Group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers offers support to LGBT applicants, and help for Peace Corps recruiters, too.
Living two years in a developing country is rough — homesickness, language, culture, infrastructure, lack of creature comforts, etc. For people who are gay or lesbian, the experience can be even more challenging in cultures where same-sex relationships are hidden due to intolerance or fear of punishment.
So for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Peace Corps applicants, a lot of questions can arise that have tough answers. Questions like “Will I have to be celibate for two years?” or “How am I going to get myself back in the closet after working so hard to get out of it!?” And the mother of them all, “Can my partner and I serve together?”
In 1991 Mike Learned founded LGB RPCVs, one of many chapter groups affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) — the support and advocacy organization for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).
Most NPCA chapter groups are based on the U.S. region where RPCVs live now — for example Boston Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers— or else they are based on the country of service — for example Friends and RPCVs of Guyana.
LGB RPCVs is unique in that it unites returned Volunteers who served across the world, and who also now live across the globe. Its web site presents articles and Frequently Asked Questions for people considering Peace Corps service. The group also issues regular newsletters and features resources for Peace Corps staff to better understand policies that pertain to future Volunteers who are LGBT.
The Mentor Program — the groups’ “most successful outreach and recruitment project” — connects these future Volunteers with LGBT returned Volunteers in order to discuss life in Peace Corps.
Several years ago my friend Kate Kuykendall, then a Peace Corps recruiter, was interviewed for the LGB RPCV web site. In that interview she answers some of the questions posed above, and elaborates on the challenges of talking about the Peace Corps experience and sexual orientation with LGBT applicants.
Kate now works as a Peace Corps public affairs specialist for Peace Corps in Los Angeles and is a lesbian and a newlywed. I asked her if new state laws legalizing gay marriage affect the ability of gay couples to serve together in Peace Corps.
She said, “The recent changes to certain state marriage laws do not affect the Peace Corps’ policy of not placing [LGBT] couples together. This is because, as a federal agency, the Peace Corps must abide by the federal definition of marriage, which is limited to the marriage between a man and woman. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, is the law that prohibits any other interpretation of marriage.”
And for now at least unmarried couples cannot serve together in Peace Corps. Even siblings and other family members are turned down if they want a guarantee they’ll be posted to the same country, assignment, site, etc.
To find other groups of RPCVs, see the list on the National Peace Corps Association web site.