Note: This article uses the reclaimed term “queer” as a blanket term for members of the LGBT+ community and is not meant to be a derogatory or offensive term.
I’m standing on the corner of Courtenay Place and Taranaki Street in downtown Wellington, frantically snapping pictures of the colorfully dressed dancers parading down the street in front of me. A particularly tall drag queen is belting out her soulful rendition of “It’s Raining Men,” and the whole crowd is singing along. It’s the annual Wellington International Pride Parade, and it feels as though the whole town is being brought together.
“Why an international pride parade?” I ask Amanduh La Whore, the Creative Director for the parade.
Her response: it just simply makes sense. “Wellington, being the international city of choice for fashion, arts, culture and diversity; it stands to reason that an international pride parade of this nature is a natural progression for our LGBTIQ+ community.”
My experience at the parade really had me questioning the meaning behind international pride. Up until studying abroad, I had only been exposed to American attitudes towards the LGBT+ community. I began to think more critically about my experience in New Zealand, and how it compared with my experiences in Kentucky (where I grew up) and California (where I attend school full-time). Obviously, the general attitude towards LGBT+ in Wellington was positive, as illustrated by the parade. But did that attitude differ in other countries? My curiosity peaked, I decided to reach out to other students in ISA programs to hear about their experiences being LGBT+ abroad, seeking to understand what international identity and pride really means.
Going Against the Grain: Colombia
Interview conducted by ISA Featured Blogger Annarose Qualls, with an anonymous interviewee
One of the things I learned when researching for this article is that reactions towards LGBT+ people aren’t always black and white. LGBT+ students studying abroad might find themselves facing support and prejudice at the same time. This was especially true for our first interviewee studying abroad in Barranquilla, Colombia.
“What I have noticed is that many times, especially in Barranquilla, students will not be as open as in the United States. Every LGBT+ student that I have met at the university has not come out to their parents yet.” He notes that despite the pressures of being LGBT+ in Barranquilla, he hasn’t feared for his safety; the real fear was that he wouldn’t be accepted by the community for being himself.
“I think it really has to do with your level of comfort. I know when I was in the culture shock phase of my study abroad experience, I would not have been comfortable being as open as I am now. Now that I am more integrated with the culture, I feel comfortable wearing nail polish and my rainbow-colored shirt in public.”
The key here seems to be expressing yourself in a way that is both authentic to you, and comfortable for you in your environment. Our interviewee provides some advice for striking this balance: “I would say that staying with a homestay that is LGBT+ friendly is a must. I put that as a requirement for my homestay, and both host families have been very beneficial to my experience. Even though Colombia is one of the most progressive Latin American countries when it comes to LGBT+ law, the society still has a ways to go in terms of acceptance. There are also other parts of the country that are more accepting [than others] (namely, Medellín, where I got my nails painted).” He concludes that understanding the culture surrounding LGBT+ communities in a foreign country is the most important consideration for any queer student planning on studying abroad.
Welcomed Into It: London
Interviewee: Meg W Greene
Luckily, there are many LGBT+ communities around the world that find acceptance within their countries. Take the experience of Meg Greene, who is studying abroad in London.
“I have found England to be more accepting than my experiences in the US. London’s gay areas are progressive, with adorable shops and overpriced patisseries… I will say that in my travels throughout the UK, I have seen quite a few LGBT+ couples holding hands walking down the street, which I take to be a good sign.” Meg describes how she’s been able to find a thriving queer community in London and has had the ability to attend LGBT+ centered events, including a performance by Trixie Mattel, a well-known American drag queen.
However, Meg also made it clear to me that LGBT+ people in London still faced some of the same prejudice as in America. “Some friends and I wound up talking to an Englishman with incredibly homophobic views. I had to walk that dizzying line between using scientific fact to defend my community and outing myself to a stranger. We weren’t in any danger, but this proved that the bigotry we were accustomed to in America thrived just as well in Britain. I think a good deal of it depends on where you go.”
Meg concludes by emphasizing that your personal safety is ultimately the most important. “As a rule of thumb, I don’t wear any pride paraphernalia if I’m going off campus. Especially when I am traveling to areas or countries I don’t know enough about, I value my safety over my visibility. Though I don’t think these precautions are vital in England, I like to play it safe.”
Different in This Culture: Peru
Interviewee: Anonymous ISA Featured Blogger
Another thing I learned in writing this article was the fact that while some countries may have positive or negative reactions to LGBT+ people comparable to those in the United States, other countries have entirely different perspectives altogether. This seemed to be the experience of another student I spoke with, who comments on the different culture of Cusco, Peru.
The student states that unlike their experience in the U.S., where LGBT+ concerns are already on the mind of the general public, these concerns haven’t reached the general public of Peru yet. Instead, any discussion about relationships tends to revolve around heterosexual relationships. “In Peru, the machismo culture is very strong and permeates down to some of the smallest kids I’ve met. . . Here, this sort of conversation is standard and effects how men and boys treat the women and girls around them.”
Transitioning from a relatively vocal LGBT+ community in the United States to a more silent one may be challenging for queer students abroad, so seeking out support from programs like ISA can be especially helpful. The student notes that there are resources for LGBT+ students in Peru; they just require a bit more seeking out. “I have heard there is a large online LGBT+ community [in Peru].” The student recommends finding support from the other American students around you: “The shared community of ISA students is incredibly supportive and inclusive of all students. While the culture in Peru may be challenging, I appreciate the American students who recognize the challenges of being LGBT+ [in Cusco].” The student concluded by stating that the support they’ve gained from the other international students around them had been what has helped them have a positive experience abroad.
A Colorful Experience
I’ve collected all my interview materials together in my room and have been silently staring at them for about 20 minutes. There’s no two ways about it: being LGBT+ while abroad is stressful. Your community support may vary, and you might have to work harder to be authentically yourself. So why go abroad at all?
The answer I settle on is that though being queer abroad presents some challenges, it presents even more opportunities. Being in a new environment abroad gives you a new space to learn about your international identity and experiment with new ways of presentation. Through your abroad experience, you’ll learn more about your identity and what makes you you, and will get to interact with other international students who have unique identities of their own. You’ll get to grow.
During my interview with Amanduh, I asked what she thought the best part of being LGBT+ in New Zealand was. Her response was wise and reassuring: “Being LGBTQI+ in New Zealand or anywhere on our gracious earth – the fact that you identify as LGBTQI+ entitles you to partake on a historical path, creating social change and standing alongside an international community of peers and greats.”
Standing in the midst of the crowd at the International Pride Parade, I could see that historical path stretched out before me. I saw personal differences not only being recognized, but also celebrated. Despite all the stress and fear that comes with being out, these people were out anyway, and were learning from and celebrating each other’s experiences. I think that’s the whole point of studying abroad.
In the flurry of streamers and song, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit proud.
Your Discovery. Our People… The World Awaits.