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.

Living & Working Abroad as an LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteer

On Wednesday, July 1st, Peace Corps Diversity Recruiter Travis Bluemling held a live streamed webinar with four panelist regarding their experience in service as it relates to their their LGBTQ identity. If you missed it, don’t worry, it was recorded and hosted on YouTube – link below. Countries of service represented were Indonesia, Liberia, Paraguay, and Thailand.

The event was advertised as such:
“Please join us as we connect with currently serving and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to discuss what it is like to serve as someone that identifies within the LGBTQ spectrum.  Hear their first hand experiences of living and working abroad! “

CLICK HERE to watch the recording of the webinar.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1iCuGyCwWg

Coming Out in Paraguay: the Post-Peace Corps Experience

By: Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill

The last day in my Paraguayan community was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had. I had been going around the last month to say goodbye to different families and community members, but the last day was the hardest because I had to officially say goodbye to my host family. I lived with them for the whole two years of my service, which is unusual for a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay. Over those two years, I was closer to them than even my own family at times because they experienced the inevitable highs and lows with me during my service.

My host mother and I, my last day in site.

My host mother and I, my last day in site.

The person I grew the closest to during my service was my host sister. She was only three years older than me and we lived together in the same house. She is incredibly smart, independent, and ambitious, which is an unusual combination for many women in my community. We both felt like we didn’t exactly fit in due to the strict gender and cultural norms in Paraguay. We would talk about things, such as our hopes for the future and life goals, that we felt that we couldn’t really share with other people and have them understand. However, the hardest part was when we would talk about dating or sex. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my sexual identity because I was unsure of her response and I didn’t want to lose her as a friend or a sister, so I usually just changed the subject when she would ask me about my romantic life or why I didn’t want a boyfriend.

 

Being closeted became harder when I started dating my girlfriend my last year of service. My host family would joke that I must have a secret boyfriend because I was more bubbly and I spent hours texting and talking on the phone each day. When my girlfriend came to visit me in my site, I introduced her to my family as “my best friend” and she would occasionally come to stay with me a couple days in my host family’s house. My family never really said anything to me about my relationship with my “friend” and life went on as usual. However, it pained me that I had to keep my relationship a secret from people I considered a part of my family, particularly my host sister.

 

As much I disliked being closeted for two years of my life, it was surprisingly easy as a woman in rural Paraguay. There were very few moments I felt worried about people finding out because many Paraguayans in my community didn’t have a very robust understanding of female sexuality and the idea of a romantic relationship without a man probably seemed impossible to them. My community would gossip about men they suspected to be gay, but never once did they gossip about women in this regard. Thus, while there was always a little fear in the back of my mind, I felt somewhat comfortable having my girlfriend around my host family and other community members.

My host sisters and I celebrating my 23rd birthday.

My host sisters and I celebrating my 23rd birthday.

My last day in site, my host sister drove me to the bus terminal in the nearest city about an hour away. During that hour-long ride, we reminisced and talked about how much we would miss each other and keep in contact through texting and photos on WhatsApp and Facebook. Then there was a moment of silence as we approached the city, my sister finally said “you know, you can tell me anything about your life. I won’t care because you’re my sister and that won’t change. We will always be your family.” So I finally confessed that I was gay and the “best friend” that would come to visit me was really my girlfriend.

 

She burst into laughter and told me everybody in our family already knew and how they loved me anyways. She said how our mom knew, but she kept denying it when the rest of the family would bring it up. She compared it to how our mom knew she wasn’t a virgin but wouldn’t ever say it out loud. I was shocked. While I suspected my host sister might figure out I was gay, I never suspected that the rest of my host family would figure it out too, especially my host mother.

