Dealing With Reverse Culture Shock and Burnout

After studying abroad, and really after I come back from an international trip, I suffer terrible reverse culture shock which usually results in a mental burnout. Before medication and therapy, these burnouts could last weeks or even months. It was so bad that I burst into tears landing at JFK airport because I saw a golf course. No one back in the United States really seemed to get how I felt, and telling stories about my international adventures only made me feel worse.

I may be wrong, but I feel like people who suffer from good old regular culture shock when traveling to a country have it easier. You either stick it out in the new country, or you go home. Reverse cultural shock likes to creep out unexpectedly and at the worst moments. Like almost having a panic attack in the middle of a Bath and Body Works while Christmas shopping at a mall. Whenever I travel internationally, even if it’s for a short period of time, reverse culture shock sets in as soon as I land back in the United States. Places abroad feel so much like home, more than other living situations I was in, and I didn’t want to leave that feeling. I didn’t want to leave that sense of community and simplicity. My responsibilities abroad were going to school or volunteering, which made life back in the United States seem ten times more complicated than it probably was. After returning from study abroad, the reverse culture shock was so severe that I stayed in varying degrees of depression over a 5 year period. My depression is biochemical, and that feeling of loss was something that I couldn’t truly overcome on my own.

I thought that with the medication and therapy the feeling would be non-existent or at least dissipate faster. However, the feeling stays just as long and just as strong. The only difference now is that it doesn’t complete destroy my mental state for a month after returning. Which I suppose is a pretty big difference. Not completely burning out helps me move forward and allows me to get the work done that I need to. I just wish that there was some magic spell or drug that would allow me to travel from country to country without feeling so disoriented when I return. In the meantime I have a great girlfriend, friends, family, and therapy that remind me what home feels like in the United States.

“But You Don’t Look Gay…”

When I was abroad and socializing with the oil workers I mentioned the last weekthere were several times when these middle-aged men would try to create drama within my study abroad group (composed of 20-somethings).  One of these incidents was one of them insisting to me that another person in my group was gay, and you could tell by “just looking at them”.

I’m not going to touch on the idea of creating drama over sexual orientation (that’s a whole other blog post). Even after I started to come out to myself, no one on that trip could tell I was gay. Everyone that I came out to at home was surprised. It felt like my homosexuality was pouring out of every part of me, but my ‘straight acting’ of the past was just too good.  I had pretended to have crushes on male celebrities and tried to convince myself that I was in love with several of my male friends. It never felt real to me, but I guess I was fairly convincing. The markers that seemed so obvious to that oil worker were wrong, but all of the markers I had weren’t ‘gay enough’.

Can you always tell that people are gay by just looking at them? At the beginning of the trip when this occurred, I wasn’t even out to myself yet, but no one was picking up on what in hindsight was pretty obvious gay vibes. Even after being out for 6 years, I still get surprised reactions; they couldn’t ‘see’ my gayness. Before I cut my hair short, I would go  to Pride parades and events with my male gay friends and automatically be pegged as the ally or hag tagging along.  Now, there are times when I look at myself and think I look ‘gayer’ than other times, but those visual markers don’t necessarily give me away. My hair could be in a faux hawk, and I could be wearing skinny jeans and a plaid shirt and people have still be surprised when I refer to my girlfriend.

Is there a mysterious gay vibe that I’m not emitting? Being a lesbian is a crucial part of my identity, and honestly it frustrates me that people don’t see it when I think I am making it obvious. Is it that it’s so obvious to me, but surprising for everyone who assumes heterosexuality until proven other wise? Is that what has kept me safe when I have been traveling with my non-profit? I feel gay all of the time, but I guess since straightness is assumed ( I usually dress in the middle of the butch/femme spectrum) I get lumped in with all the other heterosexuals. I don’t mind that when I’m traveling with my organization if it protects me, but I get frustrated that people can pick up on gay vibes from other people and not me.  What separates me from all of the other women you can ‘just tell’ are lesbians?

Even though I’m grateful that assumed straightness protects me from homophobia abroad, it’s a double edged sword. Having people know that I’m a lesbian is crucial to my identity. I feel like less of myself while under this protection, and I feel like I’m lying to everyone involved.

I want to be my gay self all of the time; I just have to wait until being my true self wouldn’t get myself or my organization hurt.

I won’t hold my breath, but I remain hopeful.


