Pride and Prejudice: The LGBTQ Volunteer Experience

Republished with permission from Peace Corps West blog

Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, personally identifiable information (including names) of current Volunteers has been changed.

jeremie-students1

When serving abroad, all Peace Corps Volunteers face challenges of new living arrangements, novel foods, and different attitudes. LGBTQ Volunteers often confront additional challenges because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

An Education Volunteer currently in his second year of service in Asia, “Joseph Mercier” identifies as gay and trans-questioning. Out to family and friends since high school, Mercier is also open to Peace Corps staff and several students and friends in his urban community, located in an isolated and conservative area.

“One question I get frequently asked is, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ To this I now respond, ‘No, but I’m looking for a boyfriend.’” Mercier said. “I’ve had to work really hard to get to this point, and am so thrilled by how well I’m being received.”

Although there are few formal ways to meet other LGBTQ individuals in his country, Mercier has created his own social and support network. Peace Corps staff have also encouraged him to be an advocate on the issue.

“We have been very open here at my post, thanks to the efforts of the Same-Sex Couples Working Group,” Mercier said. “During my service, I’ve convened PeaceOut!, a volunteer-led platform for the gender and sexuality diversity community serving here.”

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Mercier’s primary assignment is teaching university-level English, but he also leads a dance course and a community planning workshop. He’s gained new skills while navigating his country’s unique cultural landscape.

“In Peace Corps, you learn the art of advocating for yourself,” Mercier said. “If your needs are not being met, it is your job to identify contacts and convene resources in order to ensure your health, well-being and success. You learn the art of effective communication, a skill that will last a lifetime.”

For members of the LGBTQ community interested in pursuing service abroad, Mercier recommends being clear about your expectations.

“I knew that I didn’t want to live in the closet if I joined the Peace Corps, and I expressed that in my application materials,” Mercier said. “That being said, I explained that I was committed to fulfilling my duties as a Volunteer and would adapt to the norms of my host community in order to be an effective teacher.”

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Ty Manning identifies as a gay man and served as a Community Health Promotion Volunteer in Peru from 2011–13. Manning came out during his college years and was open about his sexual orientation with fellow Volunteers and Peace Corps staff during service. However, he chose to be closeted in the conservative mountain community where he lived and worked.

ty-in-peru_crop“Many of the communities were more concerned with infant malnutrition and the risk that excrement would seep into the water table and end up in their dinner table glasses,” Manning said. “The fact that I was contributing to tangible improvements in the health of my community allowed me to swallow my rainbow flag—at times, gladly so—and even laugh when told that I’d end up marrying a Peruana and stay there forever.”

Though his time in Peru was not without its painful moments, especially when exposed to adverse comments about homosexuality, Manning felt supported by the Peace Corps network and did not regret his decision to stay closeted.

“During my service, I realized that my sexual orientation is a very important part of who I am, but not revealing this to others in my community had very little impact on the depth of the relationships I formed,” Manning said.

Stephanie Nys had begun to understand herself as a pansexual[1] woman in 2011, just before departing for Peace Corps Liberia. While she felt supported by staff and many Volunteers with whom she was open, she found it difficult to navigate the challenges ofStephanie - Liberia2_cropservice in a country where her evolving sexual identity could conflict with local laws forbidding same-sex relations.

“I’m very glad I served but I do sometimes wish I had stayed in the states a little longer to have more time to come out in a safer environment, and to think about the challenge of what being closeted would look like in Peace Corps,” Nys said.

Karen Andrews completed sex reassignment surgery in 2001, well before becoming an Education Volunteer in Thailand from 2013–15. She served as an older Volunteer after retiring from a career as a real estate broker. Andrews preferred to be known simply as a woman, rather than actively revealing her sex reassignment or sexual orientation.

RSCN5341“Many PCVs didn’t know at the beginning, but learned on an individual basis later. Some were surprised when I told them,” Andrews said. “I had no idea if community members knew or not. Nothing was ever said to me. They were always respectful, protective and caring.”

Like other LGBTQ Volunteers, Andrews was able to confront the difficulties she faced in order to reap the countless rewards of Peace Corps service.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Andrews said. “I cannot express how thankful I am to the Peace Corps for being given this opportunity. I am forever changed.”

