Serving as an LGBT Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia

– Krista M. Mastel, RPCV 2011-14

I thought serving as an LGBT volunteer in Mongolia would be difficult. Sure there were challenges, but it turns out serving in Mongolia was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Photo by Emilia Tjernström (Flickr)

Already at staging and on the flight over I connected with four other LGBT trainees. We were nervous of course, but glad to have found each other. We weren’t sure what arrival in country would bring, but we were excited.

Training was intense. All the usual pressures and challenges and frustrations were slamming us. But we also felt overlooked. Sessions on health, safety and relationships focused on heterosexual relationships. Could we ask about LGBT circumstances? And to whom could we ask? We knew hardly a thing about Mongolian culture, much less about the status of LGBT people in country and how our staff would react. Then an ally piped up, asking what we weren’t sure we could. The floodgates opened.  Others chimed in.  Mongolian staff urged caution and tactfulness. American staff self-identified as allies and provided safe zones. We were thrilled. And in that moment, an idea was born.

Together with two other LGBT volunteers, we founded the Peace Corps Mongolia LGBT Task Force. Our goals were three-fold: to support fellow LGBT and ally volunteers, to conduct staff trainings so they are better prepared to support LGBT trainees and volunteers, and to raise awareness about LGBT issues in our communities.

Our first goal was born out of our feelings of isolation and confusion during training.  We knew we didn’t want any incoming trainees to feel as we had.  Instead, we wanted a welcoming, visible group to let future generations of volunteers know that no matter where they were in their process, they had support and resources around them. Part of trainees’ arrival schedule now includes a dinner for LGBT and ally trainees to interact with currently serving LGBT and ally volunteers and learn about life as an LGBT volunteer in Mongolia.

The second goal also came from those feelings during training. Because we weren’t sure who we could turn to on staff, we also weren’t sure how we’d be supported during service. We didn’t know how much our staff knew about LGBT issues or how they felt about it. With the support of our Director of Programming and Training, we facilitated the first-ever Safe Zone training for staff. Staff welcomed the training just as much as we welcomed their participation. They were hungry for information about the LGBT experience and how to best support volunteers. The training has been facilitated thrice more at the time of writing this article, as staff has changed or upon staff request for more information.

Lastly, the third goal came from discussions of Peace Corps’ Second Goal and how to best represent the diversity of America. We developed contextual, respectful and collaborative (with a Mongolian LGBT NGO) materials that volunteers could use to talk about, even champion LGBT issues in their communities while remaining apolitical. We attended LGBT art exhibitions and film festivals, the first-ever Pride, and networked with international organizations like the United Nations Population Fund to develop inclusive initiatives. Turned out, the climate in Mongolia wasn’t as un-friendly as we may have thought and worried about as trainees.  With little in the way of religious objections, we soon learned that LGBT people and issues were more misunderstood or even unknown, rather than feared or hated.

But in addition to all that, it was the personal experiences I had that defined my time in Mongolia. At the gay bar in the capital I was free to be myself. I was not afraid to come out to the staff of the LGBT NGO. I developed a network of LGBT-identifying Mongolian friends. And after over a year and a half of friendship and assessing her tolerance (thanks to Adam Lambert), I came out to my best Mongolian friend in my community. We cried and hugged and she thanked me for telling her about the “real” me. It was the relief and release I needed.

Then something unexpected happened. I had extended for a third year, moved to the capital, taken on a new role within Peace Corps and was looking forward to starting work with a new agency. I wasn’t looking for it; it never even occurred to me that something like this could happen during service. Wasn’t I going to be in the closet and celibate the entire time? But there she was: a fellow volunteer. Before we knew it, we fell in love.  It’s nearly two years later and we’re happily together in the US with great jobs and acceptances into graduate school. Serving in the Peace Corps in Mongolia gave me more than I ever could have imagined. I am forever grateful for the relationships I built and the experiences I had. Are you ready for the experience of a lifetime in Peace Corps?

The writer can be contacted at krista.mastel@gmail.com.