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.
In my last post, I wrote about my experiences studying abroad as a gay student in the not-so-LGBTQ-friendly countries of Ecuador and Mexico. Here, I build off of those experiences—the good and bad—to try to offer some advice useful to other LGBTQ students studying abroad.
1. Do think about your identity before going
Before you make that exciting airplane purchase or step into your new country, make sure you seriously sit down and think about your identity—how it might play out in the host countries you’re considering, how important it is for you to be be open about this identity, what support networks you will have, etc.
Also, do some research! Look at Google and these resources from study abroad, and talk to your friends, family, and the study abroad office.
This important step of considering your identity before should allow you to be much more comfortable, confident and thus successful in whatever program you choose.
2.Be honest with the Study Abroad Office
The Study Abroad Office is your #1 advocate when going abroad. Being completely honest with them before you choose your program and before you go abroad will allow them to help you choose a country you’re comfortable with, and then to be comfortable while preparing and actually being in that host country.
Beyond just being honest with ASU’s Study Abroad Office, it’s also a very good idea to be open with your host program’s study abroad office or the partner program. These people understand the country you’re going to and will be a really valuable resource for you to be safe and comfortable during your stay. For example, my study abroad program in Mexico was really helpful with making sure my host family would be LGBTQ-friendly.
3. Consider your social media privacy settings before leaving!
If you do end up deciding that being in the closet, either fully or partially, is the smartest decision for you, make sure to check your social media’s privacy settings before going abroad. I didn’t even think about my Facebook being a risk to out me until I was 3 weeks into Ecuador with the closest Wi-Fi in a city an hour away.
4.Find the LGBTQ club abroad
Most universities will have some sort of LGBTQ club on campus, and if not on campus, the city will likely have some form of LGBTQ community. This is a really great place to meet people and feel safe being yourself!
It’s also a great way to meet local students – while most exchange students are stuck in the exchange student bubble, you have an instant “in” with dozens of local students.
5.Exchange students may be a good ally
Most of the 300 exchange students on my program are European and stereotypically liberal. While you hopefully also want to immerse yourself with local students, these exchange students can offer a very useful safe space!
6.Coming out often is fine, but still not always
Please do not think I am saying you should come out in every situation and always be fine when studying abroad. Coming out is a luxury unfortunately not afforded to everyone, and there may be situations too unsafe or too problematic to warrant coming out, just like in the U.S. Hopefully your program and host country will permit you to come out, but be really honest with yourself if this is the right decision.
Also realize that coming out isn’t a binary yes or no; you can be out to some, while closeted to others. For example, in Ecuador I was in the closet to my community, but out to my volunteer partners and supervisor, which offered a much needed support network.
If you end up deciding you aren’t able to come out, really think about the impact this will have on you and make sure this program is still feasible for you and your happiness, perhaps considering how it felt if you had been in the closet earlier in your life. Regardless, be sure to identify some form of support network to be there for you throughout the process.
7.Still, don’t write off study abroad because of your identity!
It is indeed often not easy traveling abroad and being LGBTQ, and you unfortunately very well may face discrimination and frustrations in your journey. But don’t let this stop you from figuring out how to realize your interest and dreams
The fact that you’re reading this blog means you probably do have at least some interest in studying abroad. The good news is that there is some way to realize this—whether that be by choosing a country with safer waters, finding inclusive safe spaces in more conservative countries like I’ve done in Mexico, or even considering going back in the closet like I had to do in Ecuador but with the support of ASU and your friends and family.
These decisions are highly personal and neither I nor anyone else can tell you what to do, but do take heart that somehow, even with all the frustrations along the way, it is indeed possible to be queer and still be a Sun Devil abroad.