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Podcast Transcript: A Pride Month Interview - Lesbian and Gay Perspectives in AmeriCorps and Peace Corps

Below is the transcript for our Pride Month Interview show. You can listen to it here.


AMY: Welcome to the Idealist podcast. I'm Amy Potthast and this is The New Service Podcast from Idealist.org, moving people from good intentions to action. June is Pride Month, so on the New Service Podcast we're taking a closer look today at the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals serving in the 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. Chad Jeremy, a former AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps member, Kate Kuykendall, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, and Martha Tierney, a former Notre Dame AmeriCorps member.


AMY: Welcome Kate, Martha, and Chad. Welcome to The New Service podcast and happy Pride Month.

KATE: Happy Pride Month. 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.

KATE: Okay I'll start: This is Kate Kuykendall and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in China from 1999 to 2001 and I currently work as the public affairs specialist in the Los Angeles' Peace Corps Office.

CHAD: My name is Chad Jeremy and I was an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps member from 2004 to 2005. I served two years mostly on the Atlantic, kind of East Coast of the United States, all over different states. I'm currently on staff as an assistant 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 The Corporation for National and Community Service headquarters. I was an AmeriCorps national member with Notre Dame Mission Volunteers out in Seattle, Washington from 2003 to 2004.

AMY: So I thought we'd start off with a look at what the existing policies are regarding LGBT Volunteers at Peace Corps and also at CNCS 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 – "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." We don't have that policy; we have a non-discrimination policy and we encourage people to be open with the staff members about their sexual orientation as it might effect their placement.

AMY: Wait a minute: so open with staff members like the recruiters or once their already in the country?

KATE: Either. We like for people to be open with recruiters because we feel like we can be a good resource for you, but it is certainly not required and we're not going to ask you. And then in country we also do the same thing. We encourage you to be open because we think we can provide resources either among other Volunteers, or kind of provide some kind of cross cultural perspective in terms of what you'll be facing while you're living there. So we do welcome LGBT Volunteers and we actually have a Peace Corps alumni group specifically devoted to LGBT alumni. Their website of stories and resources and also a mentorship program; and that website is www.LGBRPCV.org which stands for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Return Peace Corps Volunteers dot org.

AMY: And a quick question when you say about the 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, 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 that information will not be used against you and it will not be used to determine your suitability for the Peace Corps.

AMY: And Chad or Martha, what is going on 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, or sexual orientation. Because our policy is slightly broader than the standard federal guideline we also require our grantees to include at least sexual orientation in addition to the other areas of non-discrimination or areas an organization might be tempted to discriminate against in their policies. So it applies to the Corporation as a work place and it also applies to our grantees and to our service locations.

AMY: So one big question that comes up especially on the Peace Corps side is about volunteer service together. Kate, do you want to explain a bit about the Peace Corps policy, like what it is and why it is.

KATE: Sure, so the only two people 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 if it's such an issue about serving together. Does that ever become an issue, especially on the National Civilian Community Corps side where it's residential?

CHAD: Our program is limited by age so I should probably add that as kind of a precursor to my answer in that NCCC is 18-24 year olds. So typically we're seeing that people aren't engaging in long term relationships at that age. But I don't know of anybody specifically as far as in the LGBT community that's been in a committed relationship that were trying to serve together. But we do not place anyone that has been in a pre-relationship on the same team. So that's just our policy across the board. We treat straight relationships and Gay relationships the same way.

AMY: What about Transgender people? I understand it's just a completely separate issue that is facing people who are Transgender; but what about the policy side?

KATE: From the Peace Corps side our policy is to treat the Transgender issue as medical issue. So again it falls under our non-discrimination policy. We have had Transgender applicants and have actually had Transgender Volunteers and if anyone is interested in this issue I encourage them to read an article that was recently written by someone who just finished their Peace Corps experience in Africa. It was written anonymously to protect the identity and it can be found in that LGBRPCV.org website and he's speaking about his experience. So I'm guessing that that person likely did not expose this to his recruiter that they were Transgender and even if they had that's really not something to be taken into consideration in terms of the recruiter's 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 their 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, so that's great.

MARTHA: From the Corporation side, there are civil rights policies which currently don't make a determination about Transgendered individuals. But according to all of our policies if any person feels as though they've been discriminated against on any improper basis they should call our office of Civil Rights and Inclusion and report it. To this point, you know, it's only a kind of hypothetical question for us. If it did come to light I think that is something that we'd need to make specific policy about.

