In July 2013 I completed my languages degree and was ready for the next step: moving abroad. I had come out of the closet years ago to my friends and family and considered myself one of the lucky ones. My grandfather now proudly knew the lyrics and meaning to Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this way’, my mother had become an avid gay rights armchair activist. My dad was still asking about my ‘special’ friends, but hey, he’d come a long way.
I finally received the long-awaited letter saying which country and city I was going to be placed in to work as an English language assistant. It turned out that I wasn’t going to be sent to a modern metropolis like Madrid or Paris, but instead a small isolated industrial town in the southwest corner of Spain. I immediately pictured myself as Amélie Nothomb in Japan, but in my case battling not only cultural conundrums but also facing the issue of having to ‘come out’ again. Were my tremblements justified? I’d soon not only find out but also meet other queer folk in the same boat who would share their coming out abroad experiences with me.
Due to the ever-increasing worldwide desire to learn English, many Anglophone expats find work or build careers in language teaching. For LGBT+ people however, school can bring back painful memories of exclusion, bullying, ridicule, and embarrassment. I was no exception. Although many years had passed since secondary school, I had never really confronted the trauma of the homophobia I was victim to there; it had simply been pushed to the back of my mind. I wasn’t sure whether I was ready to unearth it again. Another issue related to teaching, especially with younger learners, is the homophobic association of homosexuality with paedophilia. An example of this is the French equivalent of ‘faggot’, ‘pédé’ which comes from the word ‘pédéraste’, meaning lover of young boys. These attitudes, although thankfully disappearing, can make an LGBT+ educator even more reluctant to come out to their class or co-workers. Would the students lose all respect for me? What would the parents say? Would they demand a different teacher? In the end, I erred on the side of caution, only discussing my personal life with my closest workmates and dodging the question when my students asked me about my personal life.
At the teachers’ Christmas party, as the drinks were flowing I thought it might be the perfect opportunity to be honest with my colleagues about who I was. Their constant insistence that I look for Spanish girlfriend was starting to grate on me. What at first I could laugh off as banter before changing the subject was now becoming intolerable. Their assumption that I was straight because I didn’t display any stereotypical affectations needed to be challenged. After dinner, we went to a bar. Maybe this was the moment. Then, the one workmate who had appeared to be the most liberal of the bunch, having campaigned for gender-neutral gifts at Christmas time, told us to “put our backs against the wall” upon spotting what he believed to be a group of gay men beside us. This wasn’t going to be the moment. I was deflated. I went home feeling like a coward for not confronting him.
Not all TEFL coming out experiences are as discouraging as this, though. Darragh McCormick, a Luxembourg-based translator from Dublin, shared his story about his experiences working as a monitor in an English immersion camp for 15 and 16-year-olds in France. Darragh, like many in his situation, had been nervous about his students finding out about his sexuality in case it would “destroy the student-teacher dynamic if they did-n’t accept [him]”. After enduring a week of his students teasing him about his female co-worker, Vicky, whom they joked he was in a relationship with, he courageously decided to dispel the rumours head-on by revealing that he, in fact, had a boyfriend.
Not only did he manage to refute the rumours, he was also able to overcome his fears of a negative reaction from his students, who subsequently made him a customised rainbow t-shirt. Some girls even went as far as offering to be surrogates if he and his boyfriend decided to start a family someday. Darragh’s heart-warming story shows what might happen if we drop our guard and stop living in constant fear of negative reactions when abroad. In addition to potential homophobic attitudes in our host countries, another concern, especially for GNC (gender non-conforming), agender or trans* people, is the way in which many languages such as Spanish or French are grammatically gendered. This means that all nouns, including people and inanimate objects, are considered either masculine or feminine and must be referred to using their corresponding gender-revealing pronouns and agreeing adjectives.
Von Scully, writer of Tra(n)veling Man discusses in his eye-opening blog the difficulties faced by trans or GNC people when “introducing themselves and explaining their gender to someone whose language demands that they be labelled completely in one of two categories ”. When introducing yourself for the first time, for example in English, saying “I am American” does not force you to declare yourself male or female. In grammatically gendered languages such as French, however, you must choose between either a masculine or feminine word, inadvertently forcing you to come out or explain your situation to puzzled interlocutors (“américain/américaine”). This can be an extremely frustrating issue, for both expats and native speakers. In a 2016 survey — Bucking the Linguistic Binary – a French respondent stated that “speaking a gendered language as an agender person fuckin’ sucks. I’m constantly misgendered, or I’m misgendering myself in order to be understood.”
