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:

The Cliffs of Moher

Hello, Everyone! This will be my last blog post about Ireland. Last week, we left off at the Aran Islands. Whitney and I were on a tour with Wild Atlantic Way. After exploring the Aran Islands, we got back on the ferry and it took us to the Cliffs of Moher.

cliffs of moher 2
The ferry behind ours, for scale

I stood at the back of our ferry for this photo, and shortly thereafter, a wave crashed over the side and soaked my jeans. 😦 !!!

april cliffs of moher
Little did I know what was about to happen …

I went into the ferry’s bathroom and peeled off my jeans. It was way too cold to wear wet pants. I had leggings on underneath and decided that wearing only one layer was better than wearing a wet layer.

no pants
Attempting to dry my pants

The ferry returned to Doolin and we got back on the tour bus, which then drove us to the top of the cliffs. I had imagined visiting the Cliffs of Moher to be a tranquil experience, but it was a wind tunnel up there.

april cliffs of moher 2
So windy!
cliffs of moher 3
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cliffs of moher 4

Then, we got back on the bus to go back to Galway. We stopped twice along the way for photos.

irish countryside
Irish countryside
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Thatched roofs

Here is a fun fact: Thatched roofs are falling out of popularity in Ireland, despite being excellent insulators. Because they are a natural material, they need to be replaced every 5-7 years and the cost each time (I forget the figure our tour guide gave) exceeds what it would cost to roof your house with a regular roof that lasts for a lifetime.

dunguaire castle ireland
Dunguaire Castle

After a day of being cold and pants-less, I treated myself to oysters for dinner. Of course, I stopped at our Airbnb to put on dry pants first. 😉

oysters
My first time eating oysters in two years! My life is hard.

***

Friday, Whitney and I walked around Galway and visited shops and looked for souvenirs. We wanted to do a wine and cheese tasting that afternoon. I stopped at a local wine shop to ask the guy working there where he would suggest going. At first, I got a snarky reply, “Uh, go to a bar and buy a cheese plate.” I persisted in my cheerfulness, though (“Oh? Is there anywhere you would recommend?”) and the guy told me to go to the downstairs bar at Kasbah (better wine there than at its sister restaurant upstairs) and order a cheese plate down from the restaurant. He launched into Kasbah’s wine-buying strategies and when I finally left the shop, Whitney wondered what had taken me so long. 🙂

I am glad I stopped to ask for a recommendation, because Kasbah ended up being our favorite bar that we visited in all of Ireland (and we went to a few *ahem*). We stopped by the (quiet) restaurant upstairs first, and then we wound our way downstairs to the bar, which was packed and lively. The wine and cheese were great!

cheeseplate

Well, friends, this marks the end of my stories of Ireland. The next day, Whitney and I returned to Dublin to fly to our respective homes. I hope you enjoyed hearing about my spring break trip!

My tips for the day:

  • Don’t stand at the end of the ferry for photos.
  • Wear waterproof pants if you are on a ferry.
  • If you are ever in Galway, stop for a drink at the downstairs bar at Kasbeh.

(I took this video on our last morning in Galway.)

The Aran Islands

On Wednesday of our week in Ireland, Whitney and I woke to more rain. We trudged out to get donuts and pick up our handmade scarves because they had to be washed before we could wear them. Then we packed up at our hotel in Dublin, ate lunch, and jumped on a bus to Galway.

Galway Ireland
The view from our Airbnb in Galway
spanish arch galway
The Spanish Arch, Galway

We booked a tour of the Aran Islands/Cliffs of Moher for Thursday. It was through Wild Atlantic Way (highly recommend) and was an all-day event. We got on the tour bus at 9 a.m. and didn’t get back until 6 p.m.

The bus picked us up in Galway and drove us through the Burren (pronounced “burn”). According to Wikipedia, “The Burren is a region of County Clare in the southwest of Ireland. It’s a landscape of bedrock incorporating a vast cracked pavement of glacial-era limestone, with cliffs and caves, fossils, rock formations and archaeological sites.”

somewhere in the burren
A photo pitstop in the Burren

(Another fun pronunciation fact I learned in Ireland: I thought the word quays was pronounced “kways” but it is actually pronounced “keys.”)

The bus dropped us off at a ferry and the ferry took us out to one of the Aran Islands, where Gaelic is spoken as a first language.