 

My host sister and I talked the rest of the drive about my girlfriend and what I thought would happen when I got back to the States. Then she proceeded to ask me several questions, including how long I knew I was gay, if I was certain I was not attracted to men, if I had ever tried to be with a man to make sure, and then, my favorite, how specifically did women have sex without a man. When she dropped me off at the bus terminal, she gave me a big hug and told me she loved me and how she would miss her sister. It was emotional and I felt this huge weight lifted off my shoulders by coming out to her.

 

Shortly after arriving in the States, my girlfriend and I did break up. Even though I knew it was probably for the best, I was a mess. There’s such an extreme bond you form with your romantic partner in Peace Corps because they understand so intimately a part of your life that nobody else can truly understand, even your closest friends in Peace Corps, and to lose that person is painful. I didn’t very feel comfortable talking very much about my breakup to my friends in Peace Corps because my girlfriend had several months of her service left and I didn’t want it to be a topic of gossip in the volunteer community. I also didn’t really know how to explain how intense the breakup felt to my friends in the States.

 

However, the person I felt most comfortable talking and opening up to was my host sister. We would text back and forth about my breakup and she would comfort me. She was also the one who supported me when I started dating again. Then she continued to be there for me when I went through another breakup. Even when I came out to my host sister my last day in site, I never imagine us having this close of a bond and the freedom to talk about my relationships. It even has gotten to the point that when I get on Tinder, I send her screenshots of profiles and she gives me her opinion to swipe left or right (even though we rarely agree). Definitely not what I thought my RPCV life would look like.

Representing Peace Corps at Pride in Kentucky

Representing Peace Corps at Pride in Kentucky

It’s amazing how my host sister continues to feel like my family. She still drives me crazy. She is still the one I can talk to about things I feel I can’t share with anyone else. I feel so grateful that I was able to share a part of my life I never thought I would be able to share with any Paraguayans from my community and have such a positive response. It has made my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and my experience in Paraguay all the more special and invaluable to me. I went to another hemisphere preparing to give up the openness I felt about my sexual identity in the States, but I came back from the experience with so much more confidence and acceptance of myself, including my sexuality, than I knew was possible.

Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill currently coordinates educational programs and other social services for the children of migrant farm workers in Kentucky. She served as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Paraguay from 2013–2015. She can be contacted at jmohlkehill@gmail.com

How to Find Your Voice and Your Other Half in Two Years

Republished with permission from Peace Corps Northeast
By: Fiona Martin and Marisa Vargo

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Fiona Martin, right, and Marisa Vargo, left, will be married in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in July.

In honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, Peace Corps East commends those who defy limitations and create a path for progress overseas. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Fiona Martin discusses how living and working with her partner Marisa Vargo in Paraguay helped to fortify her sexual identity. Fiona and Marisa will be married later this summer. 

While serving in countries across the globe, it’s typical for Peace Corps Volunteers to ‘find themselves’ overseas. However, their service can become even more special when they find their other half on the other side of the world. You can just ask Fiona Martin and Marisa Vargo, who met during their Peace Corps service in Paraguay from 2010 to 2012.

It all started when Fiona chose to volunteer her time with a Peace Corps Peer Support Network in Paraguay – an effort that offered counseling from and for Peace Corps Volunteers – at which point Marisa sought out Fiona’s help in settling some personal struggles during her service.

“Marisa was going through more than the usual transition obstacles any Volunteer faces,” Fiona said. “She was coming out to herself, friends and family and she sought me out for advice and support.

“Following our discussion, I reached out a few times to check in, but she felt embarrassed for being so vulnerable, and steadfastly ignored my texts,” she added.

Months later, Fiona and Marisa reconnected during an LGBTQ and Allies training event in Paraguay and began to spend more time together.

While their bond strengthened in service, so did their impact overseas. As an Agriculture Volunteer, Fiona mostly collaborated with farming families, a women’s committee, and elementary schools to advise on composting and crop diversification. Meanwhile, Marisa served as an Education Volunteer to instruct local schools on how to develop an online presence and build community outreach with the help of One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organization that provides low-cost laptops and software for children around the world.

