Below is the transcript of our June podcast, “Lesbian and Gay Perspectives in AmeriCorps and Peace Corps.” Huge thanks to podcast intern Sara Lozito, an AmeriCorps member, for work in creating the transcript.
Amy: Welcome to the Idealist podcast. I’m Amy Potthast and this is the The New Service Podcast from Idealist.org – moving people from good intentions to action.
June is Pride Month, so The New Service podcast is taking a closer look at the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals serving in Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. The terms lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are abbreviated throughout the show as LGBT or GLBT.
Today’s guests are lesbian and gay former service corps participants:
So welcome Kate, Martha and Chad to The New Service Podcast. Happy Pride Month!
Kate: Happy Pride Month!
Chad: Yeah, thank you.
Amy: I thought maybe we could start by each of you introducing yourselves and where you served, and maybe what you’re doing now.
Chad: My name’s Chad Jeremy and I was an AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) member from 2004-2005. I served two years mostly on the Atlantic and the East Coast of the United States — all over, different states. And I currently am on staff as the Program Director for Training with the same program.
Martha: And my name is Martha Tierney and I’m currently a Program Officer with AmeriCorps National at CNCS headquarters — the Corporation for National and Community Service. And I was an AmeriCorps National member with the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers out in Seattle, Washington from 2003-2004.
Amy: So I thought we would start off with a look at what the existing policies are regarding LGBT volunteers at Peace Corps and also at the Corporation for National and Community and Service with regards to AmeriCorps service.
Kate: So, at the Peace Corps, we do get a lot of questions when we’re at pride fairs as to whether we have a similar policy as the military. Is it ‘don’t ask don’t tell’? And we don’t have that policy, we have a nondiscrimination policy, and we encourage people to be open with the staff members about their sexual orientation as it might affect their placement.
Amy: So, wait a minute, open with staff members like the recruiters [who work here in the United States] or once they’re already in-country [with program staff there]?
Kate: Yeah, they… either. You know, we like people to be open with recruiters, because we feel like we can be a good resource for you. But it’s certainly not required and we are not going to ask you. And then in country, we also… same thing. We encourage you to be open because we think that we can provide resources either among other volunteers or provide some kind of cross-cultural perspective in terms of what you’ll be facing when you’ll be living there. So we do welcome LGBT volunteers and we actually have a Peace Corps alumni group specifically devoted to LGBT alumni. And their website offers a lot of stories and resources and also a mentorship program. And that website is: LGBRPCV.org. So… it stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Returned Peace Corps Volunteers dot org.
Amy: And a quick question about when you say a “nondiscrimination policy,” I’m sure a lot of people have heard that before, but can you spell out exactly what that means?
Kate: Yeah, it means that, so for example, if you come to your interview and you tell your recruiter that you are a lesbian, or gay, or bisexual, or transgender, any of those things, that information will not be used against you, and it will not be used to determine your suitability for the Peace Corps.
Amy: And Martha, or Chad, what’s going on over at the Corporation [for National and Community Service]?
Martha: The Corporation has a variety of civil rights and non-harassment policies. We have a specific policy that is called the Grant Program [Civil Rights and] Non-Harassment Policy which includes freedom from discrimination based on: race, gender, national origin, political affiliation, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. And because our policy is slightly broader than the standard federal guideline, we also require our grantees [AmeriCorps programs and host organizations] to include at least sexual orientation in addition to the other areas of nondiscrimination or areas that an organization might be tempted to discriminate against somebody in their policies. So it applies to the Corporation, as a workplace and also applies to our grantees and to our service locations.
Amy: So, one big question that comes up a lot I think, especially on the Peace Corps side, is about volunteers serving together. Kate, do you want to explain a little bit more about Peace Corps’ policy — like what it is and why it is.
Kate: Sure. So the only two people that we can place together are married couples–a man and a woman based upon the federal definition of marriage. And that is because we’re a federal organization and so according to the Defense of Marriage Act, we have to abide by their definition of what a marriage is. We also don’t place for example, two friends together, or a brother and sister together, we can only place that federal definition of a married couple together.
