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.

The Meaning of a Picnic

By: Hale Sargent

San Francisco area RPCVs and Peace Corps staff gather in Dolores park for a Pride Month picnic on Sunday, June 12, 2016.

San Francisco area RPCVs and Peace Corps staff gather in Dolores park for a Pride Month picnic on Sunday, June 12, 2016.

When Peace Corps proposed a little Pride picnic in San Francisco it seemed like a casual thing. We’d gather in a park, share some stories, and go on with our lives.

But when the day came the meaning changed. It was the morning after the Orlando shooting, and as we scrolled through the terrifying news, there we were. Gathered in a park. Sharing stories. Going on with our lives.

The freedom to gather as LGBTQ+ and allies was the product of generations of work. It’s a freedom denied in so many places, including many of the countries where we serve. And it’s a freedom I’d forgotten to appreciate.

There are no life lessons to be found in the slaughter of young people. People of Color did not die so that a group of mostly White RPCVs could appreciate Dolores Park.

But I did find hope in the people I was surrounded with at our silly little picnic. I do think our community — at the intersection of LGBTQ+ and Peace Corps Volunteers — is on the leading edge of what our world will become. And that gives me hope.

I see Peace Corps — a government agency! — hosting webinars for trans* volunteers. I see the agency director at the front of the Peace Corps contingent in DC Pride(picture below) – even sending a message to the global staff regarding Orlando. I even see the staff’s email footers where they indicate which gendered pronouns they prefer.

I also see a community that is treating its lack of ethnic diversity as a crisis, and going all-hands-on-deck for cultural change. As a gay RPCV I feel like I’m a part of what a progressive, inclusive, loving community can look like.

So let’s appreciate our gatherings — every little one of them. Be bold and courageous — be yourselves. Keep up your good work around the world, and let’s please all stay connected!

CarrieDC

Sarah Blazucki (left), President of Spectrum (Peace Corps’ LGBTQ employee resource group),  and Carrie Hessler-Redelet, Director of Peace Corps, lead the Peace Corps delegation in Washington, DC’s Pride parade on June 11, 2016. Full album here: http://1.usa.gov/1S5hIcD

 

Hale Sargent served in Armenia from 1998 – 2000. He currently serves on the Steering Committee for the LGBT RPCV Association and can be reached at n8nhale@gmail.com. 

 

2015 Annual Report

LGBT RPCV (with side text)

Dear Members, Friends, and Supporters:

It is my absolute pleasure and pride to report with you the activities, energies, and progress that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (LGBT RPCV) have made this past year. In fact, one of the largest shifts we experienced was my personal transition from the Steering Committee as the New Volunteer Coordinator to leading the group as National Coordinator.

Since our inception, LGBT RPCV has been privileged to have the steadfast leadership of Mike Learned (Malawi, 1963-1965) in a variety of different capacities. Under his leadership LGBT RPCV has been working to promote Peace Corps ideals and the legal, political and social rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world. In June, Peace Corps Director, Carolyn Hessler-Radelet, presented Mike a certificate of appreciation for his “invaluable contributions and exceptional dedication to the Peace Corps” (see full report below).

2015 was a historic year for LGBT rights, equality, and struggle. With a strong social media presence, participation at a national conference, and supporting local Pride parades and activities across the country LGBT RPCV has been working very hard to be on the forefront of such important work. I want to thank each of our members, friends, and supporters for their positive contributions in making our organization a success and I look forward to continue our collective well into the future.

In Solidarity,

Manuel Colón
National Coordinator
Paraguay 2010-2012

CLICK HERE FOR FULL ANNUAL REPORT

Why The Peace Corps Needs LGBTQ Safe Zone Trainings

Reprinted with permission from The Vulnerable Traveler

As the coordinator of the Sexuality Training Awareness and Response (STAR) Peace Corps Volunteer committee in Nicaragua, I train staff and volunteers on LGBTQ issues.

STAR formed in 2014 because Peace Corps Nicaragua was one of three countries that agreed to host a same sex couple. In light of this agreement, LGBTQ volunteers in country wished for their identities to be acknowledged and supported.

In 2015, STAR led four LGBTQ safe zone trainings. Our first training was nerve wracking, yet rewarding. During these trainings, we realized what a great need there was for staff to learn about the differences between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ before moving on to more complex topics like ‘gender expression’ and ‘sexual orientation’. We trained Nicaraguan and American office staff, as well as our hotel and hostel staff. Last but not least, we trained several of the taxi cab drivers that make sure we travel through Managua safely.

Here are reasons why the Peace Corps needs LGBTQ Safe Zone Trainings. I will use the term “queer” and “LGBTQ” interchangeably. In this context, the term “queer” is a reclaimed term to refer to anyone who does not identify as heterosexual.

Some countries criminalize homosexuality.
I’m lucky I can even say the words “I am a lesbian” out loud in Nicaragua.  Other Peace Corps host countries around the world still criminalize homosexual behavior. This reinforces the misconception that homosexuality is an act, not an identity. Homosexual acts in Nicaragua aren’t criminalized, though. During our trainings, we share how being queer forms our identities and affects our service. We didn’t “choose” to be queer. We were born this way, and it’s a harsh reality that some queer people don’t apply to the Peace Corps for safety reasons.

