Breaking the Picture Frame: Studying Abroad While Trans

Hello everyone! My name is Cassandra Kazimierza, and I am a gay, non-binary trans woman about to embark on my second study abroad experience. My pronouns are she/her and they/them.

Previously, I studied Italian abroad for a month in Salerno, Italy in a faculty-led program through my home university in Texas. As much as I have enjoyed discussing my study abroad experience since then, I have consistently left out one fact related to my time abroad: my personal discussions of gender identity. When I returned from Italy, I was informed about an opportunity to join the Study Abroad Office at the University of North Texas. I interviewed to become one of the university’s ambassadors and was accepted. Although I loved every moment of my year volunteering, educating students, and discussing my experiences abroad, I never discussed the most important part of that time.

I did not have the language back then to understand what I was going through at the time, but without any of my friends, or family, or support system back home, I had my first manic break. For those of you who are unaware, a manic break is a period of extreme instability, rapid cycling of intense emotions, and distorted self-image. I have come to learn that this is a result of borderline personality disorder, a mental illness that includes elements of bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.

During this mental break, I wrote a pair of journal entries in Italy:

“I lack the energy the keep up this façade and it appears my foundation is, once again, cracking. What I have worked hard to maintain… is not me. I am trapped in my head, and I fear the only way out is permanent. The only way to understand my environment is to force my reality to reveal itself. I am not strong enough. I never was, I just wasn’t aware of my condition. I am so frightened of my thoughts. I’m afraid they are becoming what I am now and I am without control to change it. Maybe my final lesson to my friends, and family, and loved ones, is that I’m emotionally deprived and that the only way to fix something that is broken is to start over. It’s easier. The cracks eventually return. What was broke can never be whole again. Maybe if I had the strength to talk about these things could I begin to heal but considering this is the first ever mention of my own identity, it probably will never come to light. I shouldn’t have written this. I shouldn’t have written this.”

“This mania, this depression, the drinking – it’s truly eating me whole, and I’m leaving pieces of who I used to be with people who never deserved to own a part of me. I appreciate the memories I’ve had with them, but I was only with them to fill that void in me. This all just makes me forget the void exists and simply allows me to live in the present.”

These excerpts were taken from the journal entries I wrote while abroad in Italy after I asked myself if I was a man. I realized during the first week that something was wrong with me. And I did not like it. I did not want to accept it. I spent every spare moment drinking for the next three weeks. I was the fun, adventurous, and interesting guy everyone wanted to be around. I made friends with everyone in my class. I even made friends with many of the other students in our program from other universities. I lied to them every day. Every moment of my time back home, leading up to the first week of Italy was a big, fat, hairy lie. I am not a man.

It is impossible for me to talk about my journey to study abroad without discussing my gender identity. I used to think if I didn’t talk about these moments in Italy, they would just go away. They didn’t. They got stronger. They became more invasive. I didn’t talk about it. This new reality bolted through my mind during every waking moment like lightning lighting up a stormy sky. My doctor diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder. It got worse. They put me on mood stabilizers. It got worse. They diagnosed me with PTSD. It got worse. They put me on anti-anxiety pills. It got worse. I started to see a psychiatrist and therapist. It got worse. As of today, I have more than a half dozen suicide attempts under my belt because I refused to talk about it. These were not healthy choices. It was not a healthy choice. My identity as Cassandra, my journey coming out, asserting myself, talking about my emotions and feelings around this new reality has been the most validating experience of my life. Honesty is the reason I am still here. Honesty is the only thing that has helped me accept me. Honesty has made this all better.

For those of who you fall under the LGBTQIA umbrella and are questioning these sort of things: your gender identity, your sexuality, who you are – know that you are valid and you can be happy with who you are, happy being you, happy loving who you love – and you can study abroad and have the experiences that come with doing so. I have struggled with every part of my identity for years, and on some days, I still do. That is just my life now. I’m still accepting that. I used to believe that it was “okay to not be okay,” but that is not how I want to live anymore. I want to be okay. I want to be happy. I want the kinds of experiences my peers at college have. I want to study abroad as me – Cassandra.

Q: How did you determine your study abroad location, and did you take your identity into consideration?

A: I actually did not. When I first studied abroad through my university, I was unaware of both my trans identity as well as my sexuality. These sort of things never registered in my mind as things to think about. However, now that I am going to be studying abroad again, you would think I would have thought more about it. Yet, I did not again. Even though I was talking about who I actually am, not who I was, I feel that no matter where I go, I’m going to meet someone who isn’t going to like me just because of who I am, and I’m not going to let that fear and denial keep me from living on my own terms, happily. I recognize that it probably would have been a good idea to do some additional research on “trans life” in Poland, but I don’t think it’s going to be very different than it is here. I have had push back from strangers, family members, people who I considered my friends, but I have also had incredibly validating experiences with strangers, family members, and friends of mine. I know that is the reality of my life now. I refuse to let it dictate my life.

Q: What are you concerned about before you leave?