Amy: I don’t know… on the AmeriCorps side it doesn’t seem like it’s such an issue, serving together. Does that ever become an issue, especially on the NCCC side, where it’s residential?
Chad: Our program is limited in age so I should probably add that as just kind of a precursor to my answer in that NCCC is 18-24 year olds so you know, logistically we’re starting to see that people aren’t really engaging in long-term relationships at that age. But, I don’t know of anybody specific as far as within the LGBT community that’s been in a committed relationship that were trying to serve together. But we do not place anybody that has a preexisting relationship together on the same team. So that’s just policy across the board–and we treat gay relationships or straight relationships the same way.*
Amy: What about transgender people? I understand that’s a separate — there are just completely separate —issues facing people who are transgendered… but what about the policy side?
Kate: From the Peace Corps perspective, our policy is to treat the transgender issue as a medical issue so again, you know, it falls under our nondiscrimination policies. So, we have had transgender applicants and we have actually had transgender volunteers. And if anyone’s interested in this issue, I would really encourage them to check out an article that was recently written by someone who just finished their Peace Corps experience in Africa. It was written anonymously, to protect his identity, and it can be found on that LGBRPCV.org website. And he’s speaking about his experience. So I’m guessing that that person likely did not disclose to their recruiter that they were transgender and even if they had, that’s really not something to be taken into consideration in terms of the recruiters’ perspective. So it’s simply a medical issue in terms of where they are along the process, if they’re taking any drugs, if they have access to all the medical needs that might need to be accommodated.
Amy: We’re going to feature an interview with him on The New Service Blog hopefully the same day that this podcast launches.
Kate: That’s great.
Martha: From the Corporation’s side, our civil rights policies don’t currently make a determination about transgendered individuals. But you know, according to all of our policies, if any person feels they’ve been discriminated against, on any improper basis, they should call our Office of Civil Rights and Inclusion and report it. So, at this point, it’s really only kind of a hypothetical question for us. And if it did come to light, I think that’s something we would need to make specific policy about.
Amy: Each of you is a former participant in a service corps so, I was thinking you could talk a little bit about what the experience was like for each of you during your term of service in terms of working along side fellow volunteers and corps members, and also in the communities where you served.
Chad: So, NCCC’s a really interesting program especially as an LGBT individual. You know, I think, I’ll start off by saying, I came back for a second year so obviously I had a really enjoyable experience. And I’m currently working on staff so obviously I think that overall, the program is a really amazing program.
That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges at times. While we remained in the United States, you know, we’re different from the Peace Corps in that sense. NCCC is a program in which you are kind of plucked from your hometown and your comfort zone and kind of thrown into a world that’s generally all the way across the country. I was from San Diego, California, you know, from Southern California, and I came out to this small, rural town in Maryland which was my base. And then traveled from Maine down to Florida to Louisiana to Mississippi, so all kinds of different places. And so, I guess there are two parts.
From a fellow volunteer stand point, there were about 160 other members at my base that I was at, and we all came in at the same time. And it’s very communal living sort of like college, you’re put into dorms or houses and you’re separated out by gender and you know, I think that a lot of those issues around kind of old fashioned gender separation doesn’t take into account LGBT issues. So I had always had the comfort of my kind of very liberal upbringing in Southern California and was thrown into this living with seven other guys that were all from totally different backgrounds from me and were way different from me. So I was completely nervous and stressed about it for a month leading up to my time coming to AmeriCorps. I actually came to find that it was pretty amazing. You know, a lot of those stereotypes or fears that I had maybe of living with people that might have different opinions about my orientation —or, you know, that it would be an issue for them —were broken down pretty quickly. So, overall my fellow members that I served with were really accepting and I had a very positive experience with them.
Amy: So, you were saying in the time leading up you were terrified about what might happen. What helped you get past that and still show up?
Chad: That’s a great question and I sometimes wonder that myself. I served back in 2004 so it was a little bit before the Facebook age. But we did have a Yahoo Group or, something of that nature, for members who had been accepted but had not been quite placed yet. There was luckily one other guy on the [Yahoo] group that was kind of open and talking about his orientation and his fears, so we were able to connect, and just knowing that there was going to be one other person who was going to be kind of having some of these same issues helped me. And I think also, [what helped me was] just the overall motivation I had to come to serve. You know, I was joining AmeriCorps NCCC for a desire to serve which was much larger than my fears of awkwardness in communal living situations.
