Peace East: Outcry

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

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

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

“Well… I’m gay?”

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

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

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

“Are there other options?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NPCA’s Wedding Wednesdays

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

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

Below are few that we’d like to highlight:

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Freedom To Marry Movie

Click image to find a screening near you

The Freedom To Marry is the behind-the-scenes story of the architects of this historic civil rights movement and the brilliant, nerve-wracking campaign to win same sex marriage throughout the United States. The nail-biting, untold story of how same-sex marriage became law of the land. The Freedom To Marry  follows RPCV Evan Wolfson (Togo 1978-1980), the architect of the movement, civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto and their key colleagues on this decades long battle, culminating in a dramatic fight at the United States Supreme Court. More than the saga of one movement’s history, this is an inspiring tale of how regular people can change the world.

CLICK HERE to find a screening near you.

Evan Wolfson biography:
Wolfson is known as the national architect of the same-sex marriage movement. Having written his third year thesis paper at Harvard Law in 1983 on the subject, Wolfson began advocating for the freedom to marry when almost every gay rights leader was adverse. People thought he was ‘crazy’, and that he was seriously overreaching. After AIDS ravaged the LGBT community, and the need for legal protections became clear, Wolfson (as an attorney at Lambda Legal Aid) renewed his push for marriage. He claimed not only that same sex marriage could only become a legal reality, but that by working towards that goal, LGBT Americans could improve their status on a huge host of other fronts.

National Coordinator, Manuel Colón, and Evan Wolfson at a screening of The Freedom to Marry in Santa Monica, CA

In the early 1990s, Wolfson helped fight the first successful legal marriage court battle, in Hawaii. As the movement began to gain traction, he founded, Freedom to Marry, a not-for-profit which spearheaded the strategy and the national campaign. His genius came from an acute understanding of history, and other civil rights campaigns. His catch-phrases like, “wins trump losses”, and “there is no marriage without engagement” underpinned what soon become a national and international movement.

Evan was first to understand that, while marriage battles could be won in court, it would require changing the ideology of the nation – helping non-gay people understand that gays and lesbians were ‘people too’ – to make ‘wins’ happen, and to make them stick.

As he predicted, his early efforts were met with intense opposition from the masses, the Church and even the White House. Unperturbed, Wolfson helped devise and implement a cohesive strategy that included public education, grassroots mobilization, PR, polling, messaging, fundraising, social media campaigns and carefully orchestrated legal efforts. Evan, himself, spent decades criss-crossing America, speaking at every event, large and small, guiding and leading the campaign to win hearts, minds and victories. These efforts led to his eventual moniker, Mr. Marriage.

Wolfson began working on the marriage movement, there was not a single town in America where gay people had even a shred of legal protection. As of this writing, gay marriage is now legal not only throughout America, but in 22 other countries on five continents.

Ironically, having fought the government for decades and won, ironically, Wolfson eventually put himself out of business. Having achieved his organization’s stated mission, he happily closed Freedom to Marry in December, 2015. His staff (with this remarkable victory on their resume) has gone on to key positions at other LBGT and civil rights organizations throughout the United States.

After a short vacation, Evan returned to New York, where he resides with his husband, Cheng He. He has become extremely active in a variety of other campaigns for social justice (including LGBT anti-discrimination) not only in this country, but around the world. Interestingly, much of his current work is now currently sponsored by the US State Department, which has requested Evan to provide his expertise to other nations currently embarking on same sex marriage battles.

A Rainbow Week at Peace Corps Connect

In conjunction with the National Peace Corps Association(NPCA)’s annual gathering, Peace Corps Connect, LGBT RPCV participated in a variety of different social and educational events. Below is a brief summary of each of the events.

Rainbow Happy Hour
THURSDAY – With collaboration from Spectrum, Peace Corps’ ERG, LGBT RPCV hosted a happy hour for our collective membership and guests at Nelly’s Sports Bar to begin the weekend of Peace Corps filled activities. We had over four dozen guests join us; from RPCVs that served in the first decade of Peace Corps inception to invitees leaving for serve in a few days. The event provided a casual evening of fellowship and networking for DC-area locals as well as a warm reception for guests out of town. We always enjoy being able to provide the space for our community to come together in-person and create strong connections. If you’re interested in hosting something similar in your area, CONTACT US, and let us know!

