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:

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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.