Aran Islands
The Aran Islands
galic sign
Me with a sign in Gaelic
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The Aran Islands
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Ruins

It was freezing on the island. However, we saw palm trees! We learned an interesting fact on the tour bus: the rocks in this part of Ireland (don’t ask me which ones) are very good at conducting heat. Therefore, you see plant life that is only seen elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

palm trees aran islands
Tropical trees growing in very un-tropical weather

Whitney and I walked around a bit, visited a local shop, and then stopped at a pub for lunch. I had Irish stew. (The bartender told me, “That’ll keep you going for a while.”)

whitney aran islands
Whitney
aran islands 3
So many rocks!
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Local shop

At the pub, we saw a notice that the local lottery jackpot was up to 4,100 Euro. 🙂

IMG_8209
Win big!
aran islands 5
My friend has a daughter named Saoirse so I took this photo for her. 🙂
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Goodbye, Aran Islands!

After lunch, we got back on the ferry and headed out to see the Cliffs of Moher. Stay tuned for Monday’s post to read more about that. 🙂 It’ll be my last post about Ireland! I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about the country through my experiences.

Tours in Dublin (including Guinness)

“Green, green / It’s green they say / on the far side of the hill. / Green, green / I’m going away / to where the grass is greener still.” — The New Christy Minstrels

After gray and rainy weather our first two days in Dublin and more rain in the forecast, Whitney and I lucked out that Tuesday. The weather defied the forecast and we later saw our first blue sky in Ireland!

april chester beatty library
The grounds of the Chester Beatty Library

Our first stop of the day was the Chester Beatty Library. Chester Beatty was a wealthy art collector and collected religious art and texts from all over Europe and Asia. What I liked about this museum was that it displayed works from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I found the collection to be far more interesting than the Book of Kells.

Next, we jumped on the bus and headed for Kilmainham Gaol prison for a tour. This is where we hit a snag — I had bought a Groupon for the wrong prison! We had our Guinness tickets booked for later in the day and we couldn’t stay to tour Gaol at their next available tour time. 😦 Oh, well. This wasn’t my worst travel disaster. (Ask me about the time I missed my flight from Paris to Kosovo, or the time I was stuck at Luton airport for 21 hours).

With our sudden free time, we walked across the street to tour the grounds of the old Royal Hospital (which has now been converted into a modern art museum). Since the museum was free, we also went inside, though neither of us especially likes modern art.

hospital walk
First blue sky!
hedgehog
Don’t ask … I don’t know why!
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Royal Hospital grounds

Next, we walked to the Guinness factory. This is Dublin’s most-popular tour. The exhibits are done well but beer production has since moved sites, so we didn’t actually see beer being made. We did get to sample beer, though, at the rooftop bar.

w and a
At Guinness
my first guinness
My first Guinness … I didn’t like it!
Dublin city view
The view from the rooftop bar

We ended the day with yet another tour — a literary pub crawl another friend had highly recommended. The tour was fun and informative. Our only complaint was that the pub stops were short (twenty minutes), which didn’t leave much time for drinking.

molly malone
Molly Malone statue, one stop during the pub crawl

My Dublin tips for the day:

  • If you like religious art, I highly recommend visiting the Chester Beatty Library and Museum. (Bonus: admission is free.) I enjoyed it more than the Book of Kells.
  • I like whiskey and I don’t like beer so I am bias in this opinion, but I enjoyed drinking at the bar at the Jameson Distillery far more than at the Guinness bar. While the Guinness bar had nice views, it was very crowded and difficult to find a seat. Jameson was much quieter and we could actually sit at the bar and chat with the bartenders.

 

Things to do on a Rainy Day in Dublin

On Monday in Dublin, it rained all day. Whitney and I had planned to visit the Book of Kells and do a walking tour of Trinity College. We decided to scrap the walking tour, since it was outside, and find something else to do in the morning. We had passed Christ Church cathedral the day before and felt inspired to go on a guided tour. I am glad we did because the tour ended up being one of my favorite things.

view from christ church

Christ Church is 1,000 years old.

