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.

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!”


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.

Why The Peace Corps Needs LGBTQ Safe Zone Trainings

Reprinted with permission from The Vulnerable Traveler

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?
Jorge: 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.


More information:

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?

Connect with us at our facebook page, instagram, google drive of resources, and at!

Char Stoever is a queer, Mexican-American travel writer, artist, and Wellesley College graduate. She has tutored at-risk youth with City Year San Antonio and taught at Brooke Charter School in Boston. She is interested in mental health, whether at home or abroad. Contact:

Gay Crushes in Paraguay

Jeremy Haber (Paraguay 2013-2015) is from Franklin, TN and currently works as a part-time Peace Corps Recruiter and full-time graduate student in Business Analytics at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. He served in Villa Hayes, Paraguay as a Community Economic Development volunteer. Jeremy can be reached at 

I had a few crushes during my Peace Corps service. And while these crushes never made it past friendships, they did have a lasting impact on my life.

My first crush was on a Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator, a third year extension position. He gave our group a condom demonstration (on a banana, of course). What stood out the most were his quirky lapses in memory of common English words and his energetic presentation. It was so refreshing to hear him speak after months of dull, plain talks on health, safety, and security.

After the presentation, I emailed the Coordinator thanking him for his great presentation. In the signature, I added a code JUBX FXDUM HXD URTN CX PAJK BXVN LXOONN BXVNCRVN. He responded, “What is this? Is this a code? I like challenges.” But he never followed up more beyond that. A few months later he mentioned he was seeing someone so it made sense why he did not respond.

From this and many other experiences, I learned I was not so good at asking guys on dates because I am not very direct. During training, I made best friends with a Volunteer whose brother is Gay; she really pushed me to not live in my head and instead encouraged me to ask for what I want. In exchange, I helped her on how to use subtlety in conversation. Her problem was she would push dates away with her blunt comments, always trying to be correct. We were both lousy at getting dates, but during our Sunday brunch conversations we always learned from each other.

My second crush happened on my second day in site, after I finished three months of pre-service training. I met my primary contact, a Director of a local cultural center. The first thing we did was take his small pickup and drive to the native cultural center located in the middle of a deserted field about twenty miles away. On the way, in my bad Spanish, I asked him what music he liked. He said Mile Cyrus and Lady Gaga – I smiled. I remember my last interview with my Peace Corps Sector Director, telling her I didn’t care how big or small, difficult or remote the site I will be living in, I would be the happiest if she chose a contact I would work well with. As soon as I found out he loved pop divas in the first few minutes I met him, I knew my Sector Director chose a good contact for me. Although a great guy, our relationship remained professional, we had a very easy time working with each other, a common understanding of one another between guys who love pop divas and dancing.

It is said that ten percent of Volunteers may enter into a long term relationship (Paraguayan or foreign) during their service. So, having a sex life in the Peace Corps was somewhat expected. We were mostly twenty-somethings, now having enormous amounts of time on our hands, sex was almost guaranteed to occupy our time and our minds. Shockingly, I stayed celibate for four years, two years in the Peace Corps and two years while I studied in Asia for my MBA.

Why would I stay celibate? I did not plan on it, and I am not asexual. I just decided to stay with a host family and focus on myself rather than look for sexual partners. There were a few Gay Volunteers and locals, everyone still used social networking and dating sites overseas to hookup. However, I deleted these apps. It was not that I had a mission to not have sex or a relationship. I certainly had a few females and males come onto me. I would not call myself cold or standoffish, puritanical or prudish. It was maybe a calming down phase for me. I had a few crazy escapades, Gay cruises and parties overseas during a more exploratory phase of my youth. Maybe I turned into a mature Gay guy now.

There were a few guys that came after me. I met the local English Teacher at the cultural center. I was greeted with a friendly conversation and an offer to go to lunch. The next day the same, and soon it became routine to go to lunch with him. We were becoming friends, and soon I received a few nice gifts. I learned he was thirty, not married, enjoyed listening to Madonna, and never had a girlfriend. I told him I enjoyed his company but that we were just friends. He understood.

