Serving in the Peace Corps as an LGBTQ+ Volunteer

Note: This post is part of a series I am hosting on this blog to discuss challenges Peace Corps volunteers face while serving in Kosovo. The following post was written by an LGBTQ+ volunteer. — April

I am a volunteer of many identities – one of which being somewhere on the spectrum of LGBTQ+ – living in the EMA [Europe, Mediterranean, Asia] region of Peace Corps. Before I came to service, I was preparing my old home, back in “The Closet,” for a 2 year stay. I figured, “I’ve had to live there before. I can do it again, right?” Throughout the process (from applying to serving), I wasn’t sure who I would come out to or EVEN IF I would come out to anyone. I thought, maybe it would be best to not tell my interviewers or any staff that I was LGBTQ+, out of a slight worry that it would make me a less desirable candidate. Although, during my phone interview, I felt comfortable enough to be honest about how I identify. In hindsight, I am so glad that I did this, because it allowed me and the HQ/Post staff to be better prepared for my stay. I was able to openly ask questions about how my identity may create challenges for me, so that I could prepare myself – both in what information I would share with people and how I would share it. Post staff, knowing that at least one LGBTQ+ identifying member would be serving, took initiative to properly train their American and host country staff in Safe Zone practices.

Personally, almost as soon as I met my fellow cohort members at staging, I decided to come out to them. I felt good vibes from everyone I guess, or maybe I had just grown so comfortable in my rainbow skin to hide myself in a group of Americans. I would say that I was fortunate though that everyone was really cool about it. I also felt comfortable enough with the post staff to be open about my identity early on. I have not had any issues there either, so yay! Despite my run of luck, it could have very well bit me in the ass quickly. To my pleasant surprise, we had a Safe Zone session very early on at in-country training, addressing the serious effects that outing someone can have while living in a country where many people do not support the LGBTQ+ community. All that being said, I would just advise to use discretion. If you want to roll in like me and come in with your rainbow flag casually visible to your new Peace Corps fam (fellow volunteers and American/local staff), then you also need to be aware of the potential consequences. Oh, let me make note that I don’t actually have a rainbow flag here. I DEFINITELY left that back home. Ultimately, it is your choice of how “out” you will be and with who. Remember, although many people may accept you for all of your identities, many others may have negative reactions that may lead to ostracization, hate-speech, violence… and if things do threaten your safety, there is a high likelihood of a shorter service than you expected.

As I said before, I am out to my Peace Corps fam. Additionally, I am out to a few other expats, both from America and other countries; and a select few locals. Keep in mind, that other expats do not go through the same extensive cultural training as we do… so, again, DISCRETION.

I AM NOT out to my host families or anyone in my village, which is probably one of my biggest challenges through service. There are moments when I wish I could share that part of myself honestly with them, and moments when I almost feel I can. I often put off the urges to come out to locals, which has been a good tactic; because I later realize that maybe it would not have been a positive experience or would have done more harm than good. Still, I hope that someday I can come out to those I have grown closest to and maybe I can open their minds in this aspect; especially with my host family, particularly my host siblings, because one day I hope they will be able to visit me in America. By that time, I will likely (well HOPEFULLY) be in a serious relationship and living with my partner, and I would not want to hide that from them.

In the meanwhile, I have had to find ways to cope with the repeated suggestion that I find a nice local partner of the opposite gender. In the beginning, I would just uncomfortably laugh and say “maybe.” Then, it progressively became funnier as I thought to myself, “ohhhh man, you guys don’t even know how much of a non-possibility this is.” Then, it began to bother me… and I had to figure out a way to be okay with it. Sure, I could’ve made up a fake partner, but that would have been a heavy, elaborate lie to keep up for two years. So what did I do? I decided to look at it from a different perspective. I couldn’t look at it as though they were trying to push their heteronormative agenda onto me, but rather that they liked me so much that they want me to find a reason to stay longer or come back more often.

I cannot honor my LGBTQ+ part of my identity all the time, but I have found safe places where I can – places where I can let down my hetero-mask. My safe places have included literal physical spaces where I am isolated or in a controlled environment, virtual spaces where I can talk to people I am out to, and amongst allies or fellow LGBTQ+ people (American and local). I have also learned to appreciate other parts of my identity.

