Regardless of who you are, studying abroad is an adventure and a challenge wrapped in an enigma. However, going overseas as an LGBT person presents its own unique set of anxieties and problems. When I went to study in Bordeaux for a semester, my transition into French life included so much more than finding my way around the local grocery store and getting used to hearing French all the time.
While more and more resources are becoming available for LGBT folks who are looking to study abroad, I quickly realized that a lot of this literature isn't being written by people who identify as LGBT who have actually spent time abroad. So now you have it, straight from the horse's mouth. From coming out (again!) to going out, here are the top nine major life lessons I learned by being a lesbian while studying abroad.
1. A culture change causes major gaydar interference
Living in a country with different gender expectations means that different things will read as 'gay'. Although gender presentation is a pretty iffy way to suss out someone's sexuality in general, we all have our set of secret clues and conversation topics to find out if someone's in the family. Unfortunately, a lot of these tricks are rooted in the culture of your home country and community, so the hints you drop about your love of Meshell Ndegeocello or Rizzolli and Isles could end up being more like feathers than anvils.
The best way to compensate for this, if the rainbow bracelet/necktie/belt route seems a little loud, is to start educating yourself about local LGBT culture. LGBT media and news sites can be a great way to clue yourself in to what the girls and boys in your host country like. Once you break the ice and meet at least one local friend, they will be happy to do their duty as cultural ambassador and clue you in on all the hot places to be, not to mention introduce you to their super rad circle of LGBT friends.
2. The closet becomes even more complicated
Many of us have reached the point in our lives where we've realized that the coming of age novels lied to us and the coming out process never really ends. Indeed, almost every time you meet someone new, the Closet Question may need to be dealt with. Since going abroad means meeting a whole bunch of new people, you end up being faced with the decision to come out or stay in a lot more than you might be used to. For folks who are closeted at home, the prospect of coming out to people who will never meet your family or the friends from your host university can be truly liberating. The freedom to go out on dates without worrying that your boss or your mom could walk in at any moment is one of the truly blissful pleasures of going abroad.
However, people on the opposite end of the spectrum could find the hassle of going through another large-scale coming out to be profoundly annoying. If you're used to being so far out that you make Ellen seem low-profile, then the prospect of finding new ways to drop a mention of your girlfriend or that time you went to Pride into a conversation and watching people feign surprise ad nauseam for a year is hardly palatable. Still, if you're in this position, it's best to move past your world-weariness and look at it as a chance to reconnect with your angst-ridden youth as a baby gay.
Going abroad also presents challenges for people intending to keep their sexuality or gender identity a secret for all or most of the time. A lot of languages, including the Romance family, are much more gendered in everyday speech than English is. Combine this with anything less than complete fluency and the pronoun game can become an impossible challenge.
3. It takes time to learn which spaces and people are safe
In the LGBT community, part of being out publicly is learning which locations are safe to be in and which aren't. Most folks I know have developed an innate sense of whether they should hold their partner's hand on x street and if y restaurant is a good place for date night. Going abroad can completely mess up your safety barometer. Cultural opinions on PDA in general vary widely, not to mention acceptance of same-gender couples.
If you primarily move in LGBT circles, going abroad means leaving your circle of savvy friends and making new friends with people outside of your typical community. You may find yourself in the position of being the first LGBT person that someone knows, making you (by default!) responsible for introducing your new friends to certain concepts, such as appropriate language to use and not outing people without their express permission.
The reactions that people have upon being come out to can be very different from what you're used to. One of my friends recalls how he went to Spain and received much more dramatic reactions to coming out than he did in Colorado. It can often be more difficult to figure out in advance whether someone harbors homophobic prejudices when you are also communicating around a language and culture barrier. Nonetheless, asking peoples' opinions on hot-button LGBT rights issues in the country can serve as a good litmus test no matter where you are.
My advice here is to proceed with caution while you're still getting the lay of the land, and rely on your local friends to tip you off about which regions are safe and which aren't. Also, take into account where you're coming from as much as where you're going. The same location could seem liberatingly tolerant or stiflingly judgmental depending on where you come from. Someone from San Francisco will likely have a very different perspective on Bordeaux than someone from Jackson. The most important thing is getting to a point where you feel safe so that you can strike a balance between self-expression and safety that feels right for you.
4. "Passing" is not universal
Different cultures have different gendered norms and expectations. One of the things I noticed fairly soon after arriving in France was how much more feminine the women there tended to be. Although I am a far cry from a traditional butch aesthetic, in France people read me as masculine of center. This also meant that, while my La Roux haircut and flannel had people in Berkeley split 50-50 between hipster and lesbian, in France I was gay with a capital G. Adjusting to my identity being much more conspicuous took a while, especially since during my first few weeks abroad I already felt noticeably out of place. While I was still settling in, I ended up presenting more femme, but it wasn't too long before I was feeling comfortable in my own skin again.
My other LGBT friends who have studied abroad have had a mix of different experiences regarding passing; my femme girl friends mentioned that it is even more difficult to be read as gay than it already is in the US. My guy friends have had a similarly mixed experience, where some find that they are read as straight much more frequently in Europe, whereas another was quite happy to say that living in France had made him even gayer. In the end, it seems like it's difficult to tell in advance how people will read you, but just go in prepared for the possibility of a different reception.