Out of my whole Peace Corps experience, this English teacher was one of the most remarkable people I had met. By the time I left he became the most sought after English teacher in the Department. His childhood was tough, adopted by the grandmother who died a few months before I started my service. He gave up the Presbyterian Church and lost most of his friends when quitting a few months before I arrived. So we spent a lot of time together, and while I was in Paraguay, we traveled all around the country and attended all the Peace Corps parties together.

Peace Corps had its share of parties. The parties in the capitol occurred once every three months, and it was a night of live performances by Paraguayans and Peace Corps Volunteers. It was also a night where many Gay men stopped by the party. There was a high percentage of Gay Volunteers and mostly because Peace Corps attracted a more liberal minded person. So one Gay Volunteer could date a local from the capitol and leave after two years, but the local still could come to the party and then start dating the next Volunteer. It was like going to the foreign exchange parties in undergrad and you were always looking on making new German friends and sometimes hooking up with them even though they would leave in a few weeks.

There was in fact a German Volunteer group known as AFS and there were a lot of Gay guys in that group. These Volunteers were college age so they were quite young, but I know Peace Corps Volunteers who went on trips with AFS Volunteers and even dated a few of them. My rule being twenty-eight at the time was to not date someone who was under twenty-one, since I had the same rule for myself in the United States.

Peace Corps made Volunteers comfortable with uncertainty. There were many expectations, dreams, ideas of one’s life in the Peace Corps during the application process. “I’ll learn a new language, I’ll make wonderful friends, I’ll make a difference, I’ll try new foods, I’ll figure myself out. I’ll meet someone and fall in love. I’ll have wonderfully successful projects.” This honeymoon phase quickly disappeared the first few months in site. The first few months of service, was likes like jumping into a pool of ice cold water every day. It was quite uncomfortable every time, but it warmed up as the day went on.

Soon the water started to become warmer, and my classes filled up with lots of students. In Paraguay, a White male was thought of as handsome, and young girls flirted with me. They soon found out I was not interested. Younger Gay guys would come to class sometimes with their boyfriend and learn a little English. My second crush was on one student who was a hot Zumba teacher. He took all of my classes one year and was the only guy over twenty-one. I remember one English lesson involved clothing, and students yelled out different articles of clothing, and he yelled out underwear with the cutest smile. I blushed. It was great to see him and others so motivated, maybe they were originally coming for other interests, but I turned that motivation into learning English and they soon became some of my best students.

During the summer, a guy Facebook messaged me with a “Hooollllaaa,” and a smiley face emoticon, the common online flirting for young Gay guys. I mentioned to him I was Gay, but not into him because he was under twenty-one. Then an idea popped into my head. I really wanted to get out of site and go to a gender and diversity camp. So I invited him to the camp. He was brilliant and told his story at camp about how he came out at the hospital he worked at. Unfortunately, his coworkers started gossiping and the other employees made horrible comments. He ignored them for a while, but then his boss told him to think about leaving. After the camp the youth became a new person, empowered with confidence. He eventually became a leader in the community and even hosted a Volunteer after I left Paraguay. We became good friends and still chat on Facebook.

Every Volunteer got the option to request a follow-up Volunteer to further develop the projects the previous Volunteer started. The Volunteer to serve after me in my site asked me advice on dating in site. I mentioned relationships for volunteers with alternative lifestyles may be more accepted in the capitol versus our small town, so meeting guys or dating Volunteers in the capitol may be a better idea especially since he lived in the center of town. We went for coffee one afternoon out of site. Not really a date, but we shared some personal stories.

At my local cultural center, every Events Coordinator, and there were three when I served, were not a typical male for a small Paraguayan community. I did not know if they were Gay. They never came out to me, but we shared some unforgettable experiences and stories. One Events Coordinator went to a youth leadership camp with me before obtaining the Events Coordinator position. He was a great speaker, having a lot of practice leading the youth in the church. I learned his passion was to be a beauty pageant consultant. He knew about every Miss Paraguay and all the winners in Latin America. His goal for the future was to meet me in my hometown of Las Vegas and see the Miss Universe Pageant at Planet Hollywood. I told him I’ll take him to see the Britney Spears show if he comes and visits.