Coming into staging and orientation, I was required to make an identity web, which helps volunteers reflect on the ways that the world sees them and the ways that they see themselves. These identities can include everything from nationalities, ethnicity, and orientations to passions, hobbies, and other personality traits. This was helpful to look back on when I started to feel like I wasn’t being true to myself. I was able to reflect on the things that I had written down and remember that the LGBTQ+ part of me didn’t define who I am. I think this ended up being a challenge for me, because it was a major part of my identity for the few years prior. I had learned to embrace that part of myself and took a large role in LGBTQ+ leadership in my community.

Overall, I have found peace in this experience. Even though it’s been personally conflictual, I am grateful that it encouraged me to reflect and nurture other parts of my identity. Service has challenged me in ways that I never imagined. I tried not to come with any expectations, which is good in ways but also not; so if you are going to have an expectation, let it be the expectation of challenges ahead. Then, when you face those challenges, don’t forget to be patient with yourself and be prepared to explore methods to develop your resiliency. Patience and resiliency are both things you have to continually work on through service (and life), but they can help you have an amazing experience and grow exponentially.

Some Advice

• Social Media. Locals will try to friend you on social media. Make sure your privacy settings are appropriate. You may consider making secondary social media accounts that you only use abroad (be careful not to get caught). If you choose not to do this, be prepared to say why you don’t accept people’s friend requests. Try Googling yourself to see what shows up.
• Adjust the truth. Sometimes you can make small changes to old stories, like changing a pronoun, which allows you to still share memories with locals without outing yourself. Be careful of big, elaborate lies though.
• Code words. You never know who knows English around you, and in some places the LGBTQ+ terms are the same as in English. For example, “zebras,” referring to a person who identifies in the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
• Safe spaces and safe faces. Spaces can be physical, virtual, or mental. Faces, whether or not they are right in front of you or through a screen, can be comforting. Make sure that others understand the importance of not outing; and if you have a secondary social media account, be sure that they know which one to tag.
• Reflect on cultural context. As I mentioned in my personal experience, I had to explore where the locals were coming from when they were suggesting I marry someone from the country. This may help ease frustrations.

Specific to Kosovo

• The Kosovar constitution is very in favor of diverse identities, but it often does not translate into practice.
• Currently there are 2 NGOs that support the LGBTQ+ community in Kosovo.
• Kosovo had its 1st recognized Pride in October 2017.
• LGBTQ+ events do exist, but they are often under the radar.
• All Peace Corps Kosovo staff go through Safe Zone training.
• Peace Corps Kosovo has an LGBTQ+ & Ally volunteers support group. There is also a Peer Support & Diversity Network that promotes safe spaces within the Peace Corps Community.

Read about other challenges Peace Corps volunteers face:

Friday Post

I usually title my Friday posts “Friday Gratitude” but in all honesty, I’m not feeling super grateful this week. I’ve been dealing with a safety issue at my site (nothing to do with my host family). Our Peace Corps safety and security manager came out to visit me this week. I thought about writing about the situation, but it would just be a long, ranting post and nobody wants to read that. But it has really been bumming me out. Not that there’s ever a time I welcome stress, but I had hoped the last few months of my service would be smooth sailing.

I leave for Ireland in a week and I am looking forward to a longer break from life here in Kosovo. When I get back, I’ll have roughly 12 weeks left of service. Not gonna lie — time has been dragging lately. I’ve tried to re-frame it as only 12 more weekends left to spend time with my friends here, and that does help shift the perspective a bit.

My creativity has been latent lately, too. I haven’t had the urge to crochet or write creatively much at all. Instead of getting down on myself about it, I’m just accepting it for what it is. Perhaps my vacation and a change of scenery will act as a catalyst to restart my left brain.

An exercise I like to do is to check in with the “Peace Corps Chart of Emotions” from time to time. According to the chart, which I find to be pretty accurate, this is how I should expect to feel:

new doc 27_1

Months 24-27:

  • Fright (I’ve been frightened at my site lately … does that count?)
  • Confusion (Not really …)
  • Alienation (At times, yes. I had heard that during the second year of PC service, people become busier and spend less time with their cohort. I have definitely found this to be true of myself and my friends.)
  • Anxiety (Oh, yes!)
  • Panic (Kind of an extreme emotion … I’d say no? But maybe that’ll come?)
  • Giddiness (When I think of going home, YES)
  • Impatience (When am I getting out of here?)
  • Obsession with planning and scheduling (Hahahaha, yes! [Sierra, I am looking at you, too!])

