Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

At the intersection of identity, community and belonging: LGBTQIA+ international students reflect on being queer at UMass

LGBTQIA+ international students discuss the dualities of culture and the queer experience at UMass
Shilpa Sweth
Daily Collegian (2023)

For international students at the University of Massachusetts, several transitional experiences shape their adjustment to campus life. With strong bonds to culture, religion, geography and family, these contexts form the bedrock of identity and sense of self.

Over the past 10 years, the international student community at UMass increased significantly. According to University Analytics and Institutional Research, this fall, international students accounted for 37 percent of the entire graduate student population, and eight percent of undergraduates.

Just 10 years ago, this figure hovered below four percent in both undergraduate and graduate international student populations.

Within this group, a smaller yet growing community of international LGBTQIA+ students navigate the intricacies of sexuality and gender identity with a dual lens.

 For first-year international student and biology major Alex Nguyen, a goal of self-discovery coincided with the intent to pursue an education abroad and find meaning in his identity—all in relation to his studies and interests.

“The first time I came here, I knew that I could always find my community in America,” Nguyen said. “The whole reason I came here [was] to explore myself more than back in my home country.”

The means of embracing identity, and the plurality of identity are inherently personal. But the common threads between students of all backgrounds extends beyond a shared campus, and into a sense of place formed in connection with space and time.

But what does it mean to be queer? And what does it mean to be a queer international student?

The story is told at the crossroads of both identifiers, starting with queer international students’ country of origin. When first arriving on campus, many queer international students have varying perspectives on how to express their identity with respect to a new environment.

Just as different cultures play a role instilling different values within people, these contexts are evident when considering what queer international students bring with them to a college campus space. Stonewall Center Program Coordinator Robert Cahill emphasizes this, shedding light on the extent to which student concerns are shaped by their diverse backgrounds.

“It can often be a very isolating experience trying to find resources as an international student and as a queer student—and having to deal with that intersection,” Cahill said. “Oftentimes, a lot of queer international students are coming in alone, and they have a lot of questions and might not really know where to reach out.”

In consequence, not all queer international students come to UMass having accessed the same resources conducive to exploring and understanding their sexual orientation and gender identity. Sometimes, students are only given the means to figure out such identities once they arrive.

Hailing from Vietnam, Nguyen reflected on the dichotomy of values from his home country and how they impact his understanding of queer identity in the United States. Without explicit discriminatory law against LGBTQIA+ people in Vietnam, Nguyen said the culture towards queer individuals is generally receptive. But a cultural acceptance does not counteract the lack of legal protection for the LGBTQIA+ community in Vietnam.

“There’s a misconception that Southeast Asians hate the gays, but my country is really open to them,” Nguyen said. “We can do anything in Vietnam as gay people, but we cannot tell the government to do something for the gay people.”

The work of a vibrant and active advocacy scene has led the Vietnamese government to make several advances in recent years, including the end of a ban on same-sex marriage in 2015, and the outlawing of conversion therapy in 2022. While such progress may point to changing social attitudes, the availability of resources and educational material relevant to LGBTQIA+ issues is still insufficient.

Because culture plays a role in the way sexual orientation and gender identity are conceptualized in Vietnam, here at Umass, Nguyen hopes to learn more about the LGBTQIA+ community in ways he could not back home.

“Even though I’m part of the community, there are a lot of things that I don’t really get,” Nguyen said. “The first time I heard about nonbinary and genderfluid [gender identities] was when I came here. It’s really great for me to study more about it.”

At the core of LGBTQIA+ aligned programming, activities and workshops is the Stonewall Center—often the first stop for queer students, and a case study in community and transformation on the University campus. To those who have witnessed the center’s development, it’s as much a reminder of progress as it is a driving force to continue adapting.

First established in 1985 as an administrative office within Student Affairs, the Center joined just two other U.S. schools at the time to serve as a resource hub for queer students, community members and allies. Director Dr. Genny Beemyn says the mission of the Center has evolved in parallel with the evolution of LGBTQIA+ student needs on campus.

The implementation of gender-inclusive housing, gender-inclusive restrooms and the designation of preferred name and pronouns for University records are all initiatives which highlight this change. But Beemyn believes it is always the Stonewall Center’s intent to accommodate to LGBTQIA+ students’ and allies’ interests as different trends materialize.

Most pressing of these trends in recent years is the growth of the queer international student population.

“We see more students who are international who are out about their sexuality, out about their gender identity,” Beemyn said. “That was something that was rare a decade or more ago, especially [at the] undergraduate level.”

As much as the growth excites Beemyn and the Stonewall Center, they remain conscious of the factors that can affect how international students view their identities in relation to the campus environment.

“I still get why many international students are not out,” Beemyn said. “You come here, you’re in a foreign country, you don’t know the culture [and] customs all that well, [and] you don’t fit in very well with [the] majority white, majority US-born and raised LGBTQIA+ population. So that doesn’t necessarily feel like a home. And at the same time, you don’t want to stand out, be separate from the folks from your home country.”