Amy: So well put.
Chad: I kind of had this naiveté about — especially cause I did grow up in Southern California — that how bad could it really be? Like I’m kind of fearful but I think, “Gosh, everyone must be pretty accepting,” especially [since] they’re going to be 18-24 year olds, and they’re all coming to serve so there’s gotta be some kind of common ground that we all have. And I came to find that that was largely true in my experience with NCCC.
[As for issues I confronted vis à vis] the communities that we went into…So NCCC is a program you don’t have much choice in it, you know I didn’t apply to a specific region or, a specific kind of program. I didn’t know if I was going to be tutoring kids one day and then building houses the next. It’s a program that has a lot of variety built into it. You kind of go through four to five different project cycles in your year. And you’re sent anywhere the program determines you are needed and you don’t have choice in that. And you’re placed on a team without choice, and it’s all done kind of somewhat like the military. You’re kind of placed in a platoon or whatever.
And so the communities that we go and serve in a lot of times are not always urban metropolises where there would be allies for me or support groups, or just “my scene,” if you will. There were projects I had in rural Massachusetts or rural Mississippi. Or particularly when we do a lot of disaster response, which is a big key component of NCCC, you tend to partner with what they call “voluntary organizations serving in disaster or active in disaster.” And a lot of those are organizations that are based in religion so you know, a lot of Southern Baptists or other organizations of that type that do really amazing disaster work and you know, there were numerous times that I was told that I was going to hell or whatever. But I think that came to my peers on my team that were not gay or lesbian too. You know just because they had different colored hair or something. So it wasn’t unique to the LGBT community but it certainly was there. I mean there were times when I felt uncomfortable. Not ever that my safety was in jeopardy but just that somebody was judging me or that I wasn’t appreciated for what I was trying to contribute to that community.
Martha: I had kind of the opposite experience of Chad I guess, in some ways. I definitely chose the program that I wanted to go to and chose the location that I wanted to serve in. So, I had finished college in Boston, Massachusetts and wanted to find a way to move across the country. And wanted to take a year to do service and actually really focus on service. It had always been such a big part of my personal life and been part of my family’s life and I just thought that was the best way for me to dedicate a year after college. So, I did some research and applied to the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, among several other programs on the West Coast. But NDA was in Seattle, and I had never been to Seattle, didn’t have any clue about it. Had never even seen a picture of it. Was accepted to the program and then just decided I was going to move there. And so my best friend and I got in a car, left Boston, and moved to Washington State, almost on a whim. And the whole rest of my experience was… it started positive, and it just stayed positive the whole time.
I think I had some reservations about how to represent my sexuality while in my service. And the organization that I served with is Catholicly-affiliated and so I was definitely a little bit more discreet about my sexual orientation than I am now, while I was serving. But I never felt like I had to be that way. I felt like that was my own personal choice. In addition, there was another gay man who was a second-year member on the team and so I just felt like, if he can do this, I can do it.
Amy: So, once again, connecting with other people coming from a similar perspective helped you settle in a little bit?
Martha: I think that’s one of the biggest advantages of AmeriCorps — very few people find that they don’t have anything in common with at least one other person they’re serving with. And you know, sometimes that can be around sexual orientation, sometimes that can be around maybe religious beliefs or political affiliation, or poverty interest. And so that was definitely true for me in sort of a myriad of different ways.
Chad: I just wanted to add that definitely for me, any of those times that I felt awkward engaging with certain communities, it was my team that definitely pulled me through. And there wasn’t anybody else on my team that was gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered but just the fact that we kind of had each others’ backs cause there was that kind of common bond. We were in this together, you know we were like this team of AmeriCorps members that were from outside of this community kind of coming in for six weeks.
