SEXtember: Safe support space for LGBTIQ international students launching at Study Melbourne

RECOGNISING a need to create a safe and supportive community for LGBTIQ international students to feel comfortable being themselves, Victorian Aids Council and Study Melbourne will be opening a space for those reluctant to visit their university’s queer spaces. Dea Putra has more. 

feature-studymelbourne

Photo: Dea Putra

International students comprise more than 20 per cent of university students in Australia, and Victoria hosts more than 100,000 of them, but there is a specific section within the international student community that largely remains overlooked — those who identify themselves as part of the LGBTIQ community.

Many of these overseas students feel isolated and find difficulty in finding assistance from organisations that cater to their specific needs, especially for those who are still ‘in the closet’.

“For many international students, they come from certain cultures where they have cultural taboos about being same-sex attracted, so they may feel the fear to attend [LGBTIQ] social events.” – Shayne Zhao, VAC Volunteer Peer Facilitator

“For many international students, they come from certain cultures where they have cultural taboos about being same-sex attracted, so they may feel the fear to attend [LGBTIQ] social events,” Shayne Zhao, the Victorian Aids Council’s (VAC) Volunteer Peer Facilitator, explained.

“Maybe they want to know what’s happening, but [feel that they] cannot go to societies to ask,” Shayne added.

VAC’s Peer Education Coordinator, Budi Sudarto, said for international students “access[ing] a space where the people there are mostly Anglo-Australians can be intimidating, and it can be very alienating”.

“There are students who are feeling isolated because they don’t feel comfortable about disclosing their identity [and sexuality] to anyone… a lot of international student groups that I know of aren’t always welcoming towards LGBT+ stuff,” Budi added.

Photo: Wan Shing

Photo: Wan Shing

Budi also stressed that for LGBTIQ international students, there are problems they undergo that are unique to them, such as the prospect of having to hide their sexuality again once they return to their home countries.

“If they can be ‘open’ in Australia, but they know they’d have to go home to their own country, how are they going to manage that, when their family doesn’t know?” Budi asked.

“There are students who are feeling isolated because they don’t feel comfortable about disclosing their identity [and sexuality] to anyone…” – Budi Sudarto

The two VAC representatives explained the number of students who would come into the Study Melbourne Student Centre for advice on these issues and more. Noticing this, they realised there was an opportunity and a need to create a specific community to accommodate LGBTIQ international students.

Partnering with Study Melbourne and the Australian Federation for International Students – who will be assisting in the launch of the space – the VAC will provide a safe and supportive space where LGBTIQ students can be who they are, while still maintaining their student identity. The space will serve as a means to help queer students find comfort in their experience living and studying in Melbourne.

Photo supplied by Shayne.

Shayne acknowledges that students who come from conservative countries may fear attending various LGBTIQ events. Photo supplied by Shayne Zhao.

In its initial phase, the space — which currently has no official name — will provide incentives that will encourage the formation of this community. These include hosting special events, provide referrals for LGBTIQ-specific counselling services from the VAC, and establish connections with international student services and advisors.

Organisers hope once the space takes off, the students that come in will eventually take ownership of it.

“We want it to be student-led and hopefully we will get some students who will make it a separate organisation in its own,” Budi said.

The space will provide confidentiality agreements, so that the students who come can feel safe there.

“…that’s the feeling of safety that we’re trying to create – that language is no longer a barrier” – Budi Sudarto

At this point, the space will have little to no social media presence – only a phone number and email address as a contact – so that students will not feel that they are compromising their safety by clicking ‘attend’ or ‘liking’ the events on Facebook or elsewhere online.

The potential diversity of the members will also help provide a starting point and incentive for students to come, as well as a sense of familiarity.

“It will start very slowly, but it will gain momentum as the students are getting more involved, as they feel comfortable in that space, interacting with other students and talking in their own language,” Budi said.

“So for example, Shayne can speak Chinese, I can speak in Bahasa [Indonesia], other people can speak in Vietnamese, Spanish… that’s the feeling of safety that we’re trying to create – that language is no longer a barrier.”

Photo: Dea Putra

Photo: Dea Putra

Aside from the space’s eventual separation from its founding institutions, organisers aspire that the community formed can create links with various LGBTIQ organisations from these students’ home countries.

“So when they do go back to their home countries, they know that there’s support there, they can create a link between Melbourne and overseas…  [because] we hear that [when] students [go] back to their countries… they just live a double life and they’re not sure what to do once they’re back home.”

“There are always people who are going to reject you, but there will be more people who are going to accept you and welcome you.” – Budi Sudarto

For those who are simply looking for more information or support, Shayne and Budi welcome them to check out the space and reaffirmed that these students are not alone, and that they are free to express themselves however they want to.

“I really like the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, I learned a lot from there,” Shayne laughed.

“Don’t care so much about other people, just be yourself, love yourself and enjoy your own life.”

“Don’t feel that you have to go through it alone,” said Budi.

“There are always people who are going to reject you, but there will be more people who are going to accept you and welcome you.”

“[International] students have been coming to Australia since the ‘80s; nothing’s been created for the LGBTIQ students, and we know that’s one of the primary reasons they want to come here – it’s to express that freedom … so it’s about time, and I think we’ll get some momentum happening here.

The space and support group will be launched this Thursday, September 24  from 5.00 – 7.00 PM at the Study Melbourne Student Centre (599 Little Bourke St, Melbourne). The event is open to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning international students, and their allies. The Study Melbourne Student Centre is a discrimination free zone. For more information, contact Tammy at tammy.vu@studymelbourne.vic.gov.au, or call 8383 6401.

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