I think most people would agree that the college years are a period in one’s life whereby you finally grow into your own. However, as a young gay male in the fall of 2004 coming from a small, southern town in the heart of the Bible belt, that went doubly true for me. Though I had started on this journey of self-discovery in high school, the fact is up until college, I kept my sexual preference largely hidden, no matter if those around me thought they knew one way or the other.
I was very happy to use the new slate that college had provided to me in order to not have to hide who I was any more. Additionally, thanks to my study abroad experiences, I grew more confident in myself because of the numerous challenges that living and studying abroad presents students when navigating foreign contexts for the first time. However, as I look back to my concerns I had as a gay student pursuing study abroad, I realize just how little resources were available to me.
Though I went to study in Paris on two occasions, a city that is notoriously liberal and often referred to using the double-entendre, Gay Paris, this didn’t change the fact that I had real concerns and questions about navigating the foreign culture given my identity. My university’s study abroad office was staffed with great people that, like most, aimed to prepare students as best they could prior to study abroad, and my program had a phenomenal faculty director who, again with hindsight, probably could have given me advice. But the problem was feeling like I could ask the questions that were on my mind or bring up what I felt was a taboo topic.
The problem wasn’t necessarily that my study abroad office or faculty director were not prepared to help me (though I suspect this is often the case for many offices and faculty members) so much as it was I, like so many LGBTQ students, had been conditioned into thinking that I have to deal with this issue on my own since it is a subject that makes people uneasy or repulsed. Though a minority, I was not a minority favored by diversity committees or scholarships encouraging students of different ethnic backgrounds to go abroad. Up until that point in time, I had not heard the message that people wanted to help students like me study abroad–again, that is not to say that they didn’t!
So, I did what countless other students of my generation do when they have questions. I took to the internet and researched cultural standards of gay culture in France; what is and what is not acceptable in the eyes of the law for gay couples in France; was it ok to hold another guy’s hand or kiss in public? Where could I meet other young, gay French people? What were the words I needed to know to navigate this subculture of the new culture I was entering into? All things that should be discussed in pre-departure but in the gay context aren’t. I remember hearing specifics about young women and what they should or shouldn’t expect–but unfortunately nothing that applied to my own identity.
Thankfully, my experiences went extremely well and I was able to later take what I learned and write student location guides that included a small section on LGBTQ resources for students studying abroad in different locations where we operated programs. However, as is usual with things found on the internet, my experiences could have just as easily turned out differently. And what about those students going to a location that is unlike Paris and where there are more reasons to talk about this topic?
Additionally, as an international education administrator now, I understand the immense benefits to be gained from a homestay. However, when I was a student the thought of completing a homestay with a French family as a gay male scared me. It was an option that I definitely thought couldn’t be for me because I had so many questions and concerns but didn’t know who I could talk to. So what can international educators do in order to make sure LGBTQ students feel like they have resources available to them?
1) Educate Yourself – At no fault of heterosexual educators, they have no way of truly understanding the homosexual student experience. How, then, can you relate to a student that comes to you for guidance on these issues? The first step is educating yourself on the challenges that this student demographic faces. For many LGBTQ students, coming to college is a difficult enough feat since their families may not be supportive of their sexual orientation and have cut them off from all financial and moral support. Studying abroad, then, might seem like an impossible goal. Programs like SafeZone exist, though, to help empower administrators and faculty to feel equipped to be an ally for LGBTQ students. The Human Rights Campaign offers a great article on how to get a Safe Zone Ally campaign started.
2) Become a Visible Ally – Since much of the problem stems from the fact that students don’t know who is or isn’t comfortable with speaking to them on the subject of LGBTQ issues, it is crucial that you show your support for the community. This can be done by simply putting up a placard in a visible place in your office. Commonly-known signs among the gay community include the HRC equality sign, the rainbow flag, and the upside-down rainbow triangle which actually designates a SafeZone ally.
3) Work With Campus & Community Partners – We can’t be experts on every subject so utilize the resources on your campus or within your community. Speak with representatives from your Office of Multicultural Affairs or, if you are lucky enough to be on a campus that has one, the Pride Student Union. Offer to present to these student organizations about studying abroad since these students might not know to seek your office out. In the community, consider reaching out to various LGBTQ organizations to see what resources they might be able to provide, even if it is a training for your staff on how to be sensitive and respond to issues that LGBTQ students might have. It’s all about knowing where to connect these students to so that way they feel they have the resources they need to succeed.
4) Prepare Faculty Leading Programs – Faculty leading programs these days have to be so much more than just a professor. Just as you prepare faculty to deal with emergency crises, mental health issues, or students with disabilities, so too should you prepare faculty to work with students from diverse backgrounds, especially in the study abroad context. Being abroad for the first time can introduce many new thoughts and feelings that are hard to negotiate. This can be even more troublesome if a student feels as though they do not have someone to talk to because of a lack of understanding. Consider facilitating a workshop on this issue by bringing in the aforementioned campus/community groups and putting together a student panel featuring students from different demographic backgrounds.
5) Develop a Network of Returned Students – After you’ve established yourself as an ally for LGBTQ students, hopefully you can develop a network of returned students who identify as LGBTQ and form a safe space in which they can share about their experiences with other LGBTQ students going abroad. Feature them at your pre-departure orientations so that way LGBTQ students who still may feel nervous about talking to someone won’t have to identify themselves and can still benefit from hearing from other students and knowing who they can speak to should they want to. Remember, not every student will feel like they can come talk to you as an administrator or faculty member, but some might feel more comfortable reaching out to a peer.
6) Join the NAFSA Rainbow SIG – The NAFSA Rainbow Special Interest Group (SIG) “is comprised of diverse members of NAFSA whose goals are to counsel international students and study abroad students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered; to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered professionals in international education; to combat homophobia, heterosexism and transphobia within NAFSA.” Their activity and resources continue to grow on this important subject and can be found here.