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

Nine Years Later: A Love Letter to Ghana, Continued

– Joel Parthemore, RPVC

Author’s Note: All names have been changed: both those who would not wish to be named and those who wouldn’t care.

The last time I came to Ghana, I was still employed with Peace Corps Washington. I used the excuse of a few days’ work in the Lome and Accra offices to travel on my official passport, which saved me the headache of getting a visa.  I don’t remember who, precisely, met me at the airport any more, but I can think of who was probably there: my brother Josh, now completing a master’s degree in Trondheim, Norway; my friend Tony, one of the first people I met when I took up my station at Gbledi Gbogame in the Volta Region; and Kwesi, my friend and more than a friend: still the only man I’ve ever proposed to.

I had not heard from Kwesi for several weeks before traveling, so I was not necessarily expecting him at the airport. I was, however, expecting Tom (American expat who’s lived in Ghana since time before when) and Tony.

In the end, there was no welcome delegation.  I went to the hotel desk and had them book me a room at the Hilltop Hotel (130 cedis, USD $65) and arrange a taxi (25 cedis).

Kwesi came by the hotel in the morning and stayed until evening. It was an oddly bittersweet reunion: his words said one thing, his body language quite another.  It was he who brought up the matter of my marriage proposal, saying that he was heterosexual, that nothing I could say would make him a homosexual, and that I had lured him into our former relationship. I said only that I did not remember things that way.  I could have added, and didn’t, that we had both been adults; that much of what happened between us was very much on his initiative (I think of the time we were traveling and, without fanfare, in not the most private of locations, he gave me a most revealing view — with only a comment that “oh, I forgot and left those at home”); the rest was at least as much on his initiative as mine; that he had once answered a woman’s question whether he was, to use the quaint Ghanaian phrase, “walking with me”, in the affirmative; that he had, indeed, taken my proposal seriously, going as far as asking his minister what he thought of same-sex marriage (to my surprise).  His minister had nothing good to say about it (no surprise).

He says he wants to “just be friends”, the way I’m friends with Josh and Tony.  I wish him the best with his marriage plans (sincerely) and tell him that I will always think of him the way we were when we more than friends, that nothing can change the past.

In the months leading up to my visit, Kwesi had assured me, repeatedly, that he would have no trouble at all getting the time off to travel with me throughout my visit. Now he said he would be able to spend Sunday/Monday with me, but that Tuesday he would need to ask again about the leave.  We arranged to meet at Tony’s place in Tema on Saturday night.

In the end, he did not make it to Tema, nor did I see him Sunday or Monday.  He called on Monday to say I should precede him to Anamabo (where I wished to greet my brother Paul, whose family hosted me in pre-service training) and that he would join me en route to Wenchi (my second Peace Corps posting).

I traveled on my own to Wenchi and saw the computer lab I had helped set up, still running though facing some very critical issues. I was happy, at least, to see it finally on broadband, after the dialup connection I had established ended pretty much with my departure in 2001.  I strolled the campus taking photos with which to update the school website, and met one of the campiest students I have ever met, trying to be quite macho about disciplining one of his juniors and somehow failing miserably.  I greeted Kwesi’s father, a lonely old man on retirement, spending his days at home while his wife is away at work. By this point, the plan was for Kwesi to join me for my final excursion, to Gbledi. But on my way back through Accra, we met up for dinner; he introduced me to his latest fiancé, and now the plan was to join me in Hohoe and travel together back to Accra via Tema. Of course, that did not happen, either.

Now it is the next to final night, and I sit in a hotel room in Hohoe, looking back on the past two weeks.  More than my previous visits, this time I have felt out of place, awkward, unsure where I fit in. Where before I traveled with more companions than I knew what to do with, this time I have done all my traveling on my own – except that Tony will likely join me from Kpeve (where he is running a computer lab of his own now) to Tema.

