Why Peace Corps Pride celebrations are essential: thoughts of an openly gay Peace Corps Volunteer

Reposted with permission

My husband and I serve together as Peace Corps volunteers. We’re happy to work in our tiny community on the rice plains. We’re glad we could choose the country we serve in. One of the really nice things the Peace Corps has done over the past few years is to allow applicants to choose their country of service.

For openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender volunteers, this means we can avoid being invited to serve in countries where, because of religious or cultural influences, the people we serve could be motivated to attack and even kill us. Or, at the least, we can more easily avoid service where people would suspect in some way that we are worthy of condemnation and therefore decline to work productively with us.

It’s great to be able to avoid heightened risk of attack and murder. However, other lgbt-related pressures still confront us soon after arrival in our host country.

The usual dynamic of any American volunteer immersed in host country culture — looking, sounding, and feeling out-of-place — is magnified for openly lgbt volunteers. Our extra level of minority status, defined by differences in gender roles and sexual orientation, at times leaves many lgbt volunteers feeling like a super-aliens. Much of this distance may be because of host country unfamiliarity with American-style lgbt relationships.

Marriage and personal relationships are a fundamental element in every culture, and are a ubiquitous area of curiosity and discussion. Related conversational exchanges are part of forming personal relationships and are a natural part of bonding with host country friends. Yet openly lgbt volunteers often find these exchanges are unavailable, and such absence can cause loss of opportunity to build close friendships.

It seems to me that the missing conversations likely begin something like this:

  • I have a cousin I think you’d like to meet …
  • What kind of women are you like to date?
  • Are you dating someone?
  • How long have you and your husband been together?
  • What first attracted you to your wife?

It’s difficult for me to describe dynamics that result from the absence of something. But the dynamics are distancing. Lgbt volunteers describe how such distance creates a steeper climb for them as they work to integrate with their coworkers, neighbors and community. Openly lgbt volunteers of color or with disabilities have an even steeper climb. The volunteer may ask herself:

  • Is it just me, or are my colleagues keeping their distance?
  • Is the lack of connection because I’m lgbt, or is it because my language skills are inadequate?
  • Am I the first lgbt person this guy has met? Does he think I’m strange because I’m lgbt?

In other words, part of the steeper climb involves self-doubt. Self-doubt and feeling negatively about yourself is in no way an unusual dynamic in the history of lgbt people. Historically and even in the present day we have been marginalized, have been treated as criminals, we’ve been brutalized and executed, diagnosed as mentally ill, and regarded as sinners by the majority culture.

We have long felt like super-aliens, even at home. Cumulatively this is quite tiring and when added to the rigors of Peace Corps service, it becomes overwhelming at times.

Thank goodness for Pride! In June 1969 gay men in New York fought back against gay-hating police and lgbt people have celebrated Pride Day annually ever since. During one celebration each year, we show each other our solidarity and support. We feel the safety of our numbers, and the warmth and love of our non-lgbt friends, families and co-workers.

But Pride celebrations aren’t easily found in areas where Peace Corps volunteers work. So when a Pride celebration is available, it’s a big deal for lgbt PCVs. It’s great to feel the support of Peace Corps staff and of US officials at the local Embassy. To those Peace Corps and consular staff who make an extra effort to help lbgt volunteers feel affirmed, supported and loved: thank you.

 

Peace East: Outcry

Reposted with permission, CLICK HERE for original post complete with photos.
By: Colton Davies, China 2014-2016

I applied to Peace Corps accepting the fact that, for two years, I’d be locking myself in the closet and throwing away the key. Was I apprehensive? Absolutely. But I’d read plenty of literature preparing me for that outcome, and I’d grown to accept it. Then, during our first interview, my recruiter asked me point blank: “Do you have any other minority- or identity-related concerns that you think could affect your service?”

That’s a little forward, I thought, feeling my blood pressure rising.

“Well… I’m gay?”

“Okay, got it, thank you for sharing that with me.”

Another five minutes of less-intrusive questions passed before the conversation came to a head.

