What Kyrgyzstan Gave Me Travels Far

– Bryce Wolfe, RPCV

In pre-service training, we received a handout welcoming us to our “two-year crisis” in the Kyrgyz Republic. It charted the roller coaster of emotions, thoughts and physical manifestations that Peace Corps volunteers usually experience over the course of service in the remote, mountainous former Soviet republic. We laughed at it, and then dutifully posted it on our bedroom walls (or, for those of us lucky enough to have them, refrigerators) and now and then referred to it to make sure that our present flavor of anxiety / boredom / frustration / madness met standards of normalcy. Now I wish I had kept a copy of the handout, so I can track my journey through the stages. I like having corroborated evidence that being overwhelmed by the yogurt aisle is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.

Recently the latest stage. When I got the call, that the house was on fire, I didn’t panic. I was on a train in a tunnel under the San Francisco Bay. There was no point in speculating, in conjuring up worst-case scenarios of charred ground and burnt bodies, when I had no real information. I started making a mental list of who to call, what to do, and where to go once I got off the train. The second call informed me that my partner was in the hospital. I remember taking the news with a sort of third-person detachment. There was nothing I could do for him. I started making phone calls.

The next 24 hours was a blur of headlights on roadways, hospital hallways, Red Cross volunteers, fire investigators, property managers, insurance agencies, utility companies, long-distance calls to family, and the open arms, beds, and advice of friends… That first 24 hours was like the start of training. There was no going home. Everything was open.

But the excitement of training wears off, and becomes the restlessness of waiting for site placement, to get on with it, to earn some responsibility and some permanence in having one site and a mission to fulfill. We wonder: where will we live? Who will we work with?

In the days after the fire, my partner and I salvaged our belongings, and our lives became logistics. Every day: where will we sleep? How much can I carry?

I’m viewing it as a new opportunity.

In the Peace Corps, everything is new. We can reinvent ourselves, or revert to our base instincts. Some volunteers drink. Others cope with serial re-runs and internet memes. Most, I think, reach out and forge relationships that make us stronger.

I faced an additional worry as a volunteer that my being transgender would affect my safety and hurt my relationships with other volunteers, staff and host country nationals. I felt like I had a secret to keep. Instead, my gender identity turned out to be an asset. I related to local LGBTQ folk because, in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, we shared the understanding of what it means to be born in a body that doesn’t fit and a culture that doesn’t approve. I was able to offer my ideas, skills and experience with gender towards training, resources and events. Serving in the Peace Corps brought out the best in me, and I saw the kind of person I could be.

Looking back, I would have appreciated more guidance from Peace Corps trainers. My group had no Safe Zone Training, and when I conducted it myself, I hadn’t yet made connections with the LGBTQ community to invite them, who could have given their perspective, and insight, and offered opportunities to work together. Instead, my introduction into the LGBTQ community was informal and sort of hush-hush. There was no continuity but a word-of-mouth history of so-and-so who dated so-and-so who’s this activist trans guy… Only once I got to know people, and got a better handle on the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, did I feel comfortable taking on projects. And I do think it’s absolutely vital to have community involvement.

Silence is shaming. LGBTQ rights are human rights, and volunteers can benefit from having information about the rights, efforts, and issues facing LGBTQ groups in their country of service, whether those volunteers work directly with LGBTQ groups or not. I would encourage more outreach to non-LGBTQ volunteers. In my group, it was the straight volunteers – or at least those who appeared the most “normative” – who seemed to have the most success in opening a dialogue by acknowledging and supporting LGBTQ rights, and ultimately reducing stigma.

I understand silence. It’s easier than answering all the questions. It’s easier to let someone else do it.

I want transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people to know that it is possible to travel, live and serve abroad – successfully, and vocally – and that we should as we are.

It’s a process.

