The great thing about the summer after my abroad semester is the slow pace, which has allowed me some time to process my feelings about living in Kenya and to confront a lot of the difficult realizations I came to during my time there.  And many of those realizations are intertwined very tightly with my identity as a queer person.

Being queer abroad wasn’t as repressive as I was expecting (because frankly, my standards were pretty low), but it was hard.  I didn’t have the freedom for self-expression that I was used to, and I had to continuously deny the most positive relationship in my life- that of my loving girlfriend of almost two years.  I felt stifled and cut off from my activism and my identity.

I think the pressure I felt most acutely, however, was the pressure to make the homophobia I felt around me into “not a big deal.”  Because I was in Kenya and because all of the students of the trip were dealing with difficult issues of color, race, wealth, and especially gender, my concerns became relatively less important. It’s fairly obvious that I still have trouble talking about my time in Kenya, though, and about the things I did think and feel.  I tend to skirt around details, get caught in self-referential circles to nowhere, only alluding to the things that have really hurt me.      But I think it’s because I can never entitle myself to the pain, when we all went through so much there.  My whole group faced a lot of hard decisions, a lot of frustration, a lot of doubt in our work and the future of our host country, and the goodness of its people.   I could never hone the hurt down to just homophobia, to just being closeted, because it was so many things more than that.  And it was more than that for everyone else- so I haven’t accepted that my load was just a little heavier than some of my classmates.  Even writing the fact seems wrong. I still won’t believe it as true.

Why?  Homophobia in Kenya is not blatant: it is not Prime Ministers getting up on podiums to denounce the homosexual menace.  It is not men screaming and spitting on effeminate boys walking through the Central Business District.  It is not even, generally, underhanded allusions to prostitution or moral decay.  Homophobia in Kenya is rarely offered outright- it has to be drawn from people with the right questions.  Thus, if you DO ask those questions, and you DO get offended, well, who is to blame but you, right?

And that’s the most poisonous part.  That the men and women you genuinely try to befriend- the coworkers and classmates and even the guards and maids who inhabit your daily routine- are all seeping with that ignorance and hate underneath.  There’s such a beautiful gloss over homophobia in Kenya, and yet, knowing that it’s just a gloss makes it all the more painful.

Part of me wishes that someone could have told me.  Part of me believes it would have made me better prepared.  And yet, mostly, I realize that it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference.  Indiana University, long known as one of the most friendly LGBT campuses in the US, created a whole website for LGBT students studying abroad (as well as for international educators and staff welcoming international students to the US), and there are a few useful documents- notably their checklists of What Can An International Student Orientation Program Do? and What Can a Study Abroad Office Do? which help college staff in charge of study abroad and international students to better incorporate LGBT concerns into their programming- but for the most part, the   advice on the site rings hollow.  It has little to do with my actual experiences in Kenya.  It offers little insight, and no therapy.

Because how can any website give me permission to feel betrayed by homophobia, when the people who hold it in their hearts suffer so many injustices that I can’t even fathom?  How can any essay tell me it’s ok to say I had it harder than my friend who was harassed almost daily walking through Nairobi, who was denied exit from public transportation one day and driven into some remote part of the city against her will?  How can I grieve when my weakness feels oppressive to those who have suffered and continue to suffer more than me?

I honestly don’t know, and I fear that if I cannot accept these contradictions in my experience, I won’t be able to move on with my life.  But there’s no one that can help me with it.  It has to come from inside.

As for those of you who are looking to study abroad, especially in Middle Eastern or African programs, let this be a warning for what you’ll have to face, but not one meant to dissuade.  Being in Kenya was the most meaningful experience of my life to date, and despite all the pain, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  The best thing I can suggest is that you look through IU’s list of weblinks to regional organizations that deal with LGBT issues abroad.  There is some comfort in knowing that there are groups fighting stigma and homophobia/transphobia everywhere, however small and often isolated their influence is.  Because when it comes down to it- when you’re finally there, confronting a whole new world- there’s nothing left to be done but to go on living.

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