For one first-year international student from India, navigating how to reconcile these two clashing realities was challenging. Conscious of the more participatory culture regarding LGBTQIA+ acceptance in the United States, the notion of fully embracing identity only began to make more sense with the right people.

After meeting their primary friend group through LGBTQIA+ talk spaces hosted by the Stonewall Center, the student found a greater sense of direction partaking in dialogue that captured a range of experiences, strengthening their own understanding of self.

“I didn’t realize it until my friends pointed it out, but I kept being queer according to them, only in the queer spaces,” the Indian international student said. “They were like, ‘it’s okay.’ ‘You can say these things. You can say you’re bi.’ I didn’t realize [I had] been subconsciously holding myself back. It was like holding your breath and then letting go.”

These experiences—queer experiences, are what serve as a springboard for outward expression.

“I’ve never had an issue with my sexuality growing up,” the Indian international student said. “I’ve never had that inner battle. I think coming here, it’s become more external. I don’t have to just internally process that.”

Reckoning with a new sense of “responsibility” as the student reflects, is an earnest but complex effort to make the most out of identity-affirming opportunities at UMass while not losing sight of progress yet to be made.

Because who you are matters where you are. As this student puts it, seeing past microaggression and ignorance as a symptom of cultural values calls for a recognition of generational influence.

“It’s an American thing to be gay,” the Indian international student said. “[Families would] be weirded out if you came out. Sometimes you even get disowned if you do, because it’s just such an otherworldly concept.”

Acknowledging the difficult relationships queer international students often share with their country of origin, Beemyn clarifies how a sense of isolation can manifest when attempting to piece together their new and old surroundings.

“International students I think are different,” Beemyn said. “They don’t really have that community here beyond the folks they meet from their home country or from regions. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to reach out to them, because they don’t have that community.”

Program Director Cahill amplifies these perspectives while recognizing that both specificity and diversity of offerings must be considered when providing programs for LGBTQIA+ students, and particularly those studying from another country.

“I think that we should be doing a little bit more to create experiences catered specifically towards [international LGBTQIA+ students] so they feel supported,” Cahill said. “Because it is such a small community, they definitely need a lot of support from us.”

Another first-year international student in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences speaks to the importance of contextually sensitive programming and resource curation for queer international students who come from countries unsupportive of their identities.

“Being international and queer, I do not relate to some of the perspectives [of] Massachusetts [queer people,]” the SBS student said.

Coming from an Islamic nation, the student notes the influence of religious values on their country’s complex, but often unsupportive stance towards LGBTQIA+ people. This impacted their outlook surrounding personal expression of queer identity.

“I’m not very vocal about it in the way that I think some other people are,” the SBS student said. “And not to say that as a bad thing. A lot of people are very out and proud and make it a focal point of their identity. For me, it’s like a background feature.”

The merging and contradiction of values saturate this student’s thoughts while unpacking layered emotions about what their queerness can mean. This is most evident in their perspectives on understanding queerness as it pertains to geographic context.

“If you come from a culture that’s predominantly very closed off then [interact] with the culture that’s over here, very loud and very vocal, it is a bit of a struggle,” the SBS student said.

Common ground all three students stand on is an appreciation for the people they have met since coming to UMass. The sense of camaraderie that the students desire is the same one the Stonewall Center prioritizes with student-led and student-oriented event planning.

“Having people show up for you and support you is so important, not just as a student, but as a person,” Cahill said. “It’s important to have events cater to specific queer students, so we know that there’s that connectivity taking place. So people know that there’s people to go to if they’re struggling.”

Having a physical hub on campus representing key values of LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, education and outreach is perpetually significant for students at various stages of their gender and sexuality development.

“Even with my other queer friends when we were deciding [on] colleges, we’re like, ‘Ok, this would be our time,’” the SBS international student said. “I think just having that option open, people are definitely exploring. And everybody’s exploring in college. We do have the facilities to know more about queer talking points [and] queer events to link with other queer people.”

Where much of the college experience is built on immersion and first-times, the Indian international student found joy truly experiencing a culture they had only observed for so long.

“Part of the reason why I managed to get the courage to open up and come out to some of my friends is because [of] a lot of American artists [like] Lady Gaga, Troye Sivan,” the Indian international student said. “Many of them [are] openly queer and I was able to relate to them through their art and their work. I got the courage from them and when I came here, it’s even more evident in the way people are.”

With hope for a swelling queer international student community, the student remains confident in their story—one they are always willing to tell.

“Obviously, not everyone is going to accept me, but knowing that there’s this small group of people that I can go back to, wave a little rainbow flag, and they’ll wave it back at me just gives me a lot of relief,” the Indian international student said. “Especially coming from a country that doesn’t approve of it.”

Catharine Li can be reached at [email protected].

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    Alex RFeb 20, 2024 at 5:29 pm

    so good!!