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.”

dance-class

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.

 

Coming Out in Paraguay: the Post-Peace Corps Experience

By: Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill

The last day in my Paraguayan community was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had. I had been going around the last month to say goodbye to different families and community members, but the last day was the hardest because I had to officially say goodbye to my host family. I lived with them for the whole two years of my service, which is unusual for a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay. Over those two years, I was closer to them than even my own family at times because they experienced the inevitable highs and lows with me during my service.

My host mother and I, my last day in site.

My host mother and I, my last day in site.

The person I grew the closest to during my service was my host sister. She was only three years older than me and we lived together in the same house. She is incredibly smart, independent, and ambitious, which is an unusual combination for many women in my community. We both felt like we didn’t exactly fit in due to the strict gender and cultural norms in Paraguay. We would talk about things, such as our hopes for the future and life goals, that we felt that we couldn’t really share with other people and have them understand. However, the hardest part was when we would talk about dating or sex. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my sexual identity because I was unsure of her response and I didn’t want to lose her as a friend or a sister, so I usually just changed the subject when she would ask me about my romantic life or why I didn’t want a boyfriend.

 

Being closeted became harder when I started dating my girlfriend my last year of service. My host family would joke that I must have a secret boyfriend because I was more bubbly and I spent hours texting and talking on the phone each day. When my girlfriend came to visit me in my site, I introduced her to my family as “my best friend” and she would occasionally come to stay with me a couple days in my host family’s house. My family never really said anything to me about my relationship with my “friend” and life went on as usual. However, it pained me that I had to keep my relationship a secret from people I considered a part of my family, particularly my host sister.

 

As much I disliked being closeted for two years of my life, it was surprisingly easy as a woman in rural Paraguay. There were very few moments I felt worried about people finding out because many Paraguayans in my community didn’t have a very robust understanding of female sexuality and the idea of a romantic relationship without a man probably seemed impossible to them. My community would gossip about men they suspected to be gay, but never once did they gossip about women in this regard. Thus, while there was always a little fear in the back of my mind, I felt somewhat comfortable having my girlfriend around my host family and other community members.

My host sisters and I celebrating my 23rd birthday.

My host sisters and I celebrating my 23rd birthday.

My last day in site, my host sister drove me to the bus terminal in the nearest city about an hour away. During that hour-long ride, we reminisced and talked about how much we would miss each other and keep in contact through texting and photos on WhatsApp and Facebook. Then there was a moment of silence as we approached the city, my sister finally said “you know, you can tell me anything about your life. I won’t care because you’re my sister and that won’t change. We will always be your family.” So I finally confessed that I was gay and the “best friend” that would come to visit me was really my girlfriend.

 

She burst into laughter and told me everybody in our family already knew and how they loved me anyways. She said how our mom knew, but she kept denying it when the rest of the family would bring it up. She compared it to how our mom knew she wasn’t a virgin but wouldn’t ever say it out loud. I was shocked. While I suspected my host sister might figure out I was gay, I never suspected that the rest of my host family would figure it out too, especially my host mother.

 

My host sister and I talked the rest of the drive about my girlfriend and what I thought would happen when I got back to the States. Then she proceeded to ask me several questions, including how long I knew I was gay, if I was certain I was not attracted to men, if I had ever tried to be with a man to make sure, and then, my favorite, how specifically did women have sex without a man. When she dropped me off at the bus terminal, she gave me a big hug and told me she loved me and how she would miss her sister. It was emotional and I felt this huge weight lifted off my shoulders by coming out to her.

 

Shortly after arriving in the States, my girlfriend and I did break up. Even though I knew it was probably for the best, I was a mess. There’s such an extreme bond you form with your romantic partner in Peace Corps because they understand so intimately a part of your life that nobody else can truly understand, even your closest friends in Peace Corps, and to lose that person is painful. I didn’t very feel comfortable talking very much about my breakup to my friends in Peace Corps because my girlfriend had several months of her service left and I didn’t want it to be a topic of gossip in the volunteer community. I also didn’t really know how to explain how intense the breakup felt to my friends in the States.

 

However, the person I felt most comfortable talking and opening up to was my host sister. We would text back and forth about my breakup and she would comfort me. She was also the one who supported me when I started dating again. Then she continued to be there for me when I went through another breakup. Even when I came out to my host sister my last day in site, I never imagine us having this close of a bond and the freedom to talk about my relationships. It even has gotten to the point that when I get on Tinder, I send her screenshots of profiles and she gives me her opinion to swipe left or right (even though we rarely agree). Definitely not what I thought my RPCV life would look like.

Representing Peace Corps at Pride in Kentucky

Representing Peace Corps at Pride in Kentucky

It’s amazing how my host sister continues to feel like my family. She still drives me crazy. She is still the one I can talk to about things I feel I can’t share with anyone else. I feel so grateful that I was able to share a part of my life I never thought I would be able to share with any Paraguayans from my community and have such a positive response. It has made my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and my experience in Paraguay all the more special and invaluable to me. I went to another hemisphere preparing to give up the openness I felt about my sexual identity in the States, but I came back from the experience with so much more confidence and acceptance of myself, including my sexuality, than I knew was possible.

Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill currently coordinates educational programs and other social services for the children of migrant farm workers in Kentucky. She served as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Paraguay from 2013–2015. She can be contacted at jmohlkehill@gmail.com

How to Find Your Voice and Your Other Half in Two Years

Republished with permission from Peace Corps Northeast
By: Fiona Martin and Marisa Vargo

Fiona

Fiona Martin, right, and Marisa Vargo, left, will be married in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in July.

In honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, Peace Corps East commends those who defy limitations and create a path for progress overseas. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Fiona Martin discusses how living and working with her partner Marisa Vargo in Paraguay helped to fortify her sexual identity. Fiona and Marisa will be married later this summer. 

While serving in countries across the globe, it’s typical for Peace Corps Volunteers to ‘find themselves’ overseas. However, their service can become even more special when they find their other half on the other side of the world. You can just ask Fiona Martin and Marisa Vargo, who met during their Peace Corps service in Paraguay from 2010 to 2012.

It all started when Fiona chose to volunteer her time with a Peace Corps Peer Support Network in Paraguay – an effort that offered counseling from and for Peace Corps Volunteers – at which point Marisa sought out Fiona’s help in settling some personal struggles during her service.

“Marisa was going through more than the usual transition obstacles any Volunteer faces,” Fiona said. “She was coming out to herself, friends and family and she sought me out for advice and support.

“Following our discussion, I reached out a few times to check in, but she felt embarrassed for being so vulnerable, and steadfastly ignored my texts,” she added.

Months later, Fiona and Marisa reconnected during an LGBTQ and Allies training event in Paraguay and began to spend more time together.

While their bond strengthened in service, so did their impact overseas. As an Agriculture Volunteer, Fiona mostly collaborated with farming families, a women’s committee, and elementary schools to advise on composting and crop diversification. Meanwhile, Marisa served as an Education Volunteer to instruct local schools on how to develop an online presence and build community outreach with the help of One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organization that provides low-cost laptops and software for children around the world.

During this time, in light of Paraguayan cultural norms, Fiona and Marisa had to stay “closeted,” or refrain from demonstrating their sexual identities, among most of their neighbors and colleagues for the sake of ensuring their own safety. However, the couple soon began to realize their place in the LGBTQ community and strove to introduce that same sense of pride to very small groups of LGBTQ Paraguayans.

“There is something about being culturally isolated in a country, which creates the space for introspection,” Fiona said. “It created enough space for Marisa to understand her sexual orientation and to come out. Although coming out was, by necessity, limited to other Peace Corps Volunteers and her friends and family at home.”

Though their paths crossed at an inopportune time – Fiona completed her service several months earlier than Marisa – both believe that their mutual experience in the Peace Corps has helped their relationship grow on a much deeper level.

“We had not only the shared experience of being Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, but we had the shared experience of the beautiful contradictions and complexities of Paraguay,” Fiona noted. “We’ve unintentionally brought back both customs of Paraguay and customs unique to Peace Corps Volunteers – from the way we share drinks to the words used to express surprise.”

As they both look towards a bright future together – the couple are set to be married in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in July – Fiona and Marisa reflected on how their Peace Corps service truly proved to be a life-defining opportunity and offered some advice for other LGBTQ people and same sex couples looking to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers.

“Find the other LGBTQ Volunteers and create a space for each other,” Fiona said. “When you do find LGBTQ people in your community, be a living example of a healthy, happy, supported and loved gay person. Simply being an example of self-acceptance is powerful.”

To learn about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer or as part of a same-sex couple, visit our website at www.peacecorps.gov.

The Meaning of a Picnic

By: Hale Sargent

San Francisco area RPCVs and Peace Corps staff gather in Dolores park for a Pride Month picnic on Sunday, June 12, 2016.

San Francisco area RPCVs and Peace Corps staff gather in Dolores park for a Pride Month picnic on Sunday, June 12, 2016.

When Peace Corps proposed a little Pride picnic in San Francisco it seemed like a casual thing. We’d gather in a park, share some stories, and go on with our lives.

But when the day came the meaning changed. It was the morning after the Orlando shooting, and as we scrolled through the terrifying news, there we were. Gathered in a park. Sharing stories. Going on with our lives.

The freedom to gather as LGBTQ+ and allies was the product of generations of work. It’s a freedom denied in so many places, including many of the countries where we serve. And it’s a freedom I’d forgotten to appreciate.

There are no life lessons to be found in the slaughter of young people. People of Color did not die so that a group of mostly White RPCVs could appreciate Dolores Park.

But I did find hope in the people I was surrounded with at our silly little picnic. I do think our community — at the intersection of LGBTQ+ and Peace Corps Volunteers — is on the leading edge of what our world will become. And that gives me hope.

I see Peace Corps — a government agency! — hosting webinars for trans* volunteers. I see the agency director at the front of the Peace Corps contingent in DC Pride(picture below) – even sending a message to the global staff regarding Orlando. I even see the staff’s email footers where they indicate which gendered pronouns they prefer.

I also see a community that is treating its lack of ethnic diversity as a crisis, and going all-hands-on-deck for cultural change. As a gay RPCV I feel like I’m a part of what a progressive, inclusive, loving community can look like.

So let’s appreciate our gatherings — every little one of them. Be bold and courageous — be yourselves. Keep up your good work around the world, and let’s please all stay connected!

CarrieDC

Sarah Blazucki (left), President of Spectrum (Peace Corps’ LGBTQ employee resource group),  and Carrie Hessler-Redelet, Director of Peace Corps, lead the Peace Corps delegation in Washington, DC’s Pride parade on June 11, 2016. Full album here: http://1.usa.gov/1S5hIcD

 

Hale Sargent served in Armenia from 1998 – 2000. He currently serves on the Steering Committee for the LGBT RPCV Association and can be reached at n8nhale@gmail.com. 

 

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.

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