By Shelby Clark Petkus
International student exchange program, International Exchange-USA (IE-USA), is bringing LGBT students from around the world and families together. With their recent renewal from the U.S. State Department, the organization is hoping to find Michigan LGBT families to host two LGBT students from Thailand.
One student is openly out in Thailand and hopes to find an accepting family here in the states. The second student is a trans girl. According to Regional Director, Joseph Bissell-Maynard, trans girls and women don’t face the same social stigma as they would in other parts of the world. Metro-Detroit Coordinator Krystal Rowse notes, “Kids in Thailand are considered more androgynous until they develop,” hence the more open acceptance of trans persons in the country.
Bissell-Maynard, who spoke with BTL in 2011 when he had recently been hired at International Experience, currently serves as IE-USA’s regional director. Together with his husband, Justin, Bissell-Maynard has hosted six different exchange students in Lansing. The couple, who have been together for 15 years, recently married in Ingham county on March 22.
Over the last five years, each student has stayed with the couple for 10 months at a time. Bissell-Maynard’s worked with multiple gay students, though for privacy reasons, their names were withheld. Some LGBT students are not out in the USA or even back in their home countries. Their last student, Federico of Italy, is completely out, and was even able to watch the host couple get married. Federico spoke with BTL, offering the perspective of a young, foreign gay man living in Michigan.
Federico hails from near Venice in northeastern Italy. The 18 year old student notes that coming out back home was a pretty easy process. “I guess it’s really easy to notice I’m gay. I never actually had to come out to my mother; she’s always known. I did come out to my best friends, but it was to make sure they knew so things would be less awkward. I guess the only people who actually have no idea are my grandparents, but yeah… they’re old!”
The United States proved less of an adjustment to Federico than he thought. “I honestly thought it was going to be more difficult than it actually was,” he said. “I had some culture shock, which is almost impossible to avoid, but overall, I’ve been great. I love the people here and their lifestyle. Everybody is really outgoing. As far as being gay, I’ve never had a single problem here.”
Despite Michigan’s own challenges with achieving LGBT rights and protections, Federico finds it more welcoming than his hometown. “I do feel more accepted here in Michigan, but I think it’s just because I learned how to accept myself better,” he suggested. “I’ve always known I was gay since I was very young, and I always accepted it, but coming from a small town was not really helpful. Although I’ve spent most of my teenage years in the city, Valdobbiadene was still my hometown. It was never the place I wanted to be in as a gay teenager. The younger people, like most of my friends, were always really supportive. The problem was always the older ones. I do think things are changing, especially with the new generation.”
Also different from Italy is the status of LGBT rights in the U.S. “I think that the LGBT community is taken slightly more seriously here in the U.S. In some states here, gay couples are allowed to get married. In Italy, nobody ever talked about it. A few European countries had legalized gay marriage years ago, but Italy has always seemed to be behind everybody.”
As a result of his Michigan experience, Federico is not going back to Italy to stay. “A few months ago I decided to come back here to Michigan for college,” he said. “I’m going to be living with Joe and Justin for at least two more years while attending Lansing Community College. Joe and Justin support me 100 percent in this decision and they’ve helped to make this possible. My dream would be to move to New York someday… we’ll see, maybe somebody will marry me and get me citzenship!”
Federico’s story is one of many among international LGBT students. As Rowse says, any Michigander who decides to invite an international student into their home “becomes an average person in public diplomacy, doing their part in promoting peace and culture.” By letting international young adults into their homes with IE-USA, Michigan LGBT couples are able to shape and inspire young minds like Federico, who has grown from the experience: “This experience has helped me so much in believing in myself and in accepting myself for who I am. I’m way more social now, and I’m not ashamed of myself almost at all. I learned that there is no time to waste on trying to please people with what they wish you were. Just be yourself always.”
Interested in hosting one or more students, LGBT or straight? For more information on the process and IE-USA, call 517-455-7518 or visit www.ie-usa.org.