I had a crush on another Events Coordinator of the cultural center, who left my site two years before I arrived. He returned to the cultural center only a few times. The first time we met, we spoke English and he invited me to his graduation at the Police Academy. He was the valedictorian of his class, and decorated with many medals in his police uniform. Who wouldn’t fall for this guy? We hung out two more times during my service. The first time we ate street food and had a stroll by the river after the sun set. We sat under the stars and talked about our time in high school in our respective countries. It was a fun night but did not amount to more than just chatting. The second date did not go over well. I chose an expensive Gay friendly café in the capitol, and he felt a little uncomfortable. We didn’t talk as much, maybe he wasn’t Gay. So we parted ways.

The last person I wanted to mention was my mentor. I had the best mentor in Peace Corps. He had been a Volunteer already for a year, and he gave me good advice on being Gay in Paraguay. He answered a lot of my questions over email before I started training in country. And then during training we spoke once a week to see how things were going. One additional conversation with someone in English and who went through the same thing I was going through as a Gay man made a big difference during that initial few months.

Now coming back to University of Tennessee being the Peace Corps campus recruiter, I am still very out and open about my sexuality. There is a huge rainbow flag on the wall of my office. I give recruitment speeches at Pride Week and joined LGBT commissions and Gay organizations. I quickly found out how fortunate I am to be back in an environment where students are extremely motivated to create positive change, however there is still a lot of change needed to be made.

In addition, as a recruiter, I find it important to share my identity as Gay in my class presentations. During job fairs, I lay my rainbow flag on my table where I have had students approach me because I reached out to them indirectly with the flag. There have been Transgender students and Gay couples who have come to chat with me about Peace Corps. While I am learning more and more in my role each day, I know sharing these stories about my friends in Paraguay have made the biggest impact on students’ decision to join Peace Corps. I also know my Paraguayan friends also had the biggest impact on making me a better person, too.



A youth and I showing our community map. He later became Director of Events for the cultural center in our community.

A youth and I showing our community map. He later became Director of Events for the cultural center in our community.


United States Embassy staff visits my local cultural center. The Director of the cultural center located in the middle.


Diversity and Gender youth summer camp. Many youth shared their stories about coming out in their community.


Dear Friends: A Story from Ethiopia

By RPCV Ethiopia, 2012-2014

Dear Friends,

My second day in Ethiopia, our group of volunteers crammed into the basement of a hotel for what had been called a “Diversity Panel.” The doors were shut, he curtains pulled, and the session began.

I was nervous. I had done my research before stepping on the plane and knew your laws, sisters and brothers of Ethiopia. I knew about deportation and prison time—twelve to fifteen years—and, though I tried not to think of it, that there were other punishments for those unlucky enough to be caught by friends and family first. And I knew about Robel Hailu, Ethiopia’s first entry into the Mr. Gay World competition. He fled to South Africa and likely wouldn’t come back.

Two volunteers gave us background information on what “LGBTQ” means, struggles for Queer Volunteers, and ways straight Volunteers could be allies. Then the stories began; the leader of our Peer Support Network told us about an Ethiopian man whose friends took him to an alley and killed him. We learned of the Volunteer who outed another Gay Volunteer to an Ethiopian friend the next town over. Both were separated from the service and left the country. Finally, we learned that it wasn’t safe to come out to Ethiopian Peace Corps staff members; Our support could be compromised. Volunteers in other countries had put a Safe Zone training module together, but, so far, Peace Corps-Ethiopia’s staff had refused to implement it.

I looked around at my fellow group members and wondered if there was anyone like me. I began to feel very alone. But you know all about what it’s like to wake up every day in a world that isn’t yours. When the session ended, I went upstairs for our coffee break and bummed my first Nyala cigarette off of another Volunteer.

