By Tara Cavanaugh
Why should gay and lesbian couples consider hosting exchange students? Because “gay parents make better host parents,” says Joe Bissell, a regional director for International Experience.
As a gay man, he’s a little biased in his judgment. But in his job, Bissell finds that gay and lesbian couples can get even more out of the experience than the average straight family. Bissell has also experienced this firsthand.
When he and his partner hosted their first student in 2009, a teenager from Germany named Patrick, “we instantly fell in love with him,” Bissell says. “And I came to the realization that I take this way more seriously than a typical host parent. Because this is all I got!” As of this month, Bissell and his partner will host a boy from Spain, who is their third exchange student in as many years. And this year, Bissell’s enthusiasm for being a host parent landed him a job with the exchange organization.
“I had to take a pretty big cut from the sales job I was doing,” Bissell says. “But I’m not even working anymore, I’m just doing what I love. I don’t consider it work.”
Part of his work is finding suitable host parents for the exchange students. “We would love to find some really good people, loving people – it doesn’t matter if they’re gay or straight, if they have kids or not, are young or old,” Bissell says. “All that matters is that they’re willing to love a child the way they would their own.”
Those who are interested in hosting should take a few things into consideration, says Bob Andersen, who has hosted two students with his partner through another organization called Youth For Understanding. “They should be very actively interested in young people, and be prepared to change their lives around many of their activities at school, whether it’s a school play or the band or sports or dances.
“Whoever hosts is going to wind up being a soccer mom,” Andersen adds, laughing. “And I was OK with that.” The state of Michigan won’t grant licenses to anyone without a Social Security number or a green card, so future host parents should be prepared to drive.
Bissell says he had a few concerns before becoming a host parent, but his worries were unfounded. Due to rules set forth by the U.S. State Department, all international students have to be OK with living with a gay couple, so there are no surprises for either party. Bissell also hunted around and found an organization – the one he now works for – that does not put any restrictions on gay and lesbian parents.
Bissell was also worried that the exchange students would be bullied in school because they have gay host parents. “It would kill us to think that one of these kids gets picked on because of us,” Bissell says, “but not once has it been a problem.” In fact, his host students made many local friends, and some of them still stop by Bissell’s home in Lansing just to say hello.
The experience is not only eye-opening for the student; it also helps open up the world for parents, Bissell says. “After you wash some kid’s dirty underwear for months and months, and you have to spray Odor Eaters in their soccer cleats every day, you realize that there is no difference really after it’s all boiled down. Everybody’s the same.”
Bissell and his partner have traveled with their students, taking them to Mexico and Puerto Rico. Bissell was quick to note that the exchange students arrive with their own money, so they pay their own way if the host family chooses to travel. Host parents are expected to give students a bed to sleep in and three meals a day, so the opportunity to be a host family isn’t restricted to the wealthy.
Bissell says he’s hooked on being a host parent. “I have some friends – maybe this is just a part of growing up, but they say ‘We used to go out to the bars and hang out and we don’t see you anymore.’ And I’m thinking, I’m not even interested in that,” says the 30-year-old. “I feel like I can do something better with my life, and I see this with the students that we take care of.
“We’ve changed their lives. It gives me goose bumps when I think about it. I never thought I could change somebody’s life like this and affect them so positively. We’re so glad that we did this.”