Kate: It’s been really interesting to hear about Chad and Martha’s experiences. Obviously, the difference with Peace Corps is that you’re in an overseas community, and certainly in the U.S. we have a lot of communities that may not be very accepting of LGBT people. And that’s even more so the case in the Peace Corps. And so as a Volunteer in China, in my community, it definitely was not accepted. It would not have been acceptable or appropriate for me to be out in my community.
So, you know I think it would be very different if I went to the Peace Corps now, having been very out. But I went into the Peace Corps very young, at 22, and I was just kind of in my own process of coming out of the closet. And I think that my fellow Peace Corps volunteers were probably the first group that I was openly out to like as a group, as a whole. And I, like Chad and Martha, felt very supported by them. But unfortunately, I wasn’t with them most of the time because of this geographic distance. So I had two other Peace Corps volunteers in my community who I wasn’t particularly close to.
But for the most part I was with local Chinese people. And so I think definitely one of the challenges for me was trying to be really open and honest and develop relationships with people when I felt like I was hiding a very significant part of who I was. And that was also very profound for me to learn about myself because unlike Chad, I grew up in a conservative home in Southern California, and I guess I, you know, it took me a really long time to come to terms with my sexuality and I think that I really wanted to think that wasn’t really a very significant part of who I was and that it really just wasn’t that significant. And I can say I didn’t have any concerns going to the Peace Corps about it. I don’t think I even thought about it cause I don’t think I was self-aware enough to think about it. But one of the experiences that I had is that, when you’re placed in a situation where you’re not free to be who you are, it made me realize how significant that was to who I am. And I think it actually made me a much stronger advocate for LGBT issues when I returned to the U.S. So that was kind of an unexpected thing that happened to me.
Amy: And something you’ve said in the past, as a challenge for people who are going into Peace Corps, is that you know, in the United States, maybe they are very open and out but then there’s sort of a challenge that they might have to go back into the closet when they’re in their country of service.
Kate: Yeah, I mean, I think that anyone who’s lesbian or gay needs to really think about this if you’re thinking about applying to the Peace Corps because I can’t really think of any Peace Corps community around the world where volunteers can be openly out of the closet. So you know, pretty much without exception you’re gonna have to need to be closeted at some level.
And certainly, like in my own case, I had one Chinese friend in my community that I was out with so that was a really important support system for me. And I really relied upon her but it probably took me about a year until I felt comfortable enough with her where I could confide in her. And then I also had the support network of fellow volunteers and also the Peace Corps staff.
But you know, just in case anyone who’s listening is thinking, “Why? Why can’t I be out and be who I am,” and you know, “That’s a part of me I want to share.” In my case for example, if I had been out in my community, it really would have jeopardized my ability to do my job as a teacher. And it also would have jeopardized actually the Peace Corps’ relationship I think in China or the Peace Corps’ role there. So, as a foreigner living in a community — and you’re often the only foreign person in that community— you have a big spotlight on you and you’re under a lot of scrutiny. There are any number of compromises that you kind of have to make not just regarding your sexuality. But there are any number of compromises you have to make as a guest in a host country to kind of try and be respectful and also be successful as a volunteer.
Amy: That raises so many questions for me but I’d rather focus on opportunities [of serving as an LGBT individual]. I’m really curious about if you guys saw any — either through your role in service in communities maybe that hadn’t encountered very many people who are LGBT in the past or something like that. If you experienced any — sort of opportunities that arose that you wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for your sexuality.
Kate: I think it’s a really good question. And I can say for me honestly, if i had to do it over again I think I would make a lot more opportunities. And in my visits back to China I’ve tried to kind of learn more for example about the underground gay community in China and connect with people that way. Just you know, have some great conversations with some very closeted and nervous gay people in China and feel like I could be resource to them.
But, you know I will say that a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers— I returned to the U.S. in 2001 so, it was a while ago. So a lot of Volunteers that are serving now, although they might not be out in their communities, they are specifically working with organizations to promote greater acceptance of LGBT people in that community. And they really—their sexuality is something that they can really bring kind of as a resource to what ever jobs and projects they’re working on. So, again, I would refer to that gay and lesbian alumni Peace Corps group for examples and stories of current volunteers who are working on those projects.