During this time, in light of Paraguayan cultural norms, Fiona and Marisa had to stay “closeted,” or refrain from demonstrating their sexual identities, among most of their neighbors and colleagues for the sake of ensuring their own safety. However, the couple soon began to realize their place in the LGBTQ community and strove to introduce that same sense of pride to very small groups of LGBTQ Paraguayans.

“There is something about being culturally isolated in a country, which creates the space for introspection,” Fiona said. “It created enough space for Marisa to understand her sexual orientation and to come out. Although coming out was, by necessity, limited to other Peace Corps Volunteers and her friends and family at home.”

Though their paths crossed at an inopportune time – Fiona completed her service several months earlier than Marisa – both believe that their mutual experience in the Peace Corps has helped their relationship grow on a much deeper level.

“We had not only the shared experience of being Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, but we had the shared experience of the beautiful contradictions and complexities of Paraguay,” Fiona noted. “We’ve unintentionally brought back both customs of Paraguay and customs unique to Peace Corps Volunteers – from the way we share drinks to the words used to express surprise.”

As they both look towards a bright future together – the couple are set to be married in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in July – Fiona and Marisa reflected on how their Peace Corps service truly proved to be a life-defining opportunity and offered some advice for other LGBTQ people and same sex couples looking to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers.

“Find the other LGBTQ Volunteers and create a space for each other,” Fiona said. “When you do find LGBTQ people in your community, be a living example of a healthy, happy, supported and loved gay person. Simply being an example of self-acceptance is powerful.”

To learn about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer or as part of a same-sex couple, visit our website at www.peacecorps.gov.

Gay Crushes in Paraguay

Jeremy Haber (Paraguay 2013-2015) is from Franklin, TN and currently works as a part-time Peace Corps Recruiter and full-time graduate student in Business Analytics at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. He served in Villa Hayes, Paraguay as a Community Economic Development volunteer. Jeremy can be reached at jeremyhaber814@gmail.com. 

I had a few crushes during my Peace Corps service. And while these crushes never made it past friendships, they did have a lasting impact on my life.

My first crush was on a Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator, a third year extension position. He gave our group a condom demonstration (on a banana, of course). What stood out the most were his quirky lapses in memory of common English words and his energetic presentation. It was so refreshing to hear him speak after months of dull, plain talks on health, safety, and security.

After the presentation, I emailed the Coordinator thanking him for his great presentation. In the signature, I added a code JUBX FXDUM HXD URTN CX PAJK BXVN LXOONN BXVNCRVN. He responded, “What is this? Is this a code? I like challenges.” But he never followed up more beyond that. A few months later he mentioned he was seeing someone so it made sense why he did not respond.

From this and many other experiences, I learned I was not so good at asking guys on dates because I am not very direct. During training, I made best friends with a Volunteer whose brother is Gay; she really pushed me to not live in my head and instead encouraged me to ask for what I want. In exchange, I helped her on how to use subtlety in conversation. Her problem was she would push dates away with her blunt comments, always trying to be correct. We were both lousy at getting dates, but during our Sunday brunch conversations we always learned from each other.

My second crush happened on my second day in site, after I finished three months of pre-service training. I met my primary contact, a Director of a local cultural center. The first thing we did was take his small pickup and drive to the native cultural center located in the middle of a deserted field about twenty miles away. On the way, in my bad Spanish, I asked him what music he liked. He said Mile Cyrus and Lady Gaga – I smiled. I remember my last interview with my Peace Corps Sector Director, telling her I didn’t care how big or small, difficult or remote the site I will be living in, I would be the happiest if she chose a contact I would work well with. As soon as I found out he loved pop divas in the first few minutes I met him, I knew my Sector Director chose a good contact for me. Although a great guy, our relationship remained professional, we had a very easy time working with each other, a common understanding of one another between guys who love pop divas and dancing.

