Queer Study Abroad: a resource on identity and travel

Page 1

Introduction Welcome to our Queer & Study Abroad Resource! (QSAR) We are members of a University of Washington study abroad program "LGBTQ Communities and Change" which explores the connections between LGBTQ movements in the U.S. and Mexico. Students meet with activists and organizations in Seattle and Mexico City, and engage with issues of gender, sexuality, race and migration through a human rights and social justice lens. We explore ways to deepen our own consciousness as change -makers, and work to strengthen transnational solidarity. Our program, we know, is unique, and we created this resource to widen the conversation on identity and study abroad. Here we share with students and program directors alike some of the questions we had as LGBTQ travelers and allies. As you read along, what reflections and questions come up for you? How might you deepen your own sense of who you are in the world, both at home and when you travel?

What will I learn from this resource?

This resource is a collection of student reflections on 

Talking about gender and sexuality in the classroom.

How will my gender and sexuality be seen in a new cultural context?

Will people think I’m queer? How do I feel about that?

Being away from support systems while traveling.

Acknowledging identity based privileges while fostering compassing across difference.

Why allies should participate in a LGBTQ focused study abroad.

Connecting ideas of gender and sexuality we learn abroad back to home life.

Participating in uncomfortable conversations about gender and sexuality “Growing up, sexuality—sex in general, was not to be spoken of. Being straight just makes sense, and waiting until marriage was the right thing to do. No one in my family identified as anything other than straight so I didn’t feel the need to learn about queer issues, I mean, why should I? It didn’t affect my life. When I would meet people who identified as queer, I wouldn’t have any problems interacting with them, they were just awesome people who were just like me. I was hesitant to join queer based groups, I didn’t want people to think I was queer because all my life I was told being queer was wrong. Also, I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to relate to their problems when in reality, I couldn’t. It wasn’t until I started volunteering in groups that targeted marginalized communities that I realized, queer issues are civil rights issues that affects all of my community. There’s so much intersectionality between problems of race, income, and sexuality that we can’t ignore. We can’t try to fix one problem without recognizing the others because they all overlap. Yes, it might be difficult to sit through a lecture on hatecrimes against the queer community knowing that being a straight cis person comes with privilege. We can either ignore the privilege we have, or use it to create unity within the groups. Don’t be afraid to be the learner, we all must start somewhere.” — First Generation College Student, Latina, Migrant Student.

“First and foremost, when coming into a program like this you have to be ready to call out your own shortcomings. No one can know it all and that is okay. This is important especially in this context, as a queer identity can intersect so many other identities. LGBT issues in Mexico and the world are not just about sexual orientation or gender based discrimination, it is about systemic incarceration, institutionalized rape of migrant women… as any queer individual could experience those things. With a program like this, where it explicitly focuses on queer identity, it can feel terrifying to think that you will have to share your own identity to fully participate (from) day one. But it is not like this. I never felt required (or) obligated to share, in fact I often felt compelled to share because of what my peers were sharing. With the intersectional nature of queer issues, you can bring to the discussion other areas of expertise instead of your own identities. As an example, one member of our group has done a lot of work in immigration, so they shared insights based on their work in that area instead of focusing on explicitly queer ideas.” — Gay, White, Cis Male.

Will people think I am queer? How do I feel about that?

“As a queer woman who is always labeled as a straight woman, I was honestly excited about the idea of people within and outside of this program making the assumption that I am the identity that I actually, truly am. When the program started, these assumptions didn’t necessarily happen. There was never any sort of roundtable discussion around the question, “so….what are you?” People knew about my queer identity because I wanted to talk about it, but if I had not wanted to talk about it, that would have certainly been respected. You control how much you want to share about your life, including these arbitrary labels. And if people wrongly assume, feel free to kindly correct them and have a laugh about it. But if you are a non-queer student genuinely concerned about people mistaking you as a queer person, think about what that means. Does the thought of being mislabeled give you discomfort and fear? Why? Does the idea of someone thinking you’re a lesbian make your insides twist around? Do you want to immediately shout, “No! I’m not!” Why? It’s good to think about any sort of internalized discomfort we may have surrounding these issues and to use this opportunity as a way to dissect and re-build our perceptions. Identity is a slippery slope, conflicted with familial pressures, societal expectations, and personal fragmentation. Being who we are isn’t as simple as easily saying “yes” and then moving on to the next question. So, sure, people might think you’re queer. Or they may not. But what’s much more important than that assumption is how you react, both internally and outwardly. Reflect on that. Be flexible and forgiving, to yourself and to others. Have a laugh about it.” — Bisexual female who still hasn’t told her family.