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Cathedral floor
christ church stained glass
Stained glass

Our tour guide was funny and informative. We learned a lot about the history of Dublin and of the church. We even got to ring the church bells!

ringing the bells
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Also, Christ Church has a famous organ that was donated in the 1920s. The only problem was, it didn’t work. They took it apart and found a mummified cat and rat inside! This story was the inspiration behind the cartoon “Tom and Jerry.”

mumified cat and mouse

That afternoon, we went to see the Book of Kells and Trinity Library, both famous sites on the Trinity College campus. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript (meaning, a text supplemented with illustrations) of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that was created sometime around 800 AD. Pictures weren’t allowed, so I have none to show you. Several people had recommended the Book of Kells before I went on my trip. Honestly, though, it wasn’t my favorite thing that we did.

The Trinity Library had an impressive collection of books.

trinity library
Trinity College library

trinity library 2

It was still raining after our tours, so Whit and I decided to go to the Jameson Distillery for a drink at their bar. We had a great time sampling different whiskeys and shooting the breeze with the bartenders. We topped off our evening by pub-hopping near our hotel.

jameson distillery
Whitney


My Dublin tip for the day:
Take a guided tour of Christ Church cathedral!

Knitting Class in Dublin, Ireland

Hi, everyone! Did you miss me? I am back to blogging after a full two weeks off. It’s been nice to have time away. I spent my spring break in Ireland with Whitney, my childhood friend.

I got to Dublin on a Saturday afternoon. Whit arrived the next morning (Easter Sunday) from Los Angeles. If it were me I would have been dead tired, but Whit was a real champ and arrived ready to see the city. She had a surprise planned for me and I had no idea what it was.

But first! We had to stop for a drink at Dublin’s oldest pub.

brazen head pub.jpg

Next up was the surprise. I had kind of thought it would be a facial or massage or something. I was wrong, though! Whitney took me to a loom knitting class where we got to make our own Merino wool scarves. (How cool is that?!) We took our class with Liadian Aiken.

knitting class
Knitting class
choosing yarn
Choosing our yarn colors
plotting colors
Plotting colors on a grid
loom
Setting up the loom …
threading the loom
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sample
Starting with a sample

Things went well at first but then my yarn kept falling off the hooks. Righting it was a tedious process where our instructor had to re-hook each loop back on the loom. My yarn fell off about five or six times. 😦

knitting going well
When things went well …
knitting mistake
When things did not go well 😦 !!!

But FINALLY we finished and I am really happy with the result.

Now I have a beautiful, warm scarf that I handmade and that will remind me of Ireland and spending time with Whitney. 🙂 I love it so much! I wore it all week.

Here’s a little video of some live pub music that evening:

I’ve got lots more to share about Ireland. Four upcoming posts will be about my trip.

Three Classroom Activities You Can Do Using Only Index Cards and Crayons

As the title of this post states, here are three classroom activities you can do using only index cards and crayons.

First up is Jeopardy! What I love about this is that it is endlessly adaptable to all different subjects and grade levels. You can swap out categories or add to them to re-use the game while keeping it fresh. (Also, my students LOVE it!)

classroom jeapordy 1

For younger kids, I’ve focused on simple topics like colors, animals, and shapes. For older kids, I’ve used topics like actions, professions, past tense, telling time, and U.S. trivia. (I’m always interested to see if students know who America’s first president was or when our Independence day is.)

classroom jeapordy 2

The only difficulty with this game is that the cards are small, so I end up circling the classroom for all the students to see the clues. This problem would be eliminated if I had an overhead projector (but I don’t).

To play Jeopardy in the classroom, I divide students into groups and then tape the cards to the chalkboard. The groups go back and forth, choosing clues until they are all gone. Then, we tally the points to see who won.

Jeopardy classroom game
Rhyme, Missing Letter, Food and Places make good topics, too!

Next up is this easy-to-make ABC challenge. I cut index cards in half and wrote out sets of the alphabet in different colors. Students formed groups and had to put the letters in order.

classroom activity alphabet
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ABC classroom activity

For a further challenge, my teaching counterpart asked the students to see how many words they could make. Our students were clever enough to build on the words, crossword-puzzle style. (I wish I’d gotten a picture, but my phone died.)

Finally, here is an idea for a numbers challenge. Use index cards to write out the numbers 1-10. Divide students into different groups. Give one number to each student. Then, time each group to see who can line up in numerical order the fastest. (I let them do a practice run and then I time them.) 🙂

Here are some other activities, materials, and lesson plans I have used in my classroom: