Discovering My Sexual Identity Abroad

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First Impressions

When I first met the people in my study abroad program I was excited to get to know them since we all came from different schools, states, and backgrounds. I was on the Valparaíso, Chile program where I attended Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. As I became closer to a smaller group of people I thought it was great that most of my friends were queer. Not only that, but many of them were studying similar things as I am and held similar beliefs and values that I do. I have queer friends back home and from school, but I had never had a friend group that was majority queer. It was so refreshing and I felt so safe. A little side-note, before going abroad and the beginning of my time abroad, I identified as straight. To my surprise, that soon changed!

I had become very close friends with one girl in particular and I was able to talk with my other friends who were queer on my semester abroad about the confusing feelings I was experiencing and I received nothing but love and support. I was never shamed or outcast, in fact everything I asked or pursued was celebrated and I was the happiest I had been in my life. Being abroad and going through this made me more confident about how others would perceive me at my home university. I was free to be whomever I wanted in a new space.

At Butler University I am in a social circle of mostly athletes since I had previously been on a varsity athletic team. I have great friends, but in that environment queerness is not something that is prioritized, let alone seen positively. There are many stereotypes that women athletes, especially at the higher level, are gay — either way everyone is on a team for the love of their sport. It was frustrating to hear these stereotypes because they put many girls on my team on the defensive; they would go out of their way to prove themselves as straight by putting down people in the queer community. In Chile, I was surrounded by people who wanted to talk about queerness and their experiences and I had never been able to have that openness before.

Friend & Host Family Relationships

I think it was confusing for some of the friends I made at the beginning to see another one of their friends and I be together. I tried to focus on how I was feeling and not how others perceived me. At times it was frustrating because it felt like I had to take into consideration their opinions. However, the friends that became part of my consistent, close circle were those who showered me with love and support. I was lucky to have been friends with the most amazing group of women I’d ever met.

I never had an explicit conversation with my host family about my sexuality but that was in part due to everything being so new to me. I was discovering things about myself as I went along. However, whenever I had the girl I was with over to my host family’s house for extended periods of time or when she would sleep over, my host family never said anything and were welcoming. My host family was very relaxed and never questioned me which definitely eased my anxieties surrounding this. If your sexual identity is something you want or need your host family to know about before meeting them, then tell them! But if you feel you would rather see if it naturally comes up after getting to know them better, then that’s good, too. It is just your personal preference.

Overall Climate in Chile Towards LGBTQ+ Community

I never felt scared or nervous to hold my partner’s hand or to touch her in public in Chile, however, this may be because this was new for me. I had never experienced discrimination, violence, or harassment due to my sexual identity because I had previously identified publicly as straight. In the city of Valparaíso where I studied, there seemed to be a visible queer population. The city had many queer bars and clubs and this was a nice reminder of Valparaíso being very queer friendly. One of my friends would always say that Valparaíso was a lesbian safe haven.

I found it similar to the United States that younger people are more likely to support the LGBTQ+ community, whereas older people were more likely to not be supportive. I drew these conclusions from broad observations and from listening to conversations among my host family and other Chilean students. One of the monitores who I was friends with was also bisexual and therefore his group of friends were very open and accepting of different sexualies. In terms of older people, at dinner a few times I remember my host family talking about a gay individual and laughing at them. I don’t think my host family was against the LGBTQ+ community per se, but I just found the same sort of general acceptance and indifference to queer people was not there like I found in many of the Chilean students I befriended.

A Roller Coaster of Emotions

Looking back now, it is easy for me to warn against starting a relationship abroad, because it is going to end in heartbreak. But you can’t predict when these things happen, so I just took it one day at a time. It’s true that my time abroad was some of the happiest months of my life. As time to leave grew closer and closer, I began to have panic attacks because of my anxieties about leaving and the uncertainty of what was going to happen to my relationship. Again, thankfully I had incredible friends to talk to who took care of me.

Coming back to the US was an incredibly difficult transition. Heartbreak is no fun. What helped me cope was reaching out to my friends from home, from school, from Chile and my family for support. Talking about how I felt instead of feeling sad and keeping that to myself was most helpful for me. Chile has a special place in my heart because of all the friends I made there and the relationship I enjoyed while abroad. It was a place where I discovered a new part of my identity and this was not always easy to explain to my family members back home and I wasn’t always comfortable sharing with friends from home when they would ask questions. My experience created a lot of questions for myself that I will have to continue to explore.

Today

The first few weeks were very hard being back in the US. Being back at my home university was overwhelming because I was hyper aware of how I was being perceived by others. I constantly felt uncomfortable. It was also hard because I did not have the person I had just been in a relationship with to talk through all these feelings. It really is a tough transition from talking to someone every day and constantly being around someone to nothing. When I got back to my campus I felt very lost without the people I had surrounded myself with for the previous 5 months.

My friends back at school were very accepting and obviously did everything to lift me up out of my depression. My dad also was there for me at all my low points and was willing to talk whenever I needed help. As for my mom, there is still tension there. I don’t think she understands the nuances of sexuality and has been largely unwilling to talk about it. This has been an ongoing area of stress for me throughout my time abroad and upon my return home.

It has been wonderful to have queer friends because they have been the best resource throughout the entire time and transition. As time has gone by I have become more comfortable with this part of myself. Time has helped a lot with healing and my amazing friend group along with myself have lifted me out of an overwhelming sadness. I now have started a new relationship with a woman who has also helped me an incredible amount. This showed me that things can get better because there are always people in your life that love you that you can turn to.

 

Reilly Simmons is an International Studies, Political Science, and Spanish triple major at Butler University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Chilean Universities Program in Valparaíso, Chile in Fall 2018.

Article by Reilly Simmons