602 LGBTI Exchange Alumni Panel 2015
JEREMY GOMBIN-SPERLING: Well, thank you all for coming today. Before we begin the panel, it'd just be appreciated if you can make sure to please silence your cellphones. Just make sure they're off. My name's Jeremy Gombin-Sperling. I coordinate the LGBTI Public Diplomacy Working Group here at U.S. Department of State. It's our first time doing a panel of this sort.
So before any further, it's a long list, but I just want to give a special thanks, of course, to our opening speaker, Deputy Assistant Secretary for policy, Mark Taplin, our moderator, Gina Waugh, our three panelists, Justin Hill, Molly Dwyer, and Tristan Bennett, the volunteers here today, media services, ECA/PASC, and to the planning committee of the public diplomacy working group.
Without all of you, this could not be possible, so thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
So the mission of the LGBTI public diplomacy working group is to support the advancement of the human rights of LGBTI persons through public diplomacy programming and maximize inclusion of LGBTI persons in the Department of State Public Diplomacy initiatives. And I truly feel that the opportunity to hold today's panel, to engage in the discussion, and have this dialogue about our LGBTI identities and experiences in the context of international exchange will help us moving closer to those goals. I'd also like to remind everyone that of course, during this panel, there will be the opportunity for the audience to ask questions. So on both sides, there are some mics there.
But without further ado, I would very much like to welcome Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Bureau of educational Cultural Affairs, Mark Taplin, to the stage.
MARK TAPLIN: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for coming. Thanks for joining us. It's great to see this audience here, because there are folks from inside the Department of State and plenty of guests from outside, as well. So let me first thank the LGBTI working group, the Public Diplomacy Working Group, including my colleagues, Jeremy, Michael Hindi, both from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, for organizing this panel. We're also delighted to have our NSC colleague, Regina Waugh, here on hand to serve as moderator.
Regina's playing a vital role in advancing U.S. policy on LGBTI issues. We're grateful she's made the time to lead the discussion today. And last, but not least, Tristan, Molly, Justin, a special thanks for agreeing to be here and sharing your experiences, because you're really at the very heart of today's event. It's no longer news that promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex persons is a full fledged foreign policy priority for the State Department. It's important business as usual, thankfully.
That commitment is reflected today in a lot of different ways. Randy Berry's work, his special envoy, is only one of the more visible examples. And LGBTI Task Force underpins the department's efforts to respond to challenges abroad, to guide the implementation of President Obama's 2011 memorandum calling for international engagement and initiatives on these issues. Another example, Bureau of Consular Affairs now routinely makes information available online about countries where harassment, violence against LGBTI individuals is prevalent, or where consensual, same sex relationships are still criminalized. That's a crucial resource for American citizens and for people around the world.
But one of the most compelling ways that the Department of State advances the conversation around LGBTI rights and issues. And I'm not entirely objective in saying this, I admit. It's through our international exchange programs. What is it that exchange programs provide that other approaches can't or won't? In a nutshell, what I'd say is it's the power of example. Policy messages, sure. Those are vital, whether they're delivered in the traditional diplomatic fashion to a foreign ministry, or in a speech by U.S. Ambassador or senior U.S. government official. That's vital.
But an exchange participant-- a scholar, a student, a specialist, even an ordinary citizen can open up minds, knock over stereotypes, forge solutions, all by the power of example, one conversation, one interaction at a time. The cultural divide that still overshadows the rights and opportunities of so many LGBTI persons in countries as far flung as Russia, Uganda-- that's only going to be overcome by the patient, yet utterly persistent application of the power of positive example. Exchange programs that bring LGBTI Americans together with foreign academics, and professionals, artists, and musicians, students, athletes-- that's the type of advocacy that walks the walk, not just talks the talk. Those of us who work at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs are proud that we've been proponents of the power of example, if you will, for quite a long time.
In fact, we're celebrating this year the 75th anniversary of the State Department's first programs designed to promote mutual understanding. We have the privilege of providing exchange opportunities, both for Americans interested in going overseas and for people from other countries coming to the United States. Every year, we send tens of thousands of people in both directions. That includes the three exchange alumni. I hope your recognize your exchange alumni who are with us here today on the panel, Justin, Molly, and Tristan.
Just last week, the international visitor leadership program, one of our flagship programs, brought 13 participants from other countries to discuss bias motivated violence against the LGBTI community. The group attended an event at the White House on hate crimes against LGBTI persons. It met with the parents of Matthew Shepard. Special envoy, Berry's parents, participated in a pride parade, here in Washington. The group's currently traveling in Georgia, Alabama, get to New York, meet with NGOs, law enforcement, and LGBTI rights activists. When the participants return home, they'll have the opportunity to apply for U.S. embassy grants of up to $5,000 each for programs aimed at discouraging hate crimes against LGBTI people and communities.
So we make the effort to put diversity at the heart of our exchange programs, whether according to gender, race, faith, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, physical ability, or sexual identity. It's a matter of practicing what we preach, going the extra mile to celebrate human diversity. It proves to our audiences that we truly do believe in that. So just a final word or two about the power of example. We're very fortunate to have with us today Ambassador Michael Guest who flew all the way from his California vineyard to be with us here today. And I think many of you, if not all of you know Mike because of his activism and promoting LGBT causes internationally, and because frankly, of the courageous stand he took to press for recognition of same sex partners of U.S. Foreign Service Officers, to have them recognized finally as full fledged family members.
That passion and commitment to the LGBTI agenda has brought Mike many accolades. But Mike's success was also rooted in his exemplary work as a diplomat, as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer of the highest caliber. And by the way, I told him I was going to say some of this stuff, so I gave him an advance look at the fact I was going to embarrass him just a bit.
I was in Romania recently to give a series of lectures, and most everyone there still recalls Mike and his service as our chief of mission and what was the key moment in that country's history. I'd argue that there is no U.S. Ambassador in at least the past half century. And I don't remember much before that, who played as important a role as Mike did in Romania, both in advocating for Romania's entry into NATO. And it's become one of our best, and most active, and most reliable partners in NATO, and for raising the alarm about the problem of official corruption and fostering a public conversation and dialogue about the problem of corruption in Romania.