It is said that ten percent of Volunteers may enter into a long term relationship (Paraguayan or foreign) during their service. So, having a sex life in the Peace Corps was somewhat expected. We were mostly twenty-somethings, now having enormous amounts of time on our hands, sex was almost guaranteed to occupy our time and our minds. Shockingly, I stayed celibate for four years, two years in the Peace Corps and two years while I studied in Asia for my MBA.

Why would I stay celibate? I did not plan on it, and I am not asexual. I just decided to stay with a host family and focus on myself rather than look for sexual partners. There were a few Gay Volunteers and locals, everyone still used social networking and dating sites overseas to hookup. However, I deleted these apps. It was not that I had a mission to not have sex or a relationship. I certainly had a few females and males come onto me. I would not call myself cold or standoffish, puritanical or prudish. It was maybe a calming down phase for me. I had a few crazy escapades, Gay cruises and parties overseas during a more exploratory phase of my youth. Maybe I turned into a mature Gay guy now.

There were a few guys that came after me. I met the local English Teacher at the cultural center. I was greeted with a friendly conversation and an offer to go to lunch. The next day the same, and soon it became routine to go to lunch with him. We were becoming friends, and soon I received a few nice gifts. I learned he was thirty, not married, enjoyed listening to Madonna, and never had a girlfriend. I told him I enjoyed his company but that we were just friends. He understood.

Out of my whole Peace Corps experience, this English teacher was one of the most remarkable people I had met. By the time I left he became the most sought after English teacher in the Department. His childhood was tough, adopted by the grandmother who died a few months before I started my service. He gave up the Presbyterian Church and lost most of his friends when quitting a few months before I arrived. So we spent a lot of time together, and while I was in Paraguay, we traveled all around the country and attended all the Peace Corps parties together.

Peace Corps had its share of parties. The parties in the capitol occurred once every three months, and it was a night of live performances by Paraguayans and Peace Corps Volunteers. It was also a night where many Gay men stopped by the party. There was a high percentage of Gay Volunteers and mostly because Peace Corps attracted a more liberal minded person. So one Gay Volunteer could date a local from the capitol and leave after two years, but the local still could come to the party and then start dating the next Volunteer. It was like going to the foreign exchange parties in undergrad and you were always looking on making new German friends and sometimes hooking up with them even though they would leave in a few weeks.

There was in fact a German Volunteer group known as AFS and there were a lot of Gay guys in that group. These Volunteers were college age so they were quite young, but I know Peace Corps Volunteers who went on trips with AFS Volunteers and even dated a few of them. My rule being twenty-eight at the time was to not date someone who was under twenty-one, since I had the same rule for myself in the United States.

Peace Corps made Volunteers comfortable with uncertainty. There were many expectations, dreams, ideas of one’s life in the Peace Corps during the application process. “I’ll learn a new language, I’ll make wonderful friends, I’ll make a difference, I’ll try new foods, I’ll figure myself out. I’ll meet someone and fall in love. I’ll have wonderfully successful projects.” This honeymoon phase quickly disappeared the first few months in site. The first few months of service, was likes like jumping into a pool of ice cold water every day. It was quite uncomfortable every time, but it warmed up as the day went on.

Soon the water started to become warmer, and my classes filled up with lots of students. In Paraguay, a White male was thought of as handsome, and young girls flirted with me. They soon found out I was not interested. Younger Gay guys would come to class sometimes with their boyfriend and learn a little English. My second crush was on one student who was a hot Zumba teacher. He took all of my classes one year and was the only guy over twenty-one. I remember one English lesson involved clothing, and students yelled out different articles of clothing, and he yelled out underwear with the cutest smile. I blushed. It was great to see him and others so motivated, maybe they were originally coming for other interests, but I turned that motivation into learning English and they soon became some of my best students.

