many years earlier had applied to the Peace Corps and had been nominated as a volunteer. She had had a very successful career. She seemed a perfect fit for the program she had been nominated for. But Medical had questions about her gender transition and turned her down. I wrote a letter to the Medical Director at the time suggesting a review of the case, but got a reply that basically said he couldn’t discuss the health or medical issues of any applicant.
Around 2005 I heard from a transman who applied to the Peace Corps with note worthy skills and experience. He was being questioned by Medical in what he felt was and unfair and discriminatory way. I spoke with a personal contact I had within Peace Corps Medical who explained (as I knew) that the contact was constrained by ethics and policies around medical and health information. I suggested that the situation could be looked at again and more thought given to a decision of whether to accept or reject the applicant. The applicant won over medical staff and was accepted and had a very successful experience as a volunteer, and has since gone on to even more important work in the developing world. One more down and just one more big one to go.
Placing Same Sex Couples Together as Volunteers
We have been actively advocating the placement of same sex couples together as volunteers since the very beginning of the Obama administration. After the legalization of same sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004, Peace Corps modified its policy for placing married couples together to reflect the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act’s (passed in 1996). Prior to this Peace Corps identified couples as married according to the state laws in which they presided. This included the recognition of common law marriage if it was recognized in an applicant couple’s state of residence. The revised Peace Corps policy stated that because of DOMA only a married couple who were a man and a woman would be eligible as applicants.
Several recent factors led to our decision to aggressively push this discriminatory policy toward resolution. These included the election of the current administration and the appointment of a more progressive Peace Corps Director and senior staff, and a policy change that allows the same sex partner/spouse of Peace Corps staff serving overseas to have the same rights and privileges of the opposite sex staff couples where all parties are American citizens. It also helped that more states had legalized same sex marriage and domestic partnerships, and polls indicated that there was an increase in the number of Americans, particularly younger Americans, who supported same sex marriage and domestic partnerships.
We started with a letter to Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams. We got a quick response informing us that a member of Peace Corps headquarters staff would contact us. This began a dialogue about how to prepare and implement a policy that would allow the placement of same sex couples, but this process took longer than I thought. I spoke personally to both Director Williams and his successor Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radalet. And there has been much communication between us and Peace Corps staff over the last couple of years about this. And finally the May 21 announcement.
We Did Not Do This Alone
Through all the years of our advocacy on these issues, we did not work alone. Peace Corps staff has included many supportive members of the LGBT community and loads of straight allies. Three years ago or so we offered suggestions for ongoing Medical Officer training to include a discussion of the physical and mental health needs of LGBT PCVs. We have also worked closely with Peace Corps and LGBT PCVs and their straight colleagues to offer several versions of Safe Zone training on our website. We have contributed suggestions for diversity training in initial training programs to include local LGBT topics for PCVs new to their countries of service. Many Peace Corps recruiters and country desk officers refer LGBT applicants, nominees and invitees to our web site.
As recent polls have indicated, there has been a huge increase in support for equal rights for LGBT people among the general population. All of these trends and the support of our allies have worked in our favor, energizing the many steps forward in our search for equality as members of the Peace Corps family and as citizens.
You can contact Mike Learned at email@example.com