Mike traveled throughout the country, flying the flag, talking to people from every walk of life. He was a household name in Romania-- still is, in the most positive sense. And he demonstrated by the force of his example that America was serious about its vision for a free and democratic Europe, and serious about the principles of equal rights and opportunity for all. And that was a really very important contribution that people still remember, to this day. Although, Tristan, Molly, Justin, I'm guessing, you may not have written as often as Mike did in an armored car during your experiences. You didn't go to as many snooty, diplomatic receptions, I'm guessing.
But you two flew the flag as exchange participants. One conversation, one meeting at a time, your citizen diplomacy was also making a difference. You two, you demonstrated, by your example, that the U.S. is determined to foster a world where we embrace all people, including people with differing sexual preferences, and orientations, or gender identities. That's the power of example, and that's the power of exchanges in practice.
So once again, thank you for joining us today. Without further ado though, it's my pleasure to turn things over to the moderator of our panel. Regina is the director of human rights and gender at the National Security Council. Thanks very much.
REGINA WAUGH: So good afternoon everybody, and thanks, DAS Taplin, for those remarks. I'm so glad to be here today. Thanks also to the LGBTI public diplomacy working group, and Jeremy, in particular, for coordinating this great event into our panelists for taking the time and participating. We're really excited to learn about your experiences overseas. The work that the LGBTI Public Diplomacy Working Group is doing is part of a whole of government effort to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTI persons.
DAS Taplin mentioned that we're operating under the auspices of a 2011 presidential memorandum that President Obama released on international initiatives to advance the human rights of LGBT persons. So that memorandum, which has galvanized the work of the State Department and of USAID, and any number of other agencies that are engaged abroad, has five main elements. I'll just run through those very quickly. The first is combating criminalization of LGBT status and conduct abroad, protecting vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, using foreign assistance to protect human rights in advanced nondiscrimination, providing swift and meaningful responses to human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad, and engaging international organizations, like the UN, like the OSCE, like the Organization of American States in the fight against LGBT discrimination.
So we're working hard across all of these areas, and I don't have the time to even begin to decredit to the efforts in this space. And we're bringing the resources of the U.S. government to bear to address these challenges. My main job, as the Director for Human Rights and Gender at the National Security Council, is to harness the work of the interagency and get everybody moving in the same direction. And it's a tremendous pleasure to work with my colleagues at the State Department at USAID, and then any number of other agencies on this effort.
So a nice example, we just had last Friday, as DAS Taplin mentioned, an event on bias motivated violence targeting the LGBT community around the world. And we had an opportunity to bring together colleagues from DOJ, from USAID, from the State Department, along with partner governments, civil society, law enforcement, and multilateral organizations for an afternoon of discussion on hate crimes and other forms of bias motivated violence that are taking place around the world. I'll say, and this is relevant to our discussion today, that a huge underpinning of across three panel discussions was the importance of changing hearts and minds of addressing the note that you cannot address violence without addressing the attitudes that contribute to that violence.
So I think the discussion that we will have today and the work that the State Department is doing, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is doing through these exchange programs and through a number of our other public diplomacy efforts is an essential element to making that work and to changing those attitudes. So I'll ask Justin, and Molly, and Tristan to go ahead and make your way up, because I don't need to go on too much longer. And as they're getting settled, I'll just flag a couple of process points.
You have the bios of our guests, and we'll certainly talk a little bit about their experiences and their background. So I won't recite those for you now. And we'll go ahead and let the conversation proceed as it will. We're anxious for this to be a discussion. So I'll start off with some questions for our panelists and some discussion among them, and then we'll be very glad to turn it over to the audience for questions to the panel. I'll remind you about the microphones and ask that when you do go up there, you let us know who you are and where you're coming from so that we have a good sense.
So with that, I'm going to go ahead and get started and turn this over to my colleagues. Just as an easy first question, why don't you tell us your name, tell us the program that you participated in, where you went, and what you are currently doing, now that your experience is done. So Justin, would you mind starting us off?
JUSTIN HILL: My name is Justin Hill. I went but to Barbados on a Fulbright. I did a research Fulbright, looking at the sexual health of incarcerated men, so I worked in the prisons in Barbados.
REGINA WAUGH: Great. Tristan?
TRISTAN BENNETT: My name is Tristan Bennett, and I received the International Benjamin A. International Gilman Scholarship to study in Istanbul, Turkey, in the fall of 2012. And I studied a variety of subjects there that weren't specifically related to LGBTI issues, but definitely opened my eyes to what it could be like in what we would consider a very unaccepting place for LGBTI individuals.
MOLLY DWYER: Hello everyone. My name is Molly Dwyer. I received a National Security Language Initiative for Youth Scholarship, and I spent a year in Kazan, Russia, 2011, 2012. I'm currently a rising senior at Princeton, and I'll be interning with the State Department in just a few short days heading back to Russia at the consulate in Yekaterinburg.
REGINA WAUGH: Great. So can you tell us a little bit about the work how the work that did in your exchange programs has informed your next steps and what you're doing now? Anyone can hop in on that.
TRISTAN BENNETT: Well, I could start. So the Gilman Scholarship is for students who have a demonstrated financial need. So that means that in order to be eligible for it, you have to be able to receive a Pell Grant. So that means that it was really helpful for me, as a person who was receiving the Pell Grant and didn't have practically any financial backing from my family, to receive the scholarship and actually be able to study abroad. I think that the program itself just opened my eyes to myself and really helped me to gain a sense a self-confidence and independence.
It also opened my eyes to international education as a field, and also, international language exchange. And I'm actually working on an assignment at IIE right now, and it definitely helped me to find my way to where I am currently.
MOLLY DWYER: I cannot overstate the role that NSLI had in my life. So I was an exiting high school student when I left for Russia, and I spoke no Russian whatsoever. So I was able to take a year out of my life before heading to college and came out of the experience with advanced Russian, which was incredible, in and of itself, thanks to the program, and also, a huge amount of cultural and political knowledge that I would not have been able to gain in a classroom. It was all dependent on living with a host family and being in a city, and a unique city like Kazan.
So when I hit college, I already had not just an interest, but a concentrated interest and a path ahead of me for where I was going. And I think my internship this summer and all of my past activities have contributed along that path.
