Peace Corps Writers
Young, Scared and Gay in 1969
How The Draft And The Peace Corps Conspired To Give Me A Life
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by Ralph Cherry (Ghana 1969–1971)
 

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AS I’M SURE IT DID FOR MOST of my 50-something-age mates, the controversy during the 2004 presidential campaign over how George W. Bush served the country during the Vietnam War (and over John Kerry’s heroic service during the war and his equally heroic opposition to it afterwards) brought back memories I’d just as soon have left unremembered.
     The military draft was a central reality of life for male baby boomers, of which succeeding generations, bless them, have been granted blissful ignorance. For most of us men of a certain age, the draft hung in the background from the day we were born, waiting for us to turn 18, when we were required to register for it.
     As the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam grew, the draft became something much more than a mere civic duty; indeed, it attained distinct life-or-death consequences. Many young men simply renounced their citizenship and headed for Canada. For those of us unwilling to take such a drastic step, the inevitable could be put off for a little while via draft eligibility deferments granted at the discretion of local draft boards. Virtually all undergrad college students got deferments until graduation, and, for college graduates, Peace Corps service was among the deferment options granted by some boards. (How common Peace Corps deferments were is attested to by the fact that the number of volunteers serving during the Vietnam years was at its historical highest. It also had more men than women serving, in contrast to today’s female-to-male ratio of about 60% to 40%.) The inherent inequalities of these deferments have been discussed at length over the years, and I acknowledge right here that I took enthusiastic advantage of them. But that’s not what I’m writing about.
     I certainly didn’t want to go to Vietnam, but in my particular case it wasn’t because I was unwilling to serve my country. I wanted no part of the military, period. I was a “sensitive” boy, you see. (OK. I was gay.) The idea of having to serve in the military had always scared the bejesus out of me. I wasn’t “man” enough and didn’t want to be — in fact, the very idea filled me with dread. I had spent enough time suffering the cruel attentions of males of the “real” variety in high school gym. I can’t speak for every young gay man in 1969, but contrary to what the self-flattering straight men who run the military believe today, this particular gay boy had no desire to be among the real men of the military 24 hours a day. I doubted I could survive any more unwanted attention, much less the carnage of war.
     The idea of the Peace Corps had resonated with me from the time President Kennedy announced its formation in 1961. I was 15 years old at the time. I had no idea what I wanted to “be” as an adult, but the Peace Corps felt like a fit. As I progressed along with the 1960s, and the African-American civil rights movement took on steam, the idea of spending some time in Africa became increasingly attractive. I became resentful of the Jim Crow racial attitudes my DC-native family had instilled in me, and I felt I owed it to myself and my black American friends to experience life in a racially un-charged environment where skin color was a non-issue. And I actually did have a strong desire to serve my country in some way. I took it for granted that you probably couldn’t be gay in the Peace Corps, but what the heck — you couldn’t be gay anywhere. Not fitting in with the Peace Corps seemed infinitely more doable than not fitting in with the military.
     This Peace Corps idea grew as I left my parents’ home in the Washington, DC suburbs for college in Kentucky. The growth of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam certainly helped my interest along, but the real deal maker was my getting to know a guy named Joe Kimmins, the older brother of a dorm friend, who took me on as a sort trainee in intellectual matters and confided to me his intention to join the Peace Corps. This was in 1966, he was past college, and a medical disqualification had eliminated the draft as an issue for him. Joe joined the Peace Corps purely for reasons of self-fulfillment — to see the world, to have an adventure, to “give back.” The intrinsic value of the Peace Corps spoke for itself through these motivating factors and it became real to me, not just a way to dodge the draft. In fact, I couldn’t think of a better way to represent the United States overseas, especially at a time when, much like now, Americans were being vilified by most of the rest of the world.
  
  
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