[1] By definition, pansexuality separates sexual attraction from gender identity and biological sex and implies increased fluidity.

 

Transgender PCV Expands the Definition of Family

– A Peace Corps Volunteer, Southeast Asia

Editor’s note: This is the second article this writer has contributed to our website. The first from last year https://lgbrpcv.org/2014/11/16/becoming-a-transman-and-into-the-peace-corps/  describes the process a transgender applicant goes through to be accepted by Peace Corps. We plan to host more articles as this volunteer proceeds through his Peace Corps career. For security reasons we have not named the volunteer or the specific country where he serves.

I am now in my first year of Peace Corps service living in my adopted community. Already, it would be possible for me to write pages upon pages of what I have learned and how kind and loving this community has been to me. It all has to do with the people; they are the center of my growth and learning here. From the Peace Corps Volunteers I met on Day One to the host family I have lived with to the people I work with- they are the ones who are impacting my daily life. As I have found my place in this community, they are the ones continually teaching me about the ever broadening definition of family and acceptance.

I live and work in a very small community. I am living with a host family and there are anywhere from 6-10 of us that reside in a comfy 3 room house. Our water is pumped from a well across the road and hauled into the house in buckets for daily use. We have electricity but it is not always dependable. We wash our laundry by hand; purchase and cook the food we eat together for three meals per day (no refrigerator); and clean with homemade brooms and rags made from old clothing.

Together we live in harmony and good company. My host family has become like a second family to me. They show me they care by constantly trying to get me to eat as much food as possible; by making sure I am comfortable in the room I sleep in; and by making sure that I never go anywhere on my own. Quick trip to the store to buy cell phone minutes? I am accompanied by anywhere from 2-5 children. Stop by the bakery for a quick snack? My older host sister will trail my walk on the motorcycle. They have introduced me to every extended family member who lives in our community and have gone out of their way to include me in family events. My younger host brother has shown me how to play some of the children’s games and the three young granddaughters who live across the street enthusiastically run towards me whenever I am on my way home from work. Despite the language and cultural barriers, we are still able to communicate mutual love, respect and caring. They have taken me in to their lives and have shown me what it means to be a part of a family in their culture- which has expanded my view and thought on what family means.

In my community, I work in Youth Development with some of the economically poorest of the population here. Here too, I have found family in the people I work with every day. In the Life Skills sessions I lead, the parents and youth have drawn me into their lives and have welcomed me with open hearts and generosity. We have many commonalities- from reading, to drawing, writing, swimming, cooking and a passion for teaching and learning. I am able to share with them experiences from my life and knowledge that the Peace Corps has taught me in order to communicate life skills that range from self confidence and how to be a good role model to English and Mathematics tutoring. In return, they have shown me that many struggles of youth transcend boundaries of culture. Many of the impoverished youth here are facing the same struggles as some youth in the United States: the struggle to stay in school versus working to provide money for their family; the struggle for a family to support them in higher education goals and the lack of available work and support systems. These youth and parents are also becoming part of my broader family every time they share with me their thoughts and hopes and every time they accept me and my presence in their community.

If there has been one aspect of myself I have been unable to share with my new host and work families it is my gender identity. In the past, when I have not been able to be open and honest with people about my gender identity, I have felt as though that one issue was a barrier to having a meaningful relationship with them. Serving in the Peace Corps has already taught me otherwise. I find that I have meaningful, fulfilling relationships with my host family, my co-workers and the families and youth that I work with despite not being open about every aspect of myself, my identify and my history. This has been a significant revelation to me and is one part of myself and my paradigm that I am continuing to reassess and contemplate.

Sexuality in my host culture is very different from the culture of the United States. Here, boys walk to school with their arms draped across each others’ shoulders; women and female youth walk hand and hand or arm in arm as they walk down the street. This act, which would be very out of place in most American neighborhoods, is an act of comfort and friendship here. There are also gay and lesbian people in my community, but once again, it is a very different culture. Many boys are openly identified by the adults and their peers in the community as gay at a very young age (usually based on their mannerisms and physical characteristics). It is accepted as a part of who they are and is not questioned in my community. Having said that, it is also not common to see gay youth or adults in relationships with other men, at least not in public.

