If you’re not straight and/or cisgendered (you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth), your sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity (or lack thereof) make the already difficult feat of traveling even more challenging. For LGBT and non-binary people, traveling becomes more than just getting over jetlag. One’s sexual orientation can affect one’s safety. Many people think that coming out of the closet is a one-time deal, but for LGBT people, it’s a never-ending process that depends on where they are and how safe they feel exposing their sexuality.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the privilege to come out. It might not always be safe to do so. It’s also much easier to come out as lesbian or gay than to come out as bisexual, transgender, or non-binary. Same-sex behavior is illegal in almost half the countries in the world, so don’t feel pressured to come out while abroad.
When you’re living with a host family, coming out to them can be awkward at first, but if you do, you’re helping them realize how diverse people are. Here are some tips for coming out to your host family:
1. Know that it’s okay to stay inside the travel closet.
Although it’s illegal to be gay in over 70 countries, don’t let your sexual orientation and/or gender identity stop you from traveling meaningfully. More and more queer people (“Queer” is a reclaimed term referring to non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual people) are traveling abroad, and they have their fair share of coming out stories on the road.
Be sure to research where it is safest to travel abroad if you are LGBT and what different countries’ LGBT laws are before selecting a destination. Ask yourself important questions: Does the country you’re going to have marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws? What does the government and the country’s leaders think about LGBT people? How do LGBT people feel about the police? Your rights can change with the stamp of a passport, so do your research. Your safety comes first.
2. Be honest with your program provider or university about your concerns.
Check program websites before you apply and pay program fees to see if they are outwardly LGBT friendly and offer resources, and get recommendations from program reviews. Ask if they provide specific resources, like an online forum, for LGBT participants. Some program directors are openly out and gay, so never expect they will be closed-minded. If you’re not honest with them about how your sexual orientation and/or gender identity is making you nervous to travel, then they cannot support you.
3. Ask your provider if your host family will be LGBT-friendly.
If possible, ask your provider for your host family’s previous guests’ contact information so that you can ask them how LGBT-friendly the host family is. If not, ask your program provider if the host family has hosted LGBT guests before. Whether their previous guests were queer or not, they might have valuable insight as to how accepting the family is toward queer people sleeping under their roof (whether they be thatched or aluminum).
In general, host families are trusted community members who are already well-versed in hosting people from other cultures, so it should be comforting for you to know that they are open-minded in the sense of wanting to host someone who looks, speaks, and thinks differently from them.
Be sure to read reviews of programs, whether you’re studying, volunteering, or teaching abroad, to get a feel for any comments related to your situation. Follow up with organizations specifically on these issues.
4. Test the LGBT-friendly waters.
Observe how your host family talks about LGBT issues. During television shows (if they have a television), watch for the way they talk about a singer’s or an actor’s gender presentation. They might have a lot or very little to say about Ricky Martin’s sexuality, about same-sex marriages allowed in South Africa, or Russia’s 2013 anti-“gay propaganda” law, which prohibits any positive mention of homosexuality in the presence of minors.
Strike up a conversation when the situation presents itself. Many people think that being LGBT is a decision, not an identity. Now, hold your horses before you say “Hey mum, can you pass the falafel? Oh and by the way, I’m gay.” Instead, ask her what the community thinks about LGBT issues. If the community is fine with it, then ask her what she thinks about LGBT people. You don’t have to out yourself, but you could mention an LGBT friend you have who you miss back home, then see how they react.
Do they empathize with you? Do they seem confused? You might be the first person who brings up LGBT topics in a non-prejudiced way, and that in itself might confuse them. If the sexuality and gender identity conversation is too volatile, try what a Peace Corps Volunteer did from the travel closet. She used Tanzanians’ awareness of the slave trade to her advantage by relating that sort of oppression to the injustice of withholding fair treatment from innocent people, whether they’re queer or black.
5. Ask your family to respect your privacy.
Just because you feel safe at with your new family doesn’t mean that the people in the community will be as accepting. If you come out to your host family, but feel unsure about being out of the closet in your community, explain that to your host family. Sometimes people assume that if you come out to them, that you are comfortable coming out to anyone, but that’s not true. You might come out to your school friends, but not to your host family. Find the communities that accept and affirm you.
6. Get ready for potentially awkward questions.
If a host family members asks you how LGBT people have sex, you don’t need to answer that question. When people ask questions like this, it reveals that they still see heterosexual sex as the only “real” sex there is. Sex and sexuality are very different.
You didn’t come out to them to talk about sex, you did it because doing so would make you feel more comfortable as a human. Mention how your identity pushes you to look for safe spaces wherever you go, or how withholding who you are makes you uncomfortable, but sometimes you do it in order to feel safe. Also, you could mention how it makes you nervous that in countries like the United States, police forced a woman out of a bathroom she was supposed to use, just because she looked like a boy.
Once you begin talking about how your sexual orientation and gender identity affects your daily life, then people will understand that being LGBT is a unique identity that shapes your life in profound ways. Once they realize that you didn’t choose to be LGBT, and that it’s how you were born, then it’ll start to click for them that your orientation and gender identity (or lack thereof) are just small parts of the complex person you are.
7. They’re likely teaching you a language, so you can teach them terminology, too!
Be patient if you’re family assumes you’re straight. Relationships between men and women are what they are used to seeing every day, whether it’s out the window or on television. Most romantic songs are about heterosexual romantic relationships. If you’re a lesbian and your host mom asks you if you have a boyfriend back home, it’s just an innocent question that shows she is trying to get to know you. You could answer by saying “No, I don’t have a boyfriend. My partner is a woman.” Or “No, I don’t have a partner.” Reinforcing the word “partner” gives the conversation a less heteronormative tone.
Whether you decide to travel meaningfully to a country that’s allowed same-sex marriage for years, or you’re choosing to stay in the travel closet, remember that your presence in a country will make an impact when it comes to teaching others about yourself and your culture. If your sexuality and gender identity doesn’t make it into that conversation, your host family will still learn from you, and you from them. However, if you do decide to come out, be prepared for some potentially awkward yet impactful conversations!
Still have questions & concerns about going abroad? Download GoAbroad's Guide to LGBT Travel Abroad.