JUSTIN HILL: As Tristan and Molly have highlighted the importance of these fellowships, I'm very thankful for my Fulbright. It was the first time-- I'm from Memphis-- I grew up that I was abroad. I was 26 years old. It was the first time I applied for my passport. So the Fulbright really opened the door, in terms of my career. So I currently work at FHI 360. I work in their global health programs. I am a program officer, and I work on projects both domestic and foreign.
So my Fulbright, for me, provided me with the launch pad to really think about the possibilities that existed. And I can only underline and highlight how important and significant that is, because my family-- I'm the first college graduate. And so it was very important to have that opportunity to realize that if I thought about an idea, and I could find people to back it, and then I could bring it forth, that I could do great things. And so I am really thankful, and I look forward to your questions about how these programs impact our lives, and change, and move minds.
REGINA WAUGH: That's great. I wonder, as you were getting prepared to go on your exchange programs, did you give any thought to how being an LGBTI person would impact your experience there? And what did you do, if anything, to prepare to take that element of yourself into your experience? Molly, you want to go ahead and start?
MOLLY DWYER: Yeah, that's a heavy question for studying in Russia. I think that specifically, with my program, NSLI deals with high school students and gap year students. And I think that we see students who are coming out generally as LGBT at a younger and younger age. So this is continually becoming more relevant for that program and other types of high school programs. I, myself, had really just come out publicly to friends and family the summer before I was leaving. So I think it was weighing in my mind, in terms of I'm embracing these new identity. But it's also coming back a little bit around, because I know in Russia, you can't really come out to anyone.
But I think that it was so new and fresh to me that it didn't weigh on me as probably as much as it might have.
TRISTAN BENNETT: I can go. So I was planning to study in Turkey. It's a 99.9% Muslim country, so I obviously to have some concerns about how the public might receive my sexuality. And honestly, really, I just searched online to try and see if there were any explicit laws that condemned homosexuality, or if there were any blanket laws that might imprison men for devious or lewd acts, or something like what's going on in Morocco right now. So that definitely, it was a very basic tool.
But I think that sometimes, we can overlook the basic tools that we have. And I was really surprised when I got there, because especially in Istanbul, it's such a unique city, and very Western in many ways, and very progressive. And on my university, there were a number of openly gay and lesbian students who were very popular too and very active on campus, and so I was very surprised when I got there.
JUSTIN HILL: Also, along the same lines as Molly and Tristan, being that it was my first time abroad and I was going to a country to work on a sensitive subject like incarcerated men's sexual health, it weighed heavily on me around my sexuality being perceived or thought of. And so I was worried about mannerisms. I was worried about how I talked, how I sound, the cadence of my voice. I was particularly very anxious about the opportunity that was presented to me, because this was my baby. This was my project, and I wanted it to happen. And I had to interact with the Ministry of Health. I had to interact with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
And I had to sell these people that I was legitimate and that I had to be there. And so I spent a lot of time, much like Tristan, researching the laws in Barbados and learning what kind of LGBT behaviors were criminalized. And for me, what that did was provide me some reassurance that when I got in the country, that I can navigate. And one of the ways in which to insure my navigation would be culturally appropriate, I went out, and I reached out to my mentors and people who had traveled to that country, who had traveled abroad, who'd lived abroad, because this was my first time being away from the United States for more than a week.
And the countries I'd been to, you didn't need a passport to go to, so Canada and Mexico. So I'm aging myself a little bit. But it was amazing. And I was so happy and humbled by the outpouring of my friends, my mentors to really share with me in the ways in which to navigate new cultures in that space in Barbados, because people who understand the Caribbean as a terrain, there are a lot of laws that exist in that space that are a hindrance to being LGBTI. And so I was very thankful, and I owe all the people who helped me navigate that space a huge thanks.
MOLLY DWYER: I also have a point to add to Justin's. I think I also personally came from a place of privilege as a feminine presenting lesbian. There a lot of queer women who don't have the option to choose to come out. There a lot of people that just by their style of dress, or their haircut, might immediately stand out from the crowd. And I think that that's something that can be addressed in PDOS, and I think we did discuss it in my own PDO.
REGINA WAUGH: Sorry, what's a PDO?
MOLLY DWYER: Pre-departure prientation.
REGINA WAUGH: I did not have the good sense or the good fortune to pursue international education when I was in college. And I feel silly for having missed that, especially as I came to work at the State Department and go all over the world. So I just applaud you guys for seeking out those opportunities. It sounds like in addition, not just in your preparation, but obviously, this is something you all were quite aware of and certainly impacted your experience. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the in the daily life experiences with the LGBT community in your host country to the extent that you had those experiences and how that is different from your experiences with the LGBT community here in the United States.
TRISTAN BENNETT: Well, I'll go first again. So I was actually very surprised by how active the LGBTI community was in Turkey. Not just in Istanbul, also in another cities like Antalya and Izmir. But particularly, in Istanbul. So I got this idea that the LGBTI community in Turkey was what I think if may have been like for activists, back when my parents were young, in the '60s and '70s, because you get this idea of Stonewall and the people fighting, especially with the transgender individuals up at the front.
And not actually when I was there through the Gilman Scholarship. But when I went back to Turkey the following summer, through a Department of Education funded fellowship, that was actually 2013, when the Gezi Park protests happened. And the LGBTI community was so heavily engaged in the political commentary that was going on at that point. And sometimes, in America, I feel like partially, because it has become so accepted to be an LGBTI individual that people don't think about it, unless it's framed particularly within LGBTI identities.
But in Turkey and Istanbul, they were connecting, and they really were able to get the solidarity with the rest of the left or the opposition, if you would say by engaging, by having events that would talk about gentrification and development in the city of Istanbul. And the host would be a gay man or a transgender individual. That was a way for people to come and discuss the hot topics of the day, interacting with LGBTI people, but not specifically about those issues. And that's something that I, in my life, haven't really experienced in America.
REGINA WAUGH: Interesting.
MOLLY DWYER: Yeah. I think in Russia, it's just dangerous to associate with organizations that promote LGBT rights, whether it's a social club or more of a human rights or political organization. These are places that get fire bombed regularly. So that's obviously not a place that you're encouraging students to go while they're on an exchange. So I didn't have any formal contact with the LGBT community in Kazan. I also spent a recent semester in Moscow, and I think Moscow is a little bit of a different story, because it's a hub for the region.
