I surf goofy foot. That means I surf with my right foot in front. I discovered this in Jacó, Costa Rica, where I went for a surfing excursion with fellow USAC students. Maybe because I’m goofy foot, or maybe because I am uncoordinated, it took me two lessons to learn to stand on the board all the way to shore.
Surfing goofy foot is a bit like being queer. I know it seems like a jump, but of twenty students in my program two, including me, surfed goofy foot. Two (that I am aware of), including me, identified as LGBTQ+.
It took me two lessons to learn how to stand, and it’s taken me years to learn how to build authentic relationships. I am odd in many ways. I am queer and I identify as third culture. To me, being queer means I form relationships beyond the gender binary. Being third culture means that many of my formative adolescent experiences took place in a different cultural context than my family or ethnicity. It’s rare when I meet others who share both these identities.
I lived in Ghana between the ages of eighteen and nineteen. I visited several times afterwards. So, at twenty-two, studying abroad with USAC in Costa Rica was not an intimidating experience for me. There was a difference from my past experiences, however: for the first time, I was living out.
When I arrived in Costa Rica, I wasn’t sure just how out I would be. I took some time to observe the people around me and their acceptance of difference. After my host mom invited a gay couple over for dinner, I shared my truth with her. We became close over the next few months largely because I was able to be vulnerable with her.
I was part of a yoga studio in San Ramón which also served as a community center for meditation and feminist discussion. I knew my identity would be accepted there, and I spoke freely with the other students about many aspects of life. The learning I went through with this community still marks me today.
The USAC San Ramón staff may not have been aware of my identity at the beginning, but halfway through the program, I got into a relationship. After seeing me and my partner holding hands, the director was endlessly supportive. One teacher asked for a wedding invitation when I mentioned we planned to stay together.
It was sometimes challenging for me to express my identity in Spanish, and it’s not something I did perfectly. Spanish is a gendered language without much grammatical flexibility. The exercise gave me a deeper understanding of the Spanish language, and a glimpse of what it might be like to express queerness having grown up speaking it.
My experience studying abroad in Costa Rica as an LGBTQ+ person was not only successful, it was transformative and exactly what I needed in my life. I speak only for myself, though. As a white, straight-passing, outwardly gender conforming person I cannot speak to other identities. I also tend to be oblivious to certain social situations—I minimally self-monitor, and I am socially bold.
I still carry questions within me, especially questions about my relationships in Ghana. A few of my friends there know about my identity, most do not, and some, I believe “know without knowing.” I carry questions about whether it is right to continue travelling as an LGBTQ+ person when I know so many of my people, even in the places I’m connected to, live in fear.
The world is a big place, and there are LGBTQ+ people living everywhere. Though many lives are harder than I can even imagine, I take heart in the beauty of our community across the world. We deserve happiness, and the opportunity to make our identities a source of joy.
Sarah Bibbey is a Colorado State University, Fort Collins student. She studied abroad in San Ramon, Costa Rica in Fall 2017.