When asked why gay couples should host exchange students, Ryan Carron-Smith said, “Why shouldn’t they?” Together with Tom Carron-Smith, his partner of 13 years, they have hosted 11 exchange students at their home in Clawson over the last seven years through the International Student Exchange Program, ASSE.
“This year was very different for us as our Czech Republic student came out to us,” said Tom, about Lukas Filippi, who came to the U.S. in early September last year – a day after their second student, Paolo Paganotto, arrived from Italy.
The couple decided to serve as hosts more than 25 years after Ryan’s own exchange student experience. In 1986, he traveled to Germany, where he lived for a year with a local family, attending high school.
“Years have gone by and we’ve found it’s something we do well together,” said Ryan. And while there are many factors to consider when becoming a host parent, the one factor that should never be an issue, the couple insists, is being gay.
It was Filippi’s father’s idea for Lukas to participate in the program. “He always wanted to go to the U.S. and it was his dream for his sons to go there,” said Filippi, who is now addicted to brownie mix as a result of his visit here. “Before coming, honestly, I was terrified because I hadn’t told my parents at the time that I was gay. And this meant I had to go through the whole process that if I go – I didn’t even know what to say. This stressed me.”
Although hesitant, Filippi courageously came out to his vocal teacher first and then to his parents. “We went through the process of thinking if this was the right decision if I’m gay and I’m going to a gay family. Is that really awesome or is that a horrible thing? We weren’t sure. Then we didn’t know if we should write them that I’m gay, because we didn’t know who they are going to be, so my father and I laughed at the time, but he came up with the idea. It’s ridiculous now. If one of them fell in love with me,” said Filippi. “My father had this whole process after I came out. He had to catch up.”
The funny thing for Ryan and Tom is that they can’t help but fall in love with these students, but in a different way.
“With all of our kids, we’ve become such a family unit. Former exchange students have visited and I know it will be the same with these guys afterwards,” said Tom, a circulation manager for the Observer and Eccentric Newspapers. Becoming a family happens at the dinner table, according to the couple, where they have a family meeting at the same time each night. That’s where the “contract for life” was signed by both parties before Filippi and Paganotto started their year at Clawson High School.
“Our family rules are not as stringent as other host families, but we lay out the basics for them. No drinking, no smoking, no drugs, that kind of thing. We stress the rules of the organization, which informs them that they need to adjust to the family life when they come here. We pretty much let them go to do their own thing,” said Tom adding that the students come with their own money to spend, but he and Ryan have made sporadic shopping trips to Sam’s Club and Costco to buy groceries in bulk, especially chocolate milk for Paganotto. “If they need help though, we assume they are going to come to us,” said Tom.
They were right to assume that as Filippi called them into his room three weeks after he arrived. Ryan and Tom were nervous about what to expect. When Filippi told them he was gay Ryan said, “Is that all?”
“We thank God that he came out to his parents before he came here. We did not want to appear to be the cause of his ‘gay-ness,'” said Tom, who admits he isn’t sure he handled it as well as he may have wanted to. Thinking back to how things were in the 70’s and 80’s, Tom remembers when people were cruel. “I was afraid that he would experience the same cruelty.”
Ryan has experience parenting his own daughter Jenna Cashion-Smith who visits during the summer months. But he was afraid too. “I say bravo for you, but there are things you have to consider. I thought thank God he is doing it early, but what kind of support system is he going to have? He’s in a foreign country living with two to three strangers. The first thing we decided as a group after retreating for a little bit is that Lukas would have to come out to Paolo as well,” said Ryan, a local human resources administrator.
“We wanted to give Paolo the opportunity to say whether or not he wanted to live with three gay men. If he doesn’t feel safe now, then he can change homes. Anytime we have these students here, we sit down at the table and have a talk to let them know they are safe,” said Tom.
Due to rules set forth by the U.S. State Department, all international students have to be OK with living with an LGBT couple, to ensure everyone feels comfortable, including the parents.
“My dad received a call from ASSE that a family chose me. He didn’t want to tell me because he didn’t approve of his son being placed with a gay couple,” said Paganotto, who Ryan and Tom greatly appreciate for his culinary skills and the many pasta dishes they’ve enjoyed. “We don’t really know any gay people. Nobody really comes out in Italy because we have the Pope and we have the church…that kind of stuff. It’s kind of scary. I don’t know anybody who is out. But my dad told my mom and my step-mom and they told him he has to tell me. I have to know and I have to decide. When I told my friends, they weren’t really excited for me. They were making jokes, but that didn’t stop me from coming. My friends count for me, but not for this decision. Then I told my dad I wanted to do this with them. It has been cool.”
ASSE looks into each family before sending a student to stay with them and a three-to-four page application is submitted by the host family with photos of their home. A volunteer visits the home to do a walk-through and conducts an informal interview to get to know the host family better. Once paperwork is processed and a successful background check is complete, host families are given access to the ASSE website http://www.asse.com to begin their search for an exchange student. Potential host families are able to Facebook, e-mail and Skype with the students so they can share their stories and experiences.
It’s easy to make a connection when you have things in common, which is why Ryan and Tom prefer to host male students. But that wasn’t the case when they first started hosting. “We just naturally assumed they wouldn’t place boys with us. We began hosting only girls because we felt they would feel safer knowing that we would never be a threat to their sexuality,” said Tom.
That changed four years ago when ASSE insisted they host a boy from France who has a gay father. “The organization felt it was the right placement. We hesitated, but after that experience, we realized we have more in common with boys, we get along better with boys, and obviously nothing was happening. It is easier and more fun. We could watch sports together, visit the theater together, and even help them through dating issues. We don’t have to watch chick flicks and they’re just more relatable,” said Ryan.
According to Pat Juhl, the ASSE Michigan coordinator, Ryan and Tom have proven themselves time and time again. “They are really good parents and they absolutely love doing this. They are under the same scrutiny as other host families. It doesn’t always work out for some host families, but their reports are always stellar,” she said, adding that ASSE suggests non-traditional families host a minimum of two students so an individual student doesn’t feel isolated. “In each case, the students have a wonderful year. Ryan and Tom have extended family all over the world now. The school had nothing but good things to say about the students and about Ryan and Tom. I can’t see that they would ever quit.”
Filippi and Paganotto graduated in June and returned to their countries shortly after. It is the “greatest” and “hardest” thing to do according to Ryan and Tom, but they are already preparing for August when two more students – one from Germany and one from Hungary – will visit. “We always say we’re never doing this again, but there are so many students and not enough host families out there,” said Tom. “It’s easy volunteerism and an opportunity to create relationships and memories you cannot replace.”