He walked into the room for the meeting, looked around and thought, “Now what?”
For Engineering junior Hassan, an international student from Pakistan, it took him long enough to even approach the LGBTQ student groups on campus, and when he finally did, he still felt out of place. He asked to be identified by a pseudonym in this article because he is not out to his family.
“There’s an entire vocabulary associated with queer politics that I really was not, and probably am still not, fully aware of or comfortable speaking in,” Hassan said. “Because that was missing, I didn’t really feel like I could contribute much to the organization.”
Now, a group of about seven students, including Hassan, are working to launch a new student group specifically for queer international students.
“The queer and trans communities here [at Penn] are so strong when it comes to groups representing most aspects of this community. International is one that hasn’t really been gotten to yet,” said College junior Sahir Doshi, an Indian international student also leading this new project.
Hassan said that their primary motivation for creating this group is to tackle the visibility of the international queer community — creating discussion on campus about the issues that they face in their home countries and helping international students feel more comfortable in queer spaces in the United States . It is intended to be a “stepping stone” to help students get involved with Penn’s LGBTQ community and help them with the process of identifying, if they choose to identify themselves at all.
“The queer community is very welcoming once they are aware of what’s going on, but it takes a while to get to that point for a lot of us,” Doshi said.
Doshi and Hassan said that the current student groups do great work, but they often don’t have the time or resources to focus on international student issues to the degree they think necessary.
“This is a group that’s definitely reaching a population that’s not specifically being targeted,” Associate Director of the LGBTQ Center Becca Schept said.
College junior and Lambda Alliance Chair Dawn Androphy said that she is always excited by the prospect of a new group to cater to any population that feels they need it. She said she is glad that Hassan and Doshi “are taking the initiative to take the amazing space that they’ve created for themselves and open it up to other people.”
Queer international students say they represent the intersection of two vibrant minority communities on campus. Though their experiences align with each group in some regards, in other ways, being a queer international student on campus is a unique experience.
“Being queer is obviously a very important part of my life on campus. Being international is also as important, if not more, because neither [Hassan nor I] were out on campus for a while when we first came,” Doshi said. “We didn’t come here already having thought through the classic process that American high school students go through — some, and a lot don’t [come out] until they go to college.”
In Doshi’s high school in India, he didn’t know anyone who was openly out. “It’s not something you discuss,” he said.
In Pakistan, the process of coming out [is] very different because, “It depends a lot on your social class the degree to which you can come out,” Hassan said.
The people he knows from home who have come out to a few friends have all been from upper class, Westernized families, but that wasn’t the culture of his family.
Both said that when they told their friends at home that they had come out, they got positive reactions. But it’s still not a common discussion, and Hassan still has not come out to his parents.
“It was hard for people to get around the idea that one of us — a person from Mumbai — is gay. It’s a huge deal,” Doshi said.
Schept said it isn’t uncommon for students to find a divide between American culture, specifically on a progressive college campus, and the perspectives held in other countries. “An undergraduate student coming here as an international student usually finds Penn to be a more accepting place than their home country,” she said.
Hassan made a conscious effort to become more comfortable in Penn’s LGBTQ community, deciding to take a class on queer politics and communities that he said was initially an “uncomfortable experience.”
“Everyone else was already part of the community, already knew why they were there, and for me it was like ‘I can tell no one back home that I’m in this class,’” he said.
He went through a period of questioning, and then at one point decided to come out. For him, it was an “overnight decision.”
But Doshi said he never would have even considered taking that class, and his process of coming out at Penn was completely different.
He started questioning about a month on campus, but he often tried to stay far away from the LGBTQ Center so that no one in the Indian community would see him and suspect anything.
His coming out process was much more gradual, and he started from a very different place from Hassan.
“I came kind of self-hating, homophobic myself when I reached Penn,” Doshi said. But from day one, he met queer and trans-identifying people, which had a huge impact on him.
“It just changes your whole thought process and then I started realizing that it doesn’t work like that here,” he said. “Things are different at Penn.”
Doshi said more people in the international community on campus are well educated on queer and transgender issues today than when he was a freshman. He remembers many international students he met weren’t aware of anyone from their home country who openly identified as queer, and casual homophobic remarks weren’t uncommon to hear.
Because it is fairly common to use that kind of language in India or Pakistan, Doshi and Hassan said those habits often accompany students to Penn. And although it’s not always the case, in Doshi’s experience, people changed their attitudes and behaviors once they knew he identified as gay.
He said that because international students tend to be more more progressive compared to most people in their home countries, they seem to be open to altering their perspectives on the LGBTQ community once they arrive on such a comparatively liberal campus. For him, it’s Penn rather than the United States as a whole that creates such an open environment for LGBTQ students.
Doshi said that overall, he thinks there is more overlap of the international and LGBTQ communities than can be seen just from the level of student activity in current campus groups, so there is definitely a need for a group with this specific focus.
Queer international issues have been coming up more recently on campus, as Lambda Alliance worked with the Assembly of International Students earlier this semester to host a panel discussion on the experiences of queer international students.
Doshi said he saw the event as the intersection of two communities he had wanted to unite for a long time, so it was the ideal starting point to start talking more seriously about launching this new student group.
While the activities and details of the group are still undecided, Doshi and Hassan know they want to work toward getting queer-specific programming included in International Student Orientation, the international community’s equivalent of New Student Orientation.
They also intend to work with existing groups outside of the LGBTQ community to reach other international students who wouldn’t otherwise be involved in or invited to LGBTQ-focused events.
They want to host events, flyer on Locust Walk and take advantage of the safe and secure environment that Penn offers.
“[That is] not the case in most of the places that we come from,” Doshi said. “So having had that here, I think the main goal is to constantly have that presence wherever international students go, to know that we’re here.”