Dear Friends: A Story from Ethiopia

By RPCV Ethiopia, 2012-2014

Dear Friends,

My second day in Ethiopia, our group of volunteers crammed into the basement of a hotel for what had been called a “Diversity Panel.” The doors were shut, he curtains pulled, and the session began.

I was nervous. I had done my research before stepping on the plane and knew your laws, sisters and brothers of Ethiopia. I knew about deportation and prison time—twelve to fifteen years—and, though I tried not to think of it, that there were other punishments for those unlucky enough to be caught by friends and family first. And I knew about Robel Hailu, Ethiopia’s first entry into the Mr. Gay World competition. He fled to South Africa and likely wouldn’t come back.

Two volunteers gave us background information on what “LGBTQ” means, struggles for Queer Volunteers, and ways straight Volunteers could be allies. Then the stories began; the leader of our Peer Support Network told us about an Ethiopian man whose friends took him to an alley and killed him. We learned of the Volunteer who outed another Gay Volunteer to an Ethiopian friend the next town over. Both were separated from the service and left the country. Finally, we learned that it wasn’t safe to come out to Ethiopian Peace Corps staff members; Our support could be compromised. Volunteers in other countries had put a Safe Zone training module together, but, so far, Peace Corps-Ethiopia’s staff had refused to implement it.

I looked around at my fellow group members and wondered if there was anyone like me. I began to feel very alone. But you know all about what it’s like to wake up every day in a world that isn’t yours. When the session ended, I went upstairs for our coffee break and bummed my first Nyala cigarette off of another Volunteer.

We learned to use code words for ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in public, because we never knew when someone at a cafe might be sitting at the next table over, listening to the foreigners chat to practice English for an upcoming university exam. There were others who might be listening as well; our phone conversations, emails, and blog posts weren’t private. The night of the Diversity Panel, I asked another new friend if she’d pose as my girlfriend just in case anyone asked. All we would need to do was take pictures together at conferences and trainings so I could keep up my alibi. She agreed.

Occasionally, we volunteers caught glimpses of some of you in our day-to-day interactions:

There was a woman living in another training site who dressed like a man. Neighbors simply shrugged and said, “That’s her way.”

There was another woman I saw at a hotel in my site. I’d gone there with my site mates and my neighbor, and I saw her short hair and jersey for the national football team. I asked my neighbor, “Did you see that woman in the football jersey?” She scanned the room quickly and said, “What woman?”

There was a man working at the hotel I met after attending a counseling session. He had bright white teeth and a trimmed mustache. He lightly touched my wrists from behind the hotel bar, admiring the bracelets I’d bought. And he watched my eyes, just half a moment too long, each time we ran into each other in the hallways.

I lied to Peace Corps Medical office staff and told them I was having trouble coping with this new culture. The counselor I saw was born in Ethiopia but was adopted as a child, moving to the United States. She’d come back to the capital to open a practice. I told her everything, how it felt to be queer in this country. I told her about lying to my friends, and then I described the touches. I was confused about the physical affection Ethiopian men show each other. She heard what I was describing and said, “I know Ethiopian men are more affectionate than American men, but what you’re describing isn’t… typical.”

There had been other light touches like those on my wrists in the hotel bar. A neighbor’s hands brushing against my stomach in passing, a friend’s extra long caresses on my shoulders and neck. A man spilled beer down my leg at a community celebration once and brushed it off, letting his fingers linger on my calf. And I recognized some of you the way I recognize my American brothers on the street: something loose in the gait, that half-moment pause in the eyes as if asking, “Are you one of us?”


Friends, I still think of you often. I still see you on Facebook sometimes, friends of Volunteers who still live in Ethiopia. I envy those straight friends and what they can know. Why is it that my straight friends have always been able to know my people? What must it be like not to risk that?

But, one story: My neighbor up north was about twenty-two years old. She was from the capital and spoke fluent American English with little accent. We spent many evenings with my site mates, mixing our cheap wine with Coke and Mirinda to lessen the bitterness. We were sure she knew about me; no one could watch as much American TV as she did and not know. One Sunday, she told me she’d made too much for lunch and invited me over. She handed me a plate of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. I looked at the food and asked, “How long have you known I’m gay?”

“You’re gay?” she asked, incredulous.

“Oh, honey,” I said.

“But what about your girlfriend?!”

“Oh, HONEY,” I repeated.
I came clean. I told her about the alibi girlfriend, the counseling session, the touches. Other than the counselor, this was the first time I had ever been completely honest with an Ethiopian. I was worried; I’d done what we were told never to do.

