Study abroad is full of opportunities to explore. Whether it be hiking mountains or getting immersed in a new culture, study abroad can push you to reflect on your identity and where you study abroad can influence how you express your identity. Choosing to study abroad in a “conservative” country that leans towards more traditional beliefs can make being your true self difficult, especially for folks who identify as LGBTQIA+. For me, my experience in India has allowed me to critically examine my own identity as well as strengthen my passion for activism and education regarding gender and sexuality. I have been granted the opportunity to immerse myself into the culture of my new home through learning about and speaking to LGBTIA+ students and activists and learning about their push for equality. Hearing first hand from individuals fighting for rights that might sometimes be taken for granted in other countries really opened my eyes up to the privilege I hold as well as need for continued advocacy.
LGBTQIA+ in India
Before I left for study abroad, I knew absolutely nothing about LGBTQIA+ rights in India. Much to my surprise, upon my arrival I was informed that according to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, any sexual activities “against the order of nature” were criminalized. I knew that only 26 countries in the world have legalized same sex marriage and that 74 countries, at the time of my arrival, had laws against homosexuality, but I had no idea that India was then currently battling to have Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code overturned.
A few weeks into my studies in India, in a historic ruling by the Indian Supreme Court, Section 377 was overturned! As soon as I opened my social media, I was flooded by posts about the historic ruling. Between “Pride React Only” posts to analyses of how the ruling was a historic step towards decolonizing Indian society, the internet was rejoicing at the news of the ruling. As soon as I put down my phone and looked around at the world surrounding me in Manipal, however, I saw absolutely no reaction. None of the pride flags that were plastered on every article online. No conversations about the ruling in the cafeteria or the classroom. Absolutely nothing. In this moment I began to reflect on just how different the LGBTQIA+ experience is abroad, especially in conservative countries.
First and foremost, safety is a big factor to consider when deciding where to study abroad. Before choosing to study abroad in a conservative country, I suggest talking to other students who have studied abroad from your home university to get a feel for what studying abroad is like in the countries in which you are considering studying. They can give you a more real description that isn’t in the pamphlets your study abroad office may have. Conservative religious influence and laws can affect whether you chose to disclose your identity or even how comfortable you are in the country where you are studying. Especially for folks with specific gender presentations that do not necessarily conform to conservative societal values, it can be extremely difficult to adjust to and feel comfortable in your new home. The views of the particular country can even affect the clothes you pack. For individuals who dress outside of generally accepted clothing for your perceived gender, you may be uncomfortable in your own clothing. You may even be pressured to wear traditional clothing, such as a saree or kurta. The hardest part for me was adjusting to the lack of people who are out and willing to talk about their identities. Transitioning from queer friendly universities to places where there is almost no open LGBTQIA+ presence is a shock. It can also be accompanied by less than friendly attitudes and unsolicited negative comments. If you experience any sort of discomfort or concerns for your safety, you can always rely on your on-site IFSA staff for advice and guidance because they have extensive cultural knowledge.
Protecting Your Mental Health
If you choose to study abroad in a conservative country, you should always take measures to protect your mental health. You may feel like you are being forced to “go back into the closet” as you may not be able to express your identity as freely as back in the United States. I suggest relying on your family — your biological family and your chosen family — to help you process the issues and emotions you have regarding your identity. It is also important that you are comfortable in your existence in your new home. Sometimes individuals feel like altering their appearance to better fit into the culture or because they feel safer. Making changes to your appearance or presentation should always be your choice. It takes time to find your place while studying abroad and your identity as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community can complicate that settling in period.
Regardless of if you use a label for yourself or are discovering your identity, study abroad is a magical experience. Choosing to study abroad in a conservative country has made me an even stronger advocate for rights for people around the world and helped me put my own pride into a new perspective. Make the most out of your study abroad experience by learning about the culture and about yourself! Always be proud of who you are and know that no matter where you are, your identity is valid and you matter.
Guadalupe Mabry is a Public Health and Biology student at American University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Global and Public Health program in Manipal, India in fall 2018. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study program.