Lesbian women in my community are not talked about. There are several women about whom I have heard hints of conversation like “she dresses like a boy” or some other subtle comment, but they are much less openly talked about compared to gay men. It is never directly mentioned that they are attracted to women.

It is a different dynamic as you go to larger cities or communities that have a college campus. Same gender pairings are becoming more common to see in public and it is more acceptable to live with the person you are in a relationship with, but this is not the case in my community yet. I have also heard no mention of transgender individuals, while I am certain that there are transgender people in my host country, I have not yet been able to find a community of local transgender individuals even in the closest, larger city.

This leads me to the family I have found among the other Peace Corps Volunteers. When I first got here, I knew I would have to find allies in some of my fellow volunteers if for no other reason than safety, security and the unlikely event of a medical emergency. I also knew that, if I was unable to be completely open with the people in my host community, I would have to find another outlet in my Peace Corps community. What I did not expect was the warmth, understanding and unconditional respect and love that I would receive in response. While I am not open with every single Peace Corps staff and volunteer, those who I have felt comfortable enough to disclose my gender identity to have been overwhelmingly supportive of me. Of course there have been questions and curiosities and many in-depth, gender-based conversations, but it has been out a genuine desire to understand and appreciate fully the extent of the person I am.

The medical and in-country staff  have also been outstanding. Once again, and as I expected, there is a lot of teaching and education on my end. The medical and in-country staff have no experience working with transgender individuals, but they have a strong desire to learn and an even stronger characteristic of support, respect and conscientiousness that has been quite touching to experience. Without my Peace Corps family completing my understanding and experience of “found family”, my service here would be much more stressful and, at times, frightening. Knowing that I have the support of Peace Corps doctors, staff, and peers who will show up, without hesitation, to support and vouch for me should I find myself in need of such things, has allowed me to relax and enjoy the experience I am having instead of just trying to safely get through it.

Finding new definitions of family along with a wide expanse of people who provide me with different components of family (and who hopefully I do the same for in return), has been one of the most surprising aspects of my Peace Corps service so far. I expect that these new families of mine will continue to surprise and impress and teach me as I carry on throughout the next several years. I find that, while I was a bit nervous about the location I was placed in for Peace Corps service, it has turned out to be more than what I could have ever dreamed and has, so far, surpassed my expectations.

You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Becoming a Transman and into the Peace Corps

-A Current Peace Corps Volunteer

 Editors Note:

The writer is a recently assigned Peace Corps Volunteer in Southeast Asia. He hopes to write an article about his experience as a transgender volunteer in a few months.

Although I was unaware of it at the time, around the age of 9, two very important events would happen in my life that would shape the complex path of my future development as a human being. The first: I am allowed to cut my hair for the first time in my life. I get it cut as short as possible- even going back to the barbershop multiple times to have them cut shorter and shorter and shorter. I wind up with a very unflattering bowl cut. I love it. Between that and my new, giant, circular, powder-blue framed glasses, I think I am pretty cool. Until I go to school… where, for the first time in my life, I am asked The Question: “Are you a boy or a girl?”… Pause… wait, I have an option??

For the first time I am aware of myself and my body and how it relates to the forming gender identity in my young mind. … I think I might be a boy… “I’m a- girl?” This interaction starts a chain of thoughts that only build, grow and develop as I progress through this life as a transman. The second event: We are out at the farm of a family friend and the adults are all talking and catching up. It is late fall and I’m jumping around in the piles of leaves that have fallen to the ground. Grownup: “Tell me what’s new in your life Linda!” Linda: “Well most recently I have completed and submitted all of my paper work for my Peace Corps application. I am now in the eternal waiting period while they decide what country they will assign me to. I am excited for the future and what it holds.”