So, that’s where I’m at. How are all of you?

Media consumption this week …

  • I read Moon Called by Patricia Briggs upon the recommendation of another volunteer. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately and wanted something lighter to read (this book is all about werewolves and shape shifters). It was okay but I probably won’t read more of the series.
  • I’ve started re-watched Top of the Lake, which I had watched shortly before moving to Kosovo. It’s a strange but compelling series and if you are looking for something to binge, I highly recommend it.
Snow day
It snowed again …

Thanks for listening. Have a good weekend, and I will talk to you on Monday.

Sexual Harassment in Kosovo

Note: This post is part of a series I am hosting on this blog to discuss challenges Peace Corps volunteers face while serving in Kosovo. Below, a friend of mine shares her experiences with sexual harassment. — April

Let me start off by saying that what I am about to talk about will show a more negative side to my time in Kosovo but that does not reflect my overall feelings towards my country of service. I’m still here, aren’t I? However, I would be lying if I said that it didn’t affect me, sometimes more so than I’m willing to admit. I can directly attribute my depression last September to the excessive amount of sexual harassment I experienced one day after another. While you’ll find different perspectives from volunteer to volunteer, many additional stories, what I write here is all from my personal experience.

Being a solo female traveler comes with added hardships that are out of my control simply because of my gender. Many of you females reading this will understand that simple statement. So if follows that being a female volunteer will also come with a lot of similar difficulties.

Kosovo, for all intents and purposes, is a male-dominated culture. I have been able to circumvent many things simply because of my “Americaness” but not without difficulty. While there is a café in my village, I cannot go unless I’m accompanied by a male. It took months before I was allowed to be out after dark on my own. I am expected to stop whatever it is I’m doing and stand for men when they entered a room and I am often defined by my marital status (or lack thereof).

At first I thought that it was simply because I was an American as to why I was attracting so much unwanted attention. But then I realized it didn’t matter if people thought I was an American or an Albanian woman, the treatment was the same.

It started small (or it felt that way in my mind). Men calling at me in the streets whenever I left the comforts of my village, men “casually” touching me as they walked past, or inviting themselves for what appeared as casual conversations. Then I noticed how it seemed to escalate. Not only would men call at me in the street but on more than one occasion they would then start to follow me, either silently or insensately shouting personal questions in my direction. The casual touching turned into hands sliding across my breasts or butt to walk past me. The unwanted invitations to chat turned into them stalking me on social media and messaging me over and over and over again where even blocking them didn’t deter their efforts. I had just about had it when a man who was sitting in the seat in front of me on the bus began starring directly at me through the seat crack and began masturbating.

Sometimes it can feel constant. Summer is when I felt the worst because (what I assume) more people are out and about and it’s also when I left my village more often. While back home in America, I am the first one to tell a man who invades my personal space off, I don’t have the cultural or linguistic knowledge here to do it. Honestly, I don’t know if I ever will. So I found myself staying in the confines of my small village to avoid the harassment but all that did was make me more depressed. It took all my will power but I wasn’t going to let these ignorant people ruin my life.

So while I know it still happens I’ve found some coping mechanisms that help to let it not impact my mental health so much.

1. Headphones. Honestly, what I think is the best invention since sliced bread. If I’m alone most likely my headphones are in. They don’t even have to be playing anything. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t America and people will still try to talk to you but it gives you a full proof excuse to pretend like you don’t hear them even if you do.

2. I’m normally the type of person that is fully aware of all of my surroundings. However, I have pulled my scope in. Not too much that I compromise my own safety but enough that I don’t have to notice every disgusting comment, gesture, or look sent my way.

3. Being a regular. This can honestly go both ways, which is why it may take a few tries to get it right. I have a regular bus I take to the major cities with drivers and attendants who know me. I go to the same cafés every week with people who know me. They are the people who will look out for me when I need it. While I absolutely loathe feeling like a damsel in distress who needs others to protect me, I’ve sucked up my pride because it doesn’t hurt to have people in my corner.