But I think that in terms of navigating day to day life in Russia, one of my bigger concerns when I first got to Kazan was I was in a long distance relationship. And I was worried about Skyping with my girlfriend, and what I was going to be telling my host family, who I was talking to. And I think that we really underestimate the gaydar of Russians. There are women who will just be fawning over all of the gay boys on the American program and talking about how they're so well put together. And so I think that my host family, it didn't even register on their radar that I was constantly on the computer talking to a girl.
But I think also, in terms of coming out, it's complicated in Russia, because as an American, their media tells them that Americans are all gay supporting, and that LGBT issues are part of Western propaganda. So you have to be cognizant of that, knowing that as an American coming out, you're not exactly doing a favor for the local LGBT community. You're just playing into the narrative that their government tells them. There's a very common TV show in Russia, and there's an American actor on it. And the joke of the show is that he has two gay dads, because he's American.
So that gives you a sense of what things are like there. So coming out specifically and strategically to certain individuals has to take that into account. And I was able to come out to a host mom recently and one or two professors.
REGINA WAUGH: Interesting.
JUSTIN HILL: I just want to just check for understanding to make sure I got the question. The question is the differences and similarities of the LGBTI communities in our host country to the United States?
REGINA WAUGH: Yeah, I think.
JUSTIN HILL: OK. So for me, when I talk about Barbados, I would say that it was disarmingly similar in some ways and surprisingly different in others. So if you talk about some of the differences, one of the differences is that we're all very aware of what's currently going on in the United States, and the pressure and the weight of race as being very significant. And so one of the things that I would talk about when I talk about the difference in Barbados to here is when I met some of the colleagues and people that my mentors put me in contact with, their understandings-- I would call it the lack of the minority lens in the sense of seeing themselves, because if you go to Barbados, it's 90% Afro-Caribbean, or black people. And so those conversations were different, and it was very nuanced.
And so when we talked about LGBTI issues, particularly around race, people had nuance understandings of themselves and allowed for different variance of their personalities to show a larger array of ways that was both surprising and awesome. In addition to that, when I took about similarities, I would talk about the fact that because relationships are so close knit in the Caribbean to your family, it brings in these very complex but dynamic family relationships and ties that touched me, because it reminded me of my relationship with my mom, and coming out, and having to navigate that with my mom and dad and the different kinds of conversations we had around what that meant for the family, and all that.
So I thought it was very powerful in that way. In terms of what was going on in the societal front, a lot of the people that I worked with were leaders in Barbados. And they worked with, but also, who were LGBTI. And they were very, very dynamic, in the sense that they were living their lives with integrity while confronting a society that had laws on the book that commercialized who they were. And so there was a bunch of interesting conversations that we had at different social events, where they teased out how they made it work, which are some of the things that I apply to my life here, in the United States.
So if that answers your question.
REGINA WAUGH: It sure does, and then some. So just picking up on something that both you and Molly alluded to is I think obviously, being an LGBTI person is only part of your identity. And I'd be interested to hear what other aspects of your identity were an essential part of your experience when you were overseas. I think Justin, you discussed the intersection of LGBTI and race. And Molly, you noted the intersection of nationality, and being an American, and being at the same time while there.
But I'd be interested in any elaboration on that theme. And Tristan, maybe if you want to address that topic.
JUSTIN HILL: Molly, you want to go?
MOLLY DWYER: Yeah. On a different front identity, how many ones can I pick up? I'm Jewish, and I found that interacting with the local Jewish community was really powerful and beneficial for me, because when I was at the local synagogue, it didn't matter that I had rudimentary Russian. It wasn't so much seen from a nationality. I was seen from that facet of my identity. And I imagine that if an LGBTI person were to be in a country where they could interact with that community, that would have that same kind of effect, where they felt like they were being welcomed. And not as much of a stranger because of their nationality, but welcoming in because of a certain identity group.
JUSTIN HILL: So for me, I became very much aware while in Barbados and traveling throughout the Caribbean, because the State Department took us on our enrichment program to Trinidad about my Americanness. So I think how black Americans, given what's currently going on, like today's June 10th, and it's an important day to talk about freedom and people finding themselves, and fighting for freedom, and learning that they were free. And so just being aware of my Americanness came to me in several ways.
So some of my friends who were LGBTI persons would talk about existing outside of the racial context. And it was really interesting to be in Barbados. One of the reasons why I chose it was to be like, what would it be like to not be in the minority? How would I feel if I didn't have to have these interesting conversations that I've had since high school about what is it like to be the only black man in the classroom? What is it like to be the only black person at your school?
And I loved it, and I was blown away by just how when you remove the other, people are allowed to be different. I found comic book nerds like me. I found people who were reading Japanese manga. And I was like, oh my god, this is awesome. And so I think it was beautiful in that way. And in terms of race, in Trinidad, we had an amazing experience of interacting with these different people who have multiracial identities. And I was blown away by how people juggled that.
So Molly just gave a great example. And I was just like, I don't even know where to begin. And I think that's one of things that I think is so important about this opportunity, especially for people-- like Tristan, I can relate to. I had a Pell Grant in college, about having these opportunities when you can't afford them yourselves, or being afforded the opportunity when you earned them rather, that's what we both did, is being able to learn about the world, and to see yourself as part of some larger tapestry. So I hope that answered your question.
REGINA WAUGH: Yeah. That's great.
TRISTAN BENNETT: And I would like to speak on that, as well. So I, myself, I'm a biracial individual. My mother is Korean, and my father is American, like Scottish, Germanic descent. So it was very interesting for me, because in Turkey, I never hid the fact that I was gay. I never felt like I had to which is actually very nice. But it's interesting, because I was always identified first with my race and what people thought my race was, which is not uncommon in America either. But Turks actually always guessed, are you Korean?
And that actually blew my mind, because in America, people are like, are you Chinese? Or a lot of Koreans sometimes, even think that my mother is Japanese. But it's an interesting fact, because I learned when I was there that Turks actually love Koreans. They love them. And they're like, oh Koreans are our brothers. We fought in the Korean War. We sent troops in the NATO coalition.
And so they actually have this urban myth, because I never heard about from my Korean family, at least, where they are brethren. And they love the Koreans, and they will do anything for the Koreans. So it was interesting to have this conversation first, and then actually having to explain on top of that, well, only my mother's Korean. They don't have much exposure to that. But instead of having that subject of oh, you're sexuality, it was actually, oh, your race. And it was for me also, like you, trying to get rid of that other.