I had no idea what the Peace Corps was at the time, I only knew that my ears perked up at the word Peace and the implication of working internationally. I was hooked, I remember being excited about this Peace Corps thing and knowing that one day I would do… whatever it was that they did. It turns out the Peace Corps was not in the practice of accepting 9 year old applicants into their program. I spent the next several years picking up what bits and pieces of information I could find on the requirements for the Peace Corps, what work was done and the countries where volunteers served. With each piece of information I gleaned- from recruiting booklets to conversations with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to in-depth website research, I was more and more inspired and drawn to this work as a part of my future.

Fast forward about 10 years: I was able to talk about my gender identity with vocabulary and words I had never had before. I was coming to terms with myself as transgender, even if I did not have the faith and courage to have an open and honest conversation with my family. It was a period of difficult questions and introspective thoughts and battles. I had a series of mentors at that time who guided me in coming to terms with my gender identity and, equally as important, helped to guide me into what kind of person I wanted to be in life.

With their direction, and with the values and ethics instilled in me by my parents, I came to realize that helping those who were struggling with homelessness, broken families and a world of other issues, was my passion. I had parents who had been excellent role models for me in this capacity and I knew that I could create my own, similar path with the echo of their footprints to guide me. I started to think again about applying to the Peace Corps. I came to one of the very first questions on the application: Are you a boy or a girl? That question was deterrent enough to keep me from applying, plus it turned out that (at the time), the Peace Corps was not in the practice of accepting applicants without a college degree into their program.

Another 10 years later: I had started hormone treatment therapy nearly 10 years earlier. In this time I also managed to have honest conversations with my family and friends about my gender identity and came to the conclusion: I am absolutely blessed. There were most assuredly challenges along this road along with many difficult conversations. I also lost a friend or two, but those who stuck with me have also been with me and supported me unconditionally through many other significant hurdles that life has thrown my way. My family has proven themselves to be family not only in name but in action, support and love. I am incredibly lucky as I know so many others who have a different story with a much harsher reality. I am proud of who I am and am more comfortable in my body than I ever thought I would be. I have become secure in who I am as a person and how I interact as a transman in the world around me.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” I don’t get that question much these days but, for anyone who is open to listening, I have a long history of a story as an answer. And, after a nine year struggle, I also managed to graduate from college with a good GPA and a degree in Community and International Development.

It was time. I was at that point in life where I would again apply to the Peace Corps. This time it was for real. It also had become much easier to apply; everything was done electronically and through the Peace Corps website. I filled out all of the questions, essays, work history, education history, life history, and managed to find 3 people for references who were willing to go through the epic process of validating my character. I submitted my application with a pounding heart and held breath. Getting to this point had been a long process.

Nearly immediately after I hit the “submit application” button, I received an e-mail telling me that I was now required to fill out the Preliminary Health History Form. Ok, no problem, I can do it. First question? Are you a boy or a girl? Seriously?? It took me more time and more uncertainty to answer this question than it did to fill out most of the general application form. I had no idea how to electronically answer such a complicated question. There was no “both” or “neither” type of option and no person on the other end to explain “it’s complicated” too. So I did what I couldn’t do as a 9 year old: I made up my mind, gritted my teeth and hit the circle next to “male”.

Thus began what was, for me, the most grueling and time consuming portion of my Peace Corps process so far – The Medical Assessment. I was immediately assigned to the Head Peace Corps Nurse due to the “special circumstances” of my medical application. She was amazing and an incredible support during the medical clearance process. She did not always know the answers to my questions, but she made it clear that she would do whatever she could to advocate for me and find the answers I needed. She empathized with me as I was required to submit document after document after document. There were many times where I had to step back and remind myself that this medical process was part of what it took to apply for a government job. I reminded myself that the nurse was not trying to make this personally hard on me; she was simply doing her job.

Perhaps because the Peace Corps has not had many transgender medical applicants, there did not seem to be any protocol on how to handle my medical application. I essentially went through the process of submitting both the “male” and “female” health forms. I also had to go through a significant psychological evaluation not required by most applicants. I believe this is more than likely due to the fact that being transgender is still considered to be a mental health issue with a diagnosis still present in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). There were personal statements on how, when, where and why I gave myself testosterone shots along with the storage requirements, chemical composition and effects of testosterone. There was also an incredible amount of blood work that was analyzed. Without the support of the Peace Corps Head Nurse, the task of navigating through medical clearance would have, at minimum, been greatly prolonged and, at maximum, would not have been an achievable task. She has my gratitude and respect for making a painful process slightly less so.

