Back in the closet
- ONLINE EXCLUSIVE -
Story by Laura Going
In March of 2011, Michael Baker and Nick Smith, two gay, American tourists were traveling with a friend in Saint Lucia in the Caribbean when they were attacked by a group of armed, local men. International news organizations detailed the terrifying ordeal in which Smith and Baker were both beaten in their hotel room and robbed of more than $1,000. The attackers shouted anti-gay slurs and threatened to kill the travelers. When the Smith and Baker went to the police, they said they were treated like criminals because consensual sex between two men is considered a crime in Saint Lucia.
The government of Saint Lucia issued an apology to the three Americans but tensions for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgender people on the island still run high.
In recent years, the battle for LGBTQ equality in the United States has been primarily focused on same-sex marriage and cultural acceptance; however, many gay communities around the world are still working toward decriminalization of homosexuality.
Of the 88 countries which have abroad programs endorsed by Western’s International Programs & Exchanges Office, 19 have laws specifically prohibiting homosexual acts or relationships. Many of these laws impose fines, deportation or incarceration for those who break them.
According to the Council on International Educational Exchange, the visibility of gay and lesbian communities throughout the world varies greatly.
The council’s factsheet for LGBTQ students preparing to travel internationally suggests researching the cultural climate of the host country to get a feel for its norms before deciding on a study abroad location.
Liz Partolan-Fray Western’s director of International Programs and Exchange says that looking into the legal and political climate of a host country is part of the pre-departure checklist for Western’s international students and that it is important to understand what kinds of freedoms are afforded to travelers.
“The laws that you abide by are the laws of that country,” Partolan-Fray says.
Cultural codes of conduct
Eric Garcia, an alumnus of the University of San Francisco, traveled throughout South American in 2011. He began his exploration of the Central American countries when he began work teaching dance classes at local schools. Garcia said he also found that the cultural climate for gays varied greatly from region to region.
“In South America, there are so many different cultures that each place has its own code of conduct,” Garcia says. “You have to pick and choose which sides of yourself you present, just like any other place. Even in San Francisco, there are parts of the city where I wouldn’t hold a boy’s hand.”
Garcia backpacked throughout Mexico and Peru with his boyfriend at the time. He said he felt a certain base level of concern throughout the trip as the pair visited metropolises like Mexico City and rural communities like Oaxaca, Mexico. Garcia says that he and his boyfriend would often travel for 16 hours at a time by bus across mountains and open farmland.
It was on one of these late night rides that Garcia remembers feeling the most threatened as a gay traveler. During the long bus trip across rural Mexico, Garcia says he fell asleep and subconsciously reached for his boyfriend’s hand. The couple awoke around 4 a.m. to angry demands that they get off of the bus.
“The police were called…not because of us, but because there were a lot of people screaming and yelling over it,” he says. “It was really bizarre. We played dumb and pretended we didn’t speak Spanish but that was one of the more scary moments.”
Garcia was able to diffuse the situation by claiming they were tourists from Canada and they were able to finish out the ride, but says that the atmosphere for gays in the majority of Mexico made him feel the most uneasy.
Wanting to disclose
While many countries, such as Mexico, do not have specific legislation prohibiting same-sex relationships, travelers must be aware of the cultural climate of their host country toward openly LGBTQ people. For example, while gays and lesbians are protected from discrimination and repression by South Africa’s constitution, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have warned about an “epidemic” of homophobic violence in the country’s townships over the past few years.
Brazil is another country whose “gay-friendly” reputation might not be fully earned. According to Grupo Gay da Bahía, one of the top gay-rights groups in Brazil, anti-gay violence has risen over the last five years. The organization reported that in 2011, 272 gays were murdered throughout the country and that then numbers were continuing to increase in 2012.
For some students, their sexual orientation or gender identity might limit the countries where they feel safe traveling, while others may consider it part of the cultural experience of traveling abroad.
Ben Crowther, a coordinator of the Associated Students Queer Resource Center, raises the concern of students disclosing their sexual orientation to those providing homestays and says that situations can be tricky.
“They don’t want to upset the family enough that the family would want to kick them out,” he says. “But they may also feel that they are bonding with the family they are living with and might want to take that experience further by choosing to disclose part of their identity.”
Western alumna, Siobhan Sloan-Evans, navigated the waters of disclosing her same-sex relationship to her host family while she was studying abroad in Angers, France. During the fall of 2007 and the winter of 2008, Sloan-Evans lived with an older French couple and two other American roommates.
She says at the beginning of her trip, she was able to easily deflect questions about the gender of her significant other, but as she began to grow closer with her “French grandparents” she felt that it became an important subject to talk about.
“The discomfort I felt about it was more to do with my own perception of the situation than anything else,” Sloan-Evans says. “The topic [of homosexuality] is not quite so debatable as it is here. They have had civil unions for a while and they have an equivalent of a domestic partnership for same-sex couples or people who don’t want to get married. It’s not something that’s that prevalent in the media and so no one really seems to care.”
Finding safety in silence
Since European countries are often considered colloquially to have much stronger reputations for LGBTQ acceptance, some students express concern that this sharply narrows their choices of study abroad locations. Crowther says that, for him, going back into the closet in order to study abroad is not an option.
“Personally, I would not feel safe going to a country that would not be accepting,” he says. “A large portion of the world is off limits because I don’t want to risk my safety. For me, being out is not a question. I will not go back in the closet unless I absolutely need to.”
Some other LGBTQ travelers disagree.
In 2011, Western alumna Monika Anderson joined a faculty-led study abroad program in Kenya, a country where homosexuality is illegal. She says that going back into the closet was something she was willing to do so she could build relationships with Kenyans without being limited by any cultural constraints.
“When I came out originally, I always vowed to myself that I would never let my sexuality stop me from doing anything,” Anderson says. “If I have to modify my behavior a little bit, I can accept that. Travelling is really important to me and I want my career to be in international development so it’s going to be a lifelong process that I’m going to deal with and I’m entirely okay with that.”
Anderson will be leaving in January 2013 for a placement with the Peace Corps in either Jordan or Morocco.
Fairhaven Professor Marie Eaton teaches classes in the Queer Studies Minor at Western. She has also spent time living and working in Kenya and says that choosing to not disclose her sexual identity was a compromise that she was willing to make in order to work with the Kenyan people. She said it was simply not something that ever came up in her time there.
“I m confident enough in who I am that for me to spend three months in Africa and not talk about my partner is not a burden on me,” she says. “I know who I am, and I know who I love, and I know who my family is, so I don’t feel like I’m compromising my identity. I’m choosing to be silent, there is a difference to me.”
Eaton says that it is not difficult to find ways to connect with people beyond one’s sexual identity and that those identifiers are often eclipsed by the general “American” label. She says that for students who are just beginning to explore their sexual identity, it might be more of a challenge to remain silent.
Anderson, however, says she saw her time in Kenya as a period of evolution of her self-image, and that her travels gave her a better understanding of both her sexual identity, as well as what it means to be an American.
Advisors at the International Programs and Exchange office say there haven’t been any self-identified LGBTQ students bringing questions about international issues to the staff there; however, Partolan-Fray says she would encourage students to communicate with their advisors about concerns.