AMY: Each of you are former participants in the service corps. So I was thinking maybe you guys could talk a little bit about what the experience was like for each of you during your term of service, in terms of working alongside fellow Volunteers and corps members and also in the communities where you served.

CHAD: NCCC is a really interesting program especially as an LGBT individual. I'll start out 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 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 in Southern California and I came out to this small rural town in Maryland which was my base; and then traveled all from like Maine down to Florida to Louisiana to Mississippi – so kind of all kinds of different places. I guess there are two parts. From the fellow volunteer standpoint there were about 160 other members at my base that I was at and we all came in at the same time. It's very communal living, sort of like college. You're put into dorms or houses and you are separated out by gender. And I think that a lot of those issues came up around old fashioned gender separation which 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 out about it for months leading up to my time at AmeriCorps. Actually, I came to find that it was pretty amazing. A lot of stereotypes I had of people maybe living with people who had different opinions about my orientation or that it would be an issue for them were broken down pretty quickly. So overall my fellow members that I served with were very accepting and I had a very positive experience with them.

AMY: So you're saying in the time leading up that 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 that had been accepted but had not been quite placed yet. There was luckily one other guy in the group who was open about his orientation and fears so we were able to connect. And just knowing that there was going to be one other person that was sort of going to be having these same issues helped me. I think also the motivation I had overall to come to serve – you know I was joining AmeriCorps and NCCC because I had a desire to serve which was much larger than my fears of the awkwardness of the communal living situation.

AMY: That is so well put!

CHAD: I kind of had that naivety growing up in California of how bad could it really be? Like I'm kind of fearful but I think, "Gosh everyone is pretty accepting, especially if they're going to be 18-24 year olds and they're all coming to serve. So there's got to be some kind of common ground that we all have." And I came to find that that was largely true in my experience in NCCC. The communities that we go into – so NCCC is a program where 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'd be tutoring kids one day or 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 that the program determines that you're needed. You don't have a choice in that; and then you're placed in a team without choice. It's all done very much like the military in that you're sort of placed in a platoon or whatever. And so the communities that we go and serve in 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 a Disaster" or "Active in a Disaster", and a lot of those tend to be organizations that are based in religion. So a lot of southern Baptists or other organizations of that type that do really amazing disaster work. And there were numerous times that I was told that I was going to hell or whatever; but I think that was also said to my peers who were on my team that were not Gay or Lesbian too because they had different color hair. So it wasn't unique to the LGBT community but it was certainly there. There were times when I felt uncomfortable, not ever that my safety was in jeopardy, just that like somebody was judging me or that you know 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. I definitely chose the program that I wanted to go into and chose the location that I wanted to serve in. And 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 which had always been such a big part of my personal life, and 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 programs on the west coast. But NDM was in Seattle, and I had never been to Seattle and didn't have any clue – had never even seen a picture of it. Was accepted into the program and then just kind of accepted that I was going to move there. So my best friend and I got into a car and left Boston and moved to Washington State almost on a whim, and the whole rest of my experience was it started positive and it 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 catholically affiliated. So I was definitely more discrete about my sexual orientation than I am now, but I never felt like I had to be that way I kind of felt that that was my own personal choice. In addition there was another Gay man who was a second year member on the team. So I felt like if he can do it, I can do it.

AMY: So once again connecting with people coming from a similar perspective helped you settle in a bit.

MARTHA: I think that's one of the biggest advantages of AmeriCorps is very few people don't find something in common with at least a few people that they are serving with. Sometimes it can be about sexual orientation and maybe sometimes it can be around religious beliefs or political affiliation or poverty interest. 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 when I felt awkward when engaging with certain communities, it was my team that definitely pulled me through. There wasn't anyone else on my team that was Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual or Transgender, but just the fact that we sort of had each other's back 'cause there was that kind of common bond. We were in this together, you know? We were this team of AmeriCorps members that were from outside this community kind of coming in for six weeks or so.

AMY: Kate…?