According to that chart of the two-year crisis, when the excitement grinds down, you’re left with the uncertainty, boredom and depression of the long haul. You ask yourself: Can I really keep doing this? Am I doing anything at all? Just what am I doing here anyway? This usually comes at the 1-year mark in service. After a few weeks of moving from couch to couch, cleaning greasy and possibly asbestos-laden dust off my belongings, navigating a bureaucratic tangle of renters’ rights, housing, insurance and all, I asked those questions again. I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and close my eyes and just not open them.

You always have the option to early terminate.

Before I left America, I had decided that this was not an option for me.

It still isn’t.

I can handle marshrutkas (minibuses) and parasites and impromptu tea breaks in the middle of class, airport chaos, muggers, icy turnpikes with no guardrails, cartfuls of dead puppies, eyeball toasts and long hours scrubbing laundry with my knuckles and a bar of soap, government paperwork and vast amounts of VAST budgets, with humor and diplomacy. If nothing else, the Peace Corps prepared me to thrive in situations where I have no control. That, and dance. I’m grateful for that.

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com


Serving in Moldova, a Mixed Blessing

– A Current PCV

Moldova FlagSunday, May 19th, Moldova had a gay pride parade. While it only lasted half a block it was still deemed a success and many international organizations helped support the local LGBT crowd. I joined our ambassador and country director for the event, feeling safer knowing that they were there, but my biggest worry was ‘what would happen at site?’ Well now that it’s the next day and I’m in my village I still am concerned. How many people saw the news? How many will confront me? Will I be able to stay here for my second year or will I have to move?

Being an LGBT volunteer in Moldova is what I imagine being an LGBT person in the 60s. Believe it or not there is a gay scene in Moldova but it is very underground. You have to know the right people to ‘gain entrance.’ We do have one club that is very LGBT friendly – they even have a rainbow painted around their doorway to let others know and within are various stickers protesting homophobia. Other than that many of the LGBT people tend to hang out with various EVS (European Volunteer Service) people and PCVs, since they know that we are LGBT friendly.

I’m very lucky that I have a great support network within the PC world and staff (HCNs – host country nationals and U.S.) who are open and supportive of me and my unique service. But when I come back to site I am a completely different person. Not only am I lying about who I am attracted to but also who I am at my very core. My village has accepted me for the most part – my coworkers at school come to me and seem genuinely seem interested in talking to me – but how can I develop a relationship with someone if they don’t even know who I am? Knowing that if they knew the truth, they would shun me or take me to the priest to be ‘healed.’ Knowing that when I return to the states to begin my gender transition, I will never be able to keep in contact with them, except by email, for once I start hormones my voice will change.

I live with a grandmother who happens to be very open. We enjoy each others company and we’ve had some great times. Once, over a few shots of home-made rakiu, I even changed her mind on gay-marriage by telling her that love is love and this world is hard enough alone. If you can find someone to share your struggles, and victories, with then you should be allowed to marry them. You see even during pre-service training I was somehow ‘popular’ with many of the HCNs even though I dressed oddly. I guess the one good thing about being a stranger in strange lands is that you are a stranger. How do they know that what you are doing is odd, different, or strange?

It’s a mix of a blessing being in a country full of such ignorance but also a curse. People tend to see what they want to see, you could walk around with a LGBT flag and they would comment about how pretty the colors are, but once the words LGBT are involved then it’s a completely different story.

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

The Life of a Transgender PCV: Are You a Boy or a Girl?

– Bryce Wolfe RPCV

Last year my host mother called the Peace Corps medical officer. She had seen my boxers drying on the line, she said, and had doubts about my gender. She feared I was actually a man, and was now concerned for the safety of her two young daughters. The notion that I would ever harm my host sisters disturbed me; the doubts about my gender did not. I have long hair. I have a deep voice. I have an hourglass figure. I have facial hair. It confuses people. The medical officer assured my host mother that I am, in fact, female, and that she has no cause for concern. Boys and girls both may wear boxers, the medical officer explained, and Westerners frequently wear clothing of the opposite sex. When I learned about this phone conversation, I wasn’t upset; instead I was glad that my host mother took the initiative to call the medical officer. This way, rather than harboring fear or spreading rumors, she learned about the fluidity of gender.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” People ask.

