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LGBT Center -- Victoria Chen, founder of Penn Q&A Credit: Sophia Lee , Sophia Lee

AQIS, which stands for the Association for Queer International Students, is a name with a lot of hidden relevance. It is pronounced ah-kee, like the Spanish word for “here” and the French word for “to whom.” It also sounds similar to the phrase “my brother” in Arabic and “strange” in Mandarin. The ambiguity of the word suits the group, which serves those who are both international students and members of the LGBTQ community — identities that intersect in interesting ways.

The group was created last year by friends who realized that there was a niche that needed to be filled in the LGBTQ community on campus.

“Mostly on their own they pulled together to form a group, which has been phenomenal,” LGBT Center Senior Associate Director Erin Cross said.

Being a queer international student presents a set of challenges that differ from those of queer students from the United States .

International students come from “so many different backgrounds politically, socially, economically, faith and community-wise too,” Cross said. “You have to learn the culture, learn the education system, the social aspects and, on top of that, you happen to be a sexual or gender minority.”

AQIS has members who hail from Lebanon, Trinidad and Tobago, Peru, Mexico, Hong Kong and, in the past, India and Pakistan, and these international queer students come from nations that have a full range of LGBTQ acceptance — from widespread acceptance to complete illegality.

While someone growing up queer in a conservative area in the U.S. might still understand that LGBTQ culture is accepted in more liberal areas, many international students come from countries where they lack an LGBTQ culture.

“It’s just not a thing,” said a College senior who preferred to remain anonymous because he has not come out as gay to his parents. “We don’t talk about it. You just don’t have a conception of it.”

“I hadn’t come out to myself until I came to Penn,” he said. “People who know me would have called me homophobic, homo-everything.” After one semester of being at Penn, he realized that he was queer and that this was a fairly common situation for a lot of queer international students to face.

Cross said that the number of international LGBTQ students attending Penn has increased over time, but there are no concrete statistics that exist.

“That’s the problem with our community — we have no numbers," Cross said. "People have to self-identify."

AQIS faces a unique challenge when it comes to recruiting. For many international students, there is “no opportunity for people to come out until they come to Penn,” the College senior said. “That’s a big thing, and I think it’s hard to reach out to freshmen, because they might not even be thinking about it.“

Even when The Daily Pennsylvanian reached out to photograph the group, organizers responded via email about the importance of the members' anonymity. “This group has come to be because many queer international students prefer/NEED to remain invisible,” they wrote. “While we hope for AQIS, as a collective, to be very visible, many members of AQIS, as individuals, cannot afford to be visible because of the complex issues we face back home.”

AQIS hopes to be “a community of people who share similar issues and share similar things, not a safe space, but a comfortable space, a support system for queer international students,” AQIS board member and College senior Chikezie Wood said.

Still, AQIS is making waves, having created a guide for international LGBTQ students and a compilation of links on the LGBT Center website, and is working with the LGBT Center and International Student and Scholar Services to host workshops.

“They’re small, but mighty,” Cross said.

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