KATE: You know it's really interesting to hear about Chad and Martha's experiences. Obviously the difference with the Peace Corps is that you're in an overseas community and certainly in the U.S. we have communities which may not be very accepting of LGBT people and that's even more so the case in the Peace Corps. So as a Volunteer in China, in my community it was definitely not accepted. It would definitely have not been acceptable or appropriate to be out in my community. I think it would have been different having gone into the Peace Corps now having been very out; but I went into the Peace Corps very young at 22 and I was kinda just in my own process of coming out of the closet. I think that my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers were the first group that I was openly out to, like as a group as a whole. Like Chad I felt very supported by them but unfortunately I wasn't with them most of the time because of just the geographic distance. So I had two other Peace Corps Volunteers in my community but for the most part I was with Chinese people. Definitely one of the challenges was being really open and honest and to develop relationships with people when 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. It took me a long time to come to terms with my sexuality and I think I really wanted to think that it wasn't a very significant part of who I was and that it wasn't really that significant. I can say I didn't have any concerns going into the Peace Corps about it. I don't think I even thought about it because I don't think I was that self aware [laugh]. But one of the experiences I had was that when you're placed into a situation where you're not free to be who you are it made me realize how significant my sexuality 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 sort of an unexpected thing that happened to me.

AMY: And something you said in the past as a challenge for some people who are going into the Peace Corps is that, you know, in the United States we 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 there are those who are Lesbian or Gay really need to think about this if you're 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 pretty much without exception you're going to have to be closeted at some level and certainly, you know, in my own case I had one Chinese friend in my community who I was out with and so that was a really important support system for me and I really relied upon her. But it probably took me about a year to feel comfortable enough with her to be able to confide in her but I also had the support of Volunteers and the support staff. In case anyone here listening is wondering, "Why can't I be out and who I am? That's a part of me I want to share." In my case if I had been out in my community, it would have really have jeopardized my ability to do my job as a teacher. It also would have jeopardized the Peace Corps's relationship in China, or the Peace Corps role in there. As a foreigner living in a community, and often as the only foreigner living in that community, you have a big spotlight on you and a lot of scrutiny so there are any number of compromises that you have to make not just regarding your sexuality but as a guest in a host country to kind of be respectful and also be successful as a Volunteer.

AMY: That raises so many questions from me; but I'd rather focus on opportunities. I'm curious about if, through your service roles in the communities, that if you have had any opportunities that maybe you wouldn't have had if you hadn't had your sexuality?

KATE: I think that's a really good question and I think for myself, honestly, if I could do it again, I would make a lot more opportunities. And in my visits back to China I've learned more, for example, about the underground Gay community and would connect with people that way. I had some very positive experiences with some very nervous and closeted Gay people in China and felt like I could've been a resource for them. But I will say that a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers – I returned to the U.S. in 2001 so it was awhile ago – a lot of Volunteers who may not be open in their communities are certainly working with organizations working towards the acceptance of LGBT people in the community. And their sexuality is something they can really bring as a resource to whatever jobs or projects they're working on. So again I would refer to that gay and lesbian alumni group for examples and stories about current Volunteers who are working on those projects.

MARTHA: I think it's just amazing that there is that group. I think that's really fantastic. At Corporation for National and Community Service, we have An GLBT affinity group that are working to promote National Service G.L.O.B.E. It's a federal organization so there are G.L.O.B.E. chapters in all federal agencies. So our chapter was started last year and something we really want to 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 out service member in a variety of different contexts. Hopefully our group can act as a support the way that the Return Peace Corps group is.

CHAD: You know when you were asking that question about opportunities, I really feel that for me, service is really such a great equalizer. I engaged in dialogue with people who I'd normally never engage with in AmeriCorps NCCC, and I never have been taken out of my comfort zone. I probably would've shut down immediately when there was confrontation or disagreement about sexual orientation particularly on those disaster assignments. You know 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 helping people who have had everything taken from them in an instant, like a hurricane had completely wiped out a town; and you're working with someone who you might have just immediately stopped having a conversation with like before this experience.

It really for me was such an equalizer experience. I really think I had an effect on these people, and I like to think that maybe they're more accepting around LGBT communities. But then also, just me speaking for myself as someone who did not come from a religious family, I also grew so much in stopping my own prejudice around maybe thinking that all people from the southern Baptists are going to be against me. I really met amazing people that when those personal connections are made that it's much stronger than any kind of activism can occur. You know what I mean? It's on that level that you are really able to make a lasting effect and change.

AMY: So we've been talking a bit about indirect impact that you can have on people's thinking about LGBT issues as opportunities that you were able to take during your service time; and I know Kate mentioned working specifically on LGBT related projects. I was wondering if there were organizations that host AmeriCorps members or Peace Corps Volunteers that are focused on those issues or if there is project specific work that is related to LGBT issues.

