In February 2015, I gave my first LGBTQ safe zone training to Peace Corps Nicaragua Staff (Made up of American and Nicaraguan citizens) with STAR, our vounteer LGBTQA support group. Here is the post I wrote a year ago, which hilighlights my expectations and the reality of the training. It went so well that we ended up doing four total. On February 20th, 2016, we will do our first host famiy training.
Today marked my sixth month in Nicaragua. It feels like I’ve been here longer. Yesterday, I woke up and took the bus to Managua to meet with STAR (Sexuality Training And Response) committee members to talk about the workshop we would lead for the mostly Spanish-speaking Peace Corps staff. The goal of this training would be to break the ice between staff and volunteers and to begin a conversation about creating a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ volunteers.
This initiative began in July 2014, when volunteers and staff met to discuss the new same sex partner initiative. Peace Corps Nicaragua offered to prepare for the possibility of hosting a same sex couple. We still do not know when they will be here, but this was the first time staff and volunteers began to talk about what could be improved in terms of welcoming present and future volunteers. Staff thought that they were openly supportive of queer volunteers, but the volunteers felt as if their identities were simply being ignored.
The other STAR members nad I were nervous. We didn’t know how the Nicaraguan staff would react to our training. We knew staff might be uncomfortable, and we didn’t want to impose our beliefs on them. The workshop would also be completely in Spanish, so some of us had to practice translating complex gender terminology that we’d only used in English. Words like “genderqueer” don’t have a translation (yet), so we made a point to explain them as we went. We chatted about the same sex initiative as well as ways in which we think facilitators (our Spanish teachers in training) and staff could be more inclusive of queer volunteers.
This discussion reminded me of my first day in Nicaragua. I almost didn’t come to Nicaragua because I’m a lesbian. Only a couple of hours after getting off the plane, all 42 of us met with Don Howard, our country director. He said that he and his staff were welcoming to anyone of any race, class, and sexual orientation. Just by mentioning that there were people in the room who didn’t identify as straight, I felt as if I were acknowledged. I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t being ignored.
Looking back, I just wished that a Nicaraguan staff member had said the same thing. I wished that I could have just heard this simple sentence from any one of them. Instead, possibly to avoid making anyone else uncomfortable, they would tell us that they supported us if we needed anything, and that they respected us. I realized how important it was to specifically mention sexual orientation as an identity, at least for those like myself who were nervous about how our identities would affect our service.
After we met, we split up into groups to work on our segments of the workshop. One volunteer and I worked on a poster that broke up a “Genderbread person” into 4 parts: Biological sex, gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. We had an interesting disagreement on what it means to be genderqueer, since this diagram placed it in between “male” and “female” in the gender identity section. I saw the term “genderqueer” as more of a rejection of societal gender labels, but he saw it as more of a biological term for someone whose hormone levels cause them to neither identify as male nor female.
I said that if society didn’t make me check off a “male “ or “female” box then I would probably just identify as genderqueer. Although my hormones pretty much tell me I’m a woman, I wouldn’t have to worry about walking into the “correct” bathroom. I also wouldn’t worry about being harassed on the street for holding hands with a woman, because no one would care about my gender and no one would expect me to hold hands with only a man. It was an interesting discussion.
After finishing up our posters, I sat at La Colonia’s comedor with two of the volunteers I would be presenting with. I bit into my enchilada and sipped on my coke zero. We chatted about how nervous we were for the workshop. “Let’s make it fun”, one of them wisely suggested. “I’m nervous, too, but this training is long overdue and it will help future volunteers feel more comfortable”, I said. That night I had trouble sleeping because I was so nervous. It was the good kind of nervous, though. The kind of nervous where you aren’t sure about what’s going to happen, but you know that it needs to happen for the good of those around you and for the good of those you’ll never even meet.
That morning at the Peace Corps Office, staff members, both American and Nicaraguan, were heading upstairs to the conference room for the workshop. This is really happening, I thought. I went to greet my Spanish facilitator, Nidia, who I had not come out to during training, but I would do so soon.
The workshop opened with a few words from Don Howard as he addressed the fact that in the U.S., times are changing and same sex marriage is being recognized, even in places as conservative as Alabama. While some countries still criminalize homosexual activity, countries like Nicaragua do not. Since same sex partnerships are being legally recognized in the U.S., this means that if a host country allows same sex activity, that the Peace Corps is opening up to the idea of having same sex couples serve together. The first female same sex couple in the Peace Corps just finished serving in Ecuador about a year and a half ago. One staff member asked if we would actually be having a same sex couple serve, and the answer to that was yes, but we just don’t know when. “Que bueno”, she said. Well, it looked like today was starting off on the right foot.
My group and I then began our presentation with a term and definition matching activity. Some people were given a term like “transgender”, and they had to find the person with the definition of the term. One by one, each partnership placed their term and definition on the whiteboard. This was when staff members began asking great questions. The only mistake one group made was to match “gender identity” with the definition of “sexual orientation”, but everyone else had the correct terms with their definitions.
