NPCA’s Wedding Wednesdays

Did you know that the NPCA collects and publishes Peace Corps wedding stories? In fact, in 2015, LGBT RPCV made a concerted effort to make sure there was more same-sex couple representation in the album. We are proud to say that the inaugural same-sex couple is still the holder of the most amount of Likes! CLICK HERE to view the full album on Facebook. Are you interested in submitting your own? Copied below are the instructions:

Send a photo of your #peacecorps wedding, plus a BRIEF caption/story (Ideas: How you met? About the wedding? What’s distinctively “Peace Corps” about you two?), to news@peacecorpsconnect.org and include the word “Wedding” in the subject line. Include only as much personal information as you feel comfortable sharing with the internet. We’ll let you know when it’s posted and you can choose to “tag” it at that time. What qualifies as a “Peace Corps wedding?” You got married while in the Peace Corps, met in the Peace Corps and got married afterwards, or are RPCVs who met and married after service. Marrying a host country national or a member of another international service organization (ex. CUSO, VSO) “counts,” of course. Peace Corps: making peace one person at a time.

Below are few that we’d like to highlight:

 

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Posted June 10, 2015: Norbert (Ivorian) + Phillip (American, RPCV Guinea & Burkina Faso 2009-2011). Met in Ouagadougou, August 2010. Marriage ceremony in Abidjan, July 2011. Officially married in New York, August 2011. “Norbert and I met through friends of friends, dancing at a nightclub in Ouagadougou. We hit it off right away and have been together ever since” – Phillip

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Posted November 30, 2016: Marisa (Education 2011-13) and Fiona (Agriculture 2010-12) met during Peace Corps service in Paraguay. They shared the following: “We proud to say we got married on July 9, 2016, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a year after marriage equality reached the U.S. Our wedding clearly reflected our experiences as LGBTQ Americans and Paraguay RPCVs – including tereré (ice cold mate tea) and ñanduti (Paraguayan lace). There were 4 RPCVs in the wedding party, and 13 RPCVs in attendance (representing 4 countries and 2 decades)

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Posted November 30, 2016: Betsie, pictured right, and Shay met during service in Ecuador (2014-2016). “We were the two in our omnibus vehemently opposed to finding new relationships in Peace Corps. We signed up to service, not to fall in love. We fell for each other and the rest is recent history. We’re married, adjusting to life back in the U.S. and looking forward to a life together full of adventure”

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Posted December 21, 2016: Sarah Bender and Stephanie Hubbell met while serving together in Jordan (2009-2011). Sarah says that “It was until the end of our service that we realized true love had been right in front of us, but once that happened we never looked back. We married in New York City on September 4, 2016. We were lucky to get to share our wedding celebration with many members of our RPCV Jordan family and would not have had it any other way. We look forward to serving again one day, together as wives!”

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Posted December 28, 2016: Together for 26 years and married for 3, Ronald Hemmer (Thailand 82-84) and Franklin “Dan” Davis (Colombia 66-68) met in Phoenix, Arizona were Ron worked for the USDA and Dan worked for the Arizona DOT. Being RPCVs, as well as being from Ohio, led to the initial friendship. “As it turns out, most of our long-term friends are RPCVs. Shared values led to lasting friendships. Here we are with our Thai gold weddings in Palm Springs were we are living at the time”. 

 

 

 

 

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

Fiona

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.