The English language, though more gender-neutral than the Romance languages, is far from perfect, however. Although the use and acceptance of gender-neutral terms and pronouns such as “they/them” instead of “he/him” or “she/her” is on the increase, only 20% of monolingual, transgender English-speaking respondents said, “yes, English gender-neutral language allows me to express my identity”. This reluctance to accept and incorporate inclusive terms into English could come from both grammatical prescriptivism and both society’s ignorance of trans* issues.
Von Scully, an American friend of mine who strives to educate the world on issues faced by trans* travellers in his blog, a Tra(n)veling Man, tells me that despite his initial apprehensions about coming out abroad in Europe, he has been met with nothing but genuine support and love from the Spanish people that he has disclosed his identity to. For Von, apart from the linguistic difficulties previously mentioned, and one incident where he was hurled abuse at from an elderly man in the street while holding hands with his boyfriend at the time, his main headache has been healthcare. Trans* people sometimes have specific medical needs which may or may not be catered for in their host countries. This was the case for Von, who found it impossible to find a specialist doctor or to obtain the dosage of testosterone he needed in the area where he was living, which in the end left him no choice but to get it shipped all the way from his clinic in the USA. Von’s experience suggests that the best thing for a trans* traveller or expat to do is to research in advance the facilities available in their destination and plan ahead. This applies not only to the area of healthcare but also border control security. Although Von has never had a problem with security or police regarding the “female” designation on his passport and identity cards, – “I guess they just don’t care that a “woman” has a full beard!” – he advises trans* travellers to “ALWAYS have a letter explaining your situation in the language of the country you are visiting. NEVER leave your security up to chance.”
Many people think that in the western world our battle has been won. Society often tells us to stop complaining and to consider ourselves lucky that we’re not living in Saudi Arabia, or Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by prison or even death. “This is Europe!” – they say – “You can even get married now! What’s all the fuss about?” While it’s true that we queers living in Western Europe are not being crushed by the archaic grasp of fundamentalist beliefs, this doesn’t mean that religion isn’t a sometimes a hurdle for us both home and abroad. Catholics make up the largest Christian group in the Europe, accounting for 48% of EU citizens, and despite the current Pope’s apparently more liberal stance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church still describes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law”. Their site even goes as far as to say that gay couples who adopt children are committing an “act of violence” against that child.
some LGBT people, moving away from a predominantly conservative religious country
can represent the opportunity to start a new life, away from discrimination
fuelled by dogma, in a place where they can finally be themselves. For Isa
Sofia, my Portuguese friend now living in Surrey, England, this has certainly
been the case. Isa tells me that despite Portugal’s liberal image, being one of
few countries in the world where LGBT people have constitutional protection
against discrimination, she would always have to lie about relationships back
home and say that her girlfriends were her best friends, whereas in the UK
being open about her sexuality has “never been an issue.
While for some, like Isa, moving abroad means freedom from the closet, for others it can lead to an inadvertent return. Incorrect assumptions about our sexual orientation are not only an issue for lesbians and gay men but also a huge problem for the invisible majority, bisexual people, who constitute over half of the LGB collective. Their sexual orientation often goes unnoticed, due to the fact that if they are in an opposite-sex relationship they are seen as heterosexual, and if they are in a same-sex relationship they are assumed to be gay. This phenomenon is part of what’s known as bisexual erasure and can be especially evident when moving abroad in a relationship.
A female friend who wishes to remain anonymous moved to Paris a few years ago with her long-term boyfriend. Having come out in England years ago and having painstakingly managed to get her friends and family to accept that no, she’s not going through a phase, she’s not greedy, she’s not unfaithful and that yes, bisexuality actually exists, she suddenly found herself back at square one. She, like many in her situation, questioned whether or not to “go stealth”, allowing new friends and acquaintances to wrongly assume that she was straight, just to make life easier. With homophobic and biphobic attitudes as well as general ignorance on the topic still rife in society, this tactic is understandable, but has its own implications: disassociation from a community you once felt part of, feeling silenced during LGBT-related discussions, and jeopardised mental health. Bisexual people are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than their “LG” counterparts and perhaps the societal erasure of their sexual orientation plays a role in this.
Every person I’ve spoken to during the process of writing this article has had a different experience, some more positive, some more negative, but what we have all had in common is fear. Fear of rejection, fear for our safety, fear of being misunderstood and fear of losing part of our identity. Moving abroad presents some unique challenges to LGBT+ people as we’re faced with the prospect of coming out again in a foreign language, in an unfamiliar setting and to new acquaintances. By reaching out to others in a similar situation and finding straight allies, we might just realise we are not alone in this and end up experiencing far more love than fear.
Text by James Preston
With thanks to Von Scully: www.tranvelingman.wordpress.com and everyone who shared their experiences for this piece.
Embroidery by Junebug and Darlin ©