Technically, I’m intersex. I identify as transgender. Currently, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer serving in a predominately Muslim country.

In this culture, your sex determines your life. It influences what you do for a living, what you do in your free time, what you absolutely must do and what would be an absolute shame for you to do. Men interact with men differently than women interact with women, and inequalities exist. To speak the language, you must identify yourself as a man or a woman.

I took a good, long look at myself before I joined the Peace Corps. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. There would be the constant questioning, the lack of privacy and the need to change my appearance and behavior. There would be the stares and the possibility of even physical violence. All volunteers face this. What I couldn’t find, was much information about the unique challenges faced by volunteers who don’t fit neatly into “male” or “female”. For all I knew, I would be the only one. This was okay. I never let a fear of the unknown hold me back. Still, who would I trust? How would I dress? Would I commit a grievous faux pas and be stoned to death?

I was prepared to live undercover for twenty-seven months. Now, looking back, I’m amused to think I considered hiding who I am, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to.

In my first month as a volunteer, I facilitated a diversity training session for staff and found that both Americans and host country nationals wanted to know how they could be allies to LGBTQI volunteers. I met gay and lesbian and otherwise queer volunteers already serving in country. When I walked the office halls, I saw rainbow stickers of support on office doors. Their support has been unwavering and, while I tested the waters in the beginning, I’m now open about my gender identity with all volunteers and staff members.

Still, I’m not open in my community. This is a conservative country, and I don’t know who I can and can’t trust. I teach English at a secondary school, and I don’t want to be accused of “converting” children, as others have been accused. The level of violence and harassment against LGBTQI individuals here is high, and the law enforcement is no help.

Last month two law enforcement officers approached me on the street. I reached for the ID in my bag, expecting them to ask me for identification. Instead, they asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” and, once satisfied with an answer, they walked away. I’m pretty sure they settled a bet.

You need to have a thick skin. You can’t sweat the small things. I knew this before I boarded the plane and, like all volunteers, I’m willing to sacrifice some personal comfort in exchange for the experience of a lifetime. Of course it isn’t easy. I can’t speak freely. I’m always vigilant. I avoid the public baths, and groups of idle young men. But I’m fortunate. I’m a foreigner, and therefore I can “get away” with a lot of things that my local friends can’t.

Establishing a connection to the LGBTQI community in country tangibly changed my life here. Not only is my work more fulfilling, knowing that I’m supporting NGOs that support people like me, but I’ve made close friends, who have literally clothed and fed me in times of need. They inspire me with their strength and courage and good humor. I had thought I would spend two years isolated. A local friend, also transgender, reminded me, “We’re everywhere. We’ve always been here, and we’ll always be here.”

This has been the most uplifting and depressing aspect of my service so far: being welcomed into this community, and seeing first hand the kind of life necessitated by a government whose laws will not protect you and a culture whose norms will not accept you. In America, I can walk down the street knowing I am, in general, safe. I can work where I want. I can love who I want. I can wear boxers without my sex being called into question.

If I make no other impact during the course of my service, I feel I’ve at least opened the minds of people around me. From high school students who agree that boys can bake and girls can box, to volunteers who confess I’m the first transgender friend they’ve had, to my counterpart who knows and accepts me for who I am – I feel, more than anything, that my gender identity has been an asset to me as a volunteer. After you’ve struggled to fit into your own skin, you find you have the flexibility, resilience and open mind to fit just about anywhere.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” This is the chorus of my life. I listen to it in another language now, but the answer is the same. I say, “Yes.”

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

A Pride Month Interview: The First Known Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Speaks Out

-June 17, 2009 — Amy Potthast, Idealist.org

Editors note:

This interview appeared on the New Service blog as part of a celebration of LGBT people in various forms of volunteer service. The blog is especially dedicated to current or former term of service program participants, including AmeriCorps,AmeriCorps*VISTAPeace CorpsCity YearTeach For AmericaHealthCorps, fellowships, faith-based programs, and many, many others. The staff of New Service aim to offer resources useful to career counselors, service corps program staff, and future Corps members as well. The New Service is a joint project between staff from Idealist.org and partnersNorthwest Regional Educational Laboratory, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the National Service Inclusion Project, and Innovations in Civic Participation.

