Speaking My Truth: HIV Positive and Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer
By Guest Contributor on Wednesday, August 11th, 2010
When you join the Peace Corps, many people ask you “Why?” I never had a very good answer, and in retrospect, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I thought two years would go by in a flash and I would come home better for having gone so far from home and for having done such a “noble” thing. Two years did not go by in a flash and I came home changed-but not how I’d imagined I would.
As I was settling in to my village in Zambia, I met my future boyfriend. We started dating and I asked him if he had been tested for HIV. He told me, “Yes.” The previous year, he told me, he tested negative, and had not had unprotected sex since. Knowing that, we mutually decided it would be safe for us to use birth control without condoms. We were wrong. Despite the fact that I knew all about HIV prevention I had unprotected sex with him anyway.
A few weeks later, I decided we should get tested. I tried telling myself that it couldn’t be me. I was going to be fine. Too many times in my life I had played with all kinds of fire and survived. Not me. I was too nice and honest and fun and giving and I practiced yoga and meditation. We get bonus points in life for being good, right?
No, I guess we don’t. HIV doesn’t just choose mean people or people who tell lies. It turned out it chose me. We found out my boyfriend was positive and that I was also infected. As if that news isn’t devastating enough, the Peace Corps told me I had to go home and that I would not be able to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore, anywhere. I was too shocked to fully understand what was happening, but I did feel that Peace Corps was acting contrary to what they teach us: “Fight the virus not people with it. Treat people with HIV just like you would treat anyone else.” Yet, here I was going home.
I was shocked and traumatized as I packed up my things and said goodbye to my life in Zambia. I felt like a failure. I had come to teach prevention and here I was infected. I was asking myself that “Why?” question all over again. Why did I come to Zambia? Did I come to ruin my life? Who did I think I was coming over to Africa to tell people how to live? I didn’t even know the meaning of my own words.
As soon as I arrived home I traveled to Washington, D.C. Peace Corps headquarters told me that I would be evaluated and then separated. I asked my Peace Corps nurse if it was possible for me to continue to serve and she said, “No.” If I was positive, I would have to be separated. However, after I had been home for a month, Peace Corps changed its mind. Why? My friend was digging around on the Internet and found a story about another Volunteer who had been sent home earlier that year because of an HIV infection. He felt like his rights had been violated and had asked the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to intervene. The ACLU informed the Peace Corps that their policy discriminated against people with HIV and they needed to be more accommodating*. Peace Corps simply told me they were considering clearing me; everyone seemed to agree that I was physically and mentally well enough to continue my service.
It was suggested that my asthma was reason enough to keep me from going back to Zambia but I could go to Lesotho if I wanted. It seemed like a difficult decision at the time but I think I knew all along that I wanted to finish. Neither this illness nor my shame was going to stop me from returning to do the work I had set out to do. Maybe I could even do it better the second time around. So I said yes.
I made the most of my new home and my new Peace Corps family in Lesotho. I started making friends-but I kept my HIV status to myself. It was a heavy secret, but I felt too vulnerable and I wasn’t sure how I would be received. Two months into my service I attended a Volunteer training session where Volunteers talked about struggling with the emotional toll of living in a country where so many people were infected with HIV. I sat there, knowing that no one in the room knew about me. One Volunteer confessed, “I found out my counterpart was positive and I am trying to give him support and but it is emotional for me to know.” They were all being so honest; I wanted to run out of the room screaming.
After many people spoke, our director said, “One good thing about all this is that you have each other. We are all in the same boat.” At that point I did leave heading for the medical office and the only people who did know the truth. “I am not ‘in their boat’,” I said. I felt even lonelier and more left out than I had before—something I hadn’t thought possible.
After I calmed down a bit, I went to see the Country Director. I told him I had been thinking and I wanted to share my HIV status with all of the Peace Corps Volunteers in Lesotho, all 87 of them. We were going to have an All-Volunteer conference in January and I wanted to have a session in which I would share my story. I knew I couldn’t keep it a secret and this way I could control how the information was revealed.
On the day of my talk, I was terrified. I was going to be taking my most personal and private reality and laying it bare for everyone to see. I started my talk with a news article about the ACLU case against the Peace Corps. Then, I told them my story. I told them I knew better than to have sex without a condom. I told them I knew all the things they know that make them feel immune and I still got infected. In the end I asked them to make good use of me. I was the first infected person in service and I wanted to tell people what happened to me so that maybe they could learn from my mistake and not repeat it. That was, after all, why I returned to Africa
I am happy to say my fellow Volunteers embraced me—and they started using me immediately. I went to a Diversity Camp in Butha-Buthe district where 20 teenagers came together to learn to be more accepting of the differences around them. I was one of the key speakers and I asked them to brainstorm words that came into their minds when they heard “HIV.” “Don’t censor yourselves. Just say what ever comes to mind. Good or bad!” They did. I heard words like “prostitute” and “sex,” “anger” and “fear,” “stigma” and “blood.” We made a long list. And then I told them my story.
I told them everything. They were teenagers and statistics said they all were probably having sex already. They really listened, and afterwards asked questions. One woman asked, “How do you have so much courage to stand up in front of us and tell us these things?”
I just looked back at the list we made and said, ”If I feel too afraid to speak about this to all of you then I let this list define me. I refuse to let this illness keep me locked up in my own world of shame. And if by sharing my story with you, maybe one of you rethinks having unprotected sex, then I have accomplished something.” For the first time, I felt like I hadn’t become infected for nothing. Maybe this happened to me so that I could share it with people. Maybe it had a purpose in my life.
I did that many more times during my time in Lesotho. I went to four Diversity Camps. I spoke at schools and youth centers. I spoke to peer educators, youth groups, and students. I spoke to primary schools and secondary schools. I even traveled two days up into the mountains to speak to a HIV-positive support group about a healthy way to deal with hard and dark emotions. People really heard me. I felt connections with the people of Lesotho like I had never felt in Zambia. People came and shared their stories back with me. They asked me questions and invited me to their homes. I felt the force of belonging to a community.
I spent my second year of the Peace Corps speaking my truth over and over again. The fact is none of that would have been possible if it weren’t for the courage of other Volunteers who stood up to the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps did something they had never done before and let me, an HIV-positive Volunteer serve out my time in Africa. I received more from sharing my story than I could have ever given to the people of Lesotho.
I think the Peace Corps is like that. We go to faraway lands to give of ourselves, to help, to make something better but it is the people who house us and love us and work beside us that truly give to us. They gave me a sense of purpose. They made me believe that something good could come out of getting a very scary, chronic illness diagnosis. And I believe that it did. I would never have asked to become infected with HIV. But without it, the community of people living with the virus around the world would be just out of reach, and I want to connect. I want to cross over the line that separates and make a connection.
So here I find myself. My service is complete. I am back in America. I served my country. I told my story. Somehow I think I answered my “why.” The work I did as a volunteer in Zambia was forever on the outside looking in. Later, infected in Lesotho, I felt as though I had stepped through an invisible barrier and was welcomed with open arms.
*See the August 2008 issue of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Returned Peace Corps Volunteers newsletter for information about the Jeremiah Johnson case and changing Peace Corps policy related to Peace Corps Volunteers with HIV.
Elizabeth Tunkle (Zambia 07-08, Lesotho 08-09) can be contacted at elizabethtunkle @ yahoo.com.