“There’s room with University TEFL in China leaving this June. How does that sound?” Something about her wording made me feel like there was a little wiggle room, which struck me as strange, because prior to this conversation, I always thought applicants didn’t have a choice in placement.

“Are there other options?”

“Well… you’re also qualified for Ethiopia, but…” she hesitated, “I think you’d have a much more comfortableservice in China.”

Two years later, this conversation still rings clear as ever, because it took me a good while to understand what my recruiter meant. Ethiopia’s attitude toward the LGBT community is not altogether welcoming. China, on the other hand, is slowly warming to the idea. While not immediately apparent, I grew privy to a handful of gay bars and other gay-friendly establishments in Chengdu, my first home. Then, after I started teaching in my school and picking students’ brains, I was able to grasp the current climate not from reading heavily slanted articles from the media, but from the people themselves.

There’s plenty of reason why things are the way they are. First of all, the majority of the students I work with are very sheltered. They come from villages of 200 people where they were raised by traditional parents and grandparents pummeling their family values into them from birth. They all had cell phones and TV and internet, but had little access to [what I’ll call] “culturally exposing and mind-opening media”. Who can blame them for showing up in a giant town in a giant university where a giant white boy is telling them that, statistically speaking, at least three of their classmates are secretly eyeballing persons of the same sex? Just kidding… I didn’t do that. Not then, anyway.That’s not to say my information wasn’t slanted. My province is famous around China for being backwards, behind, and conservative as hell. When asked about homosexuality in their country, some students would look me in the eye, dead serious, and say “China doesn’t have gay people.” Discouraging? You betcha. It’s not fun to hear your young minds-for-molding saying things that almost feel like personal attacks.

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“Special dinner featuring my main bro Daniel and two of our students, Lauren and Zoe. They won a competition at English club, so I made a pizza for the reward”.

The second and maybe the most important factor is the obvious one: me. Despite China’s warming attitude toward all some things gay, I was not about to march into my first day of classes tossing glitter and painting rainbows on everyone’s faces. The unfortunate thing is, even though I was assigned to a more gay-friendly country, that didn’t mean I could be out. Sure, I wouldn’t run the risk of getting executed or exiled… in fact, physical violence toward LGBT folks in China is virtually nonexistent – I wish I could say the same for my own, more open-minded country. So, what are the consequences of coming out in China?

I’m not saying that staying in the closet directly led to my getting Fridays off for my final semester in Peace Corps. I’m saying that indirectly, this – and a bunch of other stuff – led to my getting Fridays off for my final semester of Peace Corps. Relationships are everything in China, and I wasn’t keen on putting my service in jeopardy from the get-go. That said, I never planned to hide forever… I just had to wait for the right time.Shame, simply put. This shame doesn’t manifest through eye-rolling or gossip, nor does it play out like Cersei’s bare-assed walk back to the Red Keep. In the family context, if a son or daughter isn’t straight, he or she can’t get married and can’t reproduce – the two ultimate no-no’s of traditional Chinese culture. The other things that suffer – and which affect me more directly – are relationships built with other Chinese people… particularly those with whom we’re engaged in a power dynamic. What’s at risk, exactly? I’d say almost everything. That’s because if I don’t make my every effort to be exactly what my school is looking for (rather than what I have to offer as an individual), I lose points. And Chinese people… they keep score. Better than anyone I’ve ever known. If I prance onto campus and start rattling cages, I can say goodbye to friendly invitations to dinner, cooperation from the students… oh, and the most important: having any leverage at all within the department.

That time came on my 627th day of Peace Corps service, just 50 days from the finish line and, at the time of this posting, on Monday of this week. Having worked with my current 175 students for at least a year (and many of them for nearly two years), I knew it had to be now or never. Much of this aforementioned “work” included cultural activities and lessons to pry open their minds little by little, usually using indirect examples to get them thinking outside the box, then slamming their feet on the ground by giving real-life, relevant examples. On these days, I’d always voice my own opinions, when prompted, and make sure they knew my stance without being intrusive.