I have taken fufu and banku with both palm nut and ground nut (peanut butter) soup, eating them with my hand (right, of course; no spoon) in the proper local way. I have had jolloff rice and fried yam with hot pepper and “meat pies” with not a trace of meat to be found in them, and beans and gari (with fried plantain where available) nearly every morning.  I have listened to “Touched by an Angel” more times than I care to count.  I have spoken by phone with my former headmaster (who went on to be the director general of Ghana Education Service for a while) and talked over beer with my former paramount chief.  I have promised to do what I can for Chris, my former student, for many years now helping oversee the computer lab, to help him further his education. I have re-established dormant contacts and, perhaps, made a few new ones.  I have met some incredibly beautiful men; but then, I seem to manage that wherever I travel in the world.

Still, I am left with the question that, I suppose, we all must face sometime before we die: what difference have I made; what have I left – what do I leave – behind here:  surely something, yes, but what?   …Hopefully more than a computer lab always on the brink of falling down; hopefully more than a mural I and the students painted on the wall outside the lab years ago, part of it since re-painted, the rest peeling away badly. (The world map we also did has long since been painted over.)

That Kwesi should consider my former proposal and his entertainment of it as a youthful whimsy is no surprise; his feelings on the matter have, over the intervening years and emails and phone calls, ranged all over the map.  He is, as Josh says, a conflicted individual; and I should well know, from my mother’s experience with my father, the impossibility of changing someone you love. His fiancé may strike me as an improbable match, but she is intelligent and educated and, as the saying goes, has her heart in the right place, if our dinner conversation is anything to go by.

Ah, Ghana:  you stole my heart, years ago, and yet I ran away, back to America.  I suppose I cannot complain at your present seeming ambivalence.

The author can be contacted at joel@parthemores.com

Finding Acceptance in Ghana

-Anthony Cotton, RPCV

I am sobbing in the Banana Lady’s arms. It is July 2008 – almost two years since I last found myself here in the rural village in central Ghana where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2004 to 2006 – and I am mourning the loss of my dreams.

Me and Maame

When I first arrived in the village I was lost. I couldn’t speak very much Twi, didn’t know anyone, and wasn’t sure how to start my projects. None of that mattered to the Banana Lady. She invited me to her house for meals, checked on me when I was sick, insisted on giving me free bananas everyday, and sat patiently as I tried to communicate in her language. Once my Twi skills improved, we spent many nights talking, playing with her grandchildren, and enjoying each other’s company. Even though I was always an outsider in the village, I was at home with the Banana Lady. After a few months, I began to call her Maame (Mom). It just felt right.

No matter how tight our bond grew, I never shared one of my personal struggles with Maame. I joined the Peace Corps suspecting that I was gay, and with every intention of using my time in Ghana to come to terms with and accept my sexuality. After a year I came out to my fellow PCVs, who were supportive, and the Peace Corps Medical Officer, who advised me not to come out to any Ghanaians. She informed me that several LGBT PCVs who chose to come out to Ghanaians in the past had been molested or abused. That was enough to convince me to come out only to Americans.

I spent the remainder of my service living the typical LGBT PCV double life, being open with Americans and closeted with Ghanaians. As time went on, I started having conversations with Ghanaians about LGBT rights, painted murals throughout the village featuring pink triangles and the Human Rights Campaign logo, and even flirted with a Ghanaian man who I thought, under a different set of cultural norms, might be openly gay. Even though I never came out to any Ghanaians in my village, I was pushing the envelope and life was good.

Thwart Reality

When I completed my service I was sad but ready to move on. I said goodbye to the village and to Maame, but promised that I would return after completing graduate school in New York City. By that point, I had determined my long-term goals included living in West Africa and working for an NGO with an economic development mission. In my vision of my future, I would be back in Ghana frequently, perhaps permanently.

Living and studying in New York City was everything I had hoped for. I fed my professional aspirations by diving head first into my studies of economic development, sustainable agriculture, and humanitarian interventions in West Africa. Meanwhile, I became the poster-boy for LGBT equality on campus; I led large-scale efforts to increase the university’s support of LGBT students and became involved in local and national advocacy campaigns. I loved being out, and displayed the rainbow flags and pins to prove it.