5. Major cities are where it's at
If you find the LGBT life in your host city or town is giving you the small town gay bar blues, don't be afraid to hightail it to the nearest urban center. City spaces have a much more open social scene, though many events are still very underground. Be sure to take the opportunity to explore cities and neighboring countries if you can. Amsterdam, where I had the most delicious beer ever in a lesbian bar, is a treasure for LGBT folk of all kinds. Summer Pride season is a great time to travel around.
One thing to keep in mind when making your travel plans: a lot of LGBT events happen on a monthly basis, so if you want to go out, it's a good idea to check when things are happening before planning your trip. This is particularly important in the late-spring to summer months, since events tend to cluster around important festivals. I learned this lesson the hard way: I made a trip to Amsterdam the weekend before Queen's Day, and was continuously confronted with advertisements for awesome events taking place three days after I left.
Regardless of when you go, most large cities have an LGBT tourism or community center that can advise you about the best places to go. I've also found that folks who work in gay bookstores are great with recommendations for things to do if clubbing and bars aren't your scene.
6. Campus life at your host university is NOT where it's at
As an American going abroad, I learned first-hand that campus involvement at American universities is much higher than in the rest of the world. My own university has over a dozen active LGBT student groups and, while this is not the norm, many American universities enjoy a vibrant campus life supported by a numerous student organizations. In France, many of the universities are essentially commuter campuses, where people either come from out of town or live in the city during the week and go back to their families on the weekend. Since campus life is much less crucial, student groups and organizations, while they do exist, are often much smaller and less organized than their equivalents in the US.
While checking out the campus LGBT organizations is not a bad idea, it's a good idea to go in expecting that they may be fewer in number and possibly defunct. Start cultivating other community connections in activist and social spaces.
7. The internet is your friend
The internet is single-handedly responsible for making study abroad about a million times easier for everyone, not just LGBT students. Nonetheless, for LGBT folks, going abroad can mean running full-speed into the great gay paradox: you often cannot learn about community events and hang outs until you are already involved in the community. If you don't want to wait months to get the lay of the land, a quick search online can put you in touch with local community centers, activist groups, bars, and events. It's also worthwhile to check out local LGBT meet-up sites, even if you don't have amorous intentions. Many of the US-based sites, like OkCupid, also have users abroad, though in much smaller numbers. Couchsurfing.com has meet-ups in most locales and many major cities have LGBT subgroups where people will be glad to give advice and welcome you to town.
It's a good idea to exercise caution when meeting someone in a city you aren't familiar with. One other thing to bear in mind is that a lot of the information online about LGBT organizations, bars, and events is woefully out of date. Don't be surprised if you go to check out a really cool sounding venue, only to discover that it's been closed for a couple years.
8. Support is available if you need it
When I was preparing to go abroad, my university did not provide any information specifically for LGBT students. However, they were extremely willing to provide support once I asked for it. Think about what you need from your study abroad advisor/program/office to make you feel safe and comfortable during your time abroad. For me, housing was a major concern. Having already experienced homophobic roommates during my freshman year in university, it was not an experience I wanted to repeat in a foreign land. So, on my housing form, I made it explicitly clear that welcoming and supportive housing was a necessity for me. The apartment I got was perfect for this, with very pleasant landlords and two wonderful roommates, one of whom also happened to be gay.
Be selective when choosing your study abroad program, finding one that offers the level of support you need. Throughout your study abroad experience, from the application stage to the flight home, if you need help, ask for it. Often times, there are people on the staff who have specific advice or resources for LGBT, but only do so when approached directly. If you are worried about the inclusiveness or sensitivity of your study abroad office, I'd recommend checking with your campus or community LGBT center for advice. Odds are they would have the inside scoop on the environment at the Study Abroad Office.
9. LGBT activism can truly benefit from international (and multi-lingual) dialogues
Leaving my comfort zone and going abroad brought a lot of the dangers and worries of being a lesbian to the forefront. However, it also gave me a wonderful opportunity to see what LGBT life was like in a different country; to learn about the subtle differences in political conversations. Moreover, speaking in a different language necessitates different thought patterns and can provide illuminating insights. For example, elements of introductory queer theory hinge upon a distinction between the words 'sex' and 'gender' that everyday French does not make. Learning to articulate LGBT experiences and theories in new ways deepened my understanding of these concepts.
The rights of LGBT people are always closely linked to the cultural and social history of the country in which they live. It was fascinating for me to see the way that the French expectation of secularism shaped anti-gay discourse in France, creating a homologous situation to that of the United States. The opportunity to learn from French LGBT activists and expand my understanding of the vast galaxy of LGBT experiences was one of the most valuable and rewarding parts of my study abroad.
Think about what you need from your study abroad advisor/program/ office to make you feel safe and comfortable during your time abroad. And ask for it.
Studying abroad in Bordeaux was one of the best times of my life. Learning how to navigate being LGBT in a new place was occasionally challenging, but was only one part of my study abroad experience. I was fortunate that my program was extremely supportive, as were the people I met - my decision to study Ancient Greek ended up giving me much more grief than my lesbianism. I think that the single greatest factor that helped me overcome my anxieties about studying abroad was knowing LGBT identified French people who could give me honest and informed advice about what my situation would be.
If you're anxious about going abroad because you're LGBT, I'd recommend getting as much information as you can, choosing a country you think you'll love, and then taking the plunge. Chances are, you'll be met with a new perspective that is more inspiring than challenging.
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