December 7, 2010

Study Abroad the LGBT Way

[Note: I know some of yall were looking forward to me writing more about sex. I will be. I'm in the process of figuring out how I can write about girl-on-girl sex in an inclusive, fun and legal way, while protecting everyone's privacy. You know how it goes. Feel free to leave me comments about what you'd like to see.]

I’m considering two different study abroad options for next year. Copenhagen and Istanbul.

Here are my ill-informed fantasies of what would happen in each case:

Copenhagen, I imagine- drag kings, vogueing, Scandinavian style, for once not having my sexuality be a dull hum in the back of my mind (it used to be a rock concert, I’ve since mellowed), walkbility, livability, world renowned woman-oriented sex stores. [Ed. Note: NSFW (unless you work at a sex store).]

I know I’m reducing Copenhagen down to a clean, livable LGBT utopia. But who cares, since no one would deny it?

Copenhagen has its cons. It’s $20 for an average hamburger expensive. It offends my anti-Eurocentric sensibilities. Am I living my life according to Stuff White People Like? Is studying abroad for me all about accumulating sexual partners, binge drinking and partying?

Which leads me to Istanbul. A megacity/megaslum straddling Europe and Asia. Secular, but with a majority Muslim population. Layers of history on every street corner. Turkish tea. (Is my Orientalism showing?) Classes on Islamic art and architecture, Urban Economics and Transportation Economics. Lightly “immersing” myself in language that I might find interesting and useful enough to pursue when the semester ends.

But Istanbul is NOT GAY ENOUGH. It just isn’t. If Istanbul has a thriving female-identified queer scene, it certainly is not showing up on my Google searches (which are mostly generic Istanbul Gay & Lesbian Travel Guides- apparently LGBT people don’t actually live there.)

I can’t deny that my sexuality is at the forefront of my study abroad decision. I’m so over being the weird lesbian girl from high school. While Duke was a step up, getting a date/getting laid is still work (werq?). Yeah, I’m all about “staying and fighting” and “pride bigger than Texas” but even I feel like busting out. Since when was I the mistress of LGBT purgatory, suffering alone so that debonair urbanites didn’t have to? I can inject LGBT life into the gay ghost towns of the world without sacrificing my well-being and potential.

I’m done with taking risks on places whose LGBT-friendliness is not well-established. I’m tired of being told by non-LGBT people that some place is “gay-friendly” when what they really mean is that I won’t consistently get called fagdykewhorebitchslut or mauled if I decided to kiss another woman in public. I’m tired of LGBT men telling me someplace is gay friendly when what they really mean is that men have a scene and a voice, but women don’t. I’m sure many of yall know how it feels to expect a LGBT haven and realize that the community was unaccommodating, whether because of your race, class, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, confusion, fluidity, ambiguity, body type, taste in music…the list goes on.

How many LGBT people do you know who have studied abroad (or lived and worked for an extended period of time) in a country known for its mistreatment of the LGBT community? The kind of place whose name elicits a "Why would you ever go there?" from confused LGBT comrades. Is everything just part of a gradient…can one person’s San Antonio be another person’s New York? One person’s Istanbul another person’s Copenhagen? One person’s Uganda another person’s Jamaica? From Sao Paolo to Little Rock, we are all armed with a vague sense of where we came from and where we think we are going. I’m from Texas and want to end up in the American Northeast. Of course this affects how I view Istanbul.

When has LGBT life ever been the featured reason why I chose to go somewhere or do something? Maybe it’s time it should be.


  1. I know a couple of lesbian girls in Istanbul and they seem to be doing fine. Several clubs that I know have LGBT nights every now and then, and in a city of 14 million people, you definitely can find people that appeal to you, or people whom at least you have a similar sexual orientation with.
    I mean clearly Istanbul is not KĂžbenhavn. However, (this might sound strange and also kinda bad) I think that it is much easier to be a lesbian in Turkey than to be gay. Girls can get away with anything in terms of self expression and PDA (hugs, holding hands, cheek kisses are completely fine, but be careful if you wanna kiss someone on the lips in public, you can only do that safely depending on what part of the city you are at). Guys, well, they would be at best stared at, but most probably they'd be verbally attacked especially if they are caught kissing in public.
    The Duke in Istanbul program though is in a really good school and people there are really chill. You wouldn't have any kind of problems on campus, and you probably wouldn't have problems when you go out at night if you hang out with the people from your school. If you choose to explore the city with other Americans without the guidance of a turk though, I would advise you to be careful, just in case.
    idk, i think that you would like istanbul a lot, but if you think that the lgbt scene is a very important factor, denmark would be a better choice i guess. think about it

  2. This is actually a really interesting topic and something I also thought heavily about when I was in your position. Having come out at the beginning of the second semester of my Sophomore year, I was pretty much tired of not knowing (and therefore not experiencing any relationship, be it sexual or platonic, with) any other LGBT people on campus. In conjunction with that dilemma, I was at the same time facing the prospects of traveling to a Muslim-dominated country in Asia with strict laws outlawing homosexuality for a DukeEngage project. Because of both of these, I decided to seize studying abroad as an opportunity to escape what I thought at the time to be a campus where I would have no options to participate in the "hook-up" culture or even the chance to date anyone (because honestly, this may be shallow, but I was 19 and getting pretty jealous of my classmates). Therefore, my decision to study abroad in Berlin was absolutely a moment when I decided to do something because it was gay. Berlin is just...super gay.