She thought for a moment and said, “You know, I’m kind of proud of myself. I always thought I’d be okay with people being gay, and now I know I am! Gay people are kind of like celebrities. You know they exist, but you never think you’ll meet one. Now, let’s go get a bottle of wine and talk all afternoon!”

Dear friends, I ache for the time we couldn’t spend together. I wanted, so much, to know you, extending our solidarity and love to each other; our world has been treacherous and dark. But there are allies. They show themselves over time. I hope it’s true what the counselor told me:

“Right now in Ethiopia, it’s like the 1960s in America. The sexual revolution in America was so violent in the 1960s, but in time it calmed down.”

Peace Corps-Ethiopia was finally required by Headquarters in Washington, DC to administer Safe Zoning training to its staff. I had already returned to the United States by that point, but a Gay Volunteer, friend of mine, who was still there said the staff wished afterward that they didn’t know there were Queer Volunteers in Ethiopia. I still struggle to help my American friends understand my Peace Corps story. It was often heartbreaking and difficult; it was not what I expected. Some in the Peace Corps family are changing minds and hearts, and others are still waiting for the calm in the storm.

With love,
A friend.

If you would like to contact the author, please email

A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday

A demera (religious bonfire) for the Meskel (Orthodox church) holiday

Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum

Wedding at the Mariam Tsiyon Church in Aksum

Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa

Lion statue outside of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa

WATCH: Peace Corps Response Volunters raise LGBT awareness in Jamaica

Reprinted with permission from Peace Corps Passport

Peace Corp Response Volunteers serve communities around the world engaging in specialty projects. Watch how these dedicated Volunteers work with Jamaicans on HIV/AIDS awareness and LGBT awareness.

“The work and the input that Peace Corps Response Volunteers has brought to Jamaica cannot be quantified realistically in dollars and cents but the impact that they’ve had on various NGOs is remarkable.” – Dane Lewis, J-FLAG (The Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays) Executive Director

The Boatman: An Indian Love Story

-John Burbidge (, author.

Although I was not a member of the Peace Corps, I have a strong affinity for it since I have lived in the US for 27 years, am married to an American, and belonged to an organization whose work paralleled the Peace Corps in many ways.

The Boatman: An Indian Love Story is a memoir of the six years I spent working as a volunteer with an international NGO in India and my coming out as a gay man in that society. It describes my roller-coaster journey of sexual adventuring while living in a tightly knit community and playing a public relations role for the organization, and the delicate balancing act this called for.

The Boatman took 13 years to write and its publication in India in February last year was most timely. Shortly before I arrived in New Delhi for its launch, the Indian Supreme Court reinstated a law criminalizing homosexuality that had been repealed by the Delhi High Court four years before. One of the main justifications for this action was that the law only affected a minuscule portion of the population. In the words of one journalist, “The Boatman provides a much-needed reality check of that view.”

A new edition of the book with an afterword that places it in the context of the current Indian political situation has recently been released. It is available from as a print and e-book.

For RPCVs in the Seattle area, I will be doing a reading at the University Bookstore in the U District on September 18th at 7:00PM. I would love to meet you there. CLICK HERE for more information.

Details of all events are on the book’s Facebook page –
More information about The Boatman is at

The Boatman

Returning to Honduras

Elizabeth Fuhrman, RPCV

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 80’s, we didn’t have a lot of tools to capture and share our experiences.  No video camera or cell phone to record and upload images to the internet for family and friends.  All I had was a 35mm camera. It would only become apparent later that this system was pretty inadequate for capturing the real-feel of the biggest adventure of my back-then young adult life.  Just imagine, as volunteers in those days, we would have to hunt for film in the capital city or wait for a care package with film. I remember sending my film off to the cheapest company in America to get processed because we didn’t trust the quality of film processing “in country”. Even still, my negatives or slides would arrive with streaks or scratches, leaving me with spotty prints and memories.

Also, the people in my village rarely got the chance to view my “take” on things even though I tried to get double copies of pictures and gift these.  

Long story-short, over the years, the images of my two year stint in Honduras as a volunteer faded and disappeared under my subsequent life journeys.  So in 2006, when handheld video cameras evolved to the size and weight of what we have today, and I no longer had to worry about loading it with big cassettes, ha-ha, I said “adios” to my spouse for a few weeks and took this journey back to my village in Honduras.  My number one goal was to resurface that rich Peace Corps experience, and record it good and proper so I could relive it and share it with loved ones. And I can say that this journey turned out just as I dreamed; this video    “Que Le Vaya Bien”   is now my proof that it was amazing.  Never will I forget my Honduran village or friends now.