That's something that I can't really ever do, because even in Korea, people know, you're definitely mixed. But in America, people are like oh, you're Asian maybe. In Turkey, people were certain. So it's interesting to see how you can be so many different others depending on where you live.
REGINA WAUGH: So I want to pick up on-- Justin alluded to this earlier about how you came to pick the places that you went. So Justin, it seemed clear that there was a bunch of different reasons for going to Barbados, and for having your research be what it is. But I'd be interested in hearing a bit more on that from each of you. How did you decide to go to Russia, to go to Turkey, and to go to Barbados?
MOLLY DWYER: Well, I grew up in the Midwest, which is not necessarily what you think of as a hub of Russian immigrants. But I did grow up in a community with lots of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, especially because I participated in gymnastics. I was always the American girl that hung with the Russian girls, and they would coach me to say a few words. So I had this long formed interest. I had this growing interest in diplomacy.
I read Madeline Albright's memoir when I was in middle school, and it changed my life. So when I heard about NSLI, I actually heard about it through an alumnus of the program, who had done it for Arabic. And I heard free Arabic, sign me up. And then I looked on the website and found out that they actually had six or seven other languages, and Russian was a very clear fit for me. So in terms of choosing Russia, I didn't necessarily take my sexual orientation to consideration.
I think that it's a facet of my identity, but not something that supersedes everything else. And I think that's just speaking from my personal position. There are a lot of people who have issues of safety that would definitely come into play, and I respect their decisions, as well. But for me, I wouldn't want really any aspect of myself to limit where I'm going to go. So I think that especially I was doing the program for a year, I think you can do pretty much anything for a year, and I was ready for the challenge.
TRISTAN BENNETT: So I guess I'm not quite as brave as Molly was, because I was originally, for a very long time, considering applying for a program in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. This was partially because I was just really interested in Swahili as a language. And I haven't really been able to talk to Justin about this, but Molly and I quickly found out that we're both in love with languages. And we love the process of learning languages, and we shared some of our experiences.
So I was thinking of going there for Swahili. But I actually did research online, as well for what's the reception in Tanzania. And unfortunately, I found a lot of very negative things. And I think that within the past few months before I was thinking of applying, there was this gay tour that was going across eastern Africa in a bus. And they actually got chased all the way through Tanzania by a mob of people who were anti-homosexual, anti-lesbian, and transgender, everything.
So at that point, I was like, I don't think I'm quite up for this task of confronting that reception. And also, my dad is a veteran. So it makes sense. He met my mother when he was stationed in Korea. And he actually lived in a tiny town on the tip of a peninsula in the Black Sea called Sinop. And that was a year right before I was born. So my whole life, I've actually had stories of Turkey, and the little cezve coffee cup, and they had these nice, beautiful, Turkish carpets.
And given my focus in central Eurasia, and I studied Pashto for three years too, which is many people here probably know, is spoken in Afghanistan. It just made the perfect sense for me that I could go to Istanbul.
JUSTIN HILL: So Tristan, to answer your question, I studied French and Portuguese at the University of Chicago, so I do have a love of languages. But unfortunately, when I was applying for my Fulbright, my French or Portuguese, they weren't strong enough to carry the weight of a full on research project in sexual health. And so I couldn't go to Brazil and I couldn't go to Martinique. But I wanted to go to Brazil-- I mean, to Barbados.
I did want to go to Brazil. I wanted to go to Barbados, because it was an opportunity to put into practice some of the things that I had learned while working in public housing with homeless people who are also HIV positive. And I wanted to say, how do we understand, or map out, and understand health equity and what it looks like from cradle to grave? And so Barbados was the perfect place to go to do that kind of work, because they've done so much work where they've invested so much money in their human capital.
You can get a degree to the tertiary level that is free. The government provides that kind of level of support to their citizens. And I was like, this would be a great place where they're so supportive, and they're so thoughtful about investing in their people, because they understand that human power is real power. That would be interesting to look at what happens to those people who find themselves at the margin of their society, in terms of prison. With that said, part of my interest in Barbados was also about some of the environmental, different things that were happening.
So there were a lot of foreigners that came, and they changed the ways in which people engage. And for me, like Molly, I'm not afraid. But I was cautious around the sexuality piece. And I wanted to understand, how does the transnational, in a society that is very tourist driven, understand itself or places itself culturally? And so it was just the perfect fit.
REGINA WAUGH: Yeah. So picking up on another theme, obviously, this has been a transformative experience, it sounds like, for all of you in your lives, your participation in these programs. And given the emphasis that we've placed on LGBT issues in our public diplomacy, I wonder what your thoughts are about why it's important for LGBTI individuals to be part of international exchange programs.
TRISTAN BENNETT: I think it's really important, because as you mentioned, and also Mark mentioned, we want to display everything that America does have to offer and fully display the diversity that exists in our country. And unfortunately, a lot of times with study abroad, the people who go abroad are wealthier and mainly white. So to be able to have people who are LGBTI individuals who are minorities, it really exposes people through that citizen diplomacy. And not even necessarily diplomacy, just friendships and random meetings to what or who an American can be.
For people in Turkey to see me and be like, but where are you from? And I'm like, I'm from America. I was born there, raised there. And a lot of the people I met, they just never thought about the fact that there could be second, third generation people who were Korean or who were Hispanic and weren't from Mexico or they didn't come from Korea. And so just meeting these people and showing them, hey, I exist. Hey, sure, I have my own quirks, but I'm a normal person too.
That really can open them to thinking about what it means to be an LGBTI individual, and what it means just to be a person even.
MOLLY DWYER: Yeah. I think it all fits in with this intersectionality that I think the LGBT community has been embracing in general in this country. So obviously, that's very compatible with the strategy that the State Department is taking, where we see intersections of race, socioeconomic status, geographic background, and sexual orientation and gender identity. They all come into play with one another, and it's impossible to parse them out separately. So I think I got see an interesting variety of the American experience through the group that I was with.
