It is normal for students who identify as being part of the LGBTQIA+ community to have questions about what their study abroad experience might be like because of this aspect of their identity. We understand it can be helpful to hear the thoughts and feelings of those who have been through the process already — such as our past participants. In an effort to provide more resources and support to LGBTQIA+ students, we’ve reached out to our alumni in hopes they’ll share their stories.
Read on for our interview with Cat, an AIFS Study Abroad in Prague alum who identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
How did your identity as an LGBTQIA+ student impact your choice of study abroad location? What was the social attitude of your host country toward the LGBTQIA+ community?
It’s really quite jarring to realize that my identity is not accepted throughout the entire world. I’ve personally never faced any backlash in the areas I have lived in the US and having to do research on the attitudes of the countries I was considering studying abroad in was a harsh reality check. It made me realize how lucky I am to have grown up in the location and time that I have. My identity as a queer woman is not hyper visible and is a part of myself that I am able to hide when needed, but it is not easy to do so.
The attitude of the Czech people towards the LGBTQ+ community is very indifferent. Czech people mind their own business and don’t concern themselves with issues that don’t affect them directly. Marriage is not legal, but civil unions between queer people is allowed. After Googling this, I was still apprehensive about what the actual general feelings towards queer people was going to be, but I felt as though there was no way of fully knowing until I was there. I figured that this was a risk I was personally okay with taking and made the choice to study abroad in Prague regardless of the lack of knowledge I had.
How did your sexual orientation impact your experience abroad? Did you ever feel the need to hide your identity while living abroad?
After arriving in Prague, I quickly found that my identity as a queer woman was one of the least interesting attributes I had. During almost every Q&A during orientation, I asked the presenter what the Czech people thought about LGBTQ+ people and almost every answer was short and sweet. They didn’t care. It was not that they didn’t care to give support to the community, it was that my identity did not affect their views of a person at all. I was able to be as visible as I wanted to be and never once did I feel as though it was something that I had to hide, but more something that wasn’t even worth mentioning unless it was brought up organically in conversation. I found this to be new, as in the US people who come out to others are celebrated for doing so, but sometimes it feels forced. My sexual orientation is a part of my identity, yes, but it is not my entire identity, and I felt like that was more conveyed in Czech culture than in the US.
If you lived in a homestay, was your host family supportive of LGBTQIA+ students?
I did not stay in a homestay, but all of the people in the dorm that I lived in were supportive of the LGBTQ+ community.
Were there any LGBTQIA+ organizations on your host campus or in the community? What resources and support networks did you utilize while you were abroad and were they easily accessible?
There were a few LGBTQ+ events that were held through my campus, yes. I did not attend any because of schedule conflicts, but they were very easily accessible and well advertised.
Did you ever encounter a situation that you found offensive or uncomfortable and how did you handle it?
I did not encounter any uncomfortable situations at all regarding my sexuality. Prague is a big melting pot of tourists, as it is in the middle of Europe and a tourist destination, so I met people from all over the world. Some people, after they became aware of my sexuality, asked questions about it but I personally did not ever feel uncomfortable about it. They were always respectful and just genuinely curious about my experience as a queer woman in the United States and abroad, and sharing my story was a learning opportunity for both parties involved. I got to hear about the preconceived notions that were held in different countries and change other’s opinions if they were misinformed.
What advice would you give to other LGBTQIA+ students looking to study abroad?
I would tell them to research the country that they are considering studying abroad in and their laws regarding LGBTQ+ people, but not to stop there. Oftentimes a country’s laws do not reflect the actual feelings of the citizens and that is important to note.
Reach out to an alum who has studied abroad and ask what they know about the culture regarding their identity and don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as they want — we are all here to help and love sharing our experiences and want to assist others to be able to have the most positive experience while abroad.
You’ll never know fully what experiences you’re going to have, but that is part of the adventure of studying abroad. Being in a country where you have to hide your identity is an adventure that most would want to avoid, and rightfully so, so choosing a country where you can live your most authentic self is important. Bear in mind that not everyone is going to share the same opinions and open-mindedness, but personal connections and honest conversations can help bring about change even in one person. That one person might change their opinions and spread their new knowledge to their friends, creating a chain of change that can be positive.