We think critically about gender.
“In a relationship, you normally have a man and a woman. Who is the man- the dominant one-in a lesbian relationship?” A curious taxi driver asked during a trainings. I realized that we had to analyze gender roles in heterosexual relationships. I explained that in a lesbian relationship, just like in a straight relationship, it depends. More women are working to support their families. Women are waiting longer to have children. “Now, it’s more common to see a father walking down the street, holding his son’s hand. You didn’t see that nearly as much 20 years ago, right?” The cab driver nodded. Just as gender roles aren’t fixed for straight couples, they aren’t fixed for queer couples. We use the genderbread person toolhelp us.

Being queer affects our service.
STAR is made up of queer  and allied volunteers because volunteers want to support each other. I didn’t come out to any Nicaraguans in my small training town, but I came out to my colleagues. I kept it to myself because I was in a new country for the first time, and I didn’t want to feel unsafe for my first three months. I didn’t enjoy telling my host family that I did not have a boyfriend, and not being comfortable enough to explain Ionly dated women. I lied to protect myself. It’s a difficult balance to strike as a queer volunteer. You want to be completely honest about who you are, but you don’t want to compromise how locals view you and your work.

Peace Corps staff can surprise you.
While homophobia exists everywhere, STAR is making an unprecedented effort to have open, honest conversations with the people who support PCVs. We are helping them understand what language to use in order to welcome people who aren’t straight. Two months into my service, my Spanish facilitator asked me “Are you texting your boyfriend?”. I wanted to say, no, I’m a lesbian, but I didn’t know how she would react. If she had used the word “partner” instead of boyfriend, then I would’ve opened up to her. Six months later, I came out to her during our first safe zone training. She ended up coming back to our third training because she had enjoyed the first one so much. If I’d known how open she was, I would’ve come out to her earlier.

Staff walk in LGBTQ volunteers’ shoes.
During each training, staff break up into small groups and perform role plays on topics such as:

• Practicing volunteer confidentiality
• Using LGBTQ-inclusive language

Watch the role play between Pablo, our safety and security officer, and Jorge, our taxi cab driver (and a great actor!). Pablo played a PCV. He talks to Jorge, who plays a housekeeper at the Peace Corps Office.

Jorge (Housekeeper): Listen to this! My fag of a neighbor robbed me!
Pablo (volunteer): Oh yeah?
Jorge: Yeah!
Pablo: Listen, I understand that you’re upset because he robbed you, but I don’t appreciate you using that word. I have a lot of gay friends, and they are good people. They’re my friends, and I don’t like you using that word, especially here at the Peace Corps office.
Jorge: Listen brother, I didn’t mean to offend you. I respect sexual orientations of all kids. It was just an expression. I’m just mad at my neighbor.

These role plays are fun because staff members jump right in and practice what they’ve learned. It’s neat to see a group of grown men and women perform situations and use words like “gay” and “lesbian” in positive ways, as opposed to using the word “cochón” (fag), which people use without knowing how offensive it can be to someone who is actually gay.

The trainings apply to our lives.
Our trainings are different from your typical “This is what to do if you get diarrhea” trainings. Our trainings push people to think of gender and sexual orientation in new ways. All of us know someone or are related to someone who is queer. During the breaks, I’ve had staff come up to me and ask me “I have a family member who came out to me. What do I do?”. I reassure them that just by making their family member feel comfortable enough to come out to them, they are in the right direction. “You may not have the best advice for them, but just listen to them. We cannot solve our loved one’s problems, but being understanding is important”, I assure them.

The trainings are sustainable.
After our safe zone trainings, we gave our taxi drivers rainbow colored “safe zone” stickers that they stuck to their windshields. These stickers benefited the drivers’ business because queer Managuans were more likely to hop inside the cabs, knowing their identies would be respected during their cab ride home. They are also a great conversation starter for anyone hopping in. I’ve had great conversations with the drivers. The stickers give the drivers a chance to share what they learned about LGBTQ identity with others.

I hope that more LGBTQ or allied Peace Corps volunteers are aware of the small steps they can take within the Peace Corps sphere to create more accepting work environments. Here is a list of resources you can use if you are interested in STAR trainings.

 

More information:

This is how safe zone trainings apply across the four Peace Corps Nicaragua sectors:

TEFL, Business, and Environment: These trainings can be given during teacher trainings for specific efforts, such as anti-gay bullying awareness. More broadly, the trainings can just start a conversation between teachers about lgbtq identity or gender roles.

Health: Confidentiality is not enforced in pharmacies or health centers. These trainings can share the importance of creating safe zones for people how may not feel safe coming out. Sometimes, gay male host country nationals will donate blood through the Red Cross to test for HIV because getting an HIV test at a health center is not confidential.
This training also went well during Camp GLOW for Nicaraguan teenage girls. Here’s how.

How would LGBTQ safe zone trainings apply to your work?

Connect with us at our facebook page, instagram, google drive of resources, and at Pcvni.star@gmail.com!

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