“I know people think I am lesbian. I know people assume this identity about myself. I know friends that have known me for years and know I have never dated a man. I know family that do not ask if I met any guy while attending school in Seattle because they know I am in a relationship with ___________. Although many friends & family know this identity of mine, I have not been given emotional support or encouragement to be my authentic self. So maybe this is why I’ve stayed ‘in the closet’ so long. I am searching for affirmation from my loved ones since I feel guilt and shame about being in a same-sex relationship in front of most of my family members. But I just want to find a place where I belong. I just want to be free of this internal pain. I am waiting for this time to come… maybe it will be after this program concludes. Maybe it will be a year from now. I just don’t know.” — Female, Lesbian, Mexican-American.

How will my gender and sexuality be read in a place that might have different norms? “I went to Mexico with lots of stereotypes in my head about what machismo looks like, and for that matter how being a woman plays out in most of the world. As a woman who has survived gender violence, this is always at the forefront of my mind. Is it less safe for me than in the states, I wondered? How will I know what’s safe and what’s not in a country I’m unfamiliar with? Looking back now I realize that I should’ve communicated earlier on with my classmates about my concerns. I think that identifying as a strong, independent, lesbian woman kept me from asking the men in our cohort to step up for me. Needing their help felt like buying into sexist norms, but something one of our partner organizations said in Mexico City brought another perspective that was helpful: Our identities don’t always follow a gender binary, but our oppression often does. Relying on my male friends to shield me from strange men on the subway or walk with me at night felt like it required me to leave my identity as a kickass lesbian woman behind. In fact it didn’t. I was still that strong woman I’d always been, and even more hell-bent on smashing the patriarchal cultures that cause women to feel unsafe everywhere.” -— White, Queer, Female. “How comfortable are you with yourself? When I first came out I was so uncomfortable with my identity that I felt physically sick to wear clothes that in my mind would make me look gay. It was for this reason that when I first heard about this program, it scared me to think that I would have to tell people about it because of what they might assume. However, all this fear while valid as a feeling didn’t pan out once I was with the program group of queer and non-queer students. As someone who generally dresses in typically masculine clothes, it was fairly easy for me to walk through Mexico City without worrying that someone would know just because of what I wore. However, for someone that does bend gender norms, they may want to put more thought into how they present themselves in Mexico City. That doesn’t mean that one can’t dress as their authentic self, but one should be aware that Mexico, just like any other place has individuals that aren’t used to seeing people dress in ways that challenge their idea of gender.” — Gay, White, Cis Male.

How to be away from your support system? Can I do this? Do I have enough personal and community resources to make the leap? “Being away from your support system can be difficult. I believe this program takes that into consideration, helps to alleviate that, and aids in giving you the resources to make this leap and trip. The first part of this program is spent on campus so you can get to know your classmates before being around each other 24-7. This sounds cliché but your classmates really do become your support system while you are away. I shared things with them that I have never told my best friend. You form strong bonds and friendships. I liken this experience to that of a therapeutic retreat. You cover such intense, deep subject matter together. It is such a safe space. You laugh together, cry together and share with one another. With the technology available today, I never felt too far away from my support network back home. I was able to text, email, and video chat with them via WIFI at the hostel. Being able to stay in touch for me was vital. The accessibility and affordability of this program made it possible for me, and it is intentionally designed that way. My financial aid covered all program costs including airfare. I only had to come out of pocket for souvenirs to bring back home, as even meals were included. I never felt torn away or even too far away from my network to function normally. I felt very supported from people in and out of this program for its duration, which for me was paramount.”

— Female, older returning student to university.

“Identifying as a lesbian has made chosen family a very important part of my life. My chosen family is so wonderful - when hard things come my way I’m always able to pick up the phone, meet for a hug, or hear just the right words of support from someone who truly gets me. When considering taking part in a study abroad program, one of my first concerns was the prospect of being away from my support network, especially with the added stress of supporting my mother through her second round of chemotherapy. Would I be able to feel love and support from my partner and my chosen family from so many miles away? Would there be anyone in the program who “got me?” Would my support system at home be able to relate to what I was going through abroad, in another culture, especially as a queer person? I won’t say that it turned out to be easy, but here’s what I will say: The reliance I’ve had on chosen family has made me able to develop deep relationships quickly, and it is this ability that allowed me to build mutuallysupportive friendships within my study abroad cohort right off the bat. Though I leaned on my support network at home via text and phone calls, I often found it easier to talk to my new friends who were going through some of the same things that I was. In the end, being open to different kinds of support and checking in with myself about what I was needing helped me to get through the experience without feeling too lonely. Did I sometimes feel isolated? Absolutely. But I also came out the other side with new friends and some incredible experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d let my fear guide me away from taking on this amazing challenge.” -— White, lesbian, 37-year-old undergrad.

What was it like talking about my queer and trans identity on this trip? Was there pressure to represent all queer people? “Though I was the only trans student in the program, in class I rarely felt like I had to speak for or represent all trans people. It is impossible for one individual to represent the voices of an entire community. I felt incredibly supported meeting all the trans partners and activists in both Seattle and Mexico. As is possible for a queer person anywhere in the world, I was prepared to feel a little lonely or out of place, but because of the other queer students in the program and the amount of queer people we met in Mexico, I never felt like I was alone. Talking to other students on the program in English made traveling feel less isolating. Talking about queer issues in Spanish made my identity feel less alone in the world. I was encouraged to talk about my mental health needs (I arranged phone calls with my therapist in Seattle) and living-situation needs at the hostel. People opened up immediately to support each other.” — Queer, trans, mixed-race person.

How do I be authentic in homestay contexts? How “out” do I be? “When I am living at home (with my parents and my siblings), I always hide my identity because I am afraid of not being loved or accepted. I protect myself from insecurities by building an internal wall between family members and myself by filtering conversations so I am able to portray myself as someone I am not. But during my study abroad LGBT Communities & Change Mexico City Program (with my colleagues), I continuously showed my authentic self without doubts because I knew their perception of me would not be altered in a negative light solely based on my identity. In just two short weeks, I felt valued and appreciated more than I’ve ever felt in my own home. I hear this term ‘chosen family’ and it brings up a discomfort feeling inside me because I do not want to replace my bloodlines. I just want to be accepted from everyone. Maybe one day that will happen.”

-– Female, Lesbian, Mexican-American.

What is it like being a queer person studying abroad? What are the Western connotations of ‘queer’ and how might this term mean different things abroad? “As always, the word ‘queer’ is incredibly complex. Though I was familiar with the English-speaking world ‘reclaiming’ the word from its slur origins, it was really interesting to learn about the Western associations Mexican students and educators made with the word, so much so that an alternative (‘cueer’) has been suggested instead. Rethinking all my associations coming from academic queer theory was fascinating and made it easier for me to relate to the Mexican LGBTQ community members we met. As a queer person coming from the ‘global north’ I had to examine my privilege in relation to the global south. Within the ‘bubble’ of queer community, people have expectations for others to understand queer politics, know very complex terminology, and adhere to a certain dogma in terms of opinions. Placing these expectations on people who don’t speak English as a native language or people who did not have the same access to education I did started to make less and less sense. I began to understand why people (particularly those from the global south) might find queer ideas to be inaccessible. Traveling throughout Mexico I had the unexpected privilege of feeling safe as a male-passing person, even one who was queer, potentially because of how others read my lighter skin tone or my class status. I feel like I have a better understanding of LGBTQ struggles from a more globalized perspective as a result of this trip, and for that reason I appreciated this opportunity to travel as a queer person in a new and unfamiliar country.