We were a group of eight students. So the Russians that we were encountering, they were generally encountering the eight of all together and they could see a whole swath of America, just seeing the eight of us. And I think that while other aspects of identity might be more visible, for me, my LGBT identity is not visible. And so I think it simply allows us to have smaller conversations, which is where true diplomacy in person to person settings happens is in those small conversations, and when you have to push back against certain identities. So before I can get to a conversation where I'm comfortable coming out to a Russian person, we have to push back against my American identity, and we have to push back against maybe my identity as a female.
One of the first questions I learned in Russian was are you married? Which is always a great segue into I am not. And actually, in Russian to say I am married, as a woman, I would use the verb, "to go," and then the preposition, "behind my husband." And a husband says that he is "wifed," as a verb. So there's no gender neutral way to express that.
So I think that a lot of it as maybe biting your tongue and saying, no, I am not married. Do you plan on getting married? I don't know. We shall see. But just having those conversations and pushing against the American identity, I think, was my strongest experience.
JUSTIN HILL: And for me, what I would say is the reason why it's so important is because you have three different varied experiences. And a lot of it focused on the fact that we have LGBTI lenses. So all of the different encounters we had. So I think by bringing more people from varied backgrounds to the forefront of we show true diplomacy, but we also put-- I guess the perfect saying is we put our money where our mouth are, because each of these fellowships cost money.
But it's an opportunity to show both the best and brightest of what America is in its entirety. But it's also the opportunity to challenge perceptions about what are Americans. So for instance, as a Fulbright ambassador, I've had the opportunity to travel with the Fulbright Program around the country and also engage with people from around the world. And I remember this one time where one of my friends was relaying this story to me where he was in Japan on a research Fulbright. And they were just like, oh, wow. Are you from the army base?
Because the only time they'd seen black people, they were soldiers. Or oh, you must be a basketball player, but you're short. And I'm using it. It seems hyperbolic, but it's the perfect example about why this is so important. When you can show people, no, it doesn't just come as a white male. It doesn't just come as a white female. We are all Americans, and we are a varied society with a lot of different views, and opinions, and cultures. I think it's the most dynamic and interesting thing where you can change someone's perspective by a representative person.
REGINA WAUGH: Yeah.
TRISTAN BENNETT: If I could add something briefly. Also, being someone who I went to Indiana University. And so Molly, being from Indiana definitely also just letting people know that there's more to America than just New York and California, and then also, being shocked to know that your fellow American exchange students don't even know where Indiana is.
REGINA WAUGH: That's not great.
MOLLY DWYER: And an odd point on that front of recognizing us as exceptional scholarship winning students, I found that I had to remind Russians that not all Americans are this knowledgeable about Russia, because their whole identity, their whole orientation is turned towards America. And we aren't turns towards Russia in the same way that we used to be. So that was another obstacle to overcome was imparted on Russians; I study this. This is my ideal. But another student from Indiana might not have the same experience.
REGINA WAUGH: So I could keep going forever, and this has been super interesting. But I'm certain that folks in the audience have questions, as well. So if you do, I'd ask you to please go up to the mic, and maybe line up, and maybe we can get a bit of a dialogue going with the audience.
REGINA WAUGH: Hi.
AUDIENCE: Well, thank you, first of all, for sharing your experience. I know first hand, the importance of these programs. I'm actually here on a fellowship. I'm from El Salvador, and I'm working with the human rights campaign, doing the same thing. I wanted to ask you a question that I ask American friends that come to El Salvador. They speak about this, having this experience, being LGBT, or just being American really, about this thing that they call the bubble effect.
I'm going to use an example. For example, I had a friend in the Peace Corps. He was placed in a community. And even though the State Department does a really great job trying to find the safest communities for people to be placed, El Salvador is a violent country. But he talked about this in a way that because he was American, he felt like he was in a way, safer. He didn't feel scared walking down the streets or that he would be subject of violence or crime, being LGBT or not. I talked to this female friend. She was a lesbian, and she was also placed with a host family.
And she talked about how she could go and talk to other the family of their friends who where lesbians too. And they would be accepting of her, because she was American, and that's the way Americans are. But when she talked to her friends, with her family, they would never come out to their family. Even though her American friend was out, they would never come out to their family, because the perception was different. So I was wondering if you felt-- and I think that the case of Molly was clear to me, that being American worked against you in that way.
But if you could elaborate a little bit more on that. And for the gentlemen in the panel, if you felt that way too, like you have this bubble around you, that even though perhaps LGBT was not your primary identity, but if people treated you obviously different or not.
JUSTIN HILL: Sorry. Actually, I have a great story about that. So I didn't feel like my Americanness protected me until I opened my mouth, because Barbados is 90% black. So I was worried, because I wasn't white, that I wouldn't have like the foreign tag. And so people would be like when you're foreign in a country where you're phenotypically different, you are protected, that bubble but you talked about. I didn't have that.
And so I had people, when I got on my first Zadar, which are the little taxis, the vans that have been gutted and made into little seats so you ride on top of the engine or the wheels. And it's awesome, but I remember someone was talking to me, and they were using a lot of traditional Barbadian words and tonalities. And I was like, no. Not happening. And then he was like, oh, you're American? I was like, yes.
So for me, the issue, I was concerned about not having that bubble. I was concerned about having to fend for myself and not having that protective thing of oh, he's perceived. He's phenotypically different. He must be a foreigner, because there is a tourist culture in Barbados. People are exceptionally nice to people who look like they're traveling, because that's one of their main economic growth concerns. So I didn't have that.
But what I did have is once I opened my mouth, and then in particular settings, I had a bubble, in terms of I was a Fulbright. I was a citizen diplomat, as some of the people referred to me. And so yes in some ways, but not in terms of every day interactions with people.
MOLLY DWYER: I'm going to gather my thoughts just one more second.
TRISTAN BENNETT: Well, I'll speak really quickly then. As I mentioned earlier, it was interesting, because I did have a bit of that bubble, I think, just being a foreigner in Turkey. And so it's not necessarily just about being American, because Turkey is a part of the Erasmus Program, which is an exchange program in Europe. So there are lots of Europeans who are also at my university. So I think that in Turkey, there is a bubble you have as a foreigner, as a Westerner. But in a lot of ways, that can actually make you a target, I would say, because there were a number of people who were stolen from because they were like European, and they wanted to get their shoes shined, because they thought it would be a cool experience.