Unnecessary Competition

Every once in a while there is someone in the humanitarian sector who needs to puff our their feathers and claim that their organization and / or their methods are superior to everyone else’s, making them the best in their field. I experienced that behavior mostly in undergrad, but lately I have been experiencing this pissing contest indirectly and directly online and at various conferences.

My organization operates in 5 countries. Mine doesn’t require funding from corporations. Here are metrics that prove my work is more important than yours.

It’s one thing to be proud of our non-profits; I’m extremely proud of what my organization has accomplished. The trouble comes when we try to diminish other’s work as wrong or insignificant. In some countries it’s easy and an advantage to work with corporations and the government; in others, not so much. Water infrastructure does not negate education or health development or vice versa. There is no cause that trumps all of the others, and your organization isn’t better because of it.

Every organization is created, formed, and evolved from an infinite amount of historical, sociopolitical, and economical scenarios. Education programs that work in a small village in Ecuador might have no positive impact in a country-wide program in Pakistan. The way we operate in one the countries my non-profit works in is extremely unique, and I would not recommend functioning that way in other places. Do I wish that it could be different? Of course, but wishing doesn’t turn anything into an ideal situation. Yes we are taught and shown the ‘best practices’ of a specific sector, but a lot of the times those practices need to be adapted or completely thrown out the window in order to be successful.

It doesn’t make the work my non-profit any less valid, and having the ability to adhere to different tactics doesn’t make your work any more valid.

Can’t we all just get along, share our ideas, and be open to being wrong or adapting our programs?

Remember, we are all working towards making the world a better place, we can’t do that by stomping on each other.

Rethinking How We Define Success in the Non-Profit Sector

Last week I read an article by Jordan Levy about the Ubuntu Education Fund, and how that instead of rushing to outcomes for the sake of results and funding, that we as a sector should acknowledge that positive and lasting change comes gradually. He states:

Our success stems from this comprehensive approach. We strive to address every facet of poverty, helping 2,000 children attain financial independence and lead healthy lives. Our commitment to children ‘from cradle to career’ gives us the courage to push back against the ‘bigger, faster, and cheaper’ mantra, to acknowledge that progress often comes incrementally, that real change requires sustained and sometimes expensive services. And, most importantly, it lets us redefine success as outcomes rather than single interventions. Who’s with us?

My organization works in the United States and also in one other small country (in less than 10 schools). Especially with our international programs, finding sustainable funding has been extremely difficult. I have no doubt in my mind it is because of the relatively micro nature of  our programs. It has been suggested to us numerous times that we should expand into other countries. Sometimes, I feel that, if my organization got a dollar for every time we were asked why we didn’t expand into a multinational organization, we might have the funding we needed to sustain ourselves.

We need to monitor and evaluate ourselves in order to produce the best programs that we can. However, why are the organizations with the largest metrics applauded? Sometimes without looking at the quality of the program? Personally, I have found that working on a ‘micro’ level has helped my organization hone our mission and pay attention to quality; I know for certain that expanding into multiple countries would diminish our work. I’m not saying that large groups shirk on quality, but we need to change the definition of success equating to X amount of people attended or fed, with the highest number receiving the most funding.

Sustainable change rarely comes from cheap, quick, and easy fixes or actions. In my experience, however, those are the type of projects that get the money. Funders want to see quick results, and they want digestible numbers to pass onto their backers. We as a sector NEED to continue to work, piece by piece toward sustainable goals, and remember that we are working with and for people and communities. We can do more than single interventions. We have the capacity and ability to be more than nice looking numbers.

When we work toward our mission in a comprehensive and responsible way, the true impact will speak for itself.

Who’s with us?

World Vision Shows Us That Positive Change Can Be Fickle

This past week has been a roller coaster ride for the LGBT* non-profit community. This past week World Vision announced that they were going to immediately recognize the same sex marriages of their gay and lesbian workers. They were quoted as saying

 “It’s been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church. It’s tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We’ve got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity.”

World Vision is one of the largest  faith driven organizations in the world, working in almost 100 countries. This move wasn’t an endorsement, but it certainly had the potential of creating positive waves in the aid / relief community. Unfortunately World Vision backed out of this decision from overwhelming pressure and bullying from the political evangelical community. I probably should have seen this coming;I didn’t have dreams of grandeur. I didn’t think an acknowledgement of same-sex marriages would lead to every faith-based group to reevaluate their perception of the LGBT* community.

