Slipping Back Into the Closet

My time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Macedonia (now North Macedonia) was very marked by my queer and transgender identities. I came to my host country with fears of isolation and danger as I locked myself back into the closet for 27 months, but instead I found signs of a country on the edge of queer acceptance and a community of support from my Peace Corps family.

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I was told upfront by Peace Corps staff that I could not tell my host family, coworkers, or local friends about my identity. I took this to heart, knowing that staff’s primary concern was my safety. Because I served during both the 2016 Presidential election in America — as well as multiple local elections — politics (and particularly social politics) were on everyone’s lips and minds. I also served at a youth center in my town, frequented by teenagers from various ethnic and social groups who were always curious to get to know me and the other foreign volunteers who worked there. This meant that I frequently engaged in conversations about social issues, from immigration reform to marriage equality.

At the beginning, I remained silent whenever queer topics were brought up. I would sit and listen as my host family discussed the openly gay judge of a Serbian singing competition or as local youth argued about the pride celebration in Greece. But as I got to know people better, and as they got to know me, I started to speak up. I asked a lot of questions. I offered my thoughts. I shared stories of my friends back home. And although I wasn’t always met with agreement, I was surprised when I found that a lot of people were more understanding and progressive than I assumed. I found local friends who were also living in the closet, and others who openly supported queer rights. Some of my youth club members came out to me, and asked for my advice. No one knew about my transition or my dating history, but I was able to use the straight-presenting, cis-presenting version of myself to better understand the queer landscape in my host community.

IMG_6558Truthfully, it was still scary. But I also felt surrounded by support whenever I reached out. Some of my biggest supporters were fellow Peace Corps Volunteers around the country who would let me be unapologetically queer in their presence: speaking candidly about testosterone injections and the future of avant-garde drag. Being able to share that part of myself in my friends’ apartments made the closet an easier place to slip back into when I was in my own host town. On top of that, the Peace Corps medical team always had my back and never made me feel uncomfortable or out of place.

In short, being a queer transgender man in the Peace Corps gave me insights into the culture that I don’t think I would have found otherwise. Although it was scary to be back in the closet, especially in a new culture, I feel that I learned and grew in new ways thanks to the support of my peers.

Sam Mintz served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Macedonia (North Macedonia) from 2016 to 2018. If you liked to contact Sam, please e-mail lgbtrpcv@lgbtrpcv.org to make the connection. IMG_5172

 

 

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The Rainbow History of Peace Corps

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LGBT RPCV is proud to once again present a session at the National Peace Corps Association’s annual gathering, Peace Corps Connect. This year, our presentation is titled “The Rainbow History of Peace Corps”. A brief description will be provided below. To learn more about registration, CLICK HERE.

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When Peace Corps was founded in 1961, all prospective volunteers were required to disclose any homosexual tendencies they had – which would bar hem from service. Today, Peace Corps actively trains host countries for intercultural and diversity competencies to host same-sex couples. How did we get there? Where did we come from?

James Kim Kelly (El Salvador 1969-1972) will discuss his 1992 master’s thesis titled “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps” which provided the foundation for early conversations with Peace Corps on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

Daniel Hinkle (El Salvador 2010-2012), the current same-sex couples initiative coordinator with Peace Corps’ Office of Overseas Programming and Training, will discuss his role with Peace Corps and his thoughts on the future of where SOGI will continue to shape and influence Peace Corps’ operations.

Ralph Cherry (Ghana 1969-1971) was fortunate enough to become 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.

In the spirit of historical celebration, this session will engage participants to collectively reflect just how far the Peace Corps agency has come in dealing with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it will assist 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.

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LGBT RPCV will also be teaming up with Spectrum, Peace Corps’ LGBTQ Employee Resource Group, to sponsor a social mixer for our members, friends, and supporters. “Rainbow Happy Hour” will be on Thursday, September 22nd at 5:30pm at Nellies’ Sports Bar, 900 U St NW Washington, DC 20001. We can’t wait to see you all there!

 

Rainbow Happy Hour

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

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.

 

Transgender PCV Expands the Definition of Family

– A Peace Corps Volunteer, Southeast Asia

Editor’s note: This is the second article this writer has contributed to our website. The first from last year http://lgbrpcv.org/2014/11/16/becoming-a-transman-and-into-the-peace-corps/  describes the process a transgender applicant goes through to be accepted by Peace Corps. We plan to host more articles as this volunteer proceeds through his Peace Corps career. For security reasons we have not named the volunteer or the specific country where he serves.

I am now in my first year of Peace Corps service living in my adopted community. Already, it would be possible for me to write pages upon pages of what I have learned and how kind and loving this community has been to me. It all has to do with the people; they are the center of my growth and learning here. From the Peace Corps Volunteers I met on Day One to the host family I have lived with to the people I work with- they are the ones who are impacting my daily life. As I have found my place in this community, they are the ones continually teaching me about the ever broadening definition of family and acceptance.

I live and work in a very small community. I am living with a host family and there are anywhere from 6-10 of us that reside in a comfy 3 room house. Our water is pumped from a well across the road and hauled into the house in buckets for daily use. We have electricity but it is not always dependable. We wash our laundry by hand; purchase and cook the food we eat together for three meals per day (no refrigerator); and clean with homemade brooms and rags made from old clothing.