    I am of the absolute belief that studying abroad can and should mean many things to many different people, but above all I hope that those who do study abroad take advantage of the surreal opportunity to spend 4 months in an entirely new place, with practically zero responsibility (because let's be real here, there really is no "study" in "study abroad") to do whatever they think is best for them. For me it was a time to be someone completely different, live out a fantasy of sorts, and gain a new awareness of a new city, country, culture, LGBT community, and most importantly who I am and who I wanted to be.

    And so I went and I accomplished what I sought out to achieve. Again this is definitely really shallow, but I partied and danced, both at straight, gay, and trans bars (although's Berlin. Every bar in Berlin is an LGBT bar), I met really interesting people and did some...pretty interesting things. And all of it, everything I did, was completely worth it. I came back to Duke entirely changed (possibly in some ways better and others worse) but an altogether new person who was more self-aware and much stronger. After years of living with my conservative family, at a conservative school, I had needed that release more than I realized when I sent in the application.

    I may be making this revelation way more dramatic than it was, but having that significant LGBT experience in Berlin is something I would never take back. Essentially going to Berlin gave me hope. Especially since when I came back to Duke I was immediately thrust into school and work mode, eagerly chasing good grades and even better internships/jobs, and the social thing was once again thrown on the back-burner. (I was a bad Duke student...I was never very good at the work hard/play hard thing. It was always all-or-nothing on both sides for me).

    So in the end, back to what I said earlier, I do have to say that you need to choose which place is better for you. If the program in Istanbul will set you an on the path that you think will make you happier than definitely do it. But if you're anything like me, don't miss out on the chance to go wild (but please be safer than I was) and spend a significant amount of time just having fun. That was my approach, and I'll never regret it.

  3. As Ece said girls are a lot more PDA in Turkey, BUT you need to realize that %99 of these girls are straight, and that makes a difference. The way they treat a foreigner, especially an LB foreigner is not going to be the same way they treat their Turkish best friend. Guys are a lot more comfortable touching each other than American men are too, it's just part of our culture to have a small personal space. I've seen gay men around Istanbul, but the LGB life at Istanbul is not comparable to Copenhagen obviously. Also, Ece, your high school is a weird place and I don't think reflects the general population very well. I would actually say trans people are more visible in Turkey than LGB. LGB issues are not something very openly or commonly discussed in Turkey, but you might end up having a great experience in terms of your sexuality depending on the friends and the environment you find yourself in. I would say choose your study abroad according to the program rather than what you expect LGBT life in that country to be like, but that's just me. I think you'll make good friends regardless.

  4. That's a hard decision. This year, I had the gayest summer of my life in Russia (where LGBT issues are negatively viewed if they are even acknowledged at all), but it had more to do with the Americans who traveled with me than the country itself. That obviously won't happen on every exchange program, but I guess you take the fact that it might into consideration when making your choice.

  5. I went to Ecuador for study abroad last semester and found my way into the lesbian texting circles. It was shocking. Because only sodomy is against the law, women lead the gay movement. However, they're so heavily persecuted for it that there can be no "gay bars", and lesbian parties move nightly with word traveling by mouth and text. It is incredibly secretive, but still these communities thrive. If i learned anything from the experience it's that I'm fortunate to live in a more progressive country (I know, hard to swallow), and that there are gays all over doing their thing and being true to themselves, no matter how strong the pressure to do otherwise.

  6. I don't think that it's your sex life so much that is dominating it (although I could be totally wrong) but rather the ability to make those personal connections.

    A school abroad is just a school unless you get a chance to make some personal connections with people and learn about culture. I would look at other options that aren't copenhagen and istanbul (unless those are the only two offering a particular program).

    If it were me, I would choose Istanbul. I just hold the belief that there are good people everywhere and that some places will really surprise you if you let them.

  7. Hey all. I came across this article on LGBT rights by country on Wikipedia a while back after I learned, to my surprise, that male homosexuality is criminalized in Jamaica. It has some handy consolidated information about LGBT rights in different areas of the world and lists the countries in which homosexuality is criminalized (and what the penalty is). Not trying to alarm anyone or anything, but information is always good!

