Drew Villierme-Lightfoot is a Program Manager for England, Wales, and Chile. He shares his experience navigating his identity while working overseas.
I was 22 years old, had just graduated from college, and had just broken up with my first long-term boyfriend when I decided to take a job teaching English to middle schoolers in South Korea. I anticipated that the transition to both a very different culture and a new work environment would provide me with the fresh start that I needed. By this time in my life I had come out to my family and friends, I didn’t feel the need to hide who I was, and was becoming more comfortable and confident with my identity as a queer gay man. I imagined Korea to be a place of advanced technology, bright lights, pop stars, and really really spicy food (I wasn’t wrong). I couldn’t wait to make the change, meet new people, and maybe fall in love along the way.
Some Korean friends from college had warned me before I left that many LGBTQ people do not live openly in Korea and that I should be cautious of how I discuss my love life. I took their advice seriously while understanding that there was no way I was going back in the closet. When I started my new job I avoided the topic of love, used gender-neutral pronouns if asked about previous relationships, and tried to get a sense for the culture and attitude towards people like me within the company. I couldn’t help but feel that I was masquerading in someone else’s clothes and not wholly being true to myself. I found myself seeking out allies at work who I could be myself with. It wasn’t long until I met another openly gay teacher working at my school. He was open about his identity and held respect with everyone at the school. As an ally, he was invaluable to understand how I would be received by my supervisor, students, parents, and other teachers. I followed his lead and started talking about those I date with masculine pronouns. I knew that I could be open about my sexuality without risk of being ostracized or worse, fired. Some of the local teachers were curious about my perspective and my experiences in their country. I found out that I was very fortunate for finding employment at such an inclusive workplace. As I met other LGBTQ+ teachers working elsewhere in Korea, I found that their experiences were very different than mine. After some time, I became exposed to the beautiful ways that queer Koreans express themselves and find community, albeit somewhat differently than I was accustomed to in the US.
While navigating your sexuality in a new culture, whether it be connected to an academic or professional experience or just visiting as a tourist, it’s important to understand and appropriately respond to the local attitudes towards your identities. Consult country resources for LGBTQ+ travelers. What attitudes or perceptions does the host community have toward the outward expression of your identities? Do local laws protect LGBTQ+ people? Is there a culture of discrimination or violence towards your community in your destination? If you can, find someone who shares your identity and lives or has spent time in your destination. The locations in which Arcadia operate are generally open to LGBTQ+ identities, but it’s important to understand the diversity of attitudes that you may encounter.
When you arrive, use what you know to feel out your situation. Observe how others express their sexuality outwardly. Like in the US, not everyone is on the same page so identifying allies in your community is a helpful start. If you’re lucky, you can find an ally who understands the challenges that you may face. Stay true to yourself, but understand that your safety is ultimately the most important thing to your experience in your new country. Educating others is important but creating conflict with your host community can complicate interactions and the relationships you’re building with locals.
Doing this kind of prep work before arriving in the host country will enable you to both prepare for and respond to the attitudes you may encounter. If you find that perspectives towards your identities are vastly different from what you’re accustomed to. Know that you have an ally in Arcadia staff, and that we value your safety, security, and wellbeing while studying abroad. Study abroad is an incredible chance to see a new perspective on the world and to understand how identities are interpreted and represented in different ways.