Trans in the Peace Corps

by El, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a purposefully unspecified country in South America from 2010 to 2013 and likes vegetables, naps, and stretch marks.

[Content Note: Ciscentism; heterocentrism; misogyny; sexual assault.]

I know most Peace Corps recruitment is supposed to be joyful and happy and excited and promising. Most Peace Corps recruiters are going to show you photos of conventionally attractive white people Accomplishing Things with children of color, just as most LGBTQAI Peace Corps recruiters will be cis gay/lesbian/bi people promising you that It Will Be Hard and Magic!! This piece will not be that. But it will be honest.

Going into Peace Corps in 2010 as a queer/questioning 20-something, I tried to find information about queer Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) life. I found a lot of stuff on the LGB Peace Corps Website, promising to some people - there's abundant information out there for those of us who are LGB, and I'm bi - but somewhat lacking for me as someone whose gender was...unclear. I thought I was trans but didn't exactly fit the media standard ("I knew I had been assigned the wrong gender as long as I can remember"). The best person I spoke to was a trans Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), who also happened to be my dad's best friend from college. During one of our discussions, she told me her experience in Peace Corps later gave her the strength to become herself, to live out, to live proud. She asked me about my gender. I told her I couldn't tell her. She wished me luck and sent me love. I headed to training, queer as the soccer field at church camp. But thinking I was probably cis.

Welp. That was a bygone time.

Peace Corps was the adventure of a lifetime. The happiness I found as a volunteer still shines through me and the scars I have from service, truth be told, I'm not sure if they've healed. Same with any life-changing experience. It's a two-year chunk of your life. And yes, much of it is downtime eating a sixth plate of food at your host family's house or spent alone cuddling books you never got a chance to read or helping people understand that the United States is in fact not the Promised Land it pretends it is, but plenty of it is, in a word, indescribable. Plenty of people have written about this so I don't have to. Everything they write: believe them.

But you're trans. Or I was. And you know it. Or maybe you don't, because as I said, going in, I wasn't quite there yet. But you're never more yourself than you are in Peace Corps. In a completely new environment, the interactions you have catch on every corner of your identity, angles you never knew you had, strengths and weaknesses you've never tested. And whether they'd phrase it this way or not, the PCVs around me found ways to articulate and affirm their (cis) genders in new contexts, new languages, new communities, new friendships...

...and I lost track of mine. Because in the Peace Corps, you're never less yourself either. It's hard to be in denial as the lies you've been telling yourself crumble. Accepting my gender while being a PCV was an added challenge to an already challenging environment.

Yes, I wore skirts and kept my hair long and grumbled about my period and complained about third shifts and did all the things arbitrarily associated with being a woman. (Things that you can still do even when you're out and proud and trans masculine, by the way. And it's disturbing and incorrect to put womanhood in these terms, because that's not what being a woman is. Any woman, cis or trans, can tell you that.)

I'd walk home to the melodious sounds of street harassment, after a day of work at the health clinic being sexually harassed, month in, month out. And I'd close the door to my home and bind my chest with the Peace Corps-provided ace bandage. I'd spend the lonely hours at night perfecting a more masculine walk, dropping my voice, imagining how my body could look, which clothes I would buy if I could find any that fit. (By the way, yeah, don't bind with ace bandages.)

I'd sit and listen to cis male PCVs (heterosexual and gay/bi alike) talk about how they were better, kinder, less sexist than the men in our host country, note that both groups were inordinately misogynistic. I learned what kind of man I didn't want to be.

I heard cis gay dudes from the US and my host country both talk about how disgusting vaginas are, shuddering at the thought of non-phallic genitalia. I observed cis 'allies' fresh out of college erasing trans people daily while embracing a version of gay culture and history where we exist in the background at best. I heard cis lesbians talk about how much they hate dick and how they're lucky to be lesbians so they don't have to go "that route." Whether or not you're politically aware as a trans person, this type of thing is grating on your soul.

I dated a woman who, during our brief affair, told me all about how she wanted to study trans people for her next job. After we broke up, she explained that my gender presentation wasn't to her liking, then promptly dated a cis woman who diverged even more significantly from her stated preference than I did. People's preferences are legitimate, but it was not the first time, nor the last, I've witnessed or experienced cis people not very subtly using a "preferences" argument as a cover for transphobic policing. A simple "It isn't working" would have been enough.

I was sexually assaulted by men who thought I was a woman. I didn't tell my friends. I didn't tell admin. I slowly fell apart while I grappled with how to deal with another sexual assault, adding to the several I'd lived through in the US. No person should have to go through that, regardless of our gender. When you're in the Peace Corps, coming forward about sexual assault is hard. When you're trans, when you're closeted, when you're lost, when you've gone through sexual assault awareness scenarios that ignore how rape happens in the real world, when you're working with a group of people and a culture that ignore boys like me and girls like's worse. I lost friends and pieces of my mind. I spiraled deeper into depression than I ever thought possible.