4. Companionship. I have found that if I am just with 1 other person, especially another male, the sexual harassment dissipates if not becomes almost non-existent. Which is also why it can be very difficult for my male counterparts to understand exactly what it is that I experience on my own. While I may not recommend this as a permanent fix (because who wants to be escorted all their life), my service here is only 2 years so it’s a minor adjustment I’m willing to make.

Being sexually harassed is an exhausting experience. Sometimes I feel like I have to constantly look over my shoulder to protect my safety. Many friends have said that maybe I’m over exaggerating it or that I’m too defensive and should be nicer because they don’t mean any harm. But that’s just it. I don’t know. I don’t know who they are, what their intentions are. There is a thin line between harmless flirting and creepy stalking and I’ve found that it’s a line that many men here don’t know the difference between.

To my female readers, keep trekking on. Find the things you can do to make it easier on yourself. Don’t let male-dominated cultures or harassment make you give up.

Shades of Kosovo: Handling Racism as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Note: This is the first blog post in a series I plan to do on challenges that Peace Corps Volunteers face while serving in Kosovo. My friend and I chose to write this piece using a question-and-answer format. For privacy reasons, I am referring to my friend as “Guest Blogger.” — April

April: How often do you experience racism here in Kosovo?

Guest Blogger: On any given day, I can generally expect to receive at least a small handful of racial comments and taunts whenever I walk around my site, which is a small city of about 35,000, especially along the main road. Namely, in a large majority of cases, I’ll hear young boys and men between the ages of 10 and 30 say in Albanian, “Ohhhh, China!” “Chinese guy” or “Japanese guy,” and make fake Asian language sounds in my direction.

There’s an old guy who’ll pretend to do what he believes is kung fu whenever we cross paths every once in a while. Though such an action is so blatantly racist, I find it kind of amusing.

The taunts and remarks I hear with much greater frequency, on the other hand, are just outright offensive and tiresome. I’ll also have people ask me about whether I’m from China, Japan, or Korea with regularity. Though understandable, such a question never ceases to be irksome because I’ve heard it my entire waking life. I hate this part of my service, but I don’t know what else to do but accept and adapt.

I’m so grateful that I’ve never ever experienced any racism from those whom I’ve had to work with closely and live with. They’ve always offered me the utmost respect from the very beginning for who I am and what I do for them and their community. When they’ve judged me, they’ve judged me by my attitude, words, and actions, not my skin color.

April: If you are able to look at your experiences objectively, how much of what you experience would you say is outright malicious, versus people being curious about you and perhaps just expressing their curiosity in an annoying but non-malicious way?

Guest Blogger: I think it almost always the latter. Because Kosovo is so homogeneous racially, socially, and culturally, I realize that the people — overwhelmingly young men — who direct racist remarks at me do not know any better. In other words, they act improperly in the eyes of many because they haven’t had exposure to other races and cultures and any direct personal interactions with non-Albanians. They literally lack the knowledge. In fact, “racist” doesn’t have much meaning as an epithet here, and I think it’s fair to say many Kosovars would struggle to define race and diversity.

For instance, I bet those who make fake Asian sounds at me do so because they’ve seen Asian characters, or Asian-like characters, act a particular way on TV and in movies and automatically assume that all other Asians on this planet must talk and act the same way. Jackie Chan, in this regard, has been a blight on the depiction of Asian people and Asian culture in mainstream culture. Hence, I hear young comedians-in-training call me “Jackie” here and there as they pass me on the street. They think they’re tough and clever — and they’re not! They’re pathetic — and I do wish I could stop them in the middle of the street and deliver some grand lecture that will open their minds and change their behavior right then and there. However, such a thing is impossible.

I do not think people who act in such an irritatingly shallow way mean any harm. However, I still cringe and — depending on my mood at the moment — might even feel hurt and become pissed off whenever I hear such racial remarks. I feel hurt because racial taunters in Kosovo say the same things classmates and peers who picked on me because of my race said to me as I grew up in a predominantly white suburb in Northern New Jersey. I’d prefer to have not daily reminders of this aspect of my life in elementary school and middle school. I become pissed off because I believe, in light of their country’s recent history, all — and I do mean all — Kosovars should know much better than to judge people based on their race and ethnicity. You do not need to know English or to have studied abroad to have such a perspective.

