Since its launch in November 2015, the Rainbow International Students’ Network (RIS’N) has done what few international student support groups could – work directly with a marginalised group within an already marginalised community. The network, which has the support of Study Melbourne and works closely with the Victorian Aids Council, has delivered workshops, events and support specifically for international students struggling with gender or sexual identity.
Vietnamese international student Zwee Nguyen joined RIS’N during his time at university. Working for the support group was a natural progression for Zwee who maintained a strong interest in the development of services for LGBT+ youth.
“Coming here to Melbourne, for a lot of us it is our first chance to explore our sexualities. For us, being ‘out’ in our country is not an easy thing to do”, Zwee said.
“Having a conversation about sexuality is still a taboo in a lot of countries. Coming here, we feel like this is our chance to do it”, he continued.
Beginning that conversation for international students is indeed important yet despite the various support services available for the LGBT+ community, few focus on the ways gender and sexual identity can intersect specifically for people arriving in Melbourne from different countries.
“I wouldn’t say that there are no LGBTI services for our community, it’s just that there are none that target international students,” he said.
“We feel that we have a different set of needs and those need to be catered to”, he said.
These needs don’t just include speaking with a professional in their own language; it also includes speaking to those with an understanding of the cultural nuances that queer international students have to navigate as well. Though Zwee acknowledges that many issues overlap with queer international and local students (coming out to parents, sexual health, navigating the LGBT+ scene), issues specific to international students exist and not all services are familiar with the difficulties they face.
“We have a lot at stake and we feel we have a lot more to lose”, Zwee said.
For many international students, language and cultural barriers make seeking and receiving professional help all the more difficult. But RIS’N have done what they can to ensure that the niche community it speaks to is being looked after.
“At RIS’N we try to provide a platform where people can explore their identity in a safe and healthy way”, Zwee said.
In the past RIS’N have been involved with the organisation of social events for international queer youth. The Melbourne Queer Festival was a prime opportunity for the network to engage with LGBT+ students, as Zwee explained.
“We tried to show new students the LGBTI scene in Melbourne. We’ve found that this is a way to enrich people’s cultural experience here in Victoria”, he said.
Currently in the works are a number of workshops designed to educate and inform international students about the services on offer in Victoria.
“We’re organising a series of workshops covering coming out, sexual health, and other topics, to introduce to people what other services are there if they need it, and to let our students know that it is safe to approach them”.
Providing accurate information from qualified professionals is a priority for RIS’N who work to foster a greater understanding of issues faced by the LGBT+ community. For international students who haven’t had the opportunity or access to education regarding sexuality and gender identity, their preconceptions can be inaccurate or even dangerous.
“When someone has started exploring their sexuality, the first channel that I find people go to are gay dating apps. It is where people learn a lot of things that are not necessarily right”, Zwee said.
Not one to shy away from a challenge however, Zwee acknowledged that although there is much work to be done in the area he hopes that with the support of other groups, RIS’N can expand and continue to provide services to those who need it most.
“We are still very young. We’re constantly working on how to run the organisation in the best way possible. We’re all busy and we do this on our free time but we’re determined and we’re passionate about our cause.”
“I believe in it, I believe we’re going to do great things”, he said.
Supported by the City of Melbourne through a community grant, this story is part of a year-long PEER Project which aims to help international students build healthy community, explore and find peer-support on issues around identity and gender, discuss common struggles and stereotypes, and gain the confidence to navigate current and future relationships.