Pride week in Reykjavík takes place in the first week of August. This year AFS decided to take part in the pride parade to show our support to the LGBTQ+ community. We decided that it was also a good idea to have a small workshop where we discussed LGBTQ+ issues and how they relate to AFS.
The workshop turned out to be a big success and sparked a lot of discussion on the way AFS treats LGBTQ+ issues today. The main points that were brought up revolved around how we prepare our students before they leave on their exchange. Currently, the reality in Iceland is that LGBTQ+ people are exploring their identities at a much younger age than used to be the norm just a few years ago and since Iceland is relatively tolerant and open to LGBTQ+ issues, these kids and teens are usually living openly and being true to themselves when they go on their exchange.
So, up comes the question: how do we support LGBTQ+ students going to places where they may not expect to live as openly?
One of the points that came up during the discussions was that in AFS we often talk about people’s queerness as something they should just hide while on their exchange since it is easier for them than being out. The problem with that is how harmful it can be to have to go back into the closet when you are already out and even harder for those who are going through some of their most formative years like our students, yet that is the main advice given and no other support offered.
One of the participants in the workshop is a university student from South-America who had been an exchange student in Iceland in the past year and he discussed his experience explaining: “Well I had to do the opposite, I got to live free from judgement and prejudice in Iceland but then had to somewhat go back into the closet when returning home.” This is an experience shared by some of the Icelandic students as well because they do sometimes stay with more open minded families than their families in Iceland so when they return from their exchange they don’t just have to deal with reverse homesickness but also the fact that they have to hide a part of them that they got to express freely during their exchange.
Most of us at the workshop are a part of the LGBTQ+ community and in that workshop we all felt that for the first time we had a safe space within AFS where we could talk about our queerness and our queer experiences within AFS.
So, what can AFS do to make a more welcoming space for LGBTQ+ students?
There are a lot of things that can be done but I believe that creating a platform for queer experiences within AFS is a great first step. Educating our trainers on these issues is also important, just like what we do with feminism, racism and other big issues.
Being a part of the LGBTQ+ community can be a big part of someone’s identity but so is being an AFSer but sadly there often seems to be no intersection between these two identities. There is progress though and every day it seems to become better. Just hearing stories from former exchange students that did their exchange just a few years after mine and hearing how much better they were because of how society is changing is amazing!
By Magnea Haraldsdóttir, AFS Iceland Volunteer
Has your organisation taken an initiative such as this one, reaching out to externals? If so, keep us updated!