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YEAR ABROAD TALES: A Reflection on Being LGBTQIA Abroad

Grace Whitaker

Friday, 18 March 2022

This time in the Year Abroad Tales we hear from Grace as she tells us her experiences as a LGBTQIA student on a year abroad and her advice for others like her.

Firstly, I’d like to preface this article by saying that I identify somewhere between bisexual and lesbian, but I’ll usually just say I’m gay. Although I am openly gay, I haven’t personally ‘come out’ to the majority of readers of this magazine, so this acts as an easy and convenient way for me to come out.

My experience of being LGBTQIA abroad has differed vastly. Before starting my year abroad, there was not one part of me that considered that living in France and Spain as an openly gay woman would be at all different to that of England. Other countries like Russia or those in South America? Of course. But Western Europe? Surely not, right?

I spent the first 3 months of my year abroad working in a medium-sized town called Annecy, approximately 40 minutes from Geneva and the Swiss Border, very close to the Alps and their ski resorts. It is a stunning place to live: surrounded by the most beautiful mountains and lake, it often felt like a fairy tale. It was also an incredibly rich and conservative area that inevitably incurred equally conservative attitudes and opinions. Although France legislatively maintains secularism, I knew that the Catholic church is prominent and has a firm homophobic standpoint. But since gay marriage was legalised over 8 years ago, I (maybe naively) did not believe that my sexuality would be problematic.

View of Lake Annecy

That was until I arrived and began working in Annecy. After a fairly seamless first couple of weeks, I was chatting with my boss and we ended up discussing the topic of marriage. Now, I had not really suspected my boss of having homophobic views, but I decided to take the plunge and ask him how he felt about the legalisation of gay marriage in France. His response was this « Je crois pas que les homosexuels devraient se marier ou avoir les enfants. » (I don’t think that homosexuals should marry or have children). An intense wave of panic hit me. He then continued by saying that for him, it was better for a child to be raised by a single parent than two parents of the same sex. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This man had no qualms in sitting in his office delivering a hate speech. From that point onwards, I proceeded to act as ‘straight’ as possible when it came to work, primarily dressing more feminine. The eyebrow slit had to grow out, my cargo pants and chain were left at home. I even had a call with the Year Abroad team later to explain the situation I found myself in. I have to say they were incredibly supportive and understanding, they most definitely reassured me.

Unfortunately, views like this were not confined to the older generation. There were people of my age who held a similar level of homophobia. For instance, I met a girl who, in all seriousness, asked me whether I thought it was the ‘natural’ instinct for a woman to sleep with a man. Or there was a guy who told me I simply couldn’t be gay since I didn’t look like the lesbians he had seen in the past. Even to this day, I can’t believe I encountered such conversations. Having paused and realised that this article has become rather depressing, I will say that a) I did in fact meet some wonderful people in France who without a doubt helped me forget about all of this and b) it does get better.

On the topic of getting better, let’s move on to Spain. At the time of writing, I have been living and studying in Valencia for a little over a month and it has been incredible. I had always assumed that my experience in France and Spain would be similar but the difference in attitudes here is startling. I walk around and see pride flags hanging from balconies. There is an amphitheatre and benches painted in the colours of all the different pride flags. There is a rainbow heart stuck on the door of my faculty. There’s a popular gay club that hosts drag shows. I happily hold hands with the girl I’m dating without receiving stares or comments. I feel comfortable, safe, and accepted here. It’s liberating.

Amphitheatre in Valencia, with the steps painted in rainbow colours.

I will say that whilst my experience in France has been tainted, I certainly did not let it ruin it. If anything, it gives me something to joke about. But for any LGBTQIA members reading this article who are on their year abroad or about to embark upon it, I know it can very mentally exhausting to not always be living your true, authentic self. Do not hesitate to reach out for support. My DMs are always open.


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About the Author

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Images provided by Grace Whitaker.

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average rating is 3 out of 5, based on 150 votes, Article ratings

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Barbara Dawson

average rating is 3 out of 5

Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

average rating is 3 out of 5

Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Such an interesting article!

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