A: The thing that I have talked the most about since beginning hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in April has been the legality of the medications I am on, as well as the availability of these types of medications. A great resource that I used to find this out was by contacting the international insurance carrier that is included in the cost of my study abroad experience. I was given contact information and was asked very few questions and was able to find out within three days 1) where to get my hormones 2) the steps necessary to get my hormones and 3) the legality of the medications I am currently on. Without that single resource, I very potentially might have had to stop feminization hormones, placing my transition on pause for an entire year until I return, but because USAC has international insurance carriers included in my program, this is not the case. With that being said, I know this is a requirement of getting a VISA for Poland, and you need to ask that of your program advisor to make sure this is the case for your program as well.

I have studied abroad before, so most concerns about studying abroad aren’t things that I think about anymore. I’m comfortable in airports, traveling alone, leaving my comfort zones – all of that. The only thing that I have not experienced that won’t be of major concern to me traveling to Poland is that I still enjoy what’s called “passing privilege”. Passing privilege is the idea that I still look like my assigned gender at birth, male, and so I’m not easily “noticed” as trans. I know that 11 months from now, or at least I hope, I’m going to appear hyperfemme, and that both of my IDs aren’t going to look like me. I’m not going to look like the cis (cisgender – a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth) man in those photos. Both of my parents are concerned that I’m putting myself in danger by going to a foreign country where I don’t know the language as a trans woman. I disagree. My therapist is concerned it’s going to be difficult for me to control my mania without a concrete support system in place, but we are currently working on creating a system for me while abroad.

Q: What kind of research and resources did you use for planning?

A: The first thing I did was look up the cost of living, which is actually how I decided on Central Europe rather than Western Europe. I’m a Eurocentric, and speak Italian and some Russian, so I wanted to remain in an area where I could potentially use one or both of my languages, as well as learn a new language. More so away from the standard research I did on my first study abroad, I looked up the legality of being gay in Poland- apparently quite accepting, as well as any issues with being trans- which depends on the region and city I am in. I wanted to make sure I still had access to my hormones to continue medically transitioning, which I do. From what my insurance carrier through USAC said, I will have to see a local doctor to prescribe me the medications I am on for the duration of my stay in Poland. The cost of the visits and medication is similar to what it is here for me, and potentially could be cheaper depending on a few different factors.

Q: What advice do you have to future LGBTQIA students who want to study abroad?

A: Think about a goal for what you want to accomplish through your study abroad experience and identify ways to help you meet that goal. Like, for me, my goals with studying abroad in Poland are to learn conversational Polish, practice my Russian, advance my bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and to further explore my gender identity. The first three goals come with the territory of studying abroad, but the last goal of mine revolves around overcoming the binary of my life up to this most current stage.

Right now, presenting as femme for me only happens in very controlled environments, like Pride, or in my own room (not even my house because I’m not “out” to my roommates). Not only do I want to explore the physical expression of my identity, I want to explore the emotional expression of it as well. In Poland, no one knows who I am, I can be whoever I want, and I’m not bound by the binary of being AMAB (assigned male at birth). That is so freeing for me. The thought of being able to be me in a neutral environment, happy, absolutely blows my mind as a possibility.

I’m so early on in my transition (at the time of writing this, I’m just now entering into my third month of HRT) that many of the experiences I read from other trans folx (gender-neutral variant of folks) about presenting the way they feel, dealing with governmental entities, transphobes, TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), all of that, is not something I have experience with. On the topic of advice, I highly recommend if you are thinking about studying abroad as a trans person, or gay, or lesbian, or intersex, or non-binary, asexual, or any of the myriad of identities and sexualities under the LGBTQIA umbrella, you should build yourself a support system that you can utilize outside of the physical. I have a number of mutuals on twitter throughout the community across the world that I can talk to and share my fears, thoughts, emotions, and experiences within a healthy and safe way. Twitter is such a big part of my trans identity right now because I am able to connect with other people like me and feel seen and validated and supported in ways my friends and family do not know how to offer. There’s something so wholesome for me in knowing that a perfect stranger knows exactly what I’m going through and knows what to tell me when I’m feeling dysphoric or sad. I don’t have to “teach” them the language of support I need. I don’t need to educate them on how I’m feeling and the type of support I need. They already know that, and that is one of my favorite things about having a community to be myself in. Find and build that community however you can.

Separately, if your sexuality or identity falls under the LGBTQIA umbrella, it would be very beneficial to inform your USAC program advisor so they can offer you the most effective and worthwhile counsel and advice available; something like housing or gendered bathrooms may be uncomfortable for some folx, and it is important to notify your program advisor for this very reason so they are able to offer you the best applicable accommodation while maintaining your identity, especially if you plan on being open about these sort of topics while abroad. The staff, both on site as well as at USAC, are very useful people to speak to about these things since they have experience, potentially more than you may, about your host country, customs, and culture. It’s important to be able to be yourself, comfortable in your skin, healthy, and most importantly, safe. Remember that you are all valid, and I love each one of you for who you are.

On a separate note, if any of you would like to reach out to me separately, feel free to email me @ cassie.kazimierza@gmail.com

*We recognize that some of the information in this blog may be surprising, eye-opening, and possibly controversial, but as an organization our goal is to show our support, transparency and honesty regarding the topic of diversity…our support for all students and our respect for all students like Cassie who are willing and able to share their personal story.