The First Peace Corps – Nicaragua LGBTQ Staff Training

Reprinted with permission from The Vulnerable Traveler

In February 2015, I gave my first LGBTQ safe zone training to Peace Corps Nicaragua Staff (Made up of American and Nicaraguan citizens) with STAR, our vounteer LGBTQA support group. Here is the post I wrote a year ago, which hilighlights my expectations and the reality of the training. It went so well that we ended up doing four total. On February 20th, 2016, we will do our first host famiy training.

Today marked my sixth month in Nicaragua. It feels like I’ve been here longer. Yesterday, I woke up and took the bus to Managua to meet with STAR (Sexuality Training And Response) committee members to talk about the workshop we would lead for the mostly Spanish-speaking Peace Corps staff. The goal of this training would be to break the ice between staff and volunteers and to begin a conversation about creating a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ volunteers.

This initiative began in July 2014, when volunteers and staff met to discuss the new same sex partner initiative. Peace Corps Nicaragua offered to prepare for the possibility of hosting a same sex couple. We still do not know when they will be here, but this was the first time staff and volunteers began to talk about what could be improved in terms of welcoming present and future volunteers. Staff thought that they were openly supportive of queer volunteers, but the volunteers felt as if their identities were simply being ignored.

LGBTQ issues are sensitive to talk about anywhere around the world, especially in this predominantly Catholic country. So, I didn’t really know what to expect. I just knew it was time to start an open conversation with staff about what it’s like to be a queer volunteer.

The other STAR members and I were nervous. We didn’t know how the Nicaraguan staff would react to our training. We knew staff might be uncomfortable, and we didn’t want to impose our beliefs on them. The workshop would also be completely in Spanish, so some of us had to practice translating complex gender terminology that we’d only used in English. Words like “genderqueer” don’t have a translation (yet), so we made a point to explain them as we went. We chatted about the same sex initiative as well as ways in which we think facilitators (our Spanish teachers in training) and staff could be more inclusive of queer volunteers.

This discussion reminded me of my first day in Nicaragua. I almost didn’t come to Nicaragua because I’m a lesbian. Only a couple of hours after getting off the plane, all 42 of us met with Don Howard, our country director. He said that he and his staff were welcoming to anyone of any race, class, and sexual orientation. Just by mentioning that there were people in the room who didn’t identify as straight, I felt as if I were acknowledged. I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t being ignored.

Looking back, I just wished that a Nicaraguan staff member had said the same thing. I wished that I could have just heard this simple sentence from any one of them. Instead, possibly to avoid making anyone else uncomfortable, they would tell us that they supported us if we needed anything, and that they respected us. I realized how important it was to specifically mention sexual orientation as an identity, at least for those like myself who were nervous about how our identities would affect our service.

After we met, we split up into groups to work on our segments of the workshop. One volunteer and I worked on a poster that broke up a “Genderbread person” into 4 parts: Biological sex, gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. We had an interesting disagreement on what it means to be genderqueer, since this diagram placed it in between “male” and “female” in the gender identity section. I saw the term “genderqueer” as more of a rejection of societal gender labels, but he saw it as more of a biological term for someone whose hormone levels cause them to neither identify as male nor female.

I said that if society didn’t make me check off a “male “ or “female” box then I would probably just identify as genderqueer. Although my hormones pretty much tell me I’m a woman, I wouldn’t have to worry about walking into the “correct” bathroom. I also wouldn’t worry about being harassed on the street for holding hands with a woman, because no one would care about my gender and no one would expect me to hold hands with only a man. It was an interesting discussion.

After finishing up our posters, I sat at La Colonia’s comedor with two of the volunteers I would be presenting with. I bit into my enchilada and sipped on my coke zero. We chatted about how nervous we were for the workshop. “Let’s make it fun”, one of them wisely suggested. “I’m nervous, too, but this training is long overdue and it will help future volunteers feel more comfortable”, I said. That night I had trouble sleeping because I was so nervous. It was the good kind of nervous, though. The kind of nervous where you aren’t sure about what’s going to happen, but you know that it needs to happen for the good of those around you and for the good of those you’ll never even meet.

That morning at the Peace Corps Office, staff members, both American and Nicaraguan, were heading upstairs to the conference room for the workshop. This is really happening, I thought. I went to greet my Spanish facilitator, Nidia, who I had not come out to during training, but I would do so soon.

“If you’re impatient, Nicaragua is the best place to learn how to be patient.” The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my Spanish Facilitator, Nidia.

The workshop opened with a few words from Don Howard as he addressed the fact that in the U.S., times are changing and same sex marriage is being recognized, even in places as conservative as Alabama. While some countries still criminalize homosexual activity, countries like Nicaragua do not. Since same sex partnerships are being legally recognized in the U.S., this means that if a host country allows same sex activity, that the Peace Corps is opening up to the idea of having same sex couples serve together. The first female same sex couple in the Peace Corps just finished serving in Ecuador about a year and a half ago. One staff member asked if we would actually be having a same sex couple serve, and the answer to that was yes, but we just don’t know when. “Que bueno”, she said. Well, it looked like today was starting off on the right foot.

My group and I then began our presentation with a term and definition matching activity. Some people were given a term like “transgender”, and they had to find the person with the definition of the term. One by one, each partnership placed their term and definition on the whiteboard. This was when staff members began asking great questions. The only mistake one group made was to match “gender identity” with the definition of “sexual orientation”, but everyone else had the correct terms with their definitions.