Generally speaking, no matter where they are from, I believe people in this day and age where there is unlimited access to information and knowledge should know better than to judge others by their race and racial stereotypes. I feel it’s my solemn duty as a PCV working in local education to help Kosovo’s youth gain such knowledge and discover their own insights on diversity and multiculturalism that many of their peers in other countries know to be self-evident truths.

April: Is most of what you experience verbal? Have you ever felt physically threatened in Kosovo due to racism?

Guest Blogger: All of the racism I’ve experienced has been verbal. Kosovo is an exceptionally safe place, and I’ve never felt physically threatened or uncomfortable in any place at any point during my service. Still, living in a place where people will judge me on my appearance and act on what I suppose is an impulsive need to remind me how I look is unpleasant and unwelcoming. The community integration process is difficult enough in general for all PCVs and is compounded when they look so different from everyone else in the community. The people here take such pride in how welcoming they are, especially internationals. In some ways, I’ve never been treated better at any point in my life in any place and will likely never receive such hospitality outside of Kosovo. However, when this blissful bubble bursts after I hear a racist remark directed at me, I can’t help but wonder how welcoming they really are to all internationals, not just those who could pass as Albanian.

April: Would you feel comfortable sharing the worst instance of racism that you have experienced?

Guest Blogger: I can’t really say that I’ve had a “worst instance” of racism in Kosovo. I want to say that all of them are bad because racism is racism, no matter the intent. Still, it’s unreasonable for me to say that all instances of racism I’ve experienced are equally bad. Some Kosovars genuinely thought that they were speaking Chinese with me when said “ching chong chu” at me, and admitted that it was a misunderstanding on their part and begged for forgiveness of their ignorance. Also, if they really sought to be racist, they could’ve called me something much worse like “Chinaman,” “chink,” “gook,” “jap,” or “yellowman.”

Two instances still stick out to me. One time is an older waiter at a tea house slanted his eyes at me when I walked in the door. I wanted to berate him, but what I figured that such a reaction from me would achieve nothing positive. He doesn’t speak English, and my Albanian wasn’t good enough at the time to offer him a lesson on racial and cultural sensitivity.

Another time, another “tough guy,” which is a personal term I use to refer to young men who make racist remarks at me in passing but don’t own up to it when I confront them, at my school simply would not concede he was being racist when he said “ching chong chu chu chu…” at me and refused to apologize. I suppose he struggled to understand why I would become so upset with him. I found the refusals to acknowledge any wrongdoing and to apologize to be even more offensive than the racist remark. This case is still the only time — and I sure hope the last — where I’ve taken a student to my school director’s office for disciplinary action. Teaching at my school is difficult enough because of my students’ generally weak academic abilities and widespread disrespect for all teachers, and I was just not having it that day.

April: What are some strategies you have used to avoid experiencing, or confront, racism?

Guest Blogger: I simply actively choose to ignore racist remarks and carry on as if I heard nothing. I know that sometimes giving the taunters attention can make things worse because I am reacting the way they want me to. No action is, in fact, oftentimes the best course of action when I know I’m receiving racist taunts from people I don’t know, who likely do not know English, who likely wouldn’t understand me in Albanian, and whom I likely won’t see again anytime soon.

I generally have headphones in whenever I’m out and about in my town, which I find to be another effective avoidance technique. Nevertheless, I can still hear “tough guys” taunt me sometimes, either because they shout that loudly at me, or because I’ve become so attuned to racism that I can hear it over the music and podcasts I listen. Though not easy, I bite my lip, keep looking ahead, and continue on my way as if I heard nothing. I believe they simply want the attention and the satisfaction my attention brings them, so I’m not going to indulge them.

