How LGBTQ+ volunteers cope in the field
By Gwyn Skiles
In a small village in western Kenya, a Peace Corps Volunteer who, for safety reasons, will be referred to as Michael, is engaging in meaningful discussions about sexuality, where he encourages the people he meets to pursue life as who they are and safely explore relationships with others.
Michael identifies as a bisexual man but has been careful about whom he shares this with during his service. In Kenya, many regulations make same-sex relations unlawful, and a majority of Kenyan society holds negative views toward LGBTQ+ persons.
“If you do any sexual acts with a same-sex person, you can go to jail,” Michael said. “Compared to all the other things I’ve done in my life, [my service in Kenya] is the one thing where I have to really think a lot about who I want to share [my sexuality] with,” he said. “I have shared my [bisexual identity] with some of the people who I have gained full trust with, and it’s not something that affects my relationship with them.” Same-sex relations in Kenya are currently punishable by 14 years in jail, and almost half of the roughly 70 countries where same-sex relations are criminalized are in Africa, where many Volunteers serve.
When John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps as a federal agency in 1961, the Peace Corps prohibited people with “homosexual tendencies” from serving. Now, many PCVs and RPCVs openly identify as LGBTQ+. Many argue, however, that there is still work to be done to make the Peace Corps and the countries in which Volunteers serve more accepting.
Justin Tabor, the Co-Chair of the LGBTQI Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group, concerns about [their sexual relations], you should inform them, especially when it comes to HIV and gay men, and really facilitating [conversations about] the facts,” Michael said.
Photo courtesy Organization for World Peace, NBT
However, Michael said he sometimes feels limited in how he can help because it can be dangerous to talk about sexual health for those in same-sex relationships. Despite this, he said that outside of his work as a health Volunteer, he has engaged in meaningful discussions with host country friends about their sexualities.
“Having a couple of my [Kenyan] friends explain to me that they identify as lesbian and ask themselves ‘Is this normal? Is this okay? I mean, I still have relations with men,’” Michael said. “And really just help them to explore that about themselves in a more therapeutic and counseling session.”
Within the LGBTQ+ Peace Corps community, people have a desire to share their experiences from service and educate others about acceptance.
Currently, Peace Corps is present in 27 countries that have laws on the books against same-sex relationships. Just seven countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve have legalized same-sex marriage.
During Pride month, the Museum of the Peace Corps Experience invited RPCVs who identify as LGBTQ+ to share their stories through a project called “Portraits of Peace Corps Pride” to increase awareness about their experiences and concerns. The National Peace Corps Association has published articles highlighting how RPCVs have advocated for LGBTQ+ Volunteers. And Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn, along with members of her staff, have made it clear that all are welcome in the Peace Corps, and that safety and security are paramount for all Volunteers, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity.
As those who identify as LGBTQ+ continue to navigate their experiences as Volunteers and RPCVs, the ongoing effort to fight discrimination continues both at home and abroad.
“You’re supposed to be apolitical as a Volunteer,” Michael said. “In some cases it’s super easy, and in some it’s really hard to sit back and watch and not be a part of a movement."
Gwyn Skiles was a summer communications intern at the National Peace Corps Association. She is currently studying journalism at the University of Illinois, where she is a Video Production Assistant for the Big10 Network.