A recently-Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and the first known transgender person to serve, writes about his experiences—first on the website for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group(also known as the LGBT RPCVs), and now in an interview with my intern Sara Lozito and me.

The interview here is timed to appear on the same day as our podcast interview for Pride Month. The RPCV has chosen to remain anonymous for security purposes.

To give you a little background here are some excerpts from the LGBT RPCVs website:

My desire to become a Peace Corps volunteer stemmed from not only believing in the mission and goals of PC, but because I wanted to gain valuable international experience in my field and figure out if I wanted to continue my career path abroad. Like many PCV’s before me, I wanted to test myself. Did I have what it took to work in international development? Could I really live and work in rural Africa for two years? And, of course, I wondered if my being trans would make a difference in my quest to answer these questions.

One thing I must make clear is that my non-disclosure was due to necessity. While homosexuality is seen as potentially life threatening in some village societies, having undergone a “sex-change” is undoubtedly so. Within a few days of arriving I met with my Country Director, who was concerned for my safety. Through that conversation, it became clear that the only way my CD and I felt comfortable with my service was if no one knew about this particular aspect of my past. Gossip is rife in PCV life and our close connections to host  country nationals can cause people to become cloudy in our judgment about disclosures. We didn’t want a well-meaning friend to pass on a bit of juicy gossip that could inadvertently cause me physical harm and/or to be pulled out of country by the local Peace Corps office for my safety. While I agreed with my CD about my need for non-disclosure, knowing that if people did find out that I would be sent home immediately, was a great deal of added pressure. And so from the outset I went about my service in the proverbial closet.

What advice/words do you have for other trans folks considering service through the Peace Corps? Any basic survival skills you want to share for anyone else contemplating a similar adventure? Resources you relied on?

I would say that it’s important to have a thick skin, meaning, don’t take things too personally. Think of yourself as an educator and a team player (with the Peace Corps Medical staff) in your health care. Going along with that, learn about how to take care of yourself, your physical and mental health: Peace Corps Volunteers need to be able to do that anyway, if you are transsexual you definitely need to know what makes yourself tick as it is unlikely that your Peace Corps Medical Officer* will be as knowledgeable about your body as you are.

I also give the advice that you should be prepared to not be able to disclose to people you are friends or serving with. I talk about this in the article, and since I’ve gotten a fair amount of questions about this I want to be clear: I don’t think that it is essential for someone to be totally “stealth” or “closeted” as a trans Peace Corps Volunteer, each service circumstance is different and different people feel comfortable taking different risks with disclosure. I only say that it can be quite likely that trans Peace Corps Volunteers could be serving in areas where it is quite dangerous to be known as a trans person and therefore it could be necessary to avoid disclosure. Since trans people and our unique circumstances are still a bit of an unknown to Peace Corps staff it is unlikely that they can let you know what the situation is on the ground before you get there.

[*The Peace Corps Medical Officer is the primary care giver of Peace Corps Volunteers in their country of service.]

In your article on the LGBT RPCV site, you say “Of course there were times when I felt that it might have come up for me to disclose my trans status were I not in service…” Can you talk about that conflict a little more?

Sure. What I was essentially referring to was that I made some really good friends while in Peace Corps, people who I believe I will remain lifelong friends with. I probably would have disclosed to them at some point or another while serving if the circumstances were different. Disclosure during service was something that I felt not only might put me at risk but put the person I was telling in a difficult place: giving someone a secret that they cannot tell anyone or if they do, might create a dangerous circumstance… well, that was a position I didn’t want to put myself or my friends in.