Whenever I feel I must respond, I simply shout “No!” back at them, wag my finger, and shake my head in disapproval as I walk away. They get the message, great! If not, oh well …

For those who have the language skills and willingness and openness to have a discussion about racial diversity and racism, I try to use their remarks as a teaching moment to explain how their words are, in fact, racist and why they are offensive and hurtful to me and many other people who look like me. To drive home the point and help them to feel the pain I feel when others mock me for being Asian, I’ll mention how the movie Taken depicts Albanians extremely negatively and ask them how they would feel if I assumed all Albanians are criminals based on this one well-known cultural depiction of Albanians. No one likes to be pigeonholed in such a way. I have found establishing such common ground on negatives leads to positive and enlightening discussions about our worldviews on both sides.

April: Why do you think some people in Kosovo say and/or do racist things?

Guest Blogger: To reiterate what I said earlier, I think some people in Kosovo make racist remarks because they do not know any better. They might not even know what racism is, and, therefore, would not feel badly if called racist. I want to emphasize that I do not think they should receive much blame, if any, for acting insensitively because of Kosovo’s homogeneity and isolation from the rest of the world. They haven’t learned before and interacting with a person of color is a golden opportunity to take a first step in the learning process.

April: What advice would you give to someone who isn’t (or doesn’t look) Caucasian and is considering serving in Peace Corps Kosovo?

Guest Blogger: I have a couple of suggestions:

1) Please pardon the puns: I advise finding your own ways to grow a thicker skin when confronted with racism and other comments and questions about your identity. The less you allow racism to get under your skin, the less stress you’ll create for yourself — generally speaking. In these cases, sometimes no action is the best action.

2) Even if you become resistant to, grow to tolerate, or even come to accept racism as a part of your everyday life, it doesn’t mean you should desensitize yourself to racism and let everything go. In my experience, I can allow 99 racist comments and taunts to slide, but then the 100th can just set me off for reasons I still struggle to understand when I look back at moments when I blew up.

I can’t say that I’ve always responded gracefully and thoughtfully to racism. When I’ve allowed my sensitivity to racism to overwhelm me, I believe I actually made the incident worse than it needed to be. More often than not, it was a case of misunderstanding on both sides. Taking a second to breathe and calm down when feeling the urge to react has helped me maintain a mental balance when I know that I have this kind of daily struggle with myself and others each and every day.

3) I cannot emphasize this enough: Try to imagine how different — and even strange — it must be for the average Kosovar to see a non-white person in their community. Outside of Prishtina and Prizren (the two largest cities in Kosovo), it’s rather uncommon for Kosovars to see people of color in their communities. I advise being empathetic to the fact that they often simply do not know how to act around non-Albanians because of their lack of firsthand exposure to different cultures and people. They’re curious and mean well. They just don’t know how to respond — yet!

4) I say yet because I’d encourage PCVs of color to use instances of racism to inform when you deem appropriate. Trust your instincts when you choose to engage others in response to racism. Something as simple as “No, I’m American” has completely changed the way others who’ve never seen me before and don’t know who I am see me. It is awfully satisfying to see them respond so positively when I tell them I’m American. Other times, I just get blank stares or expressions of disbelief. I’ve even had people flat out refuse to believe I’m American, even after I’ve shown them my passport and other forms of ID. You won’t be able to convince everyone that you’re American and that many Americans aren’t white. You’ll go crazy if you try to change everyone’s perspective. Instead, give yourself a pat on the back when you’re able, in fact, able to change even just a couple of people’s outlook on the United States in a small but undoubtedly profound way.

5) Stand your ground when others try to tell you something different about your own identity that you disagree with. Being born an American is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, so I relentlessly push back against those who’ve told me that there’s no way I’m actually American because I’m Asian. I’ve told others in Kosovo, in other countries, and even in America that I want nothing to do with them ever again because I find their refusal to accept my Americanness to be gravely insulting. Take pride in your Americanness and never let anyone tell you otherwise if you feel similarly about your nationality.

6) Perhaps most important, laugh at racism. If you take racist remarks too seriously and can’t find humor in them, then you might well do more harm to yourself than any instances of racism ever can. I believe that those with malicious intent will feel disempowered and that those who express curiosity insensitively and ungracefully will understand that they’ve something wrong more clearly. Humor can be a great uniter and method of clearing the air. Also, finding humor will make your Peace Corps experiences all the more enjoyable and enriching in other ways those of “typical Volunteers” are not. I believe Peace Corps stories are the most memorable for good reasons.