This could have been beyond huge. For too long Christian (and secular) organizations in the non-profit sector ignored or separated themselves from acknowledging the LGBT* individuals in their workforce. Challenging that separation through open acknowledgement would force people to at least look at their understanding of what it means for a queer person who is working toward similar goals. This could have been a time where Christian non-profits to look at itself, its staff, and its volunteers; World Vision had the chance to say that LGBT* workers are just as impactful as their straight counterparts, and should have equal footing.

Instead, we are shown that with enough negative pressure, positive change can be reversed. What could have been a great leap forward towards equality in the non-profit sector has become another example of discrimination and homophobia. World Vision’s mission is to “[work] with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice”. They had a chance to fix an injustice within their own organization. I hope someday that revisit this, and I hope that organizations while acknowledge that LGBT* aid workers fight poverty and hunger, work for quality education, and advocate for those who do not have a voice.

As a  diverse community, we need to focus on WHY we are doing what we’re doing. That is our commonality – what unites us toward making the world a better, happier, and brighter place.

You Need to Be a Better Person Than the Westboro Baptists and Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptists and died this past Thursday; it has been rumored that his excommunication stemmed from a change of heart about Westboro’s message. Whatever the reason, they are various opinions on how the LGBT* community should react to Fred Phelp’s recent passing. While some call or a celebration, I hope the queer community falls more in line with George Takei’s message:

“I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding ‘God Hates Freds’ signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.” 

I know that the urge to dance on Fred Phelp’s metaphorical grave is extremely tempting. His group has been the face of hate throughout the United States. I attended a counter-protest of the Westboro Baptists at my Graduate school; Fred wasn’t there, but seeing the group across the street was enough to creep me out. While I don’t believe  in Christianity, I do know that the Westboro Baptists do not reflect peace and love that is supposed to be central in the Christian faith.

We just have to be better people. As a non-profit / aid works, do we ever get sustainable positive gains through being vindictive and cruel? Without love of what we do, our passion would fizzle out or be corrupted. We became humanitarians to put good back into the world. We need to be better people in all of this. Being joyous about someone’s death only brings more hate into the world.

We don’t gain anything from hate. Yes, there might be some initial joy after mud-slinging, but after that where does that leave us? Our hate does not change what Fred Phelps or the Westboro Baptists have one, and I doubt it will change what they decide to do in the future.

We are not Fred Phelps. We are not the Westboro Baptists. We are loving, caring, passionate LGBT* individuals who help our local and global communities.

At the end of the day, we are responsible for what we put back into the world. Let’s choose love over hate.

Help ALL of the People…?? Don’t Burn Yourself Out

I tend to over think things a lot. I won’t go into detail about my neurosis (you’re welcome), but one of my struggles within the non-profit sector is making sure that I don’t stretch myself too thin and burn out.

For example: In most states, the state that I live in is working toward marriage equality. I have tried getting involved and volunteering for the cause (actually have attempted to get involved in multiple states), but I never feel motivated to follow through and put all of myself into it. My head says DO IT while the rest of me resists. This dichotomy makes me feel extremely guilty – how can I not feel motivated to participate in winning my basic civil rights?

I would think that those who work in the non-profit sector outside of the LGBT* arena would  also feel guilty if they are not actively working toward their rights.  Should we feel guilty? Definitely not. We are more than just our orientation, and we have many different passions. There is no need to get burned out because we feel like we should be spending our energy on multiple issues. I’m not Super Man, and just because I am a lesbian does not mean I have to be an activist. If you want to delve 100% into education, water development, homelessness or anything else – you should! If you want to commit yourself to just queer issues – do it!

LGBT* rights are obviously extremely important, and participation is essential. But we need people who are fully dedicated to the work involved, not people who feel like they need  to participate to keep their gay card.

To be our best selves, we need to follow our hearts. We are educators, humanitarians, aid workers and volunteers. We are a complex group of individuals who are passionate about a plethora of issues. We are all working towards a common good – and weighing good deeds against each other gets us no where.

Assuming Does Make You an Ass

Culture isn’t real- at least what most of us think of when we hear the word culture. The “homophobic culture” of a country (i.e. Russia) is not the entire country. Saying that there is only one culture in a country or geographic area is ridiculous. Yes, there are features that are unique to specific countries, but saying there is only one homogeneous American culture would negate the differences that the North, South, East , West, and Midwest are proud of.