When my graduate program offered me the chance to return to work and study in West Africa during the summer of 2008, I jumped at the opportunity. After two months in Burkina Faso, I traveled to Ghana to visit my Peace Corps village, where a large homecoming awaited me. Memories flooded back as villagers lined up to say hello, exchange hugs, and give me presents. Maame treated me like royalty, of course. At first, it felt like nothing had changed. Over the next week, though, the euphoria began to subside, and reality began to sink in. I had grown accustomed to living openly and honestly in New York City, and was now extremely uncomfortable being even the slightest bit closeted.

Things that didn’t bother me during my Peace Corps service now hit me hard. Every time someone asked me, “Why don’t you have a wife?” I shuttered as I offered an incomplete and insincere response. I felt like I betrayed my dignity each time I wanted to mention my boyfriend, but didn’t. Suddenly, the idea of leading a double life again seemed completely impossible. My dream of living and working in West Africa was in conflict with my need to live a fully open life, and there was no chance to reconcile them.

The night before I left the village for the second time, Maame and I shared one last conversation. Every part of me wanted to come out to her, but for my safety and for her peace of mind, I did not. Instead we talked about our dreams. She told me she dreams of setting up a fruit stand in the center of the village, and making enough money to send all of her grandchildren to high school. Then she asked me if I still had the same dream – to come back to live in West Africa and help create opportunities for people like her. I looked at her, and then at the Human Rights Campaign mural I had painted on her wall, and I broke down.

I cried for everything I wanted to tell her but couldn’t. I cried for knowing, at that very moment, that I would never be happy living in West Africa. I cried because I thought there was no way she could understand what I was going through, and that there was no way I could explain it. She wrapped her arms around me and squeezed tightly. I struggled through my tears to tell her that something had changed in my life – something I couldn’t tell her about – and that I didn’t think I would be able to be happy living in West Africa again. I started to apologize, but she stopped me.

“Tony, it’s OK. You are my son. All a mother needs from her son is for him to be happy. If you promise me you’ll do what you need to do to be happy, then I can take great joy in that. I will be proud of you no matter what decision you make.”

I looked up and smiled a little, knowing that she had just released me from my struggle.

The writer can be contacted at anthony.cotton@gmail.com

From Ghana to Afghanistan: Tevas to Combat Boots

– Jess Reath, RPCV

On September 11, 2001, I was in Ghana. I remember sitting down to a dinner of yam and stew and turning on Volta Star Radio (the Star of Volta!). I had arrived at school that morning to find out that the government had declared the day a holiday and, therefore, there were no classes. I was told that if I listened to local radio (broadcast in English at 6am and 6pm), I would hear announcements like that.

I had arrived in Ghana three months earlier; on the 40th anniversary of the first Peace Corps volunteers’ arrival. Peace Corps had enjoyed 40 uninterrupted years of service and I was there to serve as a secondary education math teacher. I completed my training and officially swore-in as a PCV on August 25 so I had only been at my site for about 2 weeks. My two years of Tevas™, long skirts, head scarves, and some notion of trying to make a difference had just begun.

So I sat down with my yam and stew and turned on Volta Star. I don’t remember how long it took me to realize what was happening.

Fast-forward 7 years to September 11, 2008. Again, I was in a far off land with some notion of trying to make a difference. Only this time, I was in the middle of a war zone, a war zone that was created as a result of the events of September 11, 2001. The Tevas™and long skirts had been replaced by desert-tan combat boots and an Advanced Combat Uniform.

When I volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps I expected less-than-optimum living conditions, hard work and a lot of satisfaction. When I volunteered to work in Afghanistan I pretty much expected the same thing.

I am a civil engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE); the agency heading the U.S. contingent of the coalition-led rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan. I’m a civilian so Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell does not apply to me (it was something I looked into before accepting a job with the Department of Defense (DoD) and it took me four hilarious phone calls to get an answer. And since I’m a civilian, I can not be deployed involuntarily. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan require large numbers of military personnel so the DoD has asked civilians to volunteer for assignments in these areas. Assignments typically last six or twelve months and our jobs at home are held for us while we’re away.