After the quiz, it was time for the grand reveal. For the first half, they were astonished and amazed to find that Americans are not all tall and white with long faces and big eyes – though that point was very difficult to get across, even after the reveal. But the real shocker, naturally, was the final picture, and the caption that appeared at the click of a button:  “A Couple.”So it wasn’t without some lead-in that I laid out some hard truth on the whole lot of English majors at my college this week. My strategy, I’m not shy to admit, was kick-ass. For Oral English and Advanced Listening Comprehension, I titled the lesson “Diversity”. First, we continued a discussion about gender identity and transgender issues which had been on-going for 2 classes. Second, I showed them 10 pictures of 10 individuals of various racial backgrounds, prompting them to guess where each person was from. (They were all from America.) Finally, after a collective brainstorm of different kinds of relationships between people, I showed ten more pictures of pairs of people. Some were family, some were friends, and some were couples. The last picture, #20 of the bunch, showed myself and my boyfriend, Geoff.

As expected, reactions were mixed. The junior students betrayed a mix of confusion, realization, and acceptance – in that order. Having had foreign teachers and having studied Western culture for three years, they aren’t surprised by much at this point. The freshmen, though? Chaos. I may as well have fired a gunshot into the crowd. The first five minutes had me assuring them repeatedly that it wasn’t a joke. After denial comes resentment, so, I heard shouts of “You broke our hearts!” ringing out from around the room. Then, as they began to tire themselves out, a more meaningful discussion ensued. They may be young, and many of them naïve, but generation gaps in China can be seen from year to year with the emerging adult group, and the freshmen seem in some ways light years ahead of other, more mature groups I’ve worked with.

Of course, I had to save the best for last. It was utterly unsurprising that the best reactions came from my sophomore students – the only groups whom I’ve stayed with since day 1 of my service to China. They’re currently enrolled in my Public Speaking course, which is dry and boring compared to the others, but we’re so tight it doesn’t matter in the least. I timed my big announcement around the impromptu speech unit, because during the lecture portion, I put their nerves at ease by giving an example impromptu speech in Chinese.

So, maybe it wasn’t so impromptu (considering I rigged it), but the closeness I have with these classes coupled with the fact that I did it in Chinese produced the most genuine and heartwarming responses I could have ever asked for. The first group was beaming with smiles, some even clapping and cheering to show their enthusiasm, the cherry-on-top being when one relatively quiet female student shouted, in Chinese, “I also like girls!!”

The second group, which I’ve always connected with better than the others, reacted rather unexpectedly. By the time I got around to them, most of them had already heard through the grapevine. And while a few faces beamed like the first class’, I noticed that quite a few – enough to make me uncomfortable – were eyeing me with a furrowed brow, doing that folded, puffy smirk/frown that you might do if you heard someone swear loudly at a nice restaurant. I learned right away, though, that it wasn’t malice or judgment. It was disappointment – and not for the reasons you’d imagine.

“Why are you only telling us now? Is it because you’re leaving?” a student asked, and about half the class nodded and sat up straighter. It knocked the wind out of me. They weren’t disappointed to learn the truth itself; they were disappointed that I didn’t feel I could trust them with that information from the beginning. I didn’t expect to feel so bad… so guilty… because in that moment, I knew that the compassion I felt for this bunch was something mutual. And they had every right to question my motive – after all, they’d just learned I’d been hiding something from them for our entire two years together.

The reason why – and although not every class asked, they all got the answer – was that I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk my relationship with the school, but more importantly, I couldn’t risk losing their respect. Coming out early in my service would be opening the door to judgment and preconceived notions about who I am and how I conduct myself, and I couldn’t have that. I explained to them as bluntly but respectfully as possible that, basically, I needed them to like me and trust me first. To see me as a normal, friendly, approachable, trustworthy, intelligent, successful, and happy person. And that being gay does not define me, nor should it define them or their opinions of anyone they meet in their lives. Finally, I begged all of them to go forward from the class and be more accepting and open to friends and family who identify as LGBT, if for no other reason than because one of their true friends and mentors proved their inherited ideas to be totally false.

