Apart from learning a different language while studying abroad on another continent, the adjustment to a foreign country can be particularly difficult — especially when its culture may not be accepting of LGBT students.
For some LGBT students at Penn, part of preparing for a study abroad experience may involve learning how to deal with a different set of cultural norms and expectations about sexual orientation.
A College junior — who wished to remain anonymous because she has not disclosed her sexual orientation to her parents — said she was “unwittingly outed to her entire international student group” while studying abroad at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia last fall.
“Being outed was not a positive experience for me and I felt highly uncomfortable because people were telling everyone,” she said.
She believes “Russia isn’t a very welcoming place for homosexuals,” adding that throughout the semester, she heard numerous students and professors make negative remarks about LGBT students.
While she managed to get through most of her time abroad without any incidents of direct discrimination, everything changed when she decided to write a final paper on Russia’s anti-gay law, which outlaws the promotion of homosexuality or transsexuality to minors.
Although her initial discussion about the law with her professor was “uncomfortable” as he “obviously didn’t see it as a rights violation,” the student’s topic proposal was approved.
However, after not receiving a response from her professor to several emails about her grade, she contacted her international coordinator in February for her transcript. Upon doing so, she said she learned she had received an “Incomplete” for the course because the professor claimed they had never agreed on the topic.
She was later told that her paper was being delegated to another professor for grading.
Looking back, the junior feels that her experience with the paper marked a clear instance of discrimination based upon her sexual orientation.
Overall, she thinks that “the Abroad Office should be more clear about its policies. You should at least be able to tell the student what kind of discrimination could be going on.”
Penn’s bilateral exchange agreements with 59 universities worldwide include a non-discrimination clause, according to Penn Abroad Director Barbara Gorka.
“We don’t expect our partners to follow all of our policies and there’s no way we could comply with all of theirs,” she said. “But we still have an expectation that students will be able to study in an appropriate environment. We have less influence over the culture of the other country.”
Penn students can also study abroad at 94 other approved programs and universities that are not exchanges and thus do not have a formal agreement.
However, Gorka said that students who select these options are “just as protected as other students” because “if Penn Abroad heard of even one incident bad enough to warrant removing the program from our approved list, we have the power to do so.”
While the College junior has since received a grade for her final paper, she still feels concerned about students who study abroad in countries that are less LGBT-friendly than the United States, as “much worse things could happen than happened to me.”
2011 College graduate Enmanuel Martinez had a quite different experience abroad when he went to Cuba in the fall of his junior year.
“Being an out queer person abroad and knowing Cuba’s history, knowing that it’s a Latin American country where patriarchy and machismo are cultural norms, I was a bit concerned,” he said.
But upon arriving in Cuba, Martinez was surprised to find that people were generally open and accepting of foreigners, including those who were LGBT.
After meeting a number of queer students, Martinez “felt a sense of community and support” and thought there was “much more positive public discourse in Cuba about queer-identified individuals.”
However, he added that the university at which he studied had less institutional support for LGBT students compared to Penn.
LGBT Center Associate Director Erin Cross explained that the Center partners with the Penn Abroad office to offer information and resources to LGBT students planning to go overseas.
However, she believes LGBT-specific information sessions may not be that well-attended because “a lot of students who are out who are going abroad have thought about this … and those who really need it are those who are questioning or fairly newly out, so they don’t want to show up to LGBT sessions.”
When a student reports an incident of alleged discrimination, Cross said that the LGBT Center “tries to figure out the best way to see if indeed they had been aggrieved and the best way to proceed.”
This may involve working with an Office of International Programs advisor or interacting directly with professors, she said.
“It’s about supporting them and helping them form a plan so that things work out in their best interest,” she said.
Resources and Readiness
According to Overseas Program Manager Jonathan Hakim, the Penn Abroad office works regularly with campus resource centers like Makuu and the Penn Women’s Center to prepare students for diversity and identity issues that may arise abroad.
However, since Penn Abroad does not ask for students’ religion, sexual orientation and ethnic background, “we rely on our partners at the resource centers to make us aware of issues students might not feel comfortable disclosing,” Gorka said.
College sophomore and Lamba Alliance Chair Hugh Hamilton said that prior to going abroad to Alicante, Spain this summer, his group met to discuss cultural norms and women’s safety in Spain — a presentation that he found “very valuable.”
Spain “isn’t considered a huge offender” when it comes to LGBT issues, according to Hamilton.
He said that while he occasionally encountered some negative attitudes and comments from people in town, the only major incidence of discrimination that members of his program experienced was when two black students in the group had a difficult time entering a nightclub because of their race.
Gorka emphasized that receiving feedback from students is critical to ensuring their safety abroad.
“Looking at the broad array of issues that can come up abroad, sometimes it’s a misunderstanding and sometimes it’s a problem we need to address,” she said.
She added that Penn Abroad works closely with undergraduate schools when negotiating exchange agreements with foreign universities to ensure that “students are having the kind of academic experience abroad we are expecting them to have.”
At the end of the day, the College junior believes that LGBT students should be fully aware of Penn Abroad’s policies when they decide whether or not to study abroad.
“What I would suggest is that it is Penn’s responsibility to be actively trying to promote a more open academic community not just here but around the world,” she said.