When deciding whether or not to study abroad, LGBTQ students at the University of Michigan frequently express concern over how their queer identity will be perceived abroad. Wednesday, a panel of queer-identifying University students came together at the School of Social Work to share their abroad experiences. The panel, part of the “Identities Abroad” series, is a collaborative effort of the Spectrum Center, International Center, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and Center for Global and Intercultural Study that uncovers the experiences of underrepresented students in study abroad programs.
Homosexuality is still criminalized in over 70 countries, making many places unsafe for those who are openly gay. Law enforcement and local residential attitudes toward LGBTQ people may also pose challenges for students considering studying in those areas.
Mark Chung Kwan Fan, the assistant director for engagement at the Spectrum Center, prefaced the panel with a brief introduction on what LGBTQ students should be aware of before going abroad.
“We’re thinking a lot about outness and safety, knowing not everyone can be out,” Chung Kwan Fan said. “There is a spectrum of different levels of outness that can depend on your level of comfort. There’s not a cookie cutter of outness that fits everybody.”
Chung Kwan Fan also suggested students do their research and find a local community for their identity, whether it be an LGBTQ resource center or community organizing.
Panelist Darian Razdar, an LSA senior, studied in Paris and advised students to find people to whom they can talk.
“Find someone you can go out and do your queer stuff with,” he said. “If you can find someone in your program, great. If not, I think there’s ways you can talk about things that interest you by acknowledging the queer things you see around you.”
In countries where homosexuality may not be widely accepted, there are still ways students can mentally prepare for their experience.
Rackham student Roxana Gamble stayed in the closet for two years while stationed in Panama with the Peace Corps.
“I thought, ‘I don’t think this is going to affect my work,’” she said. “My sexuality isn’t going to have to do anything with the work that I’m doing. It won’t be an issue, and I’ll be in the closet. But it definitely does wear on you, being disconnected from your own identity.”
Though there is progress, in regards to LGBTQ rights in Panama, the predominantly Catholic country still has reservations about accepting queer folk. In places like these, Gamble acknowledged the importance of creating a plan before traveling abroad.
“Set something up for yourself, for your mental and emotional safety,” she said. “Find out what resources exist. The more you can do to prepare your plan, the easier it’ll be to go through it.”
Panelist found each country to have a different interpretation of sexual identity.
Razdar soon realized though Paris had a large LGBTQ community, LGBTQ identities played differently than in the United States.
“It’s a different cultural context than here,” he said. “It made me realize that there’s an American queer identity, and there are lots of other queer identities out there.”
Part of the reason why talking about sexual identity in different countries is difficult is because of the varying connotations of certain words. For example, Razdar shared “homo” isn’t an offensive word in France, it’s just the word they use. He also noted the importance of recognizing each country’s achievements in the LGBTQ community.
“It was really nice recognizing the ways progressive French people are trying to build more equitable gender-neutral vocabularies,” he said. “It may not seem as much of an advancement to us, but for their language, it’s big.”
The French are starting to create new words that aren’t confining to one gender. Razdar shared that words like “Le Président” are becoming inclusive toward woman, simply by changing the gender article to “La Président.”
LSA sophomore Konrat Pekkip was one among the large crowd of students who came to the event. Being part of a small program that will go to Amsterdam this summer, he wanted to reaffirm the strategies he will be using over the summer.
“I want to make the most out of my experience,” he said. “And I feel like being in the closet, or not fully living the way that I live here, would be very sad, especially with an opportunity in Amsterdam where gay culture is celebrated like that.”
From the large number of students who attended the event, Chung Kwan Fan realized how important it is to host these types of panels.
“I think among education abroad, we tend to see a pre-monolithic population going abroad due to not being able to afford it, like accessibility, and we wanted to expand it to a possibility model for others as well,” he said. “So for queer and transness abroad, people of color abroad and first-generation students abroad, we wanted to let them know this was possible as well.”
The Spectrum Center, the International Center, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and the Center for Global and Intercultural Study plan to continue this series and host more of these events next year.