Coming Out Day: creating more space for diversity

It’s coming out day and in AFS we are celebrating! As AFS volunteers we are proud of the diversity within our ranks but we still struggle to openly show pride of our many queer AFS friends. But today, whether we are lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or just an ally, today is the day to be proud of who we are and to openly support the queer community in and outside AFS.

Celebrating coming outs one day is important. But how about the rest of the year? As AFSers we have always celebrated intercultural and international diversity but have been much less open to be proud of our diversity related to sexual orientation and gender. It is of course true that LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) identities are still issue to taboos and even facing criminal prosecution in some countries and societies. That means as an organization focusing on education based on diversity, we have a great amount of work ahead of us to foster understanding on the matter.

The International Coming Out Day is advocated for by many national and international LGBTQI rights organizations likes Humans Rights Campaign. Its celebration dates back to October 11, 1987 when thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and supporters gathered on the Washington Mall in the United States to participate in the historic Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Coming Out Day is meant to raise awareness and tolerance for this community, to encourage its members to take pride in their identity and just celebrating the diversity within our society.

However, to us Coming Out Day has a special meaning which goes beyond celebrating diversity. 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. In many AFS countries we talk about these important elements of coming-of-age, for example in our camps. Yet these talks often still exclude all those who do not fall into the heterosexual (meaning falling in love with the opposite sex) and cisgender box (meaning identifying with the gender one has received at birth).

Many of us are with AFS because it’s the place where we can be ourselves. Where we can work together for a mission we truly believe in. Letting all people be themselves, however, is a state we have to work on actively: by choosing our words and actions carefully. Mentioning the diversity of the gender-sexuality spectrum instead of ignoring its existence could make a huge difference to whom ever struggles in coming to terms with their identity. Besides that, embracing these differences also shows everyone else how simple it can be to be to create an inclusive space.

Luckily, AFS already has made great steps forward in being more inclusive of the queer community. QueerExchange was founded in Germany in 2011 in order to increase visibility, create awareness and offer support related to LGBTQI topics. According to co-founder Shuggi Arnemann they have been giving around five to ten trainings per year and offered support in around 10-20 case. Similar - even if smaller - groups also exist in other AFS countries. In order to create awareness and build competencies, EFIL organized a study session on “Sensitive approaches to sexual orientation in intercultural youth exchange” in 2014. The event brought together both queer and straight volunteers from all over Europe and offered itself as an occasion for many of the participants to experience openness and being in a safe place.

Being a safe place, that’s exactly what we would like to suggest to you on this Coming Out Day. Let’s keep working on being a safe place for queer people in our organization. And as a thought experiment, we would like to share with you the following TED talk: Ash Beckham talks about the fact that we all have moments of coming out of the closet: “We all have closets. All a closet is, is a hard conversation.”

Let's create a safe environment for those coming out. Let us be the ones that promote equality. Let us celebrate Coming Out Day!


María José (21) became a volunteer in 2012 giving Spanish classes to the exchange students. That’s how she fell in love with the AFS mission. She’s now the support coordinator of her chapter in Tucuman Argentina. María José is also a strong advocate for diversity and participates in different projects promoting diversity in her community.