When John Coyne asked me to do this column I was both flattered and a bit nonplussed: flattered to be in the company of John and the other contributors, and nonplussed because I was told I could write about whatever I wanted, from the gay perspective. I guess the Peace Corps also ought to figure in fairly regularly somewhere, since this is a publication meant to serve the Peace Corps community.

What I had to think about was how “gay” I could be since, while that is a big part of my identity, it’s by no means the only part, nor even the most important one in my attribute self-inventory. And gay Peace Corps? Well, that’s a great topic and one I spent a lot of time on during my 27 years working at the agency. But I’ve been away from the day-to-day business of the Peace Corps for five years now, and am not current on what the atmosphere is like inside those halls today. As for the Volunteers, I’m so far removed from the experience of the young gay people among those now populating Volunteer ranks that I can barely imagine what world-view they bring to their Peace Corps experiences. When I was their age, the only big gay cultural icon on the horizon was Liberace. If you were gay but not the sequins-and-makeup type, you pretty much forged your own lonely way with no models except the best and most humane people you could find within the straight world. Contrast that solitary pioneer experience with today’s cultural landscape and we might as well be on another planet. Gay people coming of age today have never known a world without the Human Rights Campaign, their own Capitol Hill lobbying group, for heaven’s sakes. And there are gay performers such as Melissa Etheridge, kd lang, Elton John and Rufus Wainwright whose love lives inform their work deeply and who are downright venerated by the general audience because of it. No mere cult performers, they; but examples of gay people of substantial accomplishment and acceptance that were unthinkable to my cohort. (Music lover that I am, I did have my gay cultural heroes: Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten, Cole Porter — but they were either simply tolerated, regarded as talented but odd ducks, or were properly tragic — Tchaikovsky was even compliant enough to commit suicide. Care to identify with that?) No, I don’t feel qualified to talk to young gay people coming into Peace Corps’ ranks today.

But I can speak to history, and by way of introduction, that’s what I’ll tell you about now. My working relationship with the Peace Corps spanned 34 years, from the time I swore in as a PCV in Ghana in 1969 to my retirement from the Africa Region in 2003. Those of us of a certain age, gay or not, know that attitudes towards homosexuality changed drastically over that time period. I bear personal witness to those changes. In 1969 we were still very much in the days of “the love that dare not speak its name.” I nearly early-terminated, ready to face either the draft or coming out to my parents (both ghastly prospects) because of an unrequited emotional affair with an African neighbor that I couldn’t shake and was afraid to tell anyone about. From that experience I ricocheted to a 1993 reception for agency Director Mark Gearan, a White House appointee, given by the gay and lesbian employee group at headquarters. He thanked us for our service. It was my privilege to illustrate the changes in attitude with my own life. I told him publicly that I had gone from fear of being kicked out of the agency simply because of who I was, to being honored by the highest reaches of government, again, simply because of who I was.

Life is crazy. I’m not complaining.

I can’t promise stories of such heady triumph every month. And since I’m a guy, I guarantee that whatever I have to say is going to be weighted more towards men’s experience than women’s. I try to be inclusive in everything I do, but some things are still biologically impossible. I hope you’ll understand, and come along for the ride.

— Ralph Cherry