But on top like not just physically being obviously foreign, just because of their behavior, they didn't know how things worked, and that really could put them in the blind spot, whereas for me, it worked to my favor that they thought I was Korean, and they loved me because of that.
MOLLY DWYER: Yeah. I think that Russian and the former Soviet space just generally, as a space, being a foreigner doesn't really do you any favors. I think that like Tristan said, I think that Americans and foreigners generally are probably targeted, whether it be muggings, or pickpockets, or things like that, or harassment by the authorities. So you don't really enjoy a bubble as a foreigner as much. And then in terms of my life in Russia, I blend in in Russia pretty well. A lot of the times when I was first there, by the end, if someone stopped me on the street, I could give them pretty detailed directions about how to go somewhere.
But in the beginning, I just had to be like-- so I blended in as a Russian. But I think that gave me some benefits. And that also had the same negative things that come with it. Just like most Russian women, I was subject to a lot of street harassment. My status as an American didn't protect me from that. And I think that generally, my blending in is something that's coming from a place of my white privilege and my blonde privilege. But there are a lot of students of color who very seriously have to think about studying in Russia, where Russia has a lot of foreign students who come from Africa and from Asia to go study and get their mechanical and doctor degrees there.
And they're subject to a lot of harassment. So I think in that case, American students of color might enjoy a little bit more of that American protection than say, a foreign student just from Africa, if that makes sense.
TRISTAN BENNETT: And I wanted to add maybe one other point too, because you mentioned you're from El Salvador. And maybe the Americans that you knew were talking about protection from some of the more organized crime that might be there. And I do think that that is a big difference, where in Turkey, being foreign, you might be targeted for smaller crimes, such as pickpocketing. But definitely, when it came to more organized crime, you did have this feeling of being safe. I was there during the Gezi Park protests in 2013. And they were happening pretty much all over the city.
But at the same time, maybe it wasn't the smartest idea, but a lot of the best places to eat and to go out were in all these places where the protests were happening. So a lot of me and the fellow Americans, we were just like, well, we're going to go out. We're not going to be here in Turkey and sit around doing nothing. And we knew that because we were foreigners, that if as long as we weren't obviously, I'm going to put a gas mask on and boo government, they would leave us alone. We could walk by and watch people protesting and doing stuff, and as long as we kept our distance, we did take advantage of the fact that the police weren't going to come at us.
They knew that we were spending money there, that we just wanted to enjoy our time while we were there.
REGINA WAUGH: Great. Can I get a question from this side? Can tell us who you are and where you are coming from?
AUDIENCE: Sure. My name is Bahareh Moradi. I oversee the Gilman program here at the Department of State. I want to thank you all for being here. I think I speak for everyone when I say how impressed we are with you three. And I personally appreciate how candid you're being about sharing your experiences. My question is for Tristan, but Molly and Justin can probably chime in, as well. All Gilman scholars have to do a follow on service project that promotes study abroad and the Gilman program. So I'm just wondering if you could talk about your project and whether your identities influence what you decided to do upon your return, and if either of you, Molly or Justin, did anything when you came back.
I'd love to hear about that too. Thank you.
TRISTAN BENNETT: I agree, that's a very interesting part of my experience. So as part of my follow on service project, I actually blogged for my overseas study office at Indiana University. So that was more of an ongoing service project, as opposed to a follow on service project. But that was really helpful for me, because it just helped me to reflect on everything that was happening as I was there. And that was a gateway in a sense to the rest of my follow on service project, which was working as a peer counselor at the IU Office of Overseas Study, because they already had me as a blogger.
And it's actually-- I didn't think it would be such a competitive process to get hired as a peer counselor at the office, but it was. And so I think that definitely, the work that I did for my follow on service project, and also, my identity and as an LGBTI individual, as a biracial individual, and also having studied Turkish and gone to Turkey definitely helped me to be able to represent this new space in the office. And there was definitely a lack of information of any sorts on studying anywhere in the Middle East, on studying abroad as LGBTI individual. And so they definitely were happy to have-- I was very happy to be there at the office, because there were a lot of students who came in asking questions, and they asked where I was just over the course of the conversation.
Then, maybe they'd be like, oh, but I'm gay. I don't know if I want to go to a Muslim country. And I was glad that worked out. I wasn't sure if it would. But it did where I think I was able to really open up students' minds. Not necessarily to studying in Turkey, but to studying in places in the Middle East, and in India, or somewhere that wasn't just Western Europe. And then also, I've tried, as much as I can, whenever people have reached out to me to speak at events like this. So hopefully, I can share my experiences with anyone who's interested.
MOLLY DWYER: Yeah. At my university, I actually work in a fellowship at our LGBT center. And we are supposed to work on our own containing projects. So I've worked there for two years now. And this whole time, my ongoing project has been compiling a comprehensive guide, country to country guide for LGBT students and working with our multicultural center for students of color, considering studying in nontraditional study abroad settings. Being a Nestle scholar, Nestle focuses on critical languages, so something beyond French and Spanish, which is really pushing students out of their comfort zone, in general, and with other identities taken into account, maybe pushing them into a little bit more of an uncomfortable area, in terms of safety and identity.
So with that project, we have our own bridge year program through Princeton. So we have students who do work before they come to the school in China, Brazil, Serbia. So I was able to do some interviews with alumni of those programs who could give me specific information about those countries and organizations on the ground. And then we offered that 50 page document to all of the incoming students for that gap year program. And then I'm also working on an ongoing project, trying to interview all of the outgoing seniors who are LGBT, students of color, who have studied abroad in interesting places, and just try to get their voices on tape to encourage other students to go to places like Brazil, to go to places like Korea, Russia, because I think it seems really scary at first. And then when you can see someone on camera, like one of your peers telling you that you can do this, it's a lot more encouraging.
REGINA WAUGH: Great. Justin, do you have anything to add to that?
JUSTIN HILL: She covered it. As a Fulbright ambassador, IIE has a Fulbright ambassador program, and the State Department. And so we get to go around the country, talking to different universities, both HBCU's, traditionally white schools, as well, or historically black colleges, and Hispanic universities. So some of the work that Molly's doing at Princeton that we do across the country, that's more formalized.
REGINA WAUGH: Great. Over on this side, questions?