As some staff members asked questions like “what’s the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘gay male’?”, others scribbled down what we were saying in their notebooks. I honestly didn’t expect them to be taking so many notes and to be so curious. Others asked “So, can you come out of the closet and go back in?”. Yes, we said, depending on how conservative of an environment we are in. I shared that didn’t have any queer female friends when I grew up in my conservative hometown of Moses Lake, Washington, so I didn’t come out until I was 19, after a year of being at the very queer friendly Wellesley College. Then, I went back into the closet in Nicaragua in order to protect myself and to adapt to this environment. I didn’t know how Nicaraguans would react. As soon as I began putting myself out there to the staff with these personal stories, I felt as if they trusted me even more. Making yourself a little vulnerable goes a long way.

We also explained the answer to “What’s the difference between transgender and gay?”.  I explained that I was gay, but I’ve had biologically female friends in college who realized that they identified as male, so they began to inject themselves with testosterone. Their legs grew more hair and their chests flattened; some even had top surgery to remove their breasts. Staff members’ faces seemed surprised and attentive as I told them this.

Another staff member asked “If the goal of our work is to help volunteers practice their Spanish and make them feel welcome, how do you tell if someone even is gay?”. We mentioned that the most important part is to explicitly state that you are welcoming of people of all sexual orientations and identities, but that you should never force anyone out of the closet. If you create a safe space, then all you do is wait for the queer volunteers to be comfortable enough to come out to you, if they want to. I may have been the only openly queer woman in my group of 42 volunteers, but it would have been reassuring for a Nicaraguan staff member too acknowledge my orientation isntead of assuming I was straight. When you ignore a group of people, you exclude them, even without knowing it.

Why wouldn’t staff bring sexuality up in the first place? It’s a touchy subject. One staff member shared that they were uncomfortable bringing it up because it was against the rules to talk about sexual relations, just as it is against the rules to talk about politics or religion. Our supervisor clarified that talking about sexuality is okay, but talking about sex with volunteers is not.

I never would have thought to make this clarification, since I’m used to knowing the difference between these two different topics, but it made sense. Another fear from facilitators was that there could be tension between a queer volunteer and a homophobic volunteer in the class. We answered that it’s different because if we come from the same culture, then we are more likely to defend ourselves and demand respect from that person. The Peace Corps also does not allow discrimination against queer volunteers. I hadn’t thought about this concern before, mostly because I came out al the other Peace Corps volunteers without any homophobic backlash at all.

Throughout this four-hour workshop, I was blown away by the staff members’ engagement and openness to the discussion. They were curious and respectful, and they appreciated our personal anecdotes. It’s not always easy to come out to a roomful of people from a different culture, but in this case, it was totally worth it. The fact that I’d been through 3 months of training with them also helped me establish theconfianza (trust) I needed to talk about these issues with them.

We ended our session with two role plays. In the first, I played the role of a facilitator who began the Spanish class by asking the volunteers when they kissed their first boyfriend or girlfriend. I assumed all of them were straight, so when I asked the gay male volunteer when he kissed his first girlfriend; he ended up being so uncomfortable that he made up a story about how he kissed his first girlfriend while watching Spiderman at the movies. The staff laughed at our interpretation of this situation. We asked them “Was it the facilitator’s intention to make the gay male uncomfortable?”. No, the facilitator just wanted them to practice their Spanish.

Instead of saying boyfriend or girlfriend, a facilitator could use the wordpartner instead.  Little changes in language toward volunteers like these seem so trivial, but can change how comfortable a volunteer is around their facilitator. This comfort level in turn affects how they learn Spanish, which affects their service.

Our last role play touched on the theme of confidentialiy. It is not okay to outing a volunteer from the closet. We pretended to spread the rumor that a volunteer was gay. Just because a volunteer comes out to someone does not mean that their identity should be shared with everyone. Gossip is a common form of entertainment, so this was another relevant role play.

My biggest takeaway from this session was this: there’s nothing as powerful as the human connection.

People aren’t convinced by logic; they are convinced by emotions. By making myself vulnerable, I opened up staff members’ minds. We made them feel comfortable enough to talk about sexuality in constructive ways. The staff’s priority was still the same: to make volunteers feel welcome and supported. The head Spanish facilitator thanked me afterward for my hard work, and she showed me her notebook. It was full of notes she had taken, along with a picture of the genderbread person.

I loved reading staff comments. Someone said that they felt empowered after this workshop, and thanked us for all of the hard work and thought that we had put into this presentation. It was an inspiring, productive day.

Don Howard shared one of his favorite quotes with me: “Tell the truth, and don’t be scared”.

Today, the volunteers and I told the truth, and I’m positive that our stories will help generations of LGBTQ Peace Corps volunteers feel more comfortable serving abroad.

I really enjoyed facilitating this workshop, and I’m excited to make the next one even better. I could definitely see myself focusing on these types of diversity trainings as part of my career. Today I felt like I was in the right place at the right time. Being a Peace Corps volunteer can make you feel as if you are a fish out of water sometimes, but moments like these make me feel as if I have a truth that must to be heard.

How would LGBTQ safe zone trainings apply to your work?

Email pcvni.star@gmail.com to connect with us!

Char Stoever is a queer, Mexican-American travel writer, artist, and Wellesley College graduate. She has tutored at-risk youth with City Year San Antonio and taught at Brooke Charter School in Boston. She is interested in mental health, whether at home or abroad. Contact: Cjohnso3@wellesley.edu

 

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 lgbrpcv@lgbrpcv.org

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 (burbidge@centurytel.net), 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 Amazon.com 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 – https://www.facebook.com/theboatmanjohnburbidge
More information about The Boatman is at http://www.theboatmanamemoir.com

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.