Inspired to Help: For as Long as He Can Remember, Eddie Marquis Wanted to Make a Difference. So He Joined the Peace Corps and Stepped Back into the Closet

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Other young gay boys dream of growing up to be first mate, firefighter, or Olympic gymnast. Lifelong do-gooder and child of the 1960s Eddie Marquis fantasized about the Peace Corps. "I guess it sounds a little odd," laughs the Boston native, "but it's something I really wanted to do ever since I was a kid. It sounded so exciting."

Established by John F. Kennedy in 1961 to "promote world peace and friendship" through a variety of assistance projects, the Peace Corps has sent over 187,000 American volunteers to 139 countries in the past 46 years. The average age of a Peace Corps worker in 2007 is 28.

Marquis didn't exactly fit the profile. When he started seriously looking into joining the Peace Corps, he was 31. He needed a college degree--a prerequisite for service in the corps--which he received four years later, in human services advocacy, from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He was in recovery, meaning he needed to be placed somewhere in the world with close access to a meeting in case he should need it. And he was openly gay.

Marquis's initial fear that the Peace Corps might discriminate against him in "don't ask, don't tell" military fashion turned out to be unfounded. The first Peace Corps recruiter he spoke with was an out lesbian who had served in Africa. Marquis recalls her saying, "So you're gay--so what?"

Once accepted into the Peace Corps, Marquis jokes, he started to make more requests. With his previous work at the AIDS Action Committee and other AIDS education centers in Boston, he wanted to work in HIV education and prevention. That last request would turn out to be easy to accommodate. Amanda Host, the Peace Corps press director in Washington, D.C., says that over 97% of the corps' posts worldwide have some aspect that is related to HIV or AIDS.

But while the Peace Corps back home was accepting of Marqnis's sexual orientation, it would be a different story in Ecuador. Before leaving for the South American country, Marquis received an information packet that advised gay and lesbian volunteers--for their own safety--to stay in the closet.

In July 2000 at age 38, Marquis went to a small, impoverished barrio in the provincial city of Santo Doimngo de los Colorados as a public-health volunteer specializing in HIV education. Arriving in Ecuador, Marquis immediately sensed why he had been urged to stay quiet about his sexuality.

"Being a gay man who has been out for a hundred years, it was the hardest thing," says Marquis, who had come out when he was 21. …