Rainbow History of Peace Corps
FRIDAY – As part of the NPCA’s conference theme of “Peace Corps Beyond”, LGBT RPCV was proud to host a session on the rich history the Peace Corps has in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity(SOGI) diversity. Panelists included James “Jim” Kelly, whose 1992 master’s thesis titled “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps” provided much of the foundation for early conversations with Peace Corps on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity; Ralph Cherry an “unlimited” employee at Peace Corps headquarters, where he played various roles in the volunteer delivery system, from recruiting to placement to staging. He completed his 28-year career as a Country Desk Officer in the Africa Region and as Acting Deputy Chief of Operations. In all these capacities, he was witness to, and a direct facilitator of, the evolution of policies affecting LGBT volunteers and staff and; Daniel Hinkle, the current same-sex couples initiative coordinator with Peace Corps’ Office of Overseas Programming and Training, who discussed his role with Peace Corps and his thoughts on the future of where SOGI will continue to shape and influence Peace Corps’ operations.

In the spirit of historical celebration, this session engaged participants to collectively reflect just how far the Peace Corps,as an agency, has come in dealing with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it provided a space for allies among the RPCV community to become better educated about the current same-sex, transgender, and other LGBT-related initiatives Peace Corps is currently engaged in.


Honoring of LGBTQ Peace Corps Pioneers

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(L-R) Ralph Cherry, Jim Kelly, Manuel Colón,and Daniel Hinkle

FRIDAY – As a token of appreciation, Spectrum hosted both Jim and Ralph to an afternoon reception at Peace Corps headquarters to thank them not only for their participation on the day’s panel and their involvement with this week, but their decades of experience and work that has contributed to the positive progression of inclusion for LGBTQ+ individuals in the Peace Corps Corps community. The reception was attended by members of Spectrum, LGBT RPCV,and their guests. Jim and Ralph were also presented with certificates signed by the Director, Carolyn Hessler-Radelet. They read as follows:

 

 

For James Kelly:
With respect and gratitude for your invaluable contributions and exceptional dedication to the Peace Corps and its LGBT family. Throughout your over 25 years of work at Peace Corps training centers around the world, publishing and sharing your influential Master’s thesis, “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps,”with the agency, and helping to foster a more supportive and inclusive Peace Corps for LGBT people, as well as your Peace Corps service in El Salvador, you have achieved a record of dedication that reflects the highest ideals of the Peace Corps.jimkellycertificate

For Ralph Cherry:
With respect and gratitude for your invaluable contributions and exceptional dedication to the Peace Corps and its LGBT family. Throughout your over 28 years of work at Peace Corps Headquarters, your effort to influence and create inclusive policies for LGBT staff and Volunteers, being a catalyst to the foundation of the LGBT RPCV group, and helping to foster a more supportive and inclusive Peace Corps for LGBT people, as well as your Peace Corps service in Ghana, you have achieved a record of dedication that reflects the highest ideals of the Peace Corps.

The Rainbow History of Peace Corps

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LGBT RPCV is proud to once again present a session at the National Peace Corps Association’s annual gathering, Peace Corps Connect. This year, our presentation is titled “The Rainbow History of Peace Corps”. A brief description will be provided below. To learn more about registration, CLICK HERE.

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When Peace Corps was founded in 1961, all prospective volunteers were required to disclose any homosexual tendencies they had – which would bar hem from service. Today, Peace Corps actively trains host countries for intercultural and diversity competencies to host same-sex couples. How did we get there? Where did we come from?

James Kim Kelly (El Salvador 1969-1972) will discuss his 1992 master’s thesis titled “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps” which provided the foundation for early conversations with Peace Corps on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

Daniel Hinkle (El Salvador 2010-2012), the current same-sex couples initiative coordinator with Peace Corps’ Office of Overseas Programming and Training, will discuss his role with Peace Corps and his thoughts on the future of where SOGI will continue to shape and influence Peace Corps’ operations.

Ralph Cherry (Ghana 1969-1971) was fortunate enough to become an “unlimited” employee at Peace Corps headquarters, where he played various roles in the volunteer delivery system, from recruiting to placement to staging. He completed his 28-year career as a Country Desk Officer in the Africa Region and as Acting Deputy Chief of Operations. In all these capacities, he was witness to, and a direct facilitator of, the evolution of policies affecting LGBT volunteers and staff.

In the spirit of historical celebration, this session will engage participants to collectively reflect just how far the Peace Corps agency has come in dealing with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it will assist allies among the RPCV community to become better educated about the current same-sex, transgender, and other LGBT-related initiatives Peace Corps is currently engaged in.

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LGBT RPCV will also be teaming up with Spectrum, Peace Corps’ LGBTQ Employee Resource Group, to sponsor a social mixer for our members, friends, and supporters. “Rainbow Happy Hour” will be on Thursday, September 22nd at 5:30pm at Nellies’ Sports Bar, 900 U St NW Washington, DC 20001. We can’t wait to see you all there!

 

Rainbow Happy Hour