KATE: Peace Corps doesn't have a specific program where you can open up and say I really want to work on LGBT issues, but we do have – whatever you're primary assignment is-- we always encourage people to take on secondary assignments and projects. As we know there are gay people in every country all over the world so you can work on secondary projects, and often the secondary projects end up being more fulfilling and more rewarding then your primary assignment.

AMY: Can you explain what a secondary project is?

KATE: So my primary assignment was to teach English in a teacher's college and then my secondary projects were, for example, running the English Language Resource Library and also I had a girl's soccer team and a little running club – I was much more active in those days. Those are my own examples but others will do a school garden or volunteer in an orphanage or volunteer with a gay and lesbian group. Many of the communities where we work wouldn't have specifically a gay and lesbian group. A lot of our Volunteers world-wide work on HIV/AIDS issues and one of the focuses on HIV/AIDS issues is on a particular community that 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. I know a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world and particularly in Africa are involved in HIV/AIDS education particularly within that community.

AMY: Martha or Chad?

MARTHA: Certain programs are geared towards serving GLBT youth or the GLBT community. We haven't talked at all about VISTA projects which is another wing of AmeriCorps. VISTA is Volunteers in Service to America. So there are VISTA projects which are geared toward our community and then in the National Direct Portfolio we have the National AIDS Fund which does a lot with GLBT issues specifically around aids. A lot of our programs may not be geared specifically for organizations that address GLBT issues but they may have service sites that do in various communities. So it's very, very broad in 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 it certainly is not something that we wouldn't be interested in. As someone who develops projects, it's definitely something I've been looking into exploring.

But when I was a member in NCCC we had a requirement that members perform 80 additional hours in their ten months of service that are above and beyond the hours that are outside of what our staff tells us to do. And they're typically done in the afternoons or weekends and have to be done with non-profits or governmental organizations. That's the one aspect of NCCC which you can kind of control. I did a lot of my hours at the LGBT Youth Center because they're a recognized non-profit and were an eligible organization for me to serve with.

AMY: You guys have all done a great job of mentioning the LGBPRCVs and National Service G.L.O.B.E. Are there any other resources that were useful for you in thinking about your own service opportunities or for people who are gay, lesbian, bi or questioning who are looking into national service or those who are currently serving?

KATE: The Peace Corps offers a sort of mentor service in that they'll have someone who will sort of guide you through the process and be a resources on many different levels. Then they also have an active listserve which answers people's questions. Finally they also have a treasure trove of stories written by past Volunteers who served all over the world so you could search, you know, a certain region of the world. They're even a great resource for people who are looking at just traveling overseas.

CHAD: I don't know that I have anything in addition outside of National Service GLOBE. When I served it was prior to National Service GLOBE kind of being in existence there was a group of us who formed our own group at the NCCC campus for support. But you know, with AmeriCorps being younger than the Peace Corps, I'm fascinated with the resources that are out there now.

MARTHA: Yeah I agree. Chad and I are both officers in an affinity group and we have sorta broad ideas about how we can use the group to support the community and I think this is just giving me so many more ideas.

CHAD: Definitely.

KATE: Me too

AMY: Are there any closing thoughts on anything that we didn't cover?

KATE: Yeah, I think I want to highlight something Chad said early on in the conversation about trying to balance his concerns about going into NCCC with why he actually wanted to do it, and he sort of drew upon his overriding motivation which was to serve others. I would just say for LGBT people that are looking at service in whatever capacity that it is that certainly your sexuality might post some challenges or some complications but hopefully at the end of the day your desire to serve really wins out over that 'cause, I think it's a really powerful and rewarding 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


Finally this show doesn't focus as much on the Transgender experience which can differ from other Lesbian/Gay issues that have come up. So you can read an interview with one of the only known Transgender return Peace Corps Volunteers on the New Service Blog today. Because of scheduling issues and as a way to maintain his anonymity we agreed to have a written interview with him rather than have him on the show. You can also learn more about the Lesbian Gay Return Peace Corps Volunteers and National GLOBE at the New Service Blog at Idealist.org/thenewservice. Special thanks to Jason Scott of the Corporation for National and Community Service and Mike Learned of the LGBRPCV. This show was produced with the help of Sarah Losito and Douglas Coulter. I'm Amy Potthast, thanks for listening. To find more good things to do go to Idealist.org. If you have enjoyed our Podcast please show your support by going to iTunes and leave a review or rating of this episode or others that you've liked. You can also send us feedback at podcast@idealist.org