Martha: This is Martha, I mean I just think that’s amazing that there is that group. I think that’s really fantastic. At CNCS we have a federal GLBT affinity group that we’re working to promote right now it’s called National Service GLOBE.
Martha: That’s right G-L-O-B-E. The acronym isn’t quite accurate, but GLOBE is actually a federal affinity group organization and so there are GLOBE chapters in all the federal agencies. And so our chapter at CNCS was started last year. And something we really want to try and do is to promote a support network for our field. Like for Corporation employees, for Service Commission staff, for national service members, and for our grantees to help create a dialogue around what it means to be a supportive ally or an out service member in a variety of different contexts. Hopefully our group can kind of act as a support. You know the way that returned Peace Corps group is.
Chad: You know, when you were asking about the question about opportunities, I really feel that for me, service is really such a great equalizer. I engaged in dialogue with people that if I wouldn’t have joined in AmeriCorps NCCC, and I wouldn’t have been taken out of my comfort zone, I probably would have shut down immediately when there was confrontation or a disagreement about sexual orientation.
Particularly on those disaster assignments. There wasn’t a choice, you had to work with XYZ group and maybe you didn’t see eye to eye at first, but then after three weeks where you’re working side by side on helping people that have had everything taken away from them in an instant, you know like a hurricane has come and completely wiped out a town. And you’re working right next to somebody that you probably would have shut down a conversation with before this experience, it really for me was such an equalizer.
I think that I had an effect on those people and I would like to think that maybe they are more accepting around LGBT communities. But then also, for me just speaking as myself, as somebody who does not come from a religious family, I also grew so much about stopping my own prejudice around maybe thinking that all people from say, the Southern Baptists, are going to be against me or whatnot because I really met amazing people.
When those personal connections or those personal relationships are made, that’s so much stronger than any kind of march or activism that can occur. You know what I mean? ‘Cause it’s really on that level that you’re really able to make these lasting effects and change.
Amy: So we’ve been talking a little bit about indirect impact you can have on people, speaking around LGBT issues as opportunities that you were able to take during your service time. And I know Kate mentioned a little bit about working on LGBT-specific-related projects, or organizations. I’m wondering if, either if there are organizations that host AmeriCorps members or Peace Corps Volunteers that are focused on those issues or if there is project-specific work that AmeriCorps and Peace Corps Volunteers have done that related to LGBT issues?
Kate: Peace Corps doesn’t have a specific program where you can sign up and say, “I want to work specifically on LGBT issues,” but we do have– you know, whatever your primary assignment is, we always encourage people to take on secondary assignments and projects. And as we all know, there are gay people in every country of they world! So, you can work on secondary projects, and sometimes your secondary projects as a Peace Corps Volunteer actually end up being more rewarding or fulfilling than your primary assignment.
Amy: Can you explain what a secondary project is?
Kate: Sure. It’s like, okay, so [when I was a Volunteer] my primary assignment was to teach English in a teachers’ college. And then my secondary projects, for example, were running an English language resource library and also, I had a girls’ soccer team, and a little running club — I was much more active in those days. And those are my own examples but other people will do for example, a school garden or they will, say, volunteer in an orphanage or volunteer with a gay and lesbian group.
Many of the communities where we work, they probably don’t have specifically a gay and lesbian group. A lot of our volunteers, worldwide, work on HIV/AIDS issues and one of the focuses with HIV/AIDS issues in on a particular community that they don’t identify themselves as gay but as men who have sex with men—and trying to get out safe-sex messages to that community. So I know that a lot of Peace Corps volunteers around the world and particularly in Africa are involved in HIV education, particularly with that community.
Amy: Martha or Chad?
Martha: I know we have some programs that are specifically geared toward serving GLBT youth, or serving with the GLBT community. Or also, you know we haven’t talked at all about VISTA projects which is another wing of AmeriCorps. VISTA is Volunteers In Service To America. And so we have several VISTA projects that are geared toward our community, and then in the National Direct portfolio, for example, we have National AIDS Fund which does a lot with GLBT issues specifically around AIDS. And then a lot of our programs might not necessarily be specifically organizations that address GLBT issues but they might have service sites that do in various communities. So it’s very very broad—the opportunities to get involved with GLBT issues if you want to do a year of AmeriCorps national service.