Turns out they weren’t as indoctrinated as I thought. On the contrary, most of the initial questions were frighteningly normal… like “How long have you known your boyfriend?” and “How did you meet each other?” Being the bunch of hopeless romantics they are (and 90% of English majors are female in China) it almost seemed that they were just thrilled to know I was dating someone, regardless of the person’s gender. A few of them actually remembered meeting Geoff a year ago during Jennifer’s and Mark’s (my colleagues last year) going away party. One of the brighter ones shouted, “THAT’S GEOFF!” much to my surprise and delight. Even the harder, more conservative and traditional students in the classes made a clear effort to listen, understand, and accept the news. They asked some difficult questions like “Have you ever tried dating women?” and “Why would you choose this lifestyle?” but instead of jumping on the defensive, I was more proud of their having the courage to ask in the first place, and I therefore responded as calmly and respectfully as possible.

I always giggled while imaging myself on my last day of classes shouting, “I’M GAY, BITCHES!” over the school P.A. system, then ripping my clothes off and shimmying off campus while cackling like a Disney villain all the way back to America. As it so happens, coming out to my classes directly, respectfully, and well before my last day has been one of the most positive and rewarding experiences of service thus far. What I thought would drive a wedge between myself and them has brought us closer than ever, and even given others a voice to speak out.

My sophomore gems – who I too-often call “my babies” – only had two more questions on the topic before it was time to end class.  The answer to the first one (“When are you leaving?”) was met with an outcry of confusion and frustration, since my COS (Close of Service) date from Peace Corps falls before they’ll finish their final exams. And the second question, which made for an absolutely perfect bookend on my absolutely amazing class, was simply this: “Will you make time to have dinner with us?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “As many times as we can.”

NPCA’s Wedding Wednesdays

Did you know that the NPCA collects and publishes Peace Corps wedding stories? In fact, in 2015, LGBT RPCV made a concerted effort to make sure there was more same-sex couple representation in the album. We are proud to say that the inaugural same-sex couple is still the holder of the most amount of Likes! CLICK HERE to view the full album on Facebook. Are you interested in submitting your own? Copied below are the instructions:

Send a photo of your #peacecorps wedding, plus a BRIEF caption/story (Ideas: How you met? About the wedding? What’s distinctively “Peace Corps” about you two?), to news@peacecorpsconnect.org and include the word “Wedding” in the subject line. Include only as much personal information as you feel comfortable sharing with the internet. We’ll let you know when it’s posted and you can choose to “tag” it at that time. What qualifies as a “Peace Corps wedding?” You got married while in the Peace Corps, met in the Peace Corps and got married afterwards, or are RPCVs who met and married after service. Marrying a host country national or a member of another international service organization (ex. CUSO, VSO) “counts,” of course. Peace Corps: making peace one person at a time.

Below are few that we’d like to highlight:

 

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Posted June 10, 2015: Norbert (Ivorian) + Phillip (American, RPCV Guinea & Burkina Faso 2009-2011). Met in Ouagadougou, August 2010. Marriage ceremony in Abidjan, July 2011. Officially married in New York, August 2011. “Norbert and I met through friends of friends, dancing at a nightclub in Ouagadougou. We hit it off right away and have been together ever since” – Phillip

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Posted November 30, 2016: Marisa (Education 2011-13) and Fiona (Agriculture 2010-12) met during Peace Corps service in Paraguay. They shared the following: “We proud to say we got married on July 9, 2016, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a year after marriage equality reached the U.S. Our wedding clearly reflected our experiences as LGBTQ Americans and Paraguay RPCVs – including tereré (ice cold mate tea) and ñanduti (Paraguayan lace). There were 4 RPCVs in the wedding party, and 13 RPCVs in attendance (representing 4 countries and 2 decades)

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Posted November 30, 2016: Betsie, pictured right, and Shay met during service in Ecuador (2014-2016). “We were the two in our omnibus vehemently opposed to finding new relationships in Peace Corps. We signed up to service, not to fall in love. We fell for each other and the rest is recent history. We’re married, adjusting to life back in the U.S. and looking forward to a life together full of adventure”

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Posted December 21, 2016: Sarah Bender and Stephanie Hubbell met while serving together in Jordan (2009-2011). Sarah says that “It was until the end of our service that we realized true love had been right in front of us, but once that happened we never looked back. We married in New York City on September 4, 2016. We were lucky to get to share our wedding celebration with many members of our RPCV Jordan family and would not have had it any other way. We look forward to serving again one day, together as wives!”

