"Year Abroad, Queer Abroad"

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Student Panel Draws a Crowd to a Discussion of Their Experiences

October 5, 2010

What’s it like to be queer in a foreign country? A panel of six Brandeis seniors spoke to a crowd of interested students about their study abroad experiences in destinations in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East at a forum cosponsored by Triskelion and the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life on Tuesday, October 5, as part of “Coming Out Week.”

Moderator and panelist Zachary Spence (who studied in Japan as a Gilman Scholar) kicked off the discussion, joined by panelists Liza Behrendt, (Cameroon), Alex Luo  (China), Noam Sienna (Israel), Emily Smizer (Bolivia), and Greg Storella (France).

The panelists shared experiences that were at times funny, frightening, disappointing, surprising, exciting, confusing, and educational.

Each of the panelists carefully considered if, when, and how to come out to members of their host families, to coworkers, and to strangers. Whatever choices they made, each student was confronted by the at-times unexpected perceptions of others. Noam wore a rainbow kippah in Israel, which elicited a wide variety of comments, from “Take that off – you’re an embarrassment to the religion!” to “Where did you get that? I want one!” A Cameroonian woman assumed Liza was queer because “American women with nose rings are lesbians.”

Some of the panelists struggled to communicate in languages that have gender-specific pronouns, which could make it difficult to describe oneself, friends, and romantic partners. This was particularly challenging for Zachary, as a trans man. His Japanese host mother opposed his use of the male pronoun when referring to himself, wanting him to use a gender-neutral alternative. But his host father’s feelings were clear: “Whatever. People are people. It’s the heart.”

Everyone remarked that the level of understanding and vocabulary in their countries regarding queer issues was a few decades behind what they’re used to at Brandeis.

The visibility of the queer community was different in each country – and different from what these students experience at home. Alex was frustrated in her attempts to find the queer female community in Beijing, particularly without having an introduction to it, though she did learn of one club that was the destination for gay men. Greg found that the queer community in France was much more underground than the white gay male scene.

Emily expected to put aside her sexual identity for her semester in Bolivia, but unexpectedly found a queer friend on her program and together discovered a bar that catered to the gay community, even hosting weekly pageants and drag competitions. Nonetheless, she said she “had a lingering fear that I wasn’t really safe” – a fear made frighteningly real when an acquaintance was assaulted on her way to meet Emily one evening – targeted for dressing in a way that identified her as queer.

Despite the challenges and frustrations that each of the panelists encountered during their study abroad experiences, as a group, the panelists endorsed studying abroad. “Don’t let that stop you from studying abroad,” Greg encouraged. “I want to go again. You should go!”