Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Jeremiah Johnson Fights for Change in the Peace Corps--and Wins!
Back in August, Robert was fortunate enough to meet the Managing Editor of POZ Magazine, Jennifer Morton. They exchanged email addresses and she graciously offered to put him in touch with Jeremiah Johnson, whose profile in the magazine caught his eye. The 25-year-old Johnson served for 16 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Ukraine where he taught English and AIDS prevention. During the course of those 16 months Johnson himself became infected with the virus and was subsequently dismissed from the Peace Corps because of it. Discrimination charges and the backing of POZ led to a victory for Johnson and for future volunteers—the organization changed its policy to accommodate HIV positive volunteers. After describing the Rights of Passage project, Johnson, who now lives in Denver, agreed to answer our questions about his time in the Peace Corps and where he sees his life going from here. Below are excerpts from that interview.
What motivated you to volunteer for the Peace Corps initially?
A little bit of passion and a little bit of confusion. I was just out of college and completely clueless on what I should do with my life. Actually living in a strange land without indoor plumbing just sounded like insanity. With my studies in college, however, my opinions changed. So when college ended and I felt like I didn't know what to do in terms of career, I decided that I would just follow my passion and enter Peace Corps.
At the time of the POZ interview it stated that you were working in a restaurant. What are your plans for the future?
For the immediate future, I plan to take advantage of an opportunity that has been presented to me to do more international volunteer work. The program will only last for 2 months and send me either to Lima, Peru or Capetown, South Africa to work on HIV/AIDS related issues. My plan after I return is to apply for graduate school and to work on establishing a career in international HIV/AIDS work.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I see myself working to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV internationally and working on programs to help improve prevention and treatment opportunities. I can't think of anything I want more right now than to help HIV positive people and actually get paid for it. Oh...and a smokin' hot husband wouldn't hurt either.
What is your greatest hope for the future? What is your biggest fear?
My greatest hope is to find myself solidly established in an internationally focused HIV/AIDS career. My biggest fear is being alone. When I was younger, I always pictured myself married and with kids. Although I'm not currently having problems with my health or with my romantic life, I fear that complications with HIV will make establishing a real family all the more difficult or even impossible.
Based on your experiences there, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing gay people today in the Ukraine?
Silence. The presence of the gay community throughout most of Ukraine is barely visible. Much of this has to do with the conceptual difference in Ukraine between "men that sleep with men" and men that are "gay." Very much in ‘Brokeback’ fashion, most men with an inclination to sleep with men simply marry women and then connect with other men behind their wives' backs. I met very few men who would identify themselves as "gay" and quite a few who, although interested in sex with other men, were very critical of those who do identify as gay. This kind of division makes it difficult for men to come out of the shadows, let alone organize any sort of social movement. As for lesbians, the biggest problem for them is also visibility. The idea of two women in a relationship is simply absurd to Ukrainians, so lesbians have the challenge of earning legitimacy in terms of the public mindset. Beyond that, those who do rebuff the advances of men are very likely to encounter more extreme hate and violence than, I think, gay men will.
How is your health currently?
Just fine. I'm not on medication and have had no complications from the HIV. Mentally things have been a bit more difficult, but with the help of my friends, family, and a good therapist I'm pulling myself out of this initial depression.
What are your feelings toward the Peace Corps now?
I have no negative feelings toward the Peace Corps, especially since they changed their official policy on how to handle newly infected volunteers. The fact is that even the best organizations can be prone to stigma and need to be shaken up from time to time. It's a shame that my service had to end the way it did, but I still think that it's a wonderful opportunity.
What would be your advice for an HIV positive person interested in volunteering for the Peace Corps?Go for it. Between the recent success the ACLU and I have had in changing Peace Corps HIV policy and the recent change in the Foreign Service's hiring policies for HIV positive applicants thanks to Taylor vs. Rice, the time is ripe for HIV positive people to volunteer with minimal chances of discrimination. Positive individuals are truly needed to strengthen Peace Corps efforts to educate communities in developing nations about HIV and the stigma surrounding it. Who better to lead these efforts than those who have already experienced life after becoming infected?
Photo: Johnson and his seventh grade class in Rozdilna, Ukraine.