Pride and Prejudice: The LGBTQ Volunteer Experience

Republished with permission from Peace Corps West blog

Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, personally identifiable information (including names) of current Volunteers has been changed.

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When serving abroad, all Peace Corps Volunteers face challenges of new living arrangements, novel foods, and different attitudes. LGBTQ Volunteers often confront additional challenges because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

An Education Volunteer currently in his second year of service in Asia, “Joseph Mercier” identifies as gay and trans-questioning. Out to family and friends since high school, Mercier is also open to Peace Corps staff and several students and friends in his urban community, located in an isolated and conservative area.

“One question I get frequently asked is, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ To this I now respond, ‘No, but I’m looking for a boyfriend.’” Mercier said. “I’ve had to work really hard to get to this point, and am so thrilled by how well I’m being received.”

Although there are few formal ways to meet other LGBTQ individuals in his country, Mercier has created his own social and support network. Peace Corps staff have also encouraged him to be an advocate on the issue.

“We have been very open here at my post, thanks to the efforts of the Same-Sex Couples Working Group,” Mercier said. “During my service, I’ve convened PeaceOut!, a volunteer-led platform for the gender and sexuality diversity community serving here.”

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Mercier’s primary assignment is teaching university-level English, but he also leads a dance course and a community planning workshop. He’s gained new skills while navigating his country’s unique cultural landscape.

“In Peace Corps, you learn the art of advocating for yourself,” Mercier said. “If your needs are not being met, it is your job to identify contacts and convene resources in order to ensure your health, well-being and success. You learn the art of effective communication, a skill that will last a lifetime.”

For members of the LGBTQ community interested in pursuing service abroad, Mercier recommends being clear about your expectations.

“I knew that I didn’t want to live in the closet if I joined the Peace Corps, and I expressed that in my application materials,” Mercier said. “That being said, I explained that I was committed to fulfilling my duties as a Volunteer and would adapt to the norms of my host community in order to be an effective teacher.”

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Ty Manning identifies as a gay man and served as a Community Health Promotion Volunteer in Peru from 2011–13. Manning came out during his college years and was open about his sexual orientation with fellow Volunteers and Peace Corps staff during service. However, he chose to be closeted in the conservative mountain community where he lived and worked.

ty-in-peru_crop“Many of the communities were more concerned with infant malnutrition and the risk that excrement would seep into the water table and end up in their dinner table glasses,” Manning said. “The fact that I was contributing to tangible improvements in the health of my community allowed me to swallow my rainbow flag—at times, gladly so—and even laugh when told that I’d end up marrying a Peruana and stay there forever.”

Though his time in Peru was not without its painful moments, especially when exposed to adverse comments about homosexuality, Manning felt supported by the Peace Corps network and did not regret his decision to stay closeted.

“During my service, I realized that my sexual orientation is a very important part of who I am, but not revealing this to others in my community had very little impact on the depth of the relationships I formed,” Manning said.

Stephanie Nys had begun to understand herself as a pansexual[1] woman in 2011, just before departing for Peace Corps Liberia. While she felt supported by staff and many Volunteers with whom she was open, she found it difficult to navigate the challenges ofStephanie - Liberia2_cropservice in a country where her evolving sexual identity could conflict with local laws forbidding same-sex relations.

“I’m very glad I served but I do sometimes wish I had stayed in the states a little longer to have more time to come out in a safer environment, and to think about the challenge of what being closeted would look like in Peace Corps,” Nys said.

Karen Andrews completed sex reassignment surgery in 2001, well before becoming an Education Volunteer in Thailand from 2013–15. She served as an older Volunteer after retiring from a career as a real estate broker. Andrews preferred to be known simply as a woman, rather than actively revealing her sex reassignment or sexual orientation.

RSCN5341“Many PCVs didn’t know at the beginning, but learned on an individual basis later. Some were surprised when I told them,” Andrews said. “I had no idea if community members knew or not. Nothing was ever said to me. They were always respectful, protective and caring.”

Like other LGBTQ Volunteers, Andrews was able to confront the difficulties she faced in order to reap the countless rewards of Peace Corps service.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Andrews said. “I cannot express how thankful I am to the Peace Corps for being given this opportunity. I am forever changed.”

[1] By definition, pansexuality separates sexual attraction from gender identity and biological sex and implies increased fluidity.

 

New GLBT PCV Support Group in Albania

A new GLBT Committee for Peace Corps Volunteers in Albania was formed at the end of 2007. Several key steps occurred to begin the new committee. The first step was to have GLBT volunteers serving in Albania identify one another. This process was basically an informal one that occurred over time. The next step was when some of these GLBT volunteers in Albania identified the need and benefit of having a GLBT Committee. At the same time we were very fortunate that the Programming and Training Officer at Peace Corps Albania expressed strong support in forming such a group during individual meetings with some of the GLBT volunteers. As a result, these GLBT volunteers did some research online regarding what other Peace Corps countries were doing to address the unique issues encountered by GLBT volunteers. This research tended to focus on utilizing the resources from this website. The next step was to meet with the Country Director to obtain his support for the new committee.

The Country Director then sent an e-mail communication to all the volunteers in Albania inviting GLBT volunteers to join the committee. One of the most critical aspects of forming the new GLBT Committee was to ensure the confidentiality of its members due to the risks for committee members if individuals in their communities learned of their sexual orientation. As a result, the committee has used a code word for the committee’s name for administrative purposes when working with the Peace Corps Albania staff (such as Volunteer Support Committee). A GLBT Committee e-mail address was also established for volunteers interested in joining the committee to easily facilitate volunteers joining the new committee while maintaining confidentiality.

The committee’s first meeting in October, 2007 focused on agreeing upon the chairperson and the first year objectives for the committee. Here is a summary of the objectives:

  • Provide peer support for existing GLBT volunteers
  • Provide advice for new volunteers about realities in Albania and identify coping strategies
  • Work with Peace Corps staff to provide diversity training for Peace Corps staff and volunteers on GLBT issues
  • Do outreach with GLBT organizations in Albania

Although the GLBT Committee in Albania was formed only six months ago, the team has already been very successful. The GLBT Committee has met each quarter to support one another. Just getting together periodically to share the challenges that we face has been very beneficial to each one of the committee members. The committee has also provided written advice for new GLBT volunteers coming to Albania. But the biggest accomplishment of the committee so far has been related to diversity training. The GLBT Committee collaborated with another American (living in Albania with extensive experience working at a university GLBT Center in the US) to develop recommendations to the Peace Corps Albania staff for the diversity training. All of our recommendations to include the voice of GLBT volunteers in Albania into the diversity training for the first time were incorporated. The most significant aspect of the new diversity training was having one of the committee members “come out” to the staff and new volunteers and share her story of what it is like to be a GLBT volunteer. The feedback from this new diversity training was very positive. In addition, some of the committee members work with GLBT organizations in Albania on secondary projects and have met with other GLBT organizations to identify opportunities to collaborate with the GLBT Committee. One of the committee members is even a Finance Officer for a new GLBT organization in Albania working with HIV prevention and human rights.

Since most of the committee members will be completing their two years of Peace Corps service in the near future, the next step for those remaining on the committee will be recruiting other GLBT volunteers in Albania to join the committee. These new members will be critical to maintaining the momentum of the new committee.

The author can be contacted for additional information about the Albania group at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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