By Matt Gulizia, ISA France Site Specialist
Study abroad can be a daunting undertaking for virtually anyone, and cross-cultural perspectives on sexual orientation can be a concern for many students. “Will my host country be accepting of me?”, “Will I be judged based on my sexuality?”, and “Should I be concerned about safety while abroad?”, are all questions students may ask themselves before traveling abroad. Below are some useful tips for LGBT students that I acquired while studying in Paris, France through ISA as an undergraduate student:
Critically think about yourself and your own culture
I find that the best first step you can take when planning to study abroad as an LGBT student is to take an inventory of your own life and the culture of your home country/city. What are the values, concerns, and interests you plan to bring with you to your experience abroad? How tolerant is your home environment? What elements regarding sexuality are considered accepted or taboo at home? For me personally, I knew that I didn’t want to change my values or the way I carried myself; I wanted to be “out” to everyone with whom I would have a relationship (i.e. ISA staff, friends, my host family, etc.). This can be tricky, because the opportunity doesn’t always organically arise, but after hiding this part of my identity for most of my life, I knew that it was important for me to continue to be open and honest about my sexual orientation with myself and others (regardless of the location in which I found myself). This also meant being forthright about describing myself, my concerns, and what I was looking for out of the study abroad experience while completing my pre-departure forms. This certainly may not be the best route for everyone to take, depending on personal preference and/or study abroad site, but it is what worked well for me.
Research the attitudes and laws of your host country
Before even applying to a program, it is a great idea to do some digging into the host country’s climate for LGBT students, particularly focusing on the group in which you may choose to self-identify. Being specific in your search is beneficial because, for instance, the way a certain culture regards gay men can be quite different from how they perceive bisexual men. I tend to start with the concrete history and laws related to LGBT individuals within the country and then move to more ambiguous and nuanced facets of the environment. It is useful to know the country’s history regarding sexual minorities because previous preconceptions may still be ingrained in the society. Taking France as the example, perceptions and laws regarding homosexuals have gone through their ups and downs in the country specifically from the 1950s onward. Since 1985, France has prohibited discrimination based on lifestyle (including homosexuality) in services and employment, and they legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. Opinion polls in France have shown that a little over half the population approves of same-sex marriage; additionally, surveys of LGBT individuals across the globe have indicated that France is perceived as a similarly positive place to live as the U.S. This may differ quite a bit for other parts of the world, especially in cultures where homosexual acts are still illegal.
It is equally beneficial to learn the cultural norms, mores, and styles of behavior for different situations in the host country. For instance, the way many LGBT people in France carry themselves in public and even in LGBT-centric establishments is likely quite different than it is in the States. Students shouldn’t expect to be perceived abroad in exactly the same way as they are in their home culture, and it is a fascinating learning experience to see firsthand that there are other ways of being and interacting in the world.
Learn the language (i.e. gender specific pronouns, slang, proper terminology for LGBT individuals)
Another valuable step to take as a member of the LGBT community before studying abroad is to learn the language and slang related to sexual orientation in the host country. This is crucial in maintaining correctness of speech as well as awareness of others; knowing what people are saying to you (whether positive or negative) is important in deciding whether to foster relationships with others or to decide when to keep your guard up a bit. Think of the words you use most often when speaking about your sexual orientation as well as those words that may be offensive to you. Here are some French examples:
“gousse” = an older slang word for lesbian (literally means a clove of garlic)
“dinde” = an effeminate gay man who keeps up with fashion and style (literally means “turkey” and is something like a gay metrosexual)
“triaude” = a gay gathering place
“à voile et à vapeur” = bisexual (this was originally a French nautical expression meaning “under sail and steam”)
“être dans le placard” or “sortir du placard” = to be in the closet and to come out of the closet, respectively
Find Safe Spaces and People
Building a community of people with whom you feel safe and accepted during your time abroad is essential. ISA Resident Staff will be instant contacts for you upon arrival and can help in navigating the language, culture, and LGBT climate in the site. They are also there to lend a listening ear whenever necessary and to assist with any health concerns while abroad.
In addition to the resources that the Resident Staff can offer, during the pre-departure process, ISA provides students with information about LGBT life for the specific site in which you will be studying. This “Online Orientation” offers valuable tips and resources related to various fields of diversity within the host country, including LGBT travel information, rights, events, and places of interest.
Neighborhoods, restaurants, films, museums, and cultural events catered toward LGBT individuals are abound in cities all over the world, and getting involved in the international LGBT community and safely exploring the city are exceptional ways to make the most of your time abroad. Actively becoming a member of the community abroad can also help you feel more connected to your host city and to the people sharing in the activities with you. I always enjoyed my time strolling through the Marais (Paris’ historically gay district) with my new found friends from the program and meeting locals and expats from all over the world. There are an inordinate number of gay-friendly establishments in the Marais and scattered throughout the city, and it just took a bit of consciously leaving my comfort zone to uncover what Paris had to offer.
Don’t feel that you have to speak for the whole LGBT community
Study abroad is about learning (both inside and outside the classroom), exploring, getting out of your comfort zone, and opening up to the world around you, so don’t feel the need make your time abroad a mission to be a lone ambassador for the LGBT community! We all have various intersecting identities that make us the complex human beings we are, and it does ourselves a disservice to fixate on only one aspect of ourselves. Bear in mind that your experience and perception of the host culture may be completely different from someone else’s, even if they are in the exact same program as you. Making choices which safely and effectively serve yourself and those around you while respecting the host culture is the name of the game, and the rest is gravy.
These are some insights I gleaned from my ISA Paris program, and it’s always enlightening to hear about other LGBT students’ perspectives on their time abroad. Do you have any thoughts or experiences you would like to contribute about studying abroad as an LGBT student? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to share!