Disclosure is a touchy subject: some people really feel they need to disclose to people they are close to, and some people feel that way at some point in their lives and not others. I feel that the decision to disclose is such a personal one for a trans person that I very much respect an individual’s decision. That said, I think that people should be fully informed on the realistic consequences of that disclosure. I have come to the point where while I don’t feel like my being trans is really that huge of a deal, I don’t disclose to many people because of my lifestyle and work. More people who I am close with would know that I am trans were that not the case.

What excited you about service through Peace Corps? Did your experience differ from your expectations?

When I signed up for Peace Corps I believed in the message and goals of Peace Corps service. I was excited to utilize and grow my skills overseas with some of the people in the world that most need them. I still believe that the only way to peace is through cross-cultural communication and positive development is only achieved through cooperative change. If I didn’t know it already, through my service I learned that there is no easy road to peace or development. I suppose that’s a complicated way to say that I am not sure if my experience and expectations matched or not. I definitely feel like I got a huge amount from my Peace Corps service, and I hope that the people I worked and lived amongst also benefited from knowing and working with me.

In the podcast episode launching the same day as this interview will appear, Chad Jeremy, who served in AmeriCorps NCCC, says that before he showed up on the first day of his service term, he was nervous about how others would perceive him and treat him because he’s gay. In the end, he says, his desire to serve was stronger than his fear. How does that sentiment compare with what you felt as you got on the airplane to meet your Peace Corps group for the first time, or when you left to live in your host site?

Sure, I was nervous about my service. In fact I secretly thought I was a bit mad to being going into Peace Corps Africa. But, I lived with fear for a long time in my life and at this point I have a very interesting relationship with that emotion; if I am afraid of something I allow it to have very little effect on me. One cannot live in fear or one forgets to live. In the end, when I got on that airplane I felt only joy and freedom. It was a hard-won battle to get my clearance to serve, and it was a long personal journey that got me to the point where I knew I could serve successfully.

I’m curious to know if there’s any kind of transgender scene going on in the places you’ve lived in Africa — and if the scene is underground, how you’d find out about it if you too are underground about your identity. Did you see any evidence of transgender people in the places you’ve lived?

The simple answer to this question is “no”, there was no evidence of transgender/transsexual/gender queer people where I served. I know that this is not true everywhere but no, I saw nothing like that where I was. Funny enough, I got an email a few years before I left for service from a trans guy in Zambia talking to me about being a transsexual African and his struggle (eventually he did get to go on hormones and physically transition — and amazingly had the support of his family to do so). And there is a fairly well known transgender support services organization in South Africa. So yes, of course trans people exist all over Africa, I just never saw them. Maybe my ignorance about trans people during [my service term] has to do with my lack of disclosure but really there is no way of knowing if that is the case or not.

Did you find Peace Corps policies open to the diversity you represented? As for the restrictions your country director placed on you, or asked you to abide by—after learning more about your host community, would you have made the same decision?

That is a really difficult question to answer. Peace Corps policies were not at all equipped to deal with transgender or transsexual volunteers. I am happy to say that this is shifting. I have been fortunate enough to be contacted by Peace Corps headquarters staff to help design Peace Corps Medical Officer Washington, DC, staff training for trans awareness and help with adapting the pre-service medical questionnaire to be trans inclusive. I believe that this goes a long way to making it easier for trans people to apply for service. The next step is to have in-country staff educated so that it is easier for us to serve.

I would have absolutely made the same decision that my Country Director asked me to abide by. While in our own ways this decision was a difficult one for both of us to come by I still believe that it was the best decision for myself and PC in my country of service.

How do you think Peace Corps could better welcome trans folks into service?

Educating the Peace Corps staff in Washington, DC, and in host-countries would go a long way toward welcoming trans people into service. As it was during my application (and I think it still is this way) the Country Director and Peace Corps Medical Officer in country must sign off on accepting a prospective trans person into that country of service. This is after the medical and legal clearance, and irrespective of suitability in any/every other way to service. I think this practice is essentially unfair inasmuch as I believe that trans people are thus rejected from countries solely because of ignorance of what a trans person might face or need during service.

