Peace Corps volunteer anticipates personal impact of new inclusive policy change

Earlier this year, well before the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the legal challenge to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the Peace Corps announced a significant policy change: same-sex couples would now be permitted to serve together. Through the Peace Corps, thousands of Americans serve abroad working with local communities on agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health and youth in development - and now, gay and lesbian Americans would be able to serve without having to be separated from their partners.

On May 21, Peace Corps Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet announced, "Service in the Peace Corps is a life-defining leadership experience for Americans who want to make a difference around the world. I am proud that the agency is taking this important step forward to allow same-sex domestic partners to serve overseas together."

About ten percent of Peace Corps volunteers currently serving are serving as married couples. With the option now open to same-sex couples, that percentage is expected to increase. 

The policy change was personal for Shari Quan, an Assessment Specialist Recruiter for the Peace Corps who spent 27 months in Peace Corps service in rural Uganda from 2008 until 2010. She and her partner, Elisabeth Halliday, are planning their wedding for Spring 2014 in California - where Shari's from - and the policy change has opened up the possibility of the women serving together without being separated.

"Elisabeth hasn't served in Peace Corps, but I would very much like to serve together, and we talk about applying as a couple in the future," Shari said. "Without this policy change, it wouldn't have been possible for us to serve together - we knew it would take a change like this to make our hopes a real possibility."

Shari and Elisabeth met just as Shari was preparing to leave for her term serving the Peace Corps in Uganda. They met as new employees at a chocolate shop in New York City, and began dating soon after. "We both saw an ad seeking help at a fancy chocolate shop," Shari laughed, adding. "Elisabeth likes to say we met on Craigslist."

Since Shari was leaving for Uganda just six weeks after she and Elisabeth began formally dating, their relationship was initially meant to be about casual companionship - until, as luck would have it, they fell in love. 

"I knew that I had to leave for Peace Corps," Shari said, explaining, "I wouldn't be the person that I wanted to be had I not. During my time in the service, Elisabeth called me regularly and sent me beautiful hand-decorated letters. We even played a game of battleship by mailing a piece of graph paper back and forth." 

When Shari finished her term in Uganda, she returned to New York to begin working for Peace Corps in the Northeast Recruitment Office. Elisabeth, a contemporary opera singer, was also living in New York, and the women grew close quickly, building off of their long-distance letter-writing relationship. Elisabeth traveled with Shari to meet her family in Los Angeles, where Shari was able to share more of her life with the woman she loves. 

Now, as they prepare for their wedding and look to a future, potentially serving together in Peace Corps down the road, the women are grateful for all of the steps forward the country has taken on marriage and same-sex couples in the past few years.

"This is a big change for same-sex couples," Shari said about the Peace Corps policy shift. "Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer now no longer means having to choose to be apart for 27 months."

She continued: "I'm hugely excited by the change - I'm glad that the Peace Corps has developed policies and procedures that allow the agency to successfully and safely place same-sex couples as Peace Corps volunteers. I see this as a win for equality."