Some people might head to France for its delicious foods. For the aroma of freshly baked baguettes that entice passersby into local bakeries. Or to taste the goat cheese found at local markets every Friday morning. Others might go for the culture, for the museums, the history, or to immerse themselves in the French language by eavesdropping on conversations in one of the many bustling local cafés. Travellers come from all over the globe to visit this fashion capital, where, honest to God, people actually, unironically wear berets. To be honest though, when I was deciding if I wanted to leave my dog for six months I didn’t care about most of that. Sure, these things were a nice bonus once I got to Aix-en-Provence, but they weren’t why I studied abroad. I felt that going to France was the only way for me to feel free from what other people thought of me. I left Kamloops because I was a closeted gay man and I felt alone.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Kamloops. I grew up here and formed some essential friendships, but it has never felt like much of a home for me.
I’ve been aware of my sexuality for about four years now. Over that time I’ve come out to some trusted people. While each conversation offered some freedom and relief, I still wasn’t happy. It could have been entirely in my own head, but I always felt there was a “weirdness” whenever I talked about anything gay with them. An uncomfortableness. So, I continued to do my performance of who I was pretending to be even when I was with these people who knew who really I was. Despite us being “closer”, I felt more distance than ever. Finding someone to share my loneliness with was also challenging. A glass wall known as long distance was driving wedges between myself and any man I tried forming relationships with, and I’d find myself falling for men who lived plane rides away. There isn’t exactly a thriving gay community in this city, and dating apps can only find you so many men in this region. I feel hesitant saying that, however, because, to be honest, I’d never actually gone into an LGBTQ2S+ space. The idea of doing so scared me because I was afraid of people I knew catching on. Sure, there was always a nagging fear of people important to me rejecting me, but it was more that I was worried about friends, family, or even acquaintances I don’t really know or care about treating me differently. I was worried about the weirdness forcing its way into every relationship I’ve had. Or that I’d never feel like I could stop performing. I was worried about having to explain myself or having these people talk about me in whatever way, good or bad. I just wanted to continue to exist as I was. But gayer.
So I did the reasonable thing and left for another country.
Studying abroad was the best decision I could ever make for myself. I was alone in a new world surrounded by people I didn’t know and I couldn’t have felt more freed. I made friends quickly by latching myself like a leech onto the first group of people I saw at my university’s orientation. Most of them were American, but no one’s perfect. As soon as I could, I made my sexuality very clear. Then I just existed as I really was in my friend group. For the first time, I told my friends about the guys I liked. I was entirely open with my friends for what felt like the first time and suddenly I wasn’t lonely anymore. I flirted with people, I had fun. I felt supported and loved and so, so happy.
By February, I was walking the cobblestone streets of Amsterdam, hand in hand with the man I had a crush on since orientation. As we passed over scenic canals or wandered through sprawling green parks, we’d spot too many pride flags to count. It felt affirming and safe to see them displayed out in the open and so frequently. While our friends shopped in a nearby bookstore we waited for them on a bench in the square, watching the steady flow of bikers trail by. The way his head neatly fit into my shoulder as we sat on that bench brought me a peace I’ll never forget. Alone in the privacy of our hostel, he asked if he could kiss me. It was the first time I’d ever kissed a man. Before long, we felt confident enough to kiss in public. One of my favourite pictures of my entire trip is of the two of us kissing in front of the Eiffel Tower. I wish I could go back to when I was 16 and panicking over the realization I made, or even a year ago steeped in the loneliest and saddest semester I’d ever experienced and show myself the happiness in that picture. It’s cathartic even looking at it now.
Now I’m in Kamloops again and to be honest, I’m not sure how well I’m dealing with it. I miss my friends, the feeling of freedom, and the brief romance I had in France. I miss not policing myself. I miss feeling comfortable enough to walk down the street holding a boy’s hand. But as cliché as it sounds, I’m not the same person I was before I left. Having openly and proudly lived as myself for six months, I don’t think I can go back to performing again.
University has taught me the importance of stories. The narratives we tell shape how we think about the world around us – and how we see our existence in it. For years, the last thing I wanted to do was to make a big thing of my sexuality, but now, I’m making a big thing of it. I want to fight past that weirdness instead of avoiding it. My hope is that by talking about my experience I can in some way make a contribution to the LGBTQ2S+ community in TRU and Kamloops. I want to encourage LGBTQ2S+ students, out or not, to use the Study Abroad program as a sort of clean slate like I did. Without the expectations of the people you know, you’re free to exist as you know yourself. I also want to call for TRU and Kamloops to foster an environment in which the LGBTQ2S+ community can better thrive. This way, maybe in the future a student like me can decide to go to France just because they like goat cheese. What a weirdo.
If you are an LGBTQ2S+ student considering going abroad, please check out the creative piece I made with TRU Study Abroad here ( https://www.facebook.com/trustudyabroad/posts/3642821829077330?__tn__=-R ). This provides you with some things to think about researching before you leave.
TRUSU Pride, an LGBTQ2S+ club at TRU is an excellent way to meet members of the community at our school ( https://www.facebook.com/TrusuPrideClub/).
If you need the support of a professional, Kamloops Pride has compiled an excellent list of resources available here ( https://www.kamloopspride.com/resources ).
Thanks for reading,