Homophobia and transphobia – fears that turn into hate. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where these two are present. But what does that have to do with AFS?
Today is IDAHOT - the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. An important date to remember that in many places in the world, LGBT youth still face exclusion and discrimination in our society. We believe that AFS can play an important role to change that.
To understand how AFS is connected to LGBT topics, we can turn back to María Jose’s blog post last year in which she explains the importance of days like the Coming-Out Day: “In our core activity, AFS accompanies young people into their adulthood as exchange students and later as volunteers. It’s often during those years that we fall in love for the first time, have our first sexual experiences and try figuring out who we are.”
AFS volunteers are naturally caring and try to be open minded. However, they can often lack understanding and knowledge about what it actually means to “come out” or be queer (particularly if they don’t have that lived experience themselves). It’s hard to know how LGBT youth experience their AFS year - also because, each queer AFSer has a unique story to tell. For today’s occasion, we’d like to share three of these unique stories with you. Thank you so much Francesco, Pancho and Charlie for sharing your experience with us. Together with them we believe that telling these stories is a first step to fight homophobia and transphobia.
I had my first boyfriend shortly before going on exchange. Unfortunately, Italy is still quite a homophobic country in many senses. So this first experience turned out to be quite painful because I thought the whole school had found out about it. Out of shame, I even stopped talking to one of my best friends at the time. When my mother found out she was shocked and from that moment on it was very painful to deal with her passive-aggressive attitude towards my sexual orientation.
My AFS exchange year took me to Sweden. While it showed me a much more liberal and open attitude towards LGBT, I spent that year in the closet. My host father would constantly encourage me to go out and have experiences with girls and this created no space for me to possibly come out. But I wouldn’t have been ready anyway.I remember this time to be one of constant negotiations with myself: can I not simply be heterosexual or maybe at least bisexual?
My coming-out to my host family in Sweden happened a couple of years later, when I was visiting them. It was no big deal at this point as I had already come to peace with who I am. Back home in Italy, things are still a bit different. I am no longer hiding who I am. But I still feel more vulnerable than elsewhere. Last time that I visited my hometown, I got into a fight and got called “faggot”. I thought I wouldn’t care anymore about that today. But no, I still found myself crying and feeling sad afterwards.
Looking back, I can say that Sweden did help with me coming to terms with my sexuality. Every time someone would mention a homosexual friend in a perfectly normal way or talk about a queer couple, it would feel good, because I had never experienced that before. But I think the most important place for my coming out was Berlin. Here, I have learned to love who I am. If you asked me today, I would refuse to be heterosexual. I can now see how the queer world has less restrictions and more acceptance than the heterosexual one and I feel at home in this scene. But it has been a journey. At first, I was fighting with my own prejudices – for example towards trans* people. I think we all need to face our fears and prejudices towards other if we want to live together.
AFS didn’t play any supportive role during my coming-out. I think AFS can do a lot more to be an inclusive and open organization. There is a lot of potential to include small elements into their programs which would make a big difference to queer youth: including same-sex relationships in sex talks, offering workshops on LGBTI topics for volunteers and exchange students, or including “coming-out” in the list of topics that you can talk to your counselor about. Generally: acknowledge LGBTIs more within the organization.
When I went to Brazil on my exchange year, I was still “Charlotte” and I believed that I was a straight girl. I was focussing on school a lot and was not in touch with my feelings. At school, I was being bullied and I was a very shy person.
Brazil changed everything for me. Right during my first month, I made experiences that helped me to find out who I really am. These affective experiences helped me understand my sexual orientation and brought LGBTI friends into my life that have helped me so much in my journey. It was at that point that I started dating girls and soon after I came out to my mother in Belgium.
My host family was very religious. That meant that I didn’t feel like I could come out to them. I was afraid of how they would react. At the time, I was sure that they would feel ashamed of me and even more: that they would not want me anymore because I was not the person they had accepted into their home. So I tried to be like they expected me to be. This means that I lived my exchange year in a lie. It was very hard to hide who I really am.
My exchange year gave me a better understanding of my gender identity. It was a scary decision, but once I was back home, I went to the doctor and decided to go through female-to-male transition. This was a big step in my life. My transition started a year after coming back from Brazil. The more the transition developed, the more confident I became. I had volunteered for a while after my return, but it was only now that I was ready to take up a role within the organization. As a volunteer, I want to make impact in the students’ lives and deliver quality orientations and learning moments.
I have been traveling back to Brazil after my exchange year, but I decided not to stay with my host family. It was hard for them to call me Charlie instead of Charlotte. My siblings tried very hard, but my host parents struggled quite a lot. However, I am happy that we have a pretty good relationship.
The LGBTI volunteers I met along the way played a very important role for me. They were there for me and would dedicate a lot of time to talking to me. I guess this open environment is the most important part of the AFS relationship between volunteers and students. In my opinion, there is no perfect formula for volunteers to give support to students coming-out, it is mainly about empathy and being supportive. Luckily, I met wonderful volunteers and also got support from within my family and my friends. Like this, I can say that my coming-out went well.
Now, transitioned as a female-to-male transgender person, the AFS community is still being very supportive. The head office in Mechelen made no fuss about my name change and helped me out the best they could in order to fix everything with my online profile. So, I’m very grateful for the AFS support I received throughout my story.
I went on exchange to United States, state of New York. I came out during my exchange. It was really hard but also helpful.
Chile, my home country, is a very catholic and has a very conservative background. Luckily, things are slowly changing, but there is certainly still a lot of prejudice. The Chilean reality is completely different than the places I have been in the US. When I dated a guy from the States, I could clearly see the differences between our two families. In Chile, we would keep our relationship to ourselves. In the US, we could be ourselves and had more freedom to express our affectivity. It is interesting to observe the differences about how these two cultures look at gay people: in NY state people see diversity as something really special. You’re valued for having a very particular style and preference. In Chile, the same thing is seen as escaping normativity and definitely not something worth celebrating.
Because of coming-out while on exchange year I went home three months earlier. In the US I lived in a small town and basicly my host family figured out I was gay because of some gossip at school. I started dating a guy from school and people started to find out. My host family was really conservative and religious, so they came to me and said “So you are gay and you are dating this guy…”. After that they started taking me to church and I started to talk to them that this was getting way too confusing to me. So I decided to call my dad in Chile. This moment is really special because when I called him he was driving and I asked him to stop the car and then I told him “I don’t think you can expect grandchildren from me” and he said “ What are you saying? Do you have issues with having babies?” and then I said “No, I am gay”. After coming-out to him he bought a ticket to NYC for the next day, I asked him not to come, he refused, so I decided to go home earlier. I went to talk to my counselor, he was pretty worried about me, but I had decided to go back and after explaining him my points AFS respected my decision. I think we always have that feeling about what would have happened if we had gone a different way, but coming back home earlier was worth it.
Coming out during an exchange year made it much more difficult for me. Looking back, I suppose AFS could have given me more support. Maybe changing my host family would have been a solution. AFS volunteers need someone to turn to in order to be able to deal with such complex cases. I would love to see AFS establishing such a support and embracing LGBTI students officially.
Everybody says that the AFS exchange is a life in a year. For many LGBT youth, we might even call it “two” lives in a year. Because exchange years are for many a space of negotiation between their lives before and after coming out. Out of our comfort zone we are much more vulnerable about our feelings, but also gain opportunities to be ourselves. And coming-out is exactly about that: figuring out who we really are.
So how can AFS create space for this discovery? Fighting transphobia and homophobia is not limited to standing up against bullies. It should also mean that we all question our approaches. What if Francesco’s host dad had encouraged him to find a girlfriend or a boyfriend? What if in Pancho’s camps the volunteers had included the option of same-sex encounters and told everyone they can reach out if they need support or would like to talk? Charlie’s story shows how AFS can play an important role to support young people in their coming-out. Let’s get even better at that.
We think as AFSers, we have all that it takes to be LGBTI allies. So let’s be open, sensitive and caring. In celebration of IDAHOT today, let’s be aware that LGBT youth aren’t always treated equally in our organization yet. And let’s take small steps together to change that.
Marcelo Lopes and Rahel Aschwanden are both active AFS volunteers that want to promote diversity and inclusion within our organization.