I’d like to add that once I finally posted my video on Youtube and shared it via Facebook with family members of Dona Iris, they started me daily.  The girl who is twelve in the video now has a three year old child.  I count on the tone in my voice (in the video) to convey my affections for the island and its people.  Gotta love how technology helps us not only rekindle friendships with our host country friends but also spark new relationships with the next generation.  I pray that the violence and corruption preventing travel between our two countries comes to an end with Godspeed because I hope to return.

Peace Corps Northeast Celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month

Reprinted with permission from Peace Corps Northeast

In celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month, Peace Corps Northeast Recruiter Zoe Armstrong discusses how her experience living and working as an LGBTQ Volunteer in the post-Soviet Caucasus region helped to fortify her sexual identity. Zoe served as an NGO Development Specialist for a women’s advocacy center in Southern Armenia and currently recruits for the Peace Corps in Vermont. Her story – titled“International Outing: How serving in the Peace Corps led to a personal awakening”– was first featured in the October 2014 issue of Curve Magazine.     

Zoe Armstrong worked as an NGO Development Specialsist in Armenia during her Peace Corps service. She currently recruits for the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office in Vermont.

Zoe Armstrong worked as an NGO Development Specialist in Armenia during her Peace Corps service. She currently recruits for the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office in Vermont.

When I received my invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia, all I knew of the country was Armenian music from my belly dancing experience and the history of the 1915 genocide – of which the band System of a Down raised awareness through their music. I went in armed with my New England work ethic and stubbornness – and enough Equal Exchange chocolate to last two years. Little did I know the lasting impact that this tiny, post-Soviet, primarily agrarian nation would have on my life, and how it would alter my perceptions and my queer identity. Living in mid-coast Maine, I had relative political freedom as a queer person, but a level of expression of my queer identity was missing at that point in my life, and I knew going into the Peace Corps that I would need to internalize my queer identity even more. For safety and acceptance, on a case-by-case basis, I would need to make some hard choices about how honest I’d be.

For two years my post was Goris (pop. 15,000), in Syunik Marz, four hours north of Iran, in a beautiful valley in the Caucasus Mountains. I was assigned to the Goris Women’s Resource Center, initially funded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). My closest counterparts, the board of directors, consisted of nine dedicated Armenian women aged 30 to 60. I was 32.

Armenian society has strictly defined gender roles. Women who seek freedom, travel, expression, and education outside their established roles are often seen as trouble, undesirable, a threat to tradition and a destabilizing force in their families. This resource center – a space run by and in the service of women – in rural Armenia was in itself a revolutionary act. Through sheer grit, we connected women to educational and economic opportunities in Armenia and abroad, built a micro-finance artisan project, created a small research library and computer lab, held health workshops, hosted domestic violence awareness and outreach services, and participated in civic engagement initiatives, including election monitoring and anti-corruption programs.

I didn’t come out in my community, though I tried to once, to one of my closest counterparts. We were working late on a grant proposal, and I received an e-mail from an old college friend who had recently transitioned. My friend shared his new name with me and I cried a bit. I explained my tears to my colleague and how my friend had transitioned from F to M. It was a lot for her. She’d heard of it, but only as a faraway idea – not as a reality in a friend’s life. I wanted to come out to her then. We had been friends for over a year.

I felt like a fraud. I hit a heteronormative wall as I weighed the possible consequences. I had heard of a Peace Corps Volunteer in neighboring Azerbaijan who had decided to come out to her service community. I was impressed, but I had invested so much and been through so many defeats and victories, both personally and with our programming goals, that I wasn’t ready to take on an unknown wave of reactions from a very large group of women in my small town. They are modern women, and they can learn, adapt, and change like any of us. Sometimes I feel I was cowardly; other times, I feel it was a simple, logical choice in a seemingly impossible situation.

I was out to Peace Corps staff, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and the local urban queers. But in my post, Goris, I was closeted, which is often the case for Peace Corps Volunteers serving in regions where sexual and gender minorities are not supported or socially understood. On the books, homosexuality became legal in Armenia around 2007. But there were still hate crimes, including those targeting local LGBTQ citizens in the capital. In Armenia, there is a repeated soul-and flesh-bruising trajectory of progress toward equal rights for LGBTQ people; Armenians who choose this fight knowingly put themselves at great risk in a society that many say is “not ready” for them. In the face of such daunting odds, they are making progress.