I think it is getting better, but a large amount of the aid/non-profit/government workers still treat countries and regions as having one collective mindset. Going into City A with locked in expectations is counter productive to whatever your mission is.

Assuming that a group of people in any aid/non-profit/government situation has nothing to offer will also decrease the chance of your program making the most positive impact. We are not the true experts, and utilizing  every resource, even if it’s not an obvious one, is crucial.

I do need to remind myself of these things quite often: every time I travel, give a workshop or work with volunteers. Assuming that a person, group of people, or entire country hates who I am closes me off from creating the most positive impact.

I’m not saying that every gay humanitarian should tattoo the word “Queer” on their forehead, but putting every Russian, Ugandan, or American in the same homophobic box discredits the diversity of opinions that exist in humanity’s spectrum.

When going into a new location, we need to remind ourselves that politics and political agendas are not people.

And it’s not why we do the work we do. It’s the people.

Young and Sportastic – Visibility in the LGBT* Community

Honestly my first temptation was to rant about the lack of LGBT* representation in the State of the Union last Tuesday, but as I promised my girlfriend and my readers  last week , I won’t turn my blog into a rant fest. (Though I really want to… all I wanted was ONE ENDA mention…)

…Anyway, I want to focus on the increase of youth representation and LGBT* visibility. Many of the kids /young adults that are coming out are active in sports culture, and that’s fantastic. Between Olympians worldwide, and people like Conner Merterns in Oregon, many current players are at the forefront of the LGBT* movement. I can’t speak for the sports culture outside of the United States, but here in the USA the culture surrounding athletics could easily be compared to religious ideology.

The You Can Play project is an example of the decrease of homophobia in sports (even if it’s slow). I love that people are challenging what it means to be strong, and that LGBT* individuals can challenge current perceptions. But gay athletes in the Olympics, college sports, and major sports teams prove that being queer does not fit into a nice hetero-normative picture.

Queer kids can play hockey, football, baseball, or soccer. Go for the Gold (I mean just getting to the Olympics sounds pretty rad).

The thing that I think is the most important about this trend in sports is the spirit of athleticism. Pride in teamwork, hard work, perseverance, etc. are all lauded in American society. The LGBT* community are of course capable of expressing these virtues already, but having kids be able to see these virtues openly expressed in people like themselves is powerful.

Telling kids not only does it get better, but they are amazing, unique and strong in their own way is quintessential. Recognizing your own personal strength is one of the first steps into empowering yourself and making the world a more positive and better place. With more visibility in sports, it’s becoming more of reality for queer kids.

Visibility matters. We’re here, we’re queer, and we can be whatever we want to be.

An Experiment in Optimism – My Hope for the LGBT* Community and the Olympic Games

Last week I was originally going to post a very negative and rant filled blog. Luckily I have a  girlfriend who reminded me that this blog (for the most part) is to be a positive space for LGBT* aid/ development /government / non-profit workers. I’ll write criticism when it’s due, but I will do my best to focus on the good, or try to find the good in the rubble.

We all know the negative aspects surrounding the upcoming winter games in Sochi, Russia. I’m going to try to write my first (of several) posts about the Olympics as positively as possible. I don’t have rose-colored glasses on, but I feel like ignoring  possible outcomes that would be favorable to the LGBT* diminishes the ideals of the Olympics are supposed to be.

So this is going to be my idealistic hope for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi:

  • I hope that everyone is safe throughout the games.
  • I hope that there are some great LGBT* athletic moments – heart warming and medal winning.
  • I hope that ignorant minds are changed. That people can see a gay Olympian as a hard-working athlete that deserves honor and respect. And if that person deserves respect, maybe everyone in the LGBT* community should be awarded the same.
  • I hope that Obama not going and by sending a LGBT* filled envoy sets a positive precedence in the United States and Russia.
  • I hope LGBT* Olympians get on cereal boxes and on Subway commercials.
  • I hope that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans* kids all over the world can see out athletes and know they aren’t alone.
  • I hope these kids also will feel empowered and inspired to become an Olympian, or work towards making a difference in their local and global communities.

The Olympics should be about visibility, world unity, and hope.

I hope that EVERYONE can experience these things in the upcoming weeks.