I spent my junior year of college studying at a university in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. I was ready to face the typical study-abroad type things everyone deals with: speaking a foreign language every day, making new friends, learning to navigate a new school system, and paying rent to a crabby French landlord. I anticipated all that, but I didn’t expect the new ways I would think about my identity and sexuality.
An experience I hope is common among queer people is once you have your sexuality more or less figured out, you have the luxury of not needing to think much about it anymore. In my college town in Michigan, I had my identity figured out. I knew what it meant to be a gay man there. I knew the ins and outs of queer student life, I had queer friends, and I knew I didn’t have to be afraid of homophobia in most contexts. I had adaptive knowledge – a “How to be Gay at University” guide of sorts – and I would lose it all upon moving abroad.
On a world scale, France is among the gay-friendly countries. But the details of queer life aren’t captured in anti-discrimination laws or hate crime statistics. I took so much knowledge for granted in Michigan that I didn’t have in France. I didn’t know where queer nightlife was, or what it looked like. The mannerisms and style choices that typify queer self-expression were different (that’s a fancy way of saying my gaydar needed adjustment). More importantly, what shape did homophobia take in France? In this notoriously affectionate country, was it alright for two men to walk hand-in-hand, main-dans-la-main?
That was the first such question I posed to Elie, a charming Frenchman I met (on Grindr, naturally) who became a friend of mine. In the quiet university town of Aix, I didn’t have to worry about homophobia putting me in danger. But without gay friends, I didn’t have anyone to turn to for these questions. Elie was my first step in my finding and building queer community for myself in France. Soon I had met other queer folks, French and from all over the world.
I was fortunate that plenty of other students were doing their year abroad in Aix, many of them queer. Out of a cohort of around a hundred, a little queer community naturally formed, and I learned about the LGBTQ+ experience from Brazil to Romania to Taiwan. We built a place to turn for questions about queer life. As well as being a resource, it was a source of fun, drama, gossip, and learning. Was the Brazilian guy going out with the Swedish guy? When were the gay nights at the bars in Marseille? Although we were from all over the world, I was touched by what we had in common. Growing up gay and Catholic in the U.S. wasn’t so different from growing up gay and Orthodox in Romania. When Taiwan officially legalized gay marriage in May of 2019, seeing my friends celebrate on Facebook reminded me warmly of the celebrations all over the U.S. back in 2015.
In France I dealt with a multitude of my little ignorances, things I didn’t know I didn’t know. I didn’t know any anti-gay slurs in French, or how people would react when I came out to them. I didn’t know what French queer people were supposed to look, act, or sound like, and I didn’t always have the vocabulary to talk about the subject. It would have been terrifying to navigate these unknown waters without my little queer network to help me through it. The people who, French or otherwise, helped me figure out what it meant to be gay in this foreign place. Navigating your queer identity abroad is complicated, but you don’t have to do it alone. The queer people I met all helped me, and I helped them, too.
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