In Yerevan, I was fortunate to meet a network of academics, artists, and activists connected to Women’s Resource Center Armenia. I met local LGBTQ advocates, who collaborated with me to teach tolerance initiatives at the growing Goris Women’s Resource Center. A few advocates worked for Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK), a nonprofit dedicated to equal human rights for LGBTQ citizens in Armenia and the Caucasus region (including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Russia). These advocates, and my daily Peace Corps life, opened my eyes to reality for LGBTQ Armenians.

Reflecting on their experiences led me to new caverns of thought. It twisted my own queer identity. My priorities shifted. The reality of desperation and the silencing of souls en masse shook my core. I gained a firsthand understanding that what I was seeing in Armenia is happening in so many nations: Gender outlaws, queer academics, and activist bloggers are trying to push their nations forward while the weight of tradition and social norms embedded in our globe’s elder cultures are holding firm.

Returning to my American queer “family” has not been a smooth transition. My voice in the community does not feel the same, or come through as easily. If I say I see a sense of privilege in the queer politics in the U.S., it is perceived as criticism. But what I am able to see now are the very real opportunities embedded within that privilege. If we don’t take these privileges and do all we can with them, when so many others do not have that access, then we are taking something very precious for granted.

Zoe Armstrong, far left, worked for a women's advocacy center in Southern Armenia while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Zoe Armstrong, far left, worked for a women’s advocacy center in Southern Armenia while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

How has your service as a Peace Corps Volunteer shaped your work as a Peace Corps Recruiter? After completing my service, I knew I wanted to work for Peace Corps. The two-year experience provides a rare opportunity to really know another culture. The more citizens of the United States who go through this experience, the more will know that every tiny fold of the world is precious to someone and should be respected and honored. The more Americans who come home with an ability to work cross-culturally, the stronger our nation will be. My favorite part of this job so far, looking back at my three years as a Recruiter, has been inspiring people of all ages to listen to that call inside of them and go forth into the world and bring us back great stories of our fellow humans.

As you explain in Curve, you had to stay closeted as an LGBTQ Volunteer for two years to not risk cultural resistance from your host community. How did you make that transition from being open with your sexual identity to projecting an identity that was more expected from your host community? People stared at my Merrill hiking boots, a lot. Women in Armenia wear heels, high heels. My community was very confused by my footwear. It made me think of that old Robin Williams joke, “You cannot call them lesbians anymore; It is just ‘women wearing comfortable shoes.’” I stopped wearing them, I had my mother send me some Danskos I had left from a past restaurant job. Also, I grew my hair out, which the women I worked with loved, and they would do my hair sometimes or play with it. I was a Goth back in high school, so it was not too much of a stretch for me to start wearing make-up again – although I had not for many years. (Plus, the gothic essence of my make-up skills worked well in a very Russian-fashion influenced environment.)

So with lipstick, eye-charcoal, and “girl shoes,” I fit in fine and became very close with my colleagues in Armenia. Internally at times, I felt like an actor or a clown, but as time passed, the role I was acting became normal life. Since returning to the United States, I have kept the eyeliner, but am very happy to have my comfortable shoes back!

What challenges or insights did you encounter when omitting that part of your identity from service? Now, looking back on your service, do you wish you weren’t closeted as a Volunteer? Sometimes I think about how different my service would have been if I had come out of the closet. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would have reached out to that Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan or other Volunteers who had come out while serving in the post-Soviet Union to learn about their experience and see if I could do it. There is a risk to any LGBT villagers if a Peace Corps Volunteer comes out because we can never foresee how our realities will intertwine and end up revealing a person unintentionally.

I could have come out near the end of my service, and I discussed this with my closest Peace Corps Volunteer friend in Armenia. He had decided at the end of his service to tell people – including the women at my center – that his sister is queer. I think he even showed pictures of her with her female spouse. He said it generated disappointment, confusion and curiosity equally.

I know some of them would have been supportive; some would then have dismissed me as an undesirable human, and would not have spoken with me again; others may have been confused that I had not told them. None of them would have been surprised as they all wondered why I did not have a husband and children so “late in life.” So, in that milieu, I made the choice I made and have no overt regrets.

What would you tell other LGBTQ people who are looking to join Peace Corps about serving overseas? It will be hard, but hard in a way that is so crucial to the evolution of our LGBTQ family here in the United States that you will never regret it. A lot will be asked of you personally that is a unique burden, but you will have a cohort of LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteers, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and allies with whom to process these lessons. Serving in Peace Corps helped me realize that any burden I ever feel from being queer may pale to the pain of most queers on planet Earth. Holding compassion for their struggle in my heart helps keep my own challenges in perspective.

Click here for more about Zoe’s service in Armenia and current role as a Peace Corps Recruiter. To learn about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer or as part of a same-sex couple, visit our website at