During the summer, a guy Facebook messaged me with a “Hooollllaaa,” and a smiley face emoticon, the common online flirting for young Gay guys. I mentioned to him I was Gay, but not into him because he was under twenty-one. Then an idea popped into my head. I really wanted to get out of site and go to a gender and diversity camp. So I invited him to the camp. He was brilliant and told his story at camp about how he came out at the hospital he worked at. Unfortunately, his coworkers started gossiping and the other employees made horrible comments. He ignored them for a while, but then his boss told him to think about leaving. After the camp the youth became a new person, empowered with confidence. He eventually became a leader in the community and even hosted a Volunteer after I left Paraguay. We became good friends and still chat on Facebook.

Every Volunteer got the option to request a follow-up Volunteer to further develop the projects the previous Volunteer started. The Volunteer to serve after me in my site asked me advice on dating in site. I mentioned relationships for volunteers with alternative lifestyles may be more accepted in the capitol versus our small town, so meeting guys or dating Volunteers in the capitol may be a better idea especially since he lived in the center of town. We went for coffee one afternoon out of site. Not really a date, but we shared some personal stories.

At my local cultural center, every Events Coordinator, and there were three when I served, were not a typical male for a small Paraguayan community. I did not know if they were Gay. They never came out to me, but we shared some unforgettable experiences and stories. One Events Coordinator went to a youth leadership camp with me before obtaining the Events Coordinator position. He was a great speaker, having a lot of practice leading the youth in the church. I learned his passion was to be a beauty pageant consultant. He knew about every Miss Paraguay and all the winners in Latin America. His goal for the future was to meet me in my hometown of Las Vegas and see the Miss Universe Pageant at Planet Hollywood. I told him I’ll take him to see the Britney Spears show if he comes and visits.

I had a crush on another Events Coordinator of the cultural center, who left my site two years before I arrived. He returned to the cultural center only a few times. The first time we met, we spoke English and he invited me to his graduation at the Police Academy. He was the valedictorian of his class, and decorated with many medals in his police uniform. Who wouldn’t fall for this guy? We hung out two more times during my service. The first time we ate street food and had a stroll by the river after the sun set. We sat under the stars and talked about our time in high school in our respective countries. It was a fun night but did not amount to more than just chatting. The second date did not go over well. I chose an expensive Gay friendly café in the capitol, and he felt a little uncomfortable. We didn’t talk as much, maybe he wasn’t Gay. So we parted ways.

The last person I wanted to mention was my mentor. I had the best mentor in Peace Corps. He had been a Volunteer already for a year, and he gave me good advice on being Gay in Paraguay. He answered a lot of my questions over email before I started training in country. And then during training we spoke once a week to see how things were going. One additional conversation with someone in English and who went through the same thing I was going through as a Gay man made a big difference during that initial few months.

Now coming back to University of Tennessee being the Peace Corps campus recruiter, I am still very out and open about my sexuality. There is a huge rainbow flag on the wall of my office. I give recruitment speeches at Pride Week and joined LGBT commissions and Gay organizations. I quickly found out how fortunate I am to be back in an environment where students are extremely motivated to create positive change, however there is still a lot of change needed to be made.

In addition, as a recruiter, I find it important to share my identity as Gay in my class presentations. During job fairs, I lay my rainbow flag on my table where I have had students approach me because I reached out to them indirectly with the flag. There have been Transgender students and Gay couples who have come to chat with me about Peace Corps. While I am learning more and more in my role each day, I know sharing these stories about my friends in Paraguay have made the biggest impact on students’ decision to join Peace Corps. I also know my Paraguayan friends also had the biggest impact on making me a better person, too.

 

 

A youth and I showing our community map. He later became Director of Events for the cultural center in our community.

A youth and I showing our community map. He later became Director of Events for the cultural center in our community.

embassy

United States Embassy staff visits my local cultural center. The Director of the cultural center located in the middle.

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Diversity and Gender youth summer camp. Many youth shared their stories about coming out in their community.