I knew that I’d be stationed on a military base and that I would not be working directly with the locals as I had in the Peace Corps. But I assumed that I’d find a way to get out into the community and do some “extra-curricular” projects. I could not have been more wrong. There is no going out into the community. There’s no going out at all. If I leave the base I’m wearing body armor, a Kevlar helmet and I’m riding in an armored vehicle with a shooter. The only interaction I have with Afghans is the guys who clean our compound and the construction contractors who build our projects. I have yet to meet an Afghan woman or child.

The projects I’m working on are border police stations, roads and a national police medical facility; all along the border with Pakistan. Not exactly what I imagined myself doing. I had visions of schools, community water wells, women’s health clinics…”Peace Corps” type things.

The border of Pakistan is not the friendliest of places. Consequently, we almost never get to go there to see the construction. We have local nationals who take pictures and the contractors send us pictures and, somehow, we get the job done.

The work I do here might not bear resemblance to the work I did in the Peace Corps but there are several things about being here that are similar. First, work here can be very frustrating. It’s not easy trying to teach algebra to students who barely know how to do long division and it’s not easy trying to manage a construction project you’ve never seen. Due to security issues, communications issues, etc., things don’t always happen on our time-line. Sound familiar?

Second, there’s the ever-constant question of sustainability. Will the school maintain this library I just built? Will the Afghan National Army maintain this medical facility? Or will they both fall into states of disrepair? Only now we’re not dealing with projects that cost a few hundred or thousand dollars; we’re talking millions. The world is watching and people want fast results. It’s easy to show a nice, shiny, new facility and say we’ve done something. But if they don’t have the means or the knowledge to use or maintain it, have we really accomplished our goal?

As Peace Corps Volunteers we know the value in “teaching a man to fish” as opposed to “giving a man a fish.” I think there needs to be more teaching going on here. But teaching doesn’t make good glossy photos for status reports.

But despite the frustrations, what we’re doing here is laying the ground work for stability in a country that hasn’t seen peace or stability for a long time. Today, two men on a motorbike threw acid on six Afghan girls walking to school, hospitalizing two of the girls with serious burns and leaving them blind. The family had not received any threats not to send their girls to school, but now they are considering keeping the girls at home until security is stabilized.

We take education, and access to it, for granted. Teaching in Ghana showed me how valuable education is…especially to those who can’t afford it and are suffering because of that. In Afghanistan, girls were not allowed to go to school during Taliban rule. Now, even though the Taliban has been deposed, girls still face threats and violence for attempting to go to school.

Women’s centers and schools and community projects might seem more rewarding; but without the infrastructure needed to maintain safety and security, those projects are worthless.

In the U.S. we complain about potholes in the road. I recently returned to Ghana (on my R&R from Afghanistan…and I ate lots of yam and stew) and found little road improvement (more like a little road in between potholes). In fact, very little had changed at all, except that everyone now has a cell phone. Still no toilet though. But there the potholes aren’t caused by IEDs.

Roads in Afghanistan are few. Building roads is a major contributor to security. Hard-surfaced roads make it much more difficult to plant IEDs. Roads allow people freedom to move from one place to another, to work and school and food.

Mountains are moved one rock at a time. Several of my former students are now attending university (at my expense). Most of my former students did not progress beyond secondary school. Most probably still can’t do long division, but a few are earning post-secondary degrees in mathematics and statistics and natural resource management. To me, that’s success.

The Peace Corps was active in Afghanistan from 1962 until 1979, when the Soviets invaded. My goal is to see the Peace Corps return to Afghanistan. That can only happen when a satisfactory level of safety and security has been attained. Hopefully, I’m helping to contribute to that, one rock at a time.

[NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and, in no way, represent the views of the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the United States government.]

Jess Reath can be contacted at jdrst16@yahoo.com