Summer, slightly over a year from the initial application process; after several months of wading through paperwork; tiring out many doctors with my panicked calls and visits; saying farewell to friends and family, I left the United States to start my own, unique Peace Corps experience. In many ways, I had the same application process as many of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Each of us had struggles in our own right with various portions. Some struggled writing the essays, others struggled through the medical portion for reasons due to age, medical history or current medical ailments. What I have found as I meet more and more of the wider Peace Corp family is not only acceptance, love and genuine connection, but also that each of us has our own personal experience with the Peace Corps from the moment we apply until the moment we conclude our service. My experience happens to be wrapped intrinsically around my gender identity, but my hope as I continue on this journey, is to remember that throughout struggles I can always find those that will support me- and the excitement and happiness on the other side of that struggle is well worth the wait.

The writer can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

What Kyrgyzstan Gave Me Travels Far

– Bryce Wolfe, RPCV

In pre-service training, we received a handout welcoming us to our “two-year crisis” in the Kyrgyz Republic. It charted the roller coaster of emotions, thoughts and physical manifestations that Peace Corps volunteers usually experience over the course of service in the remote, mountainous former Soviet republic. We laughed at it, and then dutifully posted it on our bedroom walls (or, for those of us lucky enough to have them, refrigerators) and now and then referred to it to make sure that our present flavor of anxiety / boredom / frustration / madness met standards of normalcy. Now I wish I had kept a copy of the handout, so I can track my journey through the stages. I like having corroborated evidence that being overwhelmed by the yogurt aisle is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.

Recently the latest stage. When I got the call, that the house was on fire, I didn’t panic. I was on a train in a tunnel under the San Francisco Bay. There was no point in speculating, in conjuring up worst-case scenarios of charred ground and burnt bodies, when I had no real information. I started making a mental list of who to call, what to do, and where to go once I got off the train. The second call informed me that my partner was in the hospital. I remember taking the news with a sort of third-person detachment. There was nothing I could do for him. I started making phone calls.

The next 24 hours was a blur of headlights on roadways, hospital hallways, Red Cross volunteers, fire investigators, property managers, insurance agencies, utility companies, long-distance calls to family, and the open arms, beds, and advice of friends… That first 24 hours was like the start of training. There was no going home. Everything was open.

But the excitement of training wears off, and becomes the restlessness of waiting for site placement, to get on with it, to earn some responsibility and some permanence in having one site and a mission to fulfill. We wonder: where will we live? Who will we work with?

In the days after the fire, my partner and I salvaged our belongings, and our lives became logistics. Every day: where will we sleep? How much can I carry?

I’m viewing it as a new opportunity.

In the Peace Corps, everything is new. We can reinvent ourselves, or revert to our base instincts. Some volunteers drink. Others cope with serial re-runs and internet memes. Most, I think, reach out and forge relationships that make us stronger.

I faced an additional worry as a volunteer that my being transgender would affect my safety and hurt my relationships with other volunteers, staff and host country nationals. I felt like I had a secret to keep. Instead, my gender identity turned out to be an asset. I related to local LGBTQ folk because, in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, we shared the understanding of what it means to be born in a body that doesn’t fit and a culture that doesn’t approve. I was able to offer my ideas, skills and experience with gender towards training, resources and events. Serving in the Peace Corps brought out the best in me, and I saw the kind of person I could be.

Looking back, I would have appreciated more guidance from Peace Corps trainers. My group had no Safe Zone Training, and when I conducted it myself, I hadn’t yet made connections with the LGBTQ community to invite them, who could have given their perspective, and insight, and offered opportunities to work together. Instead, my introduction into the LGBTQ community was informal and sort of hush-hush. There was no continuity but a word-of-mouth history of so-and-so who dated so-and-so who’s this activist trans guy… Only once I got to know people, and got a better handle on the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, did I feel comfortable taking on projects. And I do think it’s absolutely vital to have community involvement.