And meanwhile, back at headquarters, the cis LGB volunteers conducted "diversity training" where they spoke for trans people (using their university backgrounds as justification/qualification) and honestly I couldn't be bothered to complain, let alone show up. These same cis LGB people who would tell me how affronted they were when heterosexual people spoke for them felt perfectly qualified to teach others about how to include trans people based on reading about us or even being "friends" with us. In this way, Peace Corps is no different than any other work environment. Disturbingly familiar, in fact. Prepare yourself emotionally, because cis people are cis anywhere in the world.

And trans people are trans anywhere in the world.

Now, every culture has its own notions of gender. My cultural tradition has five different genders and words to name them, each dating back over a thousand years. I'm not going to pretend gender expression, performance, identity, any of these things are static: that would be colonialist Euro-centric nonsense. But where I was serving, 500 years of colonialism had certainly enforced the idea that there are men and there are women, even if those roles were performed in ways that weren't identical to what we're used to in the United States.

And as such, there were trans people.

Miles from pavement, miles from other volunteers, miles from a bus stop, I found another trans person. A town of 100 people and here he was, a teenage boy whose family thought he was a girl, whose masculinity was now (at the edge of seventeen) no longer a cute childhood gimmick, who met my eyes my third week in site and somehow we both knew. Cousins would whisper about him, that he'd just be a normal girl if his mother wouldn't cut his hair short, that he should stop playing sports with the boys, that he'd never get married. We'd talk about it. He didn't care. He was moving out and moving on the second he was done with high school. We played soccer at church camp. It was as queer there was it was in the US.

And back in the capital city at the gay clubs I'd find trans girls and guys both. I'm sort of shy anywhere I am in the world, as it turns out, but I found a few people I felt comfortable with, people with whom I could be open and honest. There's not a lot of information on HRT or binding or packing or tucking written in the language of the country where I served, and the free, cis-centric healthcare system essentially ignores trans people. They'd ask questions, I'd print stuff out in English, and we'd go over it together. I learned a lot about trans healthcare during that time. Things I should have known anyway. Things I was embarrassed and ashamed to learn on my own. Self love is a process that I'm still learning and the foundation was laid there, during my service, during the hardest and easiest moments of my life. Those times I shared with trans host country nationals? I never shared them with any other PCVs. I wasn't ready to be myself yet, and that would have been too honest and revealing for me. But those moments meant everything. I had the opportunity to bond as a biromantic person with LGB host country nationals/a few bi PCVs and it was great. I loved that too. But as trans people know, being trans is a different magic.

Peace Corps in a lot of ways gave me the strength I needed to admit to myself who I was, even though I never disclosed to fellow volunteers. And truthfully, still haven't told the few RPCVs from my group with whom I'm still in contact. I understand there's a cultural shift happening and probably my cis gay friend who said the transphobic stuff in 2010 wouldn't make that same mistake today...or maybe he would. Maybe today I'd find strength to call the woman I dated who embraced oppressive standards of gender expression (by the way, last I knew she's studying trans people as part of a graduate program...), or maybe I wouldn't. Truth is, I could come out to cis RPCVs I know, but those aren't the relationships I want to build. Trans people are the people I love most, the people with whom I feel most comfortable, anywhere in the world. I build my community with trans people, men, women, non-binary. Of course we don't all get along, of course being trans isn't sunshine and rainbows, but that has nothing to do with Peace Corps.

My dad's friend? She also told me "Peace Corps was an amazing experience, and worthwhile. I'm just glad I did it before I started embracing my gender." For me, Peace Corps was an amazing experience, and worthwhile. And I started to embrace my gender in my host country. I knew trans people in the States, but it took until I got to that environment for me to know myself as trans. Back in the States, I can't be out all the time just yet, but still, I embrace my gender. Cis people won't get that. You do, though.

Anywhere in the world where European colonialism has taken root, there are trans people. And in these places, trans men have immense privilege over trans women, racialized hierarchies exist, and we have to grapple with these things as well as classism and ableism and other forms of oppression, no matter what. In any organization where we work, we're going to have to deal with cis het people who are afraid of us and LGB 'allies' who erase us. Whether we're Peace Corps Volunteers serving abroad, RPCVs 'bringing it home', applying for Peace Corps and considering what service means to us...being trans is one aspect of our identity. It is one facet of who we are. Our ability to identify how we are oppressed and how we oppress others is another. Our desire to serve, and do better, and be better, is another.

If you're trans and thinking about Peace Corps, trust yourself. Trust your own judgment.

If you can't be out during Peace Corps, you're still trans. I love you. I embrace you.

If you can be out during Peace Corps, I love you. I embrace you.

And I'm here for you, any time.

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