LGBT+ students in international schools: The complexity of ‘coming out’

My wife recently wrote about her journey to becoming an openly gay teacher in her article entitled ‘Coming-out, and coming-out again: My journey to becoming an openly gay teacher’. In this article Laura highlighted the considerations made when coming out, as well as the challenges faced when moving jobs and having to ‘come out’ all over again. Laura and I got married five years ago, and for me this formal and legal recognition of our marriage forced me to really accept and tell people I was gay (in a positive way). It’s not that I’ve ever been ashamed of being gay, but at times I definitely gauge the social situation and (rightly or wrong) feel myself subconsciously making decisions; Is it safe to come out? How will they react? Will it make things weird? Do they really need to know? If I was in heterosexual relationship I wouldn’t have to explicitly tell people my sexual orientation, so why should I because I’m gay?, are just some of the things I often think to myself. At the same time I feel fortunate that these fears are mostly born out of wanting to avoid awkward conversations and anticipating that I’m going to have to make someone else feel better or more comfortable upon their learning of me being a gay woman, rather than fear of explicit discrimination, rejection or being harmed.

I currently work in a school in South East Asia that is very supportive of LGBT+ students and staff, and appreciate that I am able to live openly here. I work in a British curriculum school with what I believe to be a very good PSHE programme, and our school recently started a guest speaker series called ‘The Forum’ which so far has covered an interesting range of topics from the personal perspectives of each guest (including travel experiences, mental health, and what it’s like to live and work in North Korea!) We were also lucky to have a visit from an openly transgender speaker who works for a UK-based charity aiming to make schools and workplaces more LGBT+ friendly. During the session the speaker asked the students if they felt that our school was LGBT+ friendly, to which all of the students replied ‘yes’. The speaker followed up this question with ‘if you were a gay student, would you come out at school?’ – to which nearly every single member of the group said ‘no’.

I found this very interesting because on the surface I think that our school couldn’t model a more inclusive environment. There are a number of teachers that are openly gay, the school hired me knowing I was married to the Athletic Director, and we also happen to coach the girls’ football team together. Students, and I’m sure their parents, know about our relationship, and we have never faced any issues as a result of being open. 

Whilst we seemingly have a very LGBT+ friendly school and a robust PSHE curriculum which discusses and educates young people on equality and diversity (and challenges to it), as well as encouraging discussions about gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, I think we can sometimes fail to recognise that much more complex cultural factors can apply to our students and their ‘coming out’ stories, when perhaps comparing these to our own.

In the last couple of decades, ISC Research states that the number of international schools and students has grown exponentially from 2,584 English medium international schools in 2000 to now over 11,000 international schools with an estimated over 5.6 million children attending this type of schooling. What’s more interesting is that the makeup of these schools has shifted from consisting of predominantly expatriate families, to now over 80% of students being children of local families attending international schooling in their native country.

Despite this diversification of our student bodies, our curriculum often imposes an understanding that stems from the politics and views of the country where the curriculum originates – in international schools this is often western countries such as the UK or USA. As we are all aware, the views and rights of LGBT+ persons and the challenges that they face in ‘coming out’ vary enormously from country to country, and culture to culture. What might seem ‘easy’ for me, in terms of coming out and being open, might be much more complicated for some of my students. Whilst I am appreciative of the efforts by schools to increase awareness and discussions of LGBT+ issues, I think we as educators must also strive to understand the complexities and implications of such cultural factors, and be sensitive to the different viewpoints on these issues that our students may be exposed to at home or within their local communities. By doing so, we will be better placed to support students who may be struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity within a culture that may be less accepting of these differences.

Given the sheer number of students attending international schools, I find it surprising that I could find very little information or research on the experiences of students with regards to their views on LGBT+ issues and/ or experiences of ‘coming out’. One of the only research papers I could find by Cai Wilkinson investigates international LGBTQ students’ experiences of studying in Australia, but I struggled to find any papers focusing on the experiences of international school students. I hope that in future these cultural factors will be investigated further, in order to enable us as educators to better understand what challenges our students may face in ‘coming out and coming out again’, particularly due to the often transient nature of the students that grow up in the international school system. 

With a diverse student body comes a diverse range of parents, with a diverse range of views and beliefs on LGBT+ issues. The questions that this leaves me with are; Can (and should) schools play a role in discussing the cultural factors that may impact on a student’s choice to ‘come out’? How could schools facilitate helpful discussions with peers (and parents) about this? How can international schools support LGBT+ students in a culturally sensitive way? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this, and hope that we might all be able to gain some insight into the role of culture(s) in the ‘coming out’ (or not) stories of globally mobile students in international schools.

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