In my third year at UC Santa Barbara, I am finally looking into studying abroad during my senior year. The more research I put in, the more excited I get. There are so many options that it’s almost overwhelming; with over 40 countries and 171 different programs to choose from, it feels as though the world is at my fingertips. What a privilege it is to go to a university like this where we have the opportunity to travel the world — and further our education while we’re at it. Then I found the tear in this perfect canvas of options: It might not be safe for me to go abroad.
As I was surfing the UCSB Education Abroad Program (EAP) page for about the 100th time, I noticed a link titled “LGBTQ Students.” “Hey that’s me!” I thought happily, and clicked on it. The first paragraph on the page explains that with exposure to different cultures all around the world comes different views on gender and sexuality — views that might radically diverge from our own. There is a quote in this paragraph that I especially like, and I commend whoever wrote it. It says, “When you venture out in the world, you carry your identity with you even if it is not readily apparent to those around you. Going abroad can therefore represent a second ‘coming out’, and you will need to make decisions about how and when to express your LGBTQ identity.”
This is a very thoughtful way to say, “as a queer person, not all countries are safe for you.”
Scroll a little further and you’ll find “Risk Levels and Risk Mitigation Strategies.” This is the first thing that any queer person considering going abroad should look at. Included is a link to a Google Doc with a country by country breakdown. In this breakdown each country is labeled either “very safe,” “mostly safe,” “unsafe” and “very unsafe,” with some being “neither particularly unsafe or particularly safe.” They also go on to define qualities that make “extreme risk,” “high risk” or “moderate risk” countries. Quick spoiler alert: Of the 39 countries listed, only two get the coveted title of “very safe” (Canada and Argentina).
Before coming across this very valuable document, I had spoken to a UCEAP peer advisor. I told her that I was interested in maybe going to a country in Africa. She was very kind and helpful and informed me that there are more scholarship opportunities for certain countries because they tend to have fewer applicants. She suggested Ghana, since she had studied there herself and loved it. After discovering the country-by-country risk breakdown, I looked up Ghana and found out it is considered “unsafe” for LGBTQ folks, as there are “explicit restrictions on LGBTIA+ expression & rights,” and “governmental & societal treatment is poor.” Okay, so maybe not Ghana. But this must be an exception, right? Surely there can’t be many study abroad options that are unsafe for so many students at this school?
The color and beauty and love and strength that I feel walking around at a Pride parade could result in me getting attacked, jailed or killed in some parts of the world.
After nixing Ghana, I did a bit more research and found a summer internship abroad opportunity in South Africa. It sounded interesting and relevant to my future, so I decided to check out its risk level: “neither particularly unsafe or particularly safe.” Yes! This was a win. South Africa it is. After all, it says queer PDA may lead to violence and tension, as opposed to Russia where it says queer PDA is likely to cause violence and tension, or in Ghana where male-male relationships could lead to imprisonment for 10 or more years.
But why am I so excited about what feels like less than the bare minimum? I’d much prefer a place that’s particularly safe. Not neutral. While it’s a better option than Russia, Barbados, Tanzania, Jordan, Senegal or Indonesia — all of which are considered high-risk countries — I’d still prefer to study in a place where I can be sure my identity won’t endanger me if it comes up in conversation. So can I go to South Africa? The answer is yes, but I’m still scared.
I’m grateful to have this list, because I’m sure there was a time when it didn’t exist at all. I’m grateful that I have the information I need to keep myself safe, but there is still something so scary about it. This list is a reminder to me that so much of the world still doesn’t accept this community. The color and beauty and love and strength that I feel walking around at a Pride parade could result in me getting attacked, jailed or killed in some parts of the world. When I sing along in the shower to Hayley Kiyoko, Troye Sivan or Frank Ocean, I feel seen and heard, but there are so many people who cannot feel seen or heard because they are afraid for their lives. I can proudly go see Trixie Mattel at a school-sponsored event and know that I am surrounded by literally hundreds of other students who couldn’t care less whether or not I like girls.
But then, other times, I’m afraid too. Sometimes I get nervous holding my girlfriend’s hand when I find myself travelling outside of my bubble. I wonder what the risk level is for the United States — depending on where you are, the answer may change. Even California, a place that most would consider pretty safe for minorities, has 83 hate groups as of 2018 — more than any other U.S. state.
My advice to other LGBTQ students out there considering studying abroad: Do your research and utilize the resources available to us. I long for the day when we don’t have to worry about our physical safety when making decisions like this and when I can browse naively, as I did when the world was my oyster. I know that I don’t “look” queer, and many foreign laws around homosexuality are targeted at men so, in theory, I could still go to Ghana or Russia and probably be fine. But the fact remains that the world is not my oyster, because no class credit is worth going back in the closet.
Anabel Costa wishes safe travels to all the global Gauchos out there.