Silence is shaming. LGBTQ rights are human rights, and volunteers can benefit from having information about the rights, efforts, and issues facing LGBTQ groups in their country of service, whether those volunteers work directly with LGBTQ groups or not. I would encourage more outreach to non-LGBTQ volunteers. In my group, it was the straight volunteers – or at least those who appeared the most “normative” – who seemed to have the most success in opening a dialogue by acknowledging and supporting LGBTQ rights, and ultimately reducing stigma.

I understand silence. It’s easier than answering all the questions. It’s easier to let someone else do it.

I want transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people to know that it is possible to travel, live and serve abroad – successfully, and vocally – and that we should as we are.

It’s a process.

According to that chart of the two-year crisis, when the excitement grinds down, you’re left with the uncertainty, boredom and depression of the long haul. You ask yourself: Can I really keep doing this? Am I doing anything at all? Just what am I doing here anyway? This usually comes at the 1-year mark in service. After a few weeks of moving from couch to couch, cleaning greasy and possibly asbestos-laden dust off my belongings, navigating a bureaucratic tangle of renters’ rights, housing, insurance and all, I asked those questions again. I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and close my eyes and just not open them.

You always have the option to early terminate.

Before I left America, I had decided that this was not an option for me.

It still isn’t.

I can handle marshrutkas (minibuses) and parasites and impromptu tea breaks in the middle of class, airport chaos, muggers, icy turnpikes with no guardrails, cartfuls of dead puppies, eyeball toasts and long hours scrubbing laundry with my knuckles and a bar of soap, government paperwork and vast amounts of VAST budgets, with humor and diplomacy. If nothing else, the Peace Corps prepared me to thrive in situations where I have no control. That, and dance. I’m grateful for that.

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

Serving in Moldova, a Mixed Blessing

– A Current PCV

Moldova FlagSunday, May 19th, Moldova had a gay pride parade. While it only lasted half a block it was still deemed a success and many international organizations helped support the local LGBT crowd. I joined our ambassador and country director for the event, feeling safer knowing that they were there, but my biggest worry was ‘what would happen at site?’ Well now that it’s the next day and I’m in my village I still am concerned. How many people saw the news? How many will confront me? Will I be able to stay here for my second year or will I have to move?

Being an LGBT volunteer in Moldova is what I imagine being an LGBT person in the 60s. Believe it or not there is a gay scene in Moldova but it is very underground. You have to know the right people to ‘gain entrance.’ We do have one club that is very LGBT friendly – they even have a rainbow painted around their doorway to let others know and within are various stickers protesting homophobia. Other than that many of the LGBT people tend to hang out with various EVS (European Volunteer Service) people and PCVs, since they know that we are LGBT friendly.

I’m very lucky that I have a great support network within the PC world and staff (HCNs – host country nationals and U.S.) who are open and supportive of me and my unique service. But when I come back to site I am a completely different person. Not only am I lying about who I am attracted to but also who I am at my very core. My village has accepted me for the most part – my coworkers at school come to me and seem genuinely seem interested in talking to me – but how can I develop a relationship with someone if they don’t even know who I am? Knowing that if they knew the truth, they would shun me or take me to the priest to be ‘healed.’ Knowing that when I return to the states to begin my gender transition, I will never be able to keep in contact with them, except by email, for once I start hormones my voice will change.

I live with a grandmother who happens to be very open. We enjoy each others company and we’ve had some great times. Once, over a few shots of home-made rakiu, I even changed her mind on gay-marriage by telling her that love is love and this world is hard enough alone. If you can find someone to share your struggles, and victories, with then you should be allowed to marry them. You see even during pre-service training I was somehow ‘popular’ with many of the HCNs even though I dressed oddly. I guess the one good thing about being a stranger in strange lands is that you are a stranger. How do they know that what you are doing is odd, different, or strange?

It’s a mix of a blessing being in a country full of such ignorance but also a curse. People tend to see what they want to see, you could walk around with a LGBT flag and they would comment about how pretty the colors are, but once the words LGBT are involved then it’s a completely different story.

You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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