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Posted December 28, 2016: Together for 26 years and married for 3, Ronald Hemmer (Thailand 82-84) and Franklin “Dan” Davis (Colombia 66-68) met in Phoenix, Arizona were Ron worked for the USDA and Dan worked for the Arizona DOT. Being RPCVs, as well as being from Ohio, led to the initial friendship. “As it turns out, most of our long-term friends are RPCVs. Shared values led to lasting friendships. Here we are with our Thai gold weddings in Palm Springs were we are living at the time”. 

 

 

 

 

Living & Working Abroad as an LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteer

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! “

CLICK HERE to watch the recording of the webinar.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1iCuGyCwWg

Bringing the person I love home to America

Republished with permission from Peace Corps Stories
By: Kyle Livingston

We first met in July 2012 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. He sent me an SMS saying, “Hey Guy!”

1st

Film and Kyle teaching at a gender empowerment camp, 2013

I had no clue who this person was… and seriously, who writes, “Hey Guy!”? Through five degrees of separation, a Thai national, Film, had heard about me and wanted to meet.

Throughout my time in Thailand, Film and I met in Bangkok and Ayutthaya (his hometown). We went out to dinner and had dates just as if I were back in the U.S. The summer between my first and second year of graduate school, I interned at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and we spent lots of time together. After my internship finished we went to Singapore for our first real vacation. It was then, being with him and seeing his unconditional love for me, compassion, and genuine warmth, that I knew I wanted spend the rest of my life with him.

Fast-forward to May 2015: Two years after completing my Peace Corps service, I was a newish master’s degree recipient and had just gotten engaged to Film. Yet he was still in Thailand. We need to fix that. The fiancé(e) visa, aka the K-1 non-immigrant visa, is the official way to bring your unwed, foreign-born partner into the U.S. to marry. (There are other options for those who are already married in a foreign country.) Here’s our timeline and what I did, from start to finish, to bring the person I love to America.

P.S. Because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act), same-sex couples follow the same steps as different-sex couples for the K-1 visa regardless of if same-sex marriage is legal in the foreign born partner’s country. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Thailand.

February 2015: I (as the sponsor) submitted the I-129F “Petition for Alien Fiancé(e)” form to United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). I also included form G-1145, “Notification of Acceptance of Application/Petition,” which specifically asks USCIS to notify me when they receive my application. I also sent proof of my relationship and proof of our intent to marry with the I-129F form: Photos, SMS messages, call logs, emails, and preliminary wedding plans, etc., all help. There was a $340 filing fee.

March 2015: I received notification that USCIS had received my I-129F form.

April 2015: USCIS sent me a case number. I set up an account on USCIS website to receive case status updates.

May 2015: Film, already holding a 10-year multiple-entry tourist visa, arrived in the U.S. for two weeks to attend my master’s graduation.

May 2015: Film and I got engaged at Constitution Gardens in Washington, D.C., in front of family and friends.

Film and Kyle’s engagement bracelets. Photo: Alex Snyder

Film and Kyle’s engagement bracelets. Photo: Alex Snyder

August 2015: I received a letter from USCIS requesting additional supporting evidence that Film and I were in a legitimate relationship and intended to marry. I asked close friends to write notarized letters on my behalf confirming our relationship and that they had heard of or were involved in our pending wedding. I also gathered engagement photos, additional letters, and Facebook posts as supporting evidence and mailed everything to USCIS.

