Braving New Spaces: Navigating Queer International Identities

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By Vongrathayuth Hingphith

Reflecting on my journey as a queer (bisexual) Cambodian international graduate student at the University of Minnesota, I grapple with the intricate layers of identity and the unique challenges we face in a predominantly white institution. Some of the most pressing questions I asked myself, and which many international students might also ask, are: Is being part of an LGBTQIA+ community dangerous for me as an international student? Will it impact my standing here? Do I need to be an advocate or speak louder (braver) about my identity just to belong? Can I openly embrace this community if I can't do the same back home? Am I queering the right way or the white way? Is naming my sexuality and gender identity a must?

These concerns stem from the fear and cultural stigmas we experience in our home countries, where conversations about LGBTQIA+ issues are often met with hostility. Even as an advocate, I frequently struggle to find a balance — seeking a safe space to express my marginalized identity without staying too quiet, to ensure such spaces continue to exist.

The University of Minnesota provides a unique opportunity for identity exploration, though it also comes with its own set of challenges. While the evolving landscape of LGBTQIA+ rights and activism in the U.S. significantly influenced my decision to study here, I soon realized that establishing supportive networks is not always straightforward. Many international students, myself included, hope to find vibrant queer communities but might struggle to identify explicitly as activists or community members, even though we don't hide our identities.

Being part of the LGBTQIA+ International Student Caucus has been both a privilege and a necessity for me. It offers a much-needed break, a space where I can connect and feel safe while figuring out how my queer identity fits into my academic journey. Additionally, it allows me to support others who need a calming and understanding community. The caucus, in collaboration with the UMN Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life (GSC), has been instrumental in helping us navigate and redefine our identities.

I vividly remember the power of holding space for each other within the caucus. It's incredible to see how confident we've become in our own skins, regardless of where we are in our journey to understanding our unique intersectionalities. This experience has shown me the importance of fostering networks for social change and embracing the diverse identities of international students within their home contexts.

One poem I wrote during my time here that still resonates deeply with those of us in the caucus goes like this:

I am braver; I can be braver if the space allows me to.

I am braver away from home because it is a land where nobody knows my name.

I come to know my name and become confident that the space should also know my name as I refamiliarize myself with who I am.

Braver is not louder. Braver is calmer. Braver is being kinder to myself.

There is no such thing as queering the right way.

And now, I have learned that the nonbinary definition of living my own queer life is to accept the uniqueness and fluidity of who I am within the spaces I have been, where I am now, and where I will be.

Here, we have become braver versions of ourselves, a little less afraid of being who we are, and a little more aware of our true selves and who we should be. We embrace the nonbinary understanding of our growth as LGBTQIA+ international students, carrying the complex layers of oppression and privilege that intersect in our identities.