"I'm in college, and I just got accepted into a study abroad program and I could not be more excited!! I have wanted to do this for a long time. However, recently I have also been coming to terms with my queerness and the country I'd be living in isn't exactly the safest for queer people. Should I even bother going? And if I do, how do I deal with being closeted for 4 more months?"
-Question submitted by Anonymous
Jasmine An Says:
Congratulations on being accepted to your study abroad program! This is such a huge accomplishment and something you can feel proud of. Study abroad is an intense experience. Immersing yourself in a foreign country and culture can lead to the absolute best experiences of your life, and also some of the hardest. While I can’t make your decision for you, I’ll do my best to offer up some of the things I thought about before embarking on six months of study abroad in Thailand.
Safety first: I can’t speak to the specifics of the country you’re thinking of living in, or the specifics of your situation. However, it is likely that as a foreigner and a study abroad student you will be relatively shielded from physical harm. This is not at all to diminish the seriousness of deciding to place yourself in a potentially hostile living situation. The mental and emotional impact of living in a place where you are unsure of your safety is a hugely important consideration. Before committing to study abroad, you should make certain you’re ready for the challenge of adjusting to the dynamics of a new society and culture.
As you mentioned, one of the particular challenges for us queer folks abroad is potentially going back into the closet and hanging up the EVERYONE IS GAY t-shirts for a while. After recently coming to terms with your own queerness, it can definitely feel demoralizing and painful to put that part of your identity under wraps (again). I spent years impressing upon my family and friends that I wasn’t comfortable with traditionally feminine clothing, and then found out that I would have to wear a skirt as part of my school uniform in Thailand. I had to ask myself, was the chance to study in Thailand worth disguising myself in a skirt every day? Ultimately I decided that for me, it was.
However, you are the best judge of your own situation. If you feel like you’d rather stay in a known environment and really invest in exploring your queerness—do it! The country you want to visit will still be there in a few years if you decide you need time to devote to yourself before going abroad. Being surrounded by a strong and affirming community while exploring your identity is an invaluable privilege, and if you have that opportunity in your life in the States, take advantage of it.
On the flip side, if you have been thinking about going abroad to this country for a long time and are really excited about the trip and challenging yourself in a new context, go for it! Homophobia rears its ugly head in many places, including our own communities in the USA. But queer spaces and individuals are also infinitely present, even in countries with reputations for less than stellar track records in protecting their queer citizens. No country is perfect, especially/even our own, but don’t let that stop you from grabbing for adventure with both hands.
Should you decide to go abroad, there are many small things that you can do to nourish your personal queerness. It cannot be said enough, you are by no means, in no way shape or form a “bad queer” if you are not out and loud about it. You owe nobody an explanation or a quantification of your sexuality. If being “in the closet” allows you to decrease your anxiety while you are abroad, be unashamedly in the closet. As long as you, in your heart and mind, are secure in your own queerness, never feel obligated to perform your queerness in order to legitimize it.
That being said, it can be incredibly lonely to go from out ‘n proud to silent about your identity. I feel you. What enabled me to play along with the general assumption I was straight while abroad was the fact that I had an incredibly supportive community both back home and among my study abroad peers that I could turn to when I needed them.
If you are traveling with other students who you like and trust, talk to them. If you’re lucky you may even find someone in the same boat as you. Find someone(s) you can go to whenever you need to word vomit rainbows or cry over heteronormativity.
If you aren’t traveling with other students, or aren’t comfortable sharing your queerness with them, find a way to set up a virtual support community. Facebook, Skype, and other social networking platforms are really at their best when helping us stay connected to our people across time zones and oceans. Also, keeping up with queer culture via websites like Autostraddle was a huge balm to my queer soul while I was abroad.
Find spaces where you don’t have to hide your queerness. Even if you decide that for safety’s sake you will be in the closet while abroad, create spaces where you can drop that mask, even for just 15 minutes of scrolling through pictures of attractive folk on the Internet.
Don’t forget that the local queer folk are all around you, whether you recognize them or not. I was in a Thai drugstore filling a prescription when the pharmacist winked and asked if I had a girlfriend yet. Maybe “queer” in this country looks nothing like what you think of as queerness. Maybe they don’t call themselves queer. Maybe queer does not translate into their language. But they are there.
Finally, delight in the smallest acts of subversion. In Thai, the word for “significant other” is gender neutral. I had a long conversation with my host parents describing my partner, and I’m positive they were happily imagining my American boyfriend, while I was telling them all about my American girlfriend. Look for inside jokes and small things that remind you of your own queerness. Find ways to be proudly, obnoxiously, loudly queer in your own head if nowhere else.
Whatever you decide, best of luck in your coming adventures!