We learned to use code words for ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in public, because we never knew when someone at a cafe might be sitting at the next table over, listening to the foreigners chat to practice English for an upcoming university exam. There were others who might be listening as well; our phone conversations, emails, and blog posts weren’t private. The night of the Diversity Panel, I asked another new friend if she’d pose as my girlfriend just in case anyone asked. All we would need to do was take pictures together at conferences and trainings so I could keep up my alibi. She agreed.

Occasionally, we volunteers caught glimpses of some of you in our day-to-day interactions:

There was a woman living in another training site who dressed like a man. Neighbors simply shrugged and said, “That’s her way.”

There was another woman I saw at a hotel in my site. I’d gone there with my site mates and my neighbor, and I saw her short hair and jersey for the national football team. I asked my neighbor, “Did you see that woman in the football jersey?” She scanned the room quickly and said, “What woman?”

There was a man working at the hotel I met after attending a counseling session. He had bright white teeth and a trimmed mustache. He lightly touched my wrists from behind the hotel bar, admiring the bracelets I’d bought. And he watched my eyes, just half a moment too long, each time we ran into each other in the hallways.

I lied to Peace Corps Medical office staff and told them I was having trouble coping with this new culture. The counselor I saw was born in Ethiopia but was adopted as a child, moving to the United States. She’d come back to the capital to open a practice. I told her everything, how it felt to be queer in this country. I told her about lying to my friends, and then I described the touches. I was confused about the physical affection Ethiopian men show each other. She heard what I was describing and said, “I know Ethiopian men are more affectionate than American men, but what you’re describing isn’t… typical.”

There had been other light touches like those on my wrists in the hotel bar. A neighbor’s hands brushing against my stomach in passing, a friend’s extra long caresses on my shoulders and neck. A man spilled beer down my leg at a community celebration once and brushed it off, letting his fingers linger on my calf. And I recognized some of you the way I recognize my American brothers on the street: something loose in the gait, that half-moment pause in the eyes as if asking, “Are you one of us?”


Friends, I still think of you often. I still see you on Facebook sometimes, friends of Volunteers who still live in Ethiopia. I envy those straight friends and what they can know. Why is it that my straight friends have always been able to know my people? What must it be like not to risk that?

But, one story: My neighbor up north was about twenty-two years old. She was from the capital and spoke fluent American English with little accent. We spent many evenings with my site mates, mixing our cheap wine with Coke and Mirinda to lessen the bitterness. We were sure she knew about me; no one could watch as much American TV as she did and not know. One Sunday, she told me she’d made too much for lunch and invited me over. She handed me a plate of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. I looked at the food and asked, “How long have you known I’m gay?”

“You’re gay?” she asked, incredulous.

“Oh, honey,” I said.

“But what about your girlfriend?!”

“Oh, HONEY,” I repeated.
I came clean. I told her about the alibi girlfriend, the counseling session, the touches. Other than the counselor, this was the first time I had ever been completely honest with an Ethiopian. I was worried; I’d done what we were told never to do.

She thought for a moment and said, “You know, I’m kind of proud of myself. I always thought I’d be okay with people being gay, and now I know I am! Gay people are kind of like celebrities. You know they exist, but you never think you’ll meet one. Now, let’s go get a bottle of wine and talk all afternoon!”

Dear friends, I ache for the time we couldn’t spend together. I wanted, so much, to know you, extending our solidarity and love to each other; our world has been treacherous and dark. But there are allies. They show themselves over time. I hope it’s true what the counselor told me:

“Right now in Ethiopia, it’s like the 1960s in America. The sexual revolution in America was so violent in the 1960s, but in time it calmed down.”

Peace Corps-Ethiopia was finally required by Headquarters in Washington, DC to administer Safe Zoning training to its staff. I had already returned to the United States by that point, but a Gay Volunteer, friend of mine, who was still there said the staff wished afterward that they didn’t know there were Queer Volunteers in Ethiopia. I still struggle to help my American friends understand my Peace Corps story. It was often heartbreaking and difficult; it was not what I expected. Some in the Peace Corps family are changing minds and hearts, and others are still waiting for the calm in the storm.

With love,
A friend.

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A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday

A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday

Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum

Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum

Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa

Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa