Views on the LGBTQ+ community differ greatly depending on what country you are in. This can make studying abroad as an LGBTQ+ student a bit scary. I am demisexual, meaning that I can only be sexually attracted to somebody if we have a strong emotional connection, but beyond that I am a cisgender heterosexual female. As such, I was not worried about my identity affecting my time abroad, but I know that the experience is different for everyone. To get more information about how being LGBTQ+ impacts people’s study abroad experience, I chose to interview someone from the LGBTQ+ community that is also on the IFSA University of Sussex summer program. His name is Spike and he recently graduated from high school in Santa Barbara, California. Following is a transcript of the interview (edited for clarity).
Me: Why did you choose the University of Sussex summer program?
Spike: I heard that they had a really impressive psychology department, and because it [his class abroad] was children’s literature, I assumed we would end up doing things that had to do with that and kids stories, and as someone who wants to write for children’s television I thought that would be interesting. What I also found out was Brighton is not only the gayest town in all of the UK, but also that people here are really nice and it’s just a great place.
Me: How does the environment on campus and in Brighton compare to your home school or town?
Spike: Because you can drink in the UK [at a younger age], people are a lot more lax about that, and to have a teacher invite people to go drinking with them is really cool. It makes that gap between student and faculty a lot shorter, so I think that’s kind of nice. I’m not even that big of a drinker and I think that just kind of makes everything a lot more relaxed. I don’t have to worry about going to certain places and being turned down. For example, if you want to do karaoke, there are karaoke bars that you have to be 21 to do that in the U.S. Here you can just kind of walk around wherever, and since the drinking age is 18 you can pretty much do anything once you’re 18. It just makes the city a lot more accessible.
Me: How welcoming do you feel this environment has been for you as an LGBTQ+ student?
Spike: [Brighton] being the gayest town in the UK, it has been really nice walking around and holding hands with my boyfriend, and it’s not a problem whatsoever. I don’t have to be worried that someone is going to try to start anything or that we are going to be turned down for service. I live in California and that’s already a pretty progressive place. However, you go an hour away from your town and they start looking at you strangely if you look like anything but a very straight guy. Part of the acceptance of queer kids is you don’t really have to worry about having conversations about queer subjects. Some people’s identities are more deeply rooted in being queer, and as a gay person you just kind of end up talking about gay stuff. Not having to worry that that will get you into trouble with somebody is really nice, and makes it even more comfortable. This town is just the most accepting place I’ve ever been to.
Me: Were you worried that being part of the LGBTQ+ community would negatively affect your study abroad experience?
Spike: I usually paint my nails. I definitely did not paint my nails coming here because I was like of all the situations I could be in, if I need to talk to an airport person, seeing me with painted nails might make them just be a little bit extra ‘I don’t want to help this kid’ and that could just lead to problems. Your personal appearance may change things. You might not get the same help as someone that is straight or white or anything like that.
Me: What, if any, resources/clubs/groups have you found for LGBTQ+ people at the University of Sussex or in the community of Brighton?
Spike: I don’t know about clubs, but sitting in my class you could just kind of look around or talk to kids and you’re like oh my god half my class is gay, or some place on the queer spectrum, and it’s really cool that it’s okay and no matter what we have each other’s backs. It’s not like you’re the only [queer] kid here and you have to be like okay does that mean I’m the representative of something or do I just keep quiet about this. Everything is so gay it doesn’t matter. I remember when I was taking the little bus to campus the first time, and driving by you could see lesbian couples holding hands and stuff like that. It’s like yeah, I love this place. This place is good. I know that this is safe because there are people just holding hands and having a good time. It’s really fun and you can tell the second you land here that it’s going to be a good place. I saw a shirt that said ‘being homosexual is gay’ and I love that we can finally make jokes about this because we’re comfortable. No one’s going to try to burn down a building because they’re angry or something.
Me: Is there anything you would want someone who is considering studying abroad and is an LGBTQ+ student to know?
Spike: One of the RA’s told me the first day, ‘Don’t worry about people that try to judge you because more people will be judging them for judging you.’ Basically, there are allies no matter what. Just because there are straight people doesn’t mean that it’s not a safe place for queer people.
Being an LGBTQ+ student should never be perceived as a barrier to study abroad. As Spike said, there may be people judging you, but there will likely be even more people that are on your side. England is a wonderful place to study abroad for all kinds of people. It has been one of the most accepting environments I have ever been in, and Spike and many other people I talked to agree. Don’t let other people’s prejudices stop you from going on a once in a lifetime adventure.