Coming Out Abroad

By Vaughn Thornton, Regional Director

Five years ago in a Spanish discoteca, I finally said it: “I’m gay”. While I had said those words a billion times in my head (and a select few times to close friends), I had never said them to anyone else. It’s possible that the illuminant strobe lights and hardly intelligible Spanish music blaring from downstairs were over-stimulating enough to allow for my mental levies to break, however, I tend to believe it was something else: living in an unknown environment. Studying abroad forces you to live outside your element, and for many of us, it pushes an exciting and terrifying level of self-exploration. Whether you have spent years exploring your gender and/or sexual orientation or never considered it at all, I hope that these tips from my story imbue you with a desire for self-discovery.

Coming out is a process

It was toward the beginning of my semester in Spain that I came out to the only other “out” person on my program. I likely took some solace in the fact that he was also Black-American, and his direct embrace after my confession helped to solidify a particularly moving moment. What I never expected is that over the course of that same semester, I’d come out to all the other Americans on the program, and even more shockingly, to my mom. However, this all happened over the course of months in very different ways. The most awkward conversation was with my mom, which occurred over Facebook Messenger. This of course means I owe a huge debt to Mark Zuckerberg, for sparing me from even more awkwardness that would come from an in-person conversation. All this to say that while you are abroad, take time to determine what ways of coming out feel the most comfortable to you. When I reflect back on my time abroad, I really only came out to Americans. I loved my host mom (especially her amazing croquetas)! However, I never told her I was gay. Honestly, I can’t say that I thought she’d judge…I just didn’t feel like having those conversations yet, especially in Spanish. You should never feel pressured one way or the other to let someone into that part of your life, but if you do, remember that it’s their privilege.

Context matters

While I was in Spain, being openly gay was pretty new to me, but what wasn’t was being closeted. I soon had to realize that it’s ok to move back and forth between those spaces. While in Spain, I never really worried too much about being out. Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2005, eight years before I studied abroad and ten years before it would be legal in the United States (I would caution that laws and social norms do not always correlate). Before legalizing same-sex marriage in 2013, Brazil was still home to one of the largest pride parades in the world (the São Paulo Pride 2012 had over 4 million attendees). Australia has been viewed as one of the world’s most LGBTQ+ friendly countries but just legalized same sex marriage in 2017.  The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association does some pretty extensive research on global attitudes toward LGBTQ+ individuals as well as monitoring human rights laws within each country.

During Semana Santa, I decided to go on a trip to Morocco with some of the other Americans. I didn’t know much about Morocco, apart from it being more socially and politically conservative than Spain. When we arrived to Morocco, I decided I didn’t want to be out. Not really because I was afraid of any repercussions, but because I didn’t feel like navigating the new cultural nuances. I had asked one of our group leaders, a native-Moroccan, about gay people in Morocco, and he informed us that there were out people there; you could see guys walking down the street holding hands, either as friends or as a romantic couple. That was comforting, but for the short amount of time I was in Morocco, I just wanted to travel. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very important to know laws and social perceptions of LGBTQ+ people whenever you travel, but sometimes the easiest thing to do is stay closeted…and that’s OK!

Move at your own pace

I recently returned to Spain and realized not only am I a much different person, but society has made some interesting shifts as well. When I was abroad, Snapchat, Instagram, and Tinder were all relatively new apps, which didn’t matter much to me because I didn’t even have a smartphone. However, I frequently wonder how these things would have shaped my time in Spain. I was only a quick train ride away from Madrid’s gayborhood, Chueca, but I never went, and I only once went to a lesbian discoteca while I was in Barcelona. However, this was the pace that worked for me, and I encourage you to find what works for you. I urge you to consider all the new options around you. If you’re looking to study abroad in an ISA city with a “gay neighborhood” check out some of the following:

  •         Soho, London
  •         Newtown, Sydney
  •         Schöneberg, Berlin
  •         Gay Street, Rome
  •         Le Marais, Paris
  •         Green Point, Cape Town

This list, of course, is not exhaustive, but hopefully it gets some gears turning in your head. My experience abroad is unique to me, and hopefully we’re able to hear about your unique story as well.

Do you have any thoughts or experiences you would like to contribute about studying abroad as an LGBTQ+ student?

Email diversity@studiesabroad.com to share!

Also, check out the ISA Diversity Page to gain more information about resources available and to learn more about ISA’s commitment to supporting underrepresented students in education abroad.

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