This guest post is from junior Computer Science major, Eric Arellano. Eric is a Flinn Scholar and three time study abroad student. He participated in the Flinn Scholars in China during Summer 2016, participated in a Global Intensive Experience program in Cuba over Spring Break in 2016 and was an exchange student in Fall 2016 at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (also known as Tec) in Mexico.
I have a tendency of wanting to travel to what are typically seen as conservative and not-so-LGBTQ friendly countries. As a 16 year old and just recently out of the closet, my parents were terrified of my very first interest in study abroad in trying to go to Morocco over the summer.
Even though I didn’t end up going to Morocco, two summers ago I was a volunteer in Ecuador for six weeks, last Spring Break went to Cuba with ASU’s Global Intensive Experience program, and now am currently studying abroad at Tec de Monterrey in Guadalajara, Mexico for the Fall semester.
Now these Latin American countries aren’t typically seen as the most gender-progressive, what with colonialism’s imported machismo and traditional Catholic views on sexuality. As my Cuban host mom warned us the first night, the nearby park was filled with some pretty horrible people like “drug addicts, alcoholics” and, of course, “los gays.”
But despite this not-very-LGBTQ-friendly environment, the awesome reality is that I have studied abroad in all three countries of Ecuador, Cuba, and Mexico, and had great experiences despite being gay!
Fibbing my Ecuadorian “girlfriend”
I decided I had to be in the closet during my six weeks as a volunteer in rural Ecuador two summers agos.
I didn’t come to this decision lightly. I had spent a lot of time investigating online the LGBTQ-friendliness of Ecuador and getting the advice of my program staff and past LGBTQ participants; ultimately, the decision was my own. And I decided to shove myself back in the closet because my duty in Ecuador was to be a volunteer serving the community—not to focus on the benefits to myself—and the recognition that being out could be a barrier to connecting with the community.
So, I pretended I was straight for six weeks. What started as saying I was single quickly evolved into me full on dating my (female) prom date and one of my best friends, Ruby. Constantly I was asked if I was “crying for my Ruby.”
Nothing against Ruby, but honestly lying about this and being in the closet was horrendous for me, having to lie about who I was and in particular constantly being anxious about being found out. One of the most painful moments of my life was spending four hours traveling throughout the nearby city trying to find WiFi so that I could shut down my Facebook. Why? Because I was extremely anxious that people were starting to search me on Facebook and would discover through my very public profile that I’m gay, leading to community rejection and project failure.
Out in Mexico
After Ecuador, I knew I could personally not put up with being in the closet again the next time I went abroad for an extended time.
So, I from the start set out to make sure I could be safe and accepted being myself. This started with disclosing to ASU’s Study Abroad Office my identity, where we talked about the environment in Mexico and the resources my exchange program Tec de Monterrey offers. With ASU’s help, I also reached out to Tec de Monterrey—disclosing in my home stay application my sexual orientation, learning some of the study abroad staff is queer too, and chatting with the president of the LGBTQ club.
Even though I knew Mexico isn’t the most gay-friendly environment, with this support in mind I took the plunge and came to Mexico for the fall! While everything hasn’t been perfect—like this huge national march against same-sex marriage, and people’s favorite chant at soccer games “puto” (fag)—overall I have felt pretty comfortable being out of the closet where it matters. At the same time that there was the march against same-sex marriage, I marched with the Pride Club and thousands of other Mexicans in a counter march. My straight friends, both Mexicans and exchange students, ask me about my boyfriend just like he would be my girlfriend. And even my host mom gets excited to hear about our trips and dates together. Now this is by no means some inclusive paradise, and many LGBTQ Mexican students on campus they don’t feel comfortable being themselves; but I at least, unlike in Ecuador, have been able to be candid about my identity.
Hopefully my experiences show that it is indeed possible to still go abroad as a queer student. While it’s not always easy, with a plan and some internal reflection the joys (and frustrations) of study abroad are within reach, even potentially to conservative countries like Mexico and Ecuador.
In my next blog post, I’ll offer some specific advice to LGBTQ students looking to study abroad.