Chad: I’m not actually aware of a full-time project that’s specific to LGBT issues, although certainly it’s not something that we wouldn’t be interested in. As someone who develops projects, it’s actually something that I’ve been exploring. But when I was a member… we have a thing in NCCC actually where not only is is encouraged but it is required that members do 80 additional hours in their 10 months of service that are above and beyond the hours that are programmed for them by the staff. And that’s in their evenings or weekends. And they have to do those hours with non-profits or governmental organizations. That’s the one piece of NCCC’s experience that you can kind of control as a member. I did a lot of my hours with the LGBT youth center cause they’re a recognized nonprofit so they were an eligible organization for me to serve with.
Amy: You guys have all done a great job of mentioning the LGBT RPCVs and the National Service GLOBE. Are there any other resources that were useful for you in thinking about your own service opportunities? …That you would refer people to now who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning … about their service in the future or who, maybe, are currently serving?
Kate: I guess my only thing is just that I would say that beyond referring people to the LGBT RPCV group… [is to explaing that] they offer three services:
One is a mentor service where they’ll match you with a returned volunteer– like so you’re thinking about applying or you are an applicant, who will kind of guide you through the process and be a resource at many different levels.
And two, they also have an active listserv where people will submit questions or ask people for advice or say “Hey, my recruiter asked me about such and such, and does anyone have any guidance?”
And three, they have a treasure trove of stories written by volunteers who have served all over the world. So I mean, really you can go and search if there’s a certain region of the world you’re interested in knowing about. And I think that’s great even for people who have no interest in being Peace Corps Volunteers, but are for some reason going to be living or traveling overseas to learn a little bit about LGBT experiences in that part of the world, as well, would be really helpful.
Chad: I don’t know that I have anything in addition to National Service GLOBE that I would recommend. When I served, it was prior to National Service GLOBE being in existence and there was a group of us that formed our own group at the NCCC campus as just kind of a support. But you know I really think that with national service being a little bit younger than Peace Corps, I’m fascinated with some of the ideas I’m hearing even on this conversation. And as somebody that’s involved with GLOBE, I really hope that we can kind of start to fill some of those needs for our members.
Martha: Yeah, I completely agree. So Chad and I are both officers in the [National Service GLOBE] affinity group and I think we have some really broad ideas of how we can use the group to support the community and I think this is just giving me so many, so many ideas.
Chad: Yeah, I’ve written down a million!
Martha: I know, me too!
Amy: Are there any closing thoughts or anything that we didn’t cover?
Kate: Yeah, I think I would actually want to highlight something that Chad said early on in the conversation when he was talking about trying to balance his concerns and his fears about going to NCCC with why he actually wanted to do it. And he said he kind of drew upon the fact that his overriding motivation was to serve others and I would just say for LGBT people who are thinking about service in whatever capacity that is, that certainly your sexuality might pose some challenges or some complications, but that hopefully at the end of the day, that your desire to serve really wins out over that cause it’s a very rewarding and powerful experience.
Amy: Thank you so much, Kate, Chad and Martha for taking the time to be on the call today.
Chad, Martha, Kate: Thank you so much, thank you.
Amy: Read our interview with one of the only known transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteers about his service, on The New Service blog, http://www.idealist.org/thenewservice. (Because of scheduling issues, and as a way to maintain his anonymity, we agreed to a written interview with him.)
Special thanks today to Jason Scott of the Corporation for National and Community Service and Mike Learned of LGBT Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). This show was produced with the help of Sara Lozito and Douglas Coulter. I’m Amy Potthast. Thanks for listening. To find more good things to do, go to http://www.idealist.org.
If you have enjoyed our podcasts, please show your support by going to iTunes, and leaving a review and rating of this episode, or others you’ve liked. You can also send us feedback to: podcasts [at] idealist.org.
*Editorial note from Amy Potthast: Something I cut from Chad’s response here, because of time, was that NCCC does have a “Bring a Friend” policy, that means that two people who know each other can apply for NCCC and can be based on the same campus — Chad clarifies that they cannot however serve on the same team.