As some staff members asked questions like “what’s the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘gay male’?”, others scribbled down what we were saying in their notebooks. I honestly didn’t expect them to be taking so many notes and to be so curious. Others asked “So, can you come out of the closet and go back in?”. Yes, we said, depending on how conservative of an environment we are in. I shared that didn’t have any queer female friends when I grew up in my conservative hometown of Moses Lake, Washington, so I didn’t come out until I was 19, after a year of being at the very queer friendly Wellesley College. Then, I went back into the closet in Nicaragua in order to protect myself and to adapt to this environment. I didn’t know how Nicaraguans would react. As soon as I began putting myself out there to the staff with these personal stories, I felt as if they trusted me even more. Making yourself a little vulnerable goes a long way.
We also explained the answer to “What’s the difference between transgender and gay?”. I explained that I was gay, but I’ve had biologically female friends in college who realized that they identified as male, so they began to inject themselves with testosterone. Their legs grew more hair and their chests flattened; some even had top surgery to remove their breasts. Staff members’ faces seemed surprised and attentive as I told them this.
Another staff member asked “If the goal of our work is to help volunteers practice their Spanish and make them feel welcome, how do you tell if someone even is gay?”. We mentioned that the most important part is to explicitly state that you are welcoming of people of all sexual orientations and identities, but that you should never force anyone out of the closet. If you create a safe space, then all you do is wait for the queer volunteers to be comfortable enough to come out to you, if they want to. I may have been the only openly queer woman in my group of 42 volunteers, but it would have been reassuring for a Nicaraguan staff member too acknowledge my orientation isntead of assuming I was straight. When you ignore a group of people, you exclude them, even without knowing it.
Why wouldn’t staff bring sexuality up in the first place? It’s a touchy subject. One staff member shared that they were uncomfortable bringing it up because it was against the rules to talk about sexual relations, just as it is against the rules to talk about politics or religion. Our supervisor clarified that talking about sexuality is okay, but talking about sex with volunteers is not.
I never would have thought to make this clarification, since I’m used to knowing the difference between these two different topics, but it made sense. Another fear from facilitators was that there could be tension between a queer volunteer and a homophobic volunteer in the class. We answered that it’s different because if we come from the same culture, then we are more likely to defend ourselves and demand respect from that person. The Peace Corps also does not allow discrimination against queer volunteers. I hadn’t thought about this concern before, mostly because I came out al the other Peace Corps volunteers without any homophobic backlash at all.
Throughout this four-hour workshop, I was blown away by the staff members’ engagement and openness to the discussion. They were curious and respectful, and they appreciated our personal anecdotes. It’s not always easy to come out to a roomful of people from a different culture, but in this case, it was totally worth it. The fact that I’d been through 3 months of training with them also helped me establish the confianza (trust) I needed to talk about these issues with them.
We ended our session with two role plays. In the first, I played the role of a facilitator who began the Spanish class by asking the volunteers when they kissed their first boyfriend or girlfriend. I assumed all of them were straight, so when I asked the gay male volunteer when he kissed his first girlfriend; he ended up being so uncomfortable that he made up a story about how he kissed his first girlfriend while watching Spiderman at the movies. The staff laughed at our interpretation of this situation. We asked them “Was it the facilitator’s intention to make the gay male uncomfortable?”. No, the facilitator just wanted them to practice their Spanish.
Instead of saying boyfriend or girlfriend, a facilitator could use the word partner instead. Little changes in language toward volunteers like these seem so trivial, but can change how comfortable a volunteer is around their facilitator. This comfort level in turn affects how they learn Spanish, which affects their service.
Our last role play touched on the theme of confidentialiy. It is not okay to outing a volunteer from the closet. We pretended to spread the rumor that a volunteer was gay. Just because a volunteer comes out to someone does not mean that their identity should be shared with everyone. Gossip is a common form of entertainment, so this was another relevant role play.
My biggest takeaway from this session was this: there’s nothing as powerful as the human connection.
People aren’t convinced by logic; they are convinced by emotions. By making myself vulnerable, I opened up staff members’ minds. We made them feel comfortable enough to talk about sexuality in constructive ways. The staff’s priority was still the same: to make volunteers feel welcome and supported. The head Spanish facilitator thanked me afterward for my hard work, and she showed me her notebook. It was full of notes she had taken, along with a picture of the genderbread person.
Don Howard shared one of his favorite quotes with me: “Tell the truth, and don’t be scared”.
Today, the volunteers and I told the truth, and I’m positive that our stories will help generations of LGBTQ Peace Corps volunteers feel more comfortable serving abroad.
I really enjoyed facilitating this workshop, and I’m excited to make the next one even better. I could definitely see myself focusing on these types of diversity trainings as part of my career. Today I felt like I was in the right place at the right time. Being a Peace Corps volunteer can make you feel as if you are a fish out of water sometimes, but moments like these make me feel as if I have a truth that must to be heard.
How would LGBTQ safe zone trainings apply to your work?
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