AUDIENCE: Hello. My name is Michael Hindi. I work here at ECA. Thank you so much, because your words are thoughtful and meaningful, and I very much appreciate what you have to say. So I'm going to ask for your advice. We want to make sure that we recruit LGBTI individuals into our programs. We want to make sure we support them. We want to make sure we support our alumni. So what suggestions do you have for us to do a better job at those things, recruiting and supporting or LGBTI participants?
JUSTIN HILL: I have a list. So in some ways, I think ECA, you guys do an amazing job. One of the things that I thought about and Molly touched on is creating an interactive guide around different countries. So when people have questions about their countries, they don't have to Google it. They can actually listen to people who are both Foreign Service Officers and/or just regular people who've done different kinds of stints in that country, talk about their experiences. It would be really cool if it's interactive, just because it's more engaging, and it'll allow more people to view it and gain access to it in a more systematic way.
Another way in which to do some things that as we do as Fulbright ambassadors, going out to colleges, maybe going out to LGBTI professional organizations, looking at having these workshop-- finding where all these LGBTI organizations are, looking at the cross sections. So one of the things that I think is very telling to me is when we had our first Fulbright ambassador, or the second, or the third actual Fulbright ambassador team, there was a transgender person that I talked about earlier. And when we both saw the State Department's diversity statement we were like, this would have been awesome, had been talked about upfront, because he's trans.
He was very concerned about, I didn't know if I could do my research as a trans man if I let people know that I was trans. And so he went up to the Arctic Circle to do water research. But when he had issues around his trans or his gender expression, he was concerned that he didn't know who to turn to. So I think there's some opportunities there, just in terms of making sure that statement is well received and people know where to find it, and how important it is as a boilerplate statement about how we care about diversity and ensuring that people feel safe and comfortable applying.
MOLLY DWYER: I think that you could definitely do work, perhaps not just reaching out to study abroad offices, but reaching out to LGBT centers. I think most major universities, and even a lot of smaller colleges have them. So if you can work to get more directly to students, maybe doing press releases and things where you use words that are explicitly reaching out to LGBT students. I think explicit inclusion is different from implicit inclusion. And I think that a lot of people maybe coming from their background, they don't feel entirely safe if someone's saying, maybe. But for someone to come out and say, we want gay students on our program, I think it makes a big difference.
And I think in terms of the programming itself, I was on a program that was with multiple other American students, as opposed to my colleagues here, who it seems, by themselves at their posting. But I think that my group was really important to me, because that was really the only space where I could talk about my full self, or I could talk about my relationship. And so they were really important to me and my resident director. It was really important to have that safe space where I could just release a little bit. So I think making sure that those programs are also explicitly inclusive, that you get resident directors and coordinators to be explicit about being able to talk about these kinds of issues and just including those things in pre-departure orientations would be a big step.
TRISTAN BENNETT: So in terms of the alumni, what's the word I'm looking for-- just relationships between the Department of States, or IIE, an alumni. I am here, because someone did reach out to me from IIE. So I think that you're doing something right, trying to actually actively reach out to people who have been a part of these programs. But I think that definitely, as both Justin and Molly said, to have more explicit encouragement of LGBTI individuals to seek employment at places like here, or to be engaged with these different communities would be very helpful.
And I think that IIE is actually starting on some sort of networking platform online for people who are not just Gilman alumni, but also Fulbright alumni, critical language scholarship alumni to be able to interact with each other. And I think that when that does happen, that will be really, really helpful too, because it will give people who have participated in this program the ability to actually interact with other people and network with them, because like as you said, I was the only Gilman Scholarship at my program. But definitely, there are other American students there. And interacting with them has really helped me to reflect upon my experience, and I made interesting connections through them. But I haven't really had the opportunity to meet many Gilman scholars other than through a few IIE networking events.
REGINA WAUGH: OK. We're getting questions lined up there, so Chloe.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. Chloe Schwenke. I teach at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown. I was a Fulbright senior scholar in Uganda from 2005 to 2006. And when I returned from Uganda, I transitioned gender. What happened after that which was interesting, and the root of my question for you is that I got an awful lot of email, and not all of it was very nice. There's a lot of presence, existence online that it's not really a choice whether you stay closeted or stay not out.
What do you suggest? What would be your advice for people who really could be risking a lot to go to a place, because they often don't have the choice of not being out, because you're just an online presence, and social media, the way it is right now, you're out. Thanks.
MOLLY DWYER: Yeah. I actually, just before the school year got out, I was discussing something with a peer of mine at Princeton. And he had done the full year of Russian, and he was getting ready to go on our university sponsored trip to Saint Petersburg that it's expected that when you're in the Russian program, you go on to this next step. And he had actually been transitioning over the course of that year and eventually came to the point of coming to me and coming to the study abroad office and to his Russian professor.
And I have to commend the language teachers where they were completely comfortable with his changing pronouns in the foreign language. But for him, it just ended up being too much, that he wouldn't be able to go as a trans guy to Russia, which was unfortunate. And I hope that that is something that is really unavoidable, and it would have to see societal level change before any kind of implementing organization in the U.S. can really do anything about that on that scale. And in terms of the online presence, I think that privacy and security settings are really important generally when you're studying abroad, in terms of who's seeing what.
So I think that people have the option to have varying levels of privacy and security. But for me, it's unfortunate that I just block my Russian friends from certain aspects of my Facebook. If I were to post a picture of myself and my girlfriend or something like that, it's just not something I'm comfortable with them seeing.
TRISTAN BENNETT: Definitely. I would agree with that about Facebook. At least with Facebook, you do have some level of control over who can see what, and you can set up lists for who can get one update or what photo, and so my father is actually also a transgender individual and started going through transition shortly after I came out. So I came out the end of my freshman year of high school, and I think by my junior year, my dad started transition.
I think that for transgender individuals, it's particularly hard, because there are just physical things that you can't hide. And so for one, it depends on when a transgender person is trying to have these experiences. But especially now that it's becoming more acceptable, people who transition at younger ages, they have much more successful transitions. And at that point, when you're going through all of that, do you necessarily want to be traveling? Maybe you do, and go for it, definitely.
But there's always opportunities in the future to go places. And it might be more emotionally and physically easy for them to put it off until after that transition. In the case of my father, it was interesting actually going to other countries, because depending on where you go, you might actually have better reception. My dad lived in Mexico for a while. He ran away to Mexico, and no one even that didn't pass at all. It