September 2015: USCIS approved my I-129F petition and forwarded my case to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. They also sent me a Bangkok-specific case number (different than the USCIS case number). Whew! That’s done and out of the way.

November 2015: Film had not received any information from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok so he reached out to the visa unit to find out the next steps. The visa unit promptly replied and told Film that his information packet was in the mail. Two weeks later, when nothing had arrived, he reached out again and politely asked for an electronic copy. Film received an electronic copy of the packet; however, he needed a personalized cover letter with his case number for the Royal Thai Police to conduct a background check, which he then requested. In the meantime, we started filling out the other many required forms for the packet together:

  • Passport (Luckily, Film already had one.)
  • Birth certificate
  • DS-2001, specific to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok (“Notification of Applicant Readiness” form)
  • DS-160 form confirmation printout (Electronic visa application form)
  • Marriage status certificate (proving Film is indeed single. Thankfully, he is.)
  • Lots of color passport photographs (so happy Film is photogenic)
  • Confirmation printout of the Global Support Strategy Registration (and receipt to show that Film paid the fee [about $375])
  • I-134 Affidavit of Support (Evidence of financial support)
    • The petitioner (me) had to fill out this form and provide tax returns, stock holdings, bank statements, pay stubs—anything that proves that Film will not be a financial burden on the U.S. public. This also includes any debt the petitioner might owe (student loans, etc.).
  • Military records (Thailand has a lottery conscription process; since Film wasn’t selected, he had to submit his military lottery exemption records.)
  • Official translations of any document not in English (i.e., EVERYTHING)

December 2015: The personalized cover letter arrived and Film went to the Royal Thai Police to get his background check started. He was told it would take 31 business days to complete… great.

January 2016: Film received the police background report a week early (it’s always good to check in periodically; the forms might be done sooner than you think!). He mailed off the packet, careful to separate originals from certified copies (the embassy requires copies of some forms and originals of others).

Enjoying San Francisco together, June 2015

Enjoying San Francisco together, June 2015

*Tip: It’s worth paying for priority mail and confirmation* 

Two weeks later: Film received the final packet with four medical forms: DS-2054DS-3025DS-3026, and DS-3030. He had already made an appointment to make sure his vaccinations were up-to-date as we knew this was a requirement. He was also given a tentative visa interview date of February 9 in the event all of his medical forms were returned on time.

*Wait to receive your packets before making any medical appointments*

February 2016: Film went to all of his doctor appointments. Bringing his passport, photographs, vaccine records, medication lists, and a family medical history sheet (for his reference), he spent close to three hours at one of only two embassy-certified hospitals. He was told he needed a few follow-up tests as well, which would take about two months. The total cost was about 11,000 Thai baht, about $310.

Congratulations on graduating, Film!

Congratulations on graduating, Film!

March 2016: I went to Thailand for Film’s undergraduate graduation (in Thailand graduation ceremonies are held one year after classes end) and we started looking for wedding venues in Thailand. Film received a new interview date for April 4.

April 4, 2016: Armed with additional supporting evidence of our relationship, our wedding venue confirmation, his medical forms, and some interview prep, Film went to his interview at the embassy.

That same day (15 minutes later): Film was approved for the K-1 visa! YAY! The embassy kept and processed his Thai passport, authorized the visa, and said they would return everything within two weeks.

April 18, 2016: Film received his Thai passport back with the visa sticker inside! Film now has five months to come to the U.S. He also has a packet he absolutely cannot open and must hand-carry through immigration. He will bring the packet, his passport, and K-1 visa to the Customs and Immigration officer at the airport where everything will be checked one last time. Once admitted to the U.S., we’ll have 90 days to get married. Good luck to everyone thinking about or going through this process. It’s long and tedious but worth it in the end.

Kyle Livingston is a social media specialist for Peace Corps in Washington, D.C. He served as a Community-Based Organizational Development Volunteer in Thailand from 2011–2013. Kyle graduated from American University with his M.A. in International Affairs in Southeast Asia with a focus on U.S. Foreign Policy in May 2015. He was born in Daegu, South Korea.