The LGBTQIA+ Teacher Abroad: Doing your research

The LGBTQIA+ Teacher Abroad: Doing your research

29th July 2019

By Hannah Winstanley

‘You are so lucky!’ ‘I wish I could go on permanent holiday!’.  Probably the two most common responses on finding out I am an ESL teacher, and in one sense I understand it, we do seem to have a dream job. With a teaching certificate and your degree, the world is your oyster. Who among us can say we hate the fact that we can take our skills and find work in almost any country of the world? But for all of us there is a flipside to this luck. You miss things, the big and the small, you miss moments and gradually it can seem like people begin to forget you. What’s more it can feel as though you are in an endless loop of making. Making: beds, friendships, new routines, new relationships, a life, before putting all of that in a box and moving on. It’s not easy, but hey! adventure calls. There are new countries to see, new vocab to teach, the ever elusive ‘amazing salary’ to earn, so you go, jump in and restart all over again. You don’t even have to do too much research ‘learning about other cultures’ is just another of the amazing things about our job.

However for the average LGBTQIA+ teacher it’s not quite that easy. There are some additional considerations, from the profound: is it really worth risking imprisonment for a great salary? Or If I go to this country can I be fired if they find out who I really am? To the slightly less profound: What is the gay scene like in that city? Or how good looking are Chileans? (these are all questions I have either asked myself or google, seriously).

For this reason it is useful and relevant to look at some experiences of LGBTQIA+ teachers. If nothing else, to save you from making some of the mistakes my friends and I have made.  I am very aware that this issue is huge, that one person’s experiences cannot reflect the experiences of such a broad and multifaceted community, and I would certainly never seek to do that. I will try to talk to as wide of a variety of people as possible, to read as many studies as possible and to give as balanced and complete a picture as I can.

That disclaimer in mind, there are some advantages for a young member of the LGBTQIA+ community in becoming an ESL teacher.  There is a certain freedom to travel, in leaving your community and having an opportunity to reinvent yourself. The other day, while talking to a colleague I had a sudden intense flashback to the intense feeling of hope and excitement I felt as I left for my first year teaching abroad, in Chile. I remember it feeling as though a little balloon of hope had grown inside of me, that finally I would introduce myself with pride, that I wouldn’t have to hide. I would be me, I would make friends who I wouldn’t have to come out to, I would just be out. I wouldn’t have to pretend that my interest in football had anything to do with the looks of the men on the pitch; that my lack of interest in talking about boys was because I had been ‘burned’; that I would feel free to be me!

I vividly remember walking through the fantastically named Arturo Merino Benitez airport feeling lost, confused, and elated.  I was walking on air at the thought of what I could be here, and how I could reinvent myself. It truly was an incredible feeling. One which I realised was by no means unique while I was talking to my, aforementioned, colleague.  He told me about how the act of leaving his small hometown, and his group of friends, allowed him the freedom to express something he had long felt. To explore what he could be, away from the confines of home. For me it was the idea of escaping the pressure to ‘live up’ to my family’s picture of how my life would be. I never wanted to embarrass my mum, nor break my gran’s heart, and certainly not if it was just a phase, or if I was wrong. But how could I explore that if they were close by?

Whatever your reason for seeking to reinvent yourself, that first month, while incredibly difficult, as moving always is, can feel incredible. You can feel free, liberated and at peace,  if you’ve done your homework that is. For my colleague it was incredible, freeing and overwhelming. He did exactly what he set out to, he didn’t hide, he came out and he reinvented himself. For me, well there was a small flaw in my planning, which brings me to my top tip: one google search does not count as in depth research. I am now going to share a cautionary tale with you. 

Sometimes the fight around certain rights and which countries do and don’t have them can distract us, and make us think that the simple act of having gay marriage or civil partnership means a country is safe and liberal. Don’t misunderstand me, it is overwhelming and incredible to reflect on the changes in attitudes we have seen in the past few years. Consider that at the turn of the century there was not a single country in the world in which same sex couples could marry, while today same-sex couples can marry in 28 countries or territories, while a further 11 offer some kind of civil union. By any estimation this is staggering progress. However my point is that sometimes the staggering statistics can hide a more complex reality. If you research a little deeper, you come to realise that having a legal status is not the same as having a social status, especially if you consider the differences in opinion across a country. People in a city tend to have different perspectives than people in small towns.

To make my point clearly I'll use my first teaching post as a case study, not because I think it is typical, but because, from the specific, we can draw general advice. Where we left off with my story – I was walking through Arturo Benitez airport on air, getting lost, swallowed up by crowds, but still sure this would be my place. 7,166 miles would surely be enough distance. I spent my first week in the capital with a group of teachers in a hostel. This was where I learned that if you put enough teachers together in a hostel it will only ever end one way, drinking and competitive exercise, hopefully not simultaneously.This was the perfect place to try out the new me, I introduced myself to everyone and, whether or not they asked, cared or heard, outed myself. It was an amazing week, I discovered the freedom from not having to hide, the way pride comes from being open - it’s really difficult to feel proud of something you are desperately hiding.

It really was a dream, but I was soon to learn a vital lesson. There is a difference between living in the bubble existence we ESL teachers often find ourselves in, where we only hang out with other English speakers who tend to have similar world views and approaches, and living alone in a small town in the Andes. If you are a LGBTQIA+ teacher I would tell you to take heed from my experience. You see I went from this perfect week to a very small town, which I won’t name to save its blushes. This town I soon learned was not a safe place to be out. Despite the fact that gay rights are legally recognized in Chile, they are not respected and that is the difference between being able to get married, and being able to walk down the street without being yelled at. In a sense I was incredibly lucky, as on my first night with my host family I got a hint at how things were, when my host dad asked me ‘que piensas del aborto y el matrimonio gay, po?’ (what do you think about abortion, and gay marriage?’). My Spanish at this point extended to a response of ‘yes, is good’. My host dad then spent an hour lecturing me about why it was the invention of the devil, and that all gay people should be castrated. This gave me the idea that, on reflection, it may be best to hurry back into my closet. I then spent the following year watching as students were harrassed for not obeying to gender norms, seeing the one gay couple in town being harrassed, and more than anything begining to lock myself right into the closet. I tried to date a man - horrible idea- and become more acceptable. This was a horrible experience which could have been avoided by more careful research, had I talked to people from the country, read local newspapers, and tried to find out more than whether it was legal, and if there were good looking people.

The moral for today is this. It shouldn’t be necessary for us to have to be more careful. In a perfect world we would all have equal access to our ‘oyster’ but, until the rainbow flag flies proudly over every part of the world, make sure that before you go, you take some time to learn about where exactly you are going. If you are on a programme, ask the organizers if they will make sure you are going to a safe place. Safety first!

Hannah Winstanley

Hannah has spent the past 7 years working in ESL, first as a language assistant then class teacher in Chile, and more recently as the Director of Studies in the South of Spain. 

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