    As always with Wikipedia, I cannot completely vouch for the accuracy of the information, but it's at least a good start!

  8. Hey! There's a short video here that we posted forever ago on Jamaica. Really interesting stuff.

  9. Thanks for all the comments yall:

    Here are some of my responses:

    John: Thanks so much for your comment! You have expressed what I've been FEELING very well.

    Nicole: Since it's hard to research these underground communities beforehand, I don't want to take the risk of not being able to tap into such a community in the short amount of time I have. What are your thoughts?

    Swati: I do want to have sex with/be intimate with/go on dates with a wide variety of people. By this I mean people of differing races, gender expressions, gender identities, personalities..the list goes on. For example, Duke has a lot of great LGBT-A people that I have personal connections with. But these people are not necessarily the same people I would be romantically or sexually interested in. I have considered other options. I need a program with no foreign language requirements but that isn't in England/Australia. I also want to be in an urban environment. Copenhagen offers many urban studies classes and is itself an interesting place from an urban studies perspective.

  10. I also am considering the Global Semester Abroad and would appreciate any information people have on female identified LGBT life in Beijing.

  11. As an addition to my first comment:
    But these people are not necessarily the same people I would be romantically or sexually interested in nor do they represent the diversity of people I know I could be interested in based on what I've seen in blogs/movies/porn/books/documentaries and from talking to friends...

    If this sentence doesn't make much sense, I'd love to explain it. I think it could start an interesting spin-off discussion ...

  12. This always happens...
    Not to comment spam my own damn post, but another thought popped into my head:
    I feel like being part of the LGBT scene in Istanbul would be more meaningful. Seeing LGBT Turks survive and thrive in their society could potentially have a great impact on my perceptions of the world. I would like to see how culture, religion and sexuality intersect in Turkey. I am greatly interested in LGBT Mulims. The issue is, if I feel extremely repressed/frustrated/invisible during my time in Istanbul, would any of the above seem worth it?

  13. Veronica- There's no way I could've known what I would find in Ecuador, and no way to contact ahead of time, you're right. So, I don't know what to tell you. But that's part of what study abroad's all about, right?

    Also, you're going to be repressed in some ways, no matter where you go. You will have to shrink your own culture in order to observe and appreciate theirs, and to fit in as best you can. Whether it's sexism, fashion, sexual relations, racism, progressive ideas in general, it's likely that you're going to run into people that don't agree with you and because you're in their house and their country, you're not going to be able to say anything. Sometimes it can be truly dangerous, and bad for your program's relationship with host families, the family's understanding of Americans, as well as your own personal relationship situation. Despite that, though, if you go with the flow, I'm sure studying abroad will be a rewarding experience. You just need to focus on what you can learn from the culture, not what you would like to teach it.

    On sex in a foreign country: Dude, be careful. Really careful. Really, really, really friggen careful. Especially as an American, it's really risky to put yourself in such a vulnerable position without a clear understanding of people's motives.

  14. I am from Copenhagen but happen frequently to have visited Istanbul. Copenhagen is in many ways very liberal. The general and political climate towards gay people is extremely friendly. When the gay outgames was here last year city hall raised the rainbow flag and there were huge parties in the townhall square. However, sadly, there are occassional gaybashings even in Copenhagen - comitted by the same types who commit such attacks everywhere - poorly educated young males. Also among muslim immigrants it can be very difficult to be gay.
    Now to Istanbul - which has a gayscene, but as the city in general also Istanbuls gay places both holds modern western style bars but also more oriental places like hamams etc. And each have their charm. One of the most crazy places is a 3-floor disco where young transexuals and straight! boys from the citys huge slum ghettos hook up...and make an Almodovar-movie look boring.....
    Modern Istanbul is probably very different than most westerners expect. For European standards it is a huge metropolis with 14 million inhabitants and rapid economic development. It combines very urban modern styles with its ancient architecture in a breathtaking way...Its big pedestrian walk-way - Istiklal is one of the most charming pedestrian streets in the world with thousands of people strolling up and down almost all times of the day.
    And the turks....and the kurds....are renowned for their hidden bisexual culture....which is true... ;-)

  15. I know this is a few years late, but I am having this exact same problem right now. I'm torn between going to a European country that is more accepting of LGBT people, and going somewhere in the Middle East, where there is a lot of political/religious things going on at the moment. Part of me wants to let my hair down and go wild, and the other part of me wants to go abroad and actually learn a little more about the world. I was wondering if you'd be willing to tell me where you decided to go and what your experience there was like.

  16. I was accepted into a study abroad program in India and China but decided not to do it because I wanted to spend more time pursuing Computer Science and entrepreneurship at Duke.