Together we live in harmony and good company. My host family has become like a second family to me. They show me they care by constantly trying to get me to eat as much food as possible; by making sure I am comfortable in the room I sleep in; and by making sure that I never go anywhere on my own. Quick trip to the store to buy cell phone minutes? I am accompanied by anywhere from 2-5 children. Stop by the bakery for a quick snack? My older host sister will trail my walk on the motorcycle. They have introduced me to every extended family member who lives in our community and have gone out of their way to include me in family events. My younger host brother has shown me how to play some of the children’s games and the three young granddaughters who live across the street enthusiastically run towards me whenever I am on my way home from work. Despite the language and cultural barriers, we are still able to communicate mutual love, respect and caring. They have taken me in to their lives and have shown me what it means to be a part of a family in their culture- which has expanded my view and thought on what family means.

In my community, I work in Youth Development with some of the economically poorest of the population here. Here too, I have found family in the people I work with every day. In the Life Skills sessions I lead, the parents and youth have drawn me into their lives and have welcomed me with open hearts and generosity. We have many commonalities- from reading, to drawing, writing, swimming, cooking and a passion for teaching and learning. I am able to share with them experiences from my life and knowledge that the Peace Corps has taught me in order to communicate life skills that range from self confidence and how to be a good role model to English and Mathematics tutoring. In return, they have shown me that many struggles of youth transcend boundaries of culture. Many of the impoverished youth here are facing the same struggles as some youth in the United States: the struggle to stay in school versus working to provide money for their family; the struggle for a family to support them in higher education goals and the lack of available work and support systems. These youth and parents are also becoming part of my broader family every time they share with me their thoughts and hopes and every time they accept me and my presence in their community.

If there has been one aspect of myself I have been unable to share with my new host and work families it is my gender identity. In the past, when I have not been able to be open and honest with people about my gender identity, I have felt as though that one issue was a barrier to having a meaningful relationship with them. Serving in the Peace Corps has already taught me otherwise. I find that I have meaningful, fulfilling relationships with my host family, my co-workers and the families and youth that I work with despite not being open about every aspect of myself, my identify and my history. This has been a significant revelation to me and is one part of myself and my paradigm that I am continuing to reassess and contemplate.

Sexuality in my host culture is very different from the culture of the United States. Here, boys walk to school with their arms draped across each others’ shoulders; women and female youth walk hand and hand or arm in arm as they walk down the street. This act, which would be very out of place in most American neighborhoods, is an act of comfort and friendship here. There are also gay and lesbian people in my community, but once again, it is a very different culture. Many boys are openly identified by the adults and their peers in the community as gay at a very young age (usually based on their mannerisms and physical characteristics). It is accepted as a part of who they are and is not questioned in my community. Having said that, it is also not common to see gay youth or adults in relationships with other men, at least not in public.

Lesbian women in my community are not talked about. There are several women about whom I have heard hints of conversation like “she dresses like a boy” or some other subtle comment, but they are much less openly talked about compared to gay men. It is never directly mentioned that they are attracted to women.

It is a different dynamic as you go to larger cities or communities that have a college campus. Same gender pairings are becoming more common to see in public and it is more acceptable to live with the person you are in a relationship with, but this is not the case in my community yet. I have also heard no mention of transgender individuals, while I am certain that there are transgender people in my host country, I have not yet been able to find a community of local transgender individuals even in the closest, larger city.

This leads me to the family I have found among the other Peace Corps Volunteers. When I first got here, I knew I would have to find allies in some of my fellow volunteers if for no other reason than safety, security and the unlikely event of a medical emergency. I also knew that, if I was unable to be completely open with the people in my host community, I would have to find another outlet in my Peace Corps community. What I did not expect was the warmth, understanding and unconditional respect and love that I would receive in response. While I am not open with every single Peace Corps staff and volunteer, those who I have felt comfortable enough to disclose my gender identity to have been overwhelmingly supportive of me. Of course there have been questions and curiosities and many in-depth, gender-based conversations, but it has been out a genuine desire to understand and appreciate fully the extent of the person I am.

The medical and in-country staff  have also been outstanding. Once again, and as I expected, there is a lot of teaching and education on my end. The medical and in-country staff have no experience working with transgender individuals, but they have a strong desire to learn and an even stronger characteristic of support, respect and conscientiousness that has been quite touching to experience. Without my Peace Corps family completing my understanding and experience of “found family”, my service here would be much more stressful and, at times, frightening. Knowing that I have the support of Peace Corps doctors, staff, and peers who will show up, without hesitation, to support and vouch for me should I find myself in need of such things, has allowed me to relax and enjoy the experience I am having instead of just trying to safely get through it.

Finding new definitions of family along with a wide expanse of people who provide me with different components of family (and who hopefully I do the same for in return), has been one of the most surprising aspects of my Peace Corps service so far. I expect that these new families of mine will continue to surprise and impress and teach me as I carry on throughout the next several years. I find that, while I was a bit nervous about the location I was placed in for Peace Corps service, it has turned out to be more than what I could have ever dreamed and has, so far, surpassed my expectations.

You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org