It is not only unfair to the prospective volunteer but to the in-country staff as well: how can they make the best decision for the volunteer’s safety or medical needs (which is the PC rationale behind the practice) when there is no education offered to them as part of their training? I do know that as more trans people are applying, more Country Directors are seeking information on how to best help trans people. While commendable, this speaks to the increasing need for Country Directors and in-country Peace Corps Medical Officers to be trained effectively in trans awareness and basic trans health; we should not allow these professionals to be solely trained either anecdotally or by self-directed research.

You can learn more about New Service at http://thenewservice.wordpress.com/ and contact Amy Potthast atamy@idealist.org


LGBT in Guatemala PCV Land

-A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

What is it like to be a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (or Questioning) Peace Corps Volunteer you ask? Well, in just the same way that every heterosexual volunteer’s experience is different, so are the experience of us volunteers who identify as queer, or to be politically inclusive, us volunteers who are not 100% straight.

Keeping this in mind, I can only honestly and respectfully answer this question by describing my own personal story. To speak on behalf of all gay volunteers out there in this “Think Global, Act Local” Peace Corps world that we live in would impede the diverse collection of experiences and unique identities of other gay volunteers.

All in all, my hope is that this story helps shed light on what exactly is the experience of the elusive, endangered species we call the Gay Peace Corps Volunteer. So here’s my story. My big-fat-I’m-a-gay-peace-corps-volunteer…er… trainee, story:

Three years ago I moved to New York City. Two years, 8 months ago I “came out” to myself and to my friends. One year ago, after the sudden death of my mother, the final walls came down and I told my family I was gay, learning the hard way that life is too short to hide your true identity from those you love. However, I still think of myself as blessed, for not only have I been accepted for sharing my sexual identity with those around me, but embraced, celebrated even!

So now I find myself in the present tense, some few months into my 27 months of Peace Corps Service and because “Culture Matters” so very much, I have been forced in many real ways, back “into the closet” I fought so long to escape. Imagine coming from Chelsea NYC to Guatemala. In my neighborhood in the states, arguably the gays outnumber heterosexuals compared to Guatemala, a country where machismo reigns supreme and the marginalization of gay culture approaches a national pastime status. It has been quite the adjustment.

This sudden loss of the emotional, cultural and sexual freedoms I was privy to in the United States has exacerbated many feelings of loneliness, homesickness, and the difficulties of cultural adjustments. For example, the LGBT advocate inside of me winces each time I feign an “oh yeah my novia (girlfriend) in the states” sentence to a host country national for the sake of my successful cultural assimilation and safety. Yes, I often feel that if my sexual identity were to slip into any host country community, my reputation and personal safety would be jeopardized. All for no better reason then I like to lie next to another man in bed.

Additionally, I have struggled, unable to find a gay friend(s) to run to when I need, well… a gay friend – somebody to 100% understand what it is that I need to tell them. On the bright side, my PC family is chalk full of uber-allies. This helps, but let’s be real here – allies are not the real thing and I suspect I will struggle with this nuanced dimension of loneliness for the entirety of my service.

So why you ask, after so many years of self repression, why would I, a gay individual, choose to give up the euphoric and intoxicated thrill of living “out and proud” to live as a “born again closeted” Peace Corps Volunteer? For me, there really was never a question about it. Being gay is only part of my complete identity and making compromises to some part of our respective identities to become a PCV is something I imagine we all endure. Thus, despite the struggles I face living under the guise of gay PCV concerns, it seems so far, vale la pena (worth the trouble).

Addendum: Since I first wrote this, my eyes have been opened a bit wider in terms of gay life in Guatemala. So, yes, there is a gay scene. Yes I have met gay Guatemalans. Is this group suppressed and marginalized? Incredibly so. Is it difficult to find? Very. Is there still tremendous work to do? Por supuesto (of course)! But is there hope? Absolutely!

This PCV can be contacted through lgbrpcv@lgbrpcv.org