Peace Corps Volunteers are known for their ability to adapt, succeed in spite of difficult odds and learn about themselves in the process. GLBTQ Peace Corps Volunteers definitely possess all of these traits and so many more as they serve in countries where being gay or lesbian is illegal.
Balancing their altruism and concerns of helping others while choosing to disclose or not disclose their sexuality leads to very challenging decisions during their service. Each person has unique experiences that can cause a wide range of emotions. For their own safety, I am not using the real names of volunteers or mentioning the countries they serve in.
The process of understanding one's sexuality, coming out, and building relationships is a unique journey for every person. For some, coming out can take a long time. In the Peace Corps a lot of volunteers have to go back into the closet.
John is a creative, intellectual man who has a natural ability to talk about all topics. He shared:
Coming out is one of the most important processes of a GLBTQ person's identity. It means revealing a part of yourself to friends and loved ones and seeking acceptance for being different. The task of coming out of the closet is often emotional and difficult, but going back in presents its own challenges. When working in a small village the job is your whole life. The underlying goal of anything a volunteer does is community integration. The difference for GLBTQ people is the boundary on the information we can share and the issues we must circumvent because of it.
Not being able to come out to friends and co-workers in the village affects a person's feeling of closeness. Jane is the kind of woman whose passion for life flows through every single word she says and action she takes. She talked about her experience:
The most difficult part of not being out in my village is definitely the divide it creates with friends. Making friends is such a huge part of our service. Having people in your life that you can trust, who can trust you is monumental to being an effective volunteer. While I feel that my service has been quite effective, I also feel as if I will never be fully known in my village, with the people that I hold very close to my heart.
A volunteer's sexuality can also affect his or her relationship with in-country Peace Corps staff. While staff members are known to be accepting, there is still a fear of sharing something so personal that can be foreign to others.
Jody, a free-spirited and down-to-earth woman talked about her experience:
American staff members pretty much know who I am, but the local staff doesn't. I haven't come out to any local staff members, even though I have heard that it's not a big deal. I am scared that it may change how they feel about me and the work I am doing here. I feel like I am constantly on guard about anyone finding out. I feel there are hints that I am a lesbian but so far no one has caught on. I have the worst case scenario of how people might react in my mind and I judge them for that, even though it's unfair because I haven't given anyone a chance to maybe prove me wrong.
John feels Peace Corps staff has been widely supportive, "The Peace Corps community embraces diversity in all respects. The typical volunteer is open-minded, well travelled, and concerned foremost with human rights. I have never felt uncomfortable sharing that aspect of my life with my volunteer friends, nor have I felt at all discriminated against by staff because of my sexuality."
Two of the four volunteers I interviewed have come out to local people. One of them is a man named Alex. He has an unforgettable personality fueled by a seemingly unending need for unique experiences. He talked about his decision, "I am out in my village. I do not run down the street screaming that I am gay but I never hide the fact that I am gay and if someone asks and I feel that they do not have ulterior motives I will tell them the truth."
Many volunteers feel coming out would be the best example of a cultural exchange. Alex has been able to experience this. He explained:
Being gay has been the most beneficial part of my service and integration into my community. I have made the most amazing local friends who are a part of the GLBTQ community. These communities throughout the world are usually close knit due to discrimination and stigma. The GLBTQ community in the country I serve in is very close. Once you are introduced to one person you know them all. It is also so exciting and fun getting to know other gay individuals in the context of a different continent, because you hear so much that it is dangerous for us and in my host country things are very open, easy and overall the GLBTQ community is accepted into society even though it's illegal.
Coping with these circumstances varies for each volunteer. John lives in a small, very remote village. He said, "The absence of a gay community where I live makes me feel more isolated than anything else in this experience. I definitely cannot date in my village, and coping is sometimes exacerbated by the lack of people nearby who empathize with this part of my identity. This is a personal journey for me and I was prepared for the sacrifice before I made the commitment, but two years is a long time."
Those who haven't come out in the same manner as Alex have learned a lot about themselves in other ways. Jane talked about this aspect:
It's been very difficult to hide part of myself. However, I somewhat separated my sexual orientation from my purpose here and found it to be enlightening. My sexual orientation is a big part of who I am. There is a subculture that comes along with it and while I am looking forward to returning to the states, where I am out to my friends and family, I will now do it with a better sense of self.
Jody added, "I hate having to hide this part of my identity but I've realized that being a lesbian doesn't exclusively define who I am. Those other parts of me are coming out more in my personality and I think that's pretty healthy."
It's common for GLBTQ volunteers to turn to fellow volunteers, family and friends back home or a host of other healthy outlets to deal with the more difficult days. Relying on a support system in the country where volunteers serve as well as home in America adds the extra strength volunteers need. A majority of GLBTQ volunteers benefit from the self-exploration and discovery those 2 years of service offer.
When I asked Alex how he has coped with all of the situations he has faced he poignantly answered, "I have coped, because I am gay."
Flickr photo by @bastique.