— Queer, trans, mixed race person.

Why should LGBQ and Trans allies participate in a

Queer-focused study abroad? “When I was looking through this program, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to do it. I told myself, “This isn’t my place to take.” I knew that my knowledge of the LGBTQ community was lacking and I didn’t want that to show. I didn’t want to come off as that one straight person who’s sticking their head in where they don’t belong. Then I realized, if I continue with that mentality, I’ll be confined to a single perspective. Going on this study abroad, I was able to ask questions without judgement. Change begins with awareness. My classmates understood that I was trying to learn more about correct terminology, types of issues the queer community faces, etc. This isn’t your “business as usual” program. Be prepared to be asked questions that don’t have definite answers, and know that it’s okay.” — First Generation College Student, Latina, Migrant Student.

“As a straight-*cis women I contemplated and asked myself why did I want to participate in this study abroad program that focused on issues that affect the queer community? Would I be taking up space? Should I not participate since I was not a member of this community? As I became heavily involved in the immigration movement I learned that queer folks had to come out of two closets; they had to disclose their immigration status and as well disclose their sexual orientation/and or gender. As I learned more about difficulties that queer undocumented folks had to go through it became apparent that though we both belonged to the undocumented community we were struggling differently. The immigration system was and is extremely homophobic. Many times when we are discussing changes in the immigration system or policies they usually exclude the queer community. I asked myself what good does it do to fight for immigrant rights if we are only fighting for certain groups of people? I knew I didn’t know enough about queer issues and I knew this program would help me further understand. After being a part of the program I realized something. This program, it’s for everyone, not just queer folks (though queer folks should be centered). Yes the program does focus on queer issues, but I learned that my freedom from these other larger systems such as immigration and patriarchy would never be broken until queer folks reach their freedom. You see, we are all interconnected and have been made to believe that our issues and struggles are different. That they don’t overlap, but they do. In order to rid ourselves of these systems that are oppressing us we need to start with the most vulnerable; queer folks.

— An undocumented Mexicana still trying to make sense of the world.

How do I see connections and understand my place in a study abroad context to foster compassion across difference? “More or less we all have the ability to bring understanding and kindness into the world. However, we tend to believe that we experience and go through struggles in life alone, or differently than everybody else. Coming from a collective community where differences are being looked down, I don't feel like I fit in with my own community. This is because of the way I was brought up to be patient, to be “number one”, and to have a lot of money. To be successful in life is to compete with others. And money determines where you are in life, and the amount of happiness you can have. Now, the way I see connections and understand my place in the world is that we are all the same. Despite the differences, we all want the same things: love and happiness. Humans are social animals, and we need each other to survive in this world. Who wants to do things alone when we have each other to rely on? For me, our differences are what makes our society fit together in harmony, and we have to cherish that. We could foster our differences by listening, trying to understand, and having empathy for one another. Surviving in this world, getting to know who we are, and seeing how we fit into this world are already hard. Thus, I think there is no need for all of us to push each other even more. Overall, differences are what make all of us unique, and provide us with different tasks and roles. So we can fit in our community like puzzle pieces. We need to find a space, a common ground, where we can all love, respect, and grow together as a community. And that is how I think we can foster compassion.”

— Male, Gay, Human, Thai.

“Study abroad is going to put you in some uncomfortable situations. It’s going to be difficult to find a place where you feel comfortable discussing and experiencing the feelings that these situations bring on. It is important to understand that those uncomfortable situations allow you to grow. For me it was knowing that I was a queer woman who doesn’t showcase that in everyday life and therefore felt like I could ignore many of the issues because I could shy away from them. I was forced to confront the fact that even though I thought I could pretend nothing applied to me, I was being affected by the issues that the LGBTQ community faces. While my whole approach to life isn’t changed I now see how taking into consideration how something that I thought only affected others actually was a factor in my life really can make a difference in my approach to subject matter. Maybe we think that what is affecting another place, such as Mexico, doesn’t affect us but in the larger picture it does and just having that knowledge can allow us to form connections with that place and understand that what we do in our own lives can affect other places that can seem a galaxy away. Its important to care and caring allows us to start off on a path that can better the world, even if the only person affected is yourself.” — Female, Immigrant.

Why do I think a straight person should participate in a queer-focused study abroad? We all benefit from learning from experiences outside our own. I see this type of learning as a vital exercise towards empath y. While I identify as queer, I often am read as straight. Because of this, I often feel rejected from queer spaces. It was important to me to go on this trip, with such a diverse group of identities, and feel accepted because I had let the fear of being rejected keep me from the LGBTQ+ community for too long. You may feel this fear too. I’d like to ask you to explore it. Coming into this program, centered in empathy, let me to learn not only from our professor and fellow students, but also from our coordinators and our partners, both in Seattle and Mexico City. This sum of diverse perspectives stretched my mind, pushed me beautifully, and was nothing short of life changing. I would encourage anyone to jump down this rabbit hole. Why? Through exercising empathy in this way, you can begin to have a better understanding of yourself. With a better understanding of yourself, you can more easily see connections between you and others, from locally to transnationally, which is so important in an interdependent, globalized world. — queer woman white U.S. citizen.

How do I see connections and understand my place in a study abroad context and foster compassion across difference? How do I understand my straight and cisgender privilege? “First step is to admit that you have privilege and know that there is nothing wrong with that; it’s a part of life and one that you’ve probably had to deal with before. Next is finding a way to use that privilege to help those that don’t have that benefit. It can be the knowledge that you are safer in a place than others are and taking that responsibility on, of making sure others know you are there to help and support them. Its something as small as standing in front of a friend on public transportation because you dress in a gender conforming way and they do not, something that makes people a target in many situations. It can be the knowledge that in many places others are shut down and ignored and that at that point you can allow them to take up space and time. With the knowledge that in another space someone will not be heard maybe take a step back in a conversation to allow someone else to speak rather than speaking up yourself. Allow yourself to learn from others. The smallest gestures are the ones that build trust and relationships and allow others to give something back to you and enrich your learning.”

—Female, Immigrant.

“I belong to many target groups; undocumented, Mexican, woman, etc.. How do I have privilege is a question that I am constantly asking myself. I didn’t always see life this way. Privilege was something I didn’t see myself having with my multiple target identities. Then people began to share their stories with me. The more I listened, the more I understood how I had straight cis privilege. Privilege is a tricky subject because it is an unearned advantage that we have been given that we usually are not aware of until someone else says “hey I can’t do that because of x reasons”. It can be tricky acknowledging this privilege because it is something we don’t have to acknowledge if we don’t want to, but it is important that we do because other groups have to suffer in order for us to have this privilege. I think what helped me understand my own privileges was the power of storytelling and listening. It was important for others to share (though folks don’t have to) their story with me and it was important that I listened and I mean truly listened. Listened to their story by suspending judgment and actually wanting to do something. Don’t just be a consumer of stories. Hold them near. Make sure queer folks are included in all the work you do.” — An undocumented Mexicana still trying to make sense of the world.

How do I talk about my involvement with this trip when I return and convey the relevance of queer issues to friends and family? How do I continue to make connections between academic/professional goals and the goals of this trip? “When discussing this experience with people that are unfamiliar with the subject matter or topics I will start with saying, “This study abroad experience was about global community building through a queer lens.” Then I will explain that queer issues are extremely relevant to everything, as they are about deconstructing and how intersectionality plays a large role. I cannot stress intersectionality enough. With this course you could relate queer studies to so many things and disciplines. Queer politics are all encompassing and aim to be the most inclusive discipline. This has proved to be a positive and helpful approach as talking about this subject matter is often hard and tough. I continue to make connections between my personal goals and goals of this program by the social justice connections of both. Professionally I would like to go into labor law or union organizing. Collaboration plays a large role as queer justice issues s and workers rights issues often overlap and intersect.” — Queer, female older returning student to university.

“In a broader perspective, I think queer issue, just like all of the issues in human rights, is the product of the society. This is why there are so many intersections when looking at one issue. As a member of the society, we are responsible to create a safe environment for anyone, especially for ourselves. This way, we can look into queer issue and try to understand how it became an issue in the society that we all love. Because one cannot be healthy without a healthy society, and the healthy society cannot exist without the healthy world. Similar to the general saying that it takes the whole village to raise a child. As for me, I have a passion to foster the world where we can all love and understand each other. This is why human rights issues such as queer issue, along with many others, is important for me to learn from. Growing up in Thailand, I experienced many struggles. However, at the end of the day, I questioned myself why don't I feel belong to my own community? Why weren't there anyone helping and supporting me? Going to this program helped me reflect on the issues that I faced in the past, and get to know the roots of the issues. As I see it, all the issues are rooted in the holistic health, no matter physical, psychological, and social health. The more I reach out and learn about certain issues, the more I am able to understand people and “the system”, and the more I am able to detach from hatred, blaming, and shame. And the more capability I reach out, and the more I feel connected with my community. This is why I want to become a holistic doctor. So I could play a part in improving the health of this world. Overall, we need a community based on love. We can’t fight an issue with power because there will just be another power, and the fight with the issue will never end in this way. Who needs violence and power, when love and peace is always an option?”

— Male, gay, human, Thai.

How do I talk about the relevance of this trip and queer issues to friends and family? How do I continue to make connections between academic and professional goals after coming home?

From this trip, these are my takeaways:

1. That humanizing politics through experiences like this is critical. 2. Migration is complex, as is the relationship between capitalism and forced migration. 3. Joy, and even emotion, can be acts of defiance. 4. Social media can be a political education. 5. That it does no good to feel paralyzing guilt about my privilege, instead I need to refocus on what I can do with that privilege. Learning in a diverse group in a queer environment that fosters critical thinking and acceptance was vital to making these connections. These takeaways are relevant to us all because we live in an interdependent, oppressive world, like it or not. Connections like these help us navigate that world, and hopefully enact a little change. Queer issues are relevant to us all because we all have identities. Queer movements seek to make living these identities safer and that affects us all positively. I will integrate these takeaways into my existing knowing and carry this with me towards my academic and professional goals by using a queer, transnational, empathetic lens as I study international relations and work towards a career in human rights.

— queer woman white U.S. citizen.

Program participants Program Directors Dr. Anu Taranath | anu@uw.edu Rafael Velazquez

Mexico City Field Coordinator Francisco Tenorio Hernandez

Student Participants Alison Steichen | alisonhs@uw.edu Political Science Major, Labor Studies Minor

Christopher Kites | ckites@uw.edu Informatics Major


Social Welfare Major, Education Learning & Societies and Comparative History of Ideas Minor

Haley Bosco Doyle | hdoyle@uw.edu

Medical Anthropology & Comparative History of Ideas Major, Art History and Nutritional Sciences Minor

Lacey Peil

Human Centered Design & Engineering Comparative History of Ideas Major, Environmental Studies and Gender Studies Minor

Larissa Reza

Social Welfare Major, Diversity Minor

Laurie Carlsson

Comparative History of Ideas Major

Maria Fletes | mfletes@uw.edu Philosophy Major

Morgan Gonzales

Communications Major, Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies Minor

Thanadej Throngkitpaisan (Teng) | tteng16@uw.edu Chemical Engineering Major, Chemistry Minor

Yani Robinson | yanir@uw.edu Creative Writing Major, Diversity Minor

Special thanks Sasha Duttchoudhury with Unbodied Design and Rukie Hartman for creating this resource, Amy Hirayama for program inspiration, the UW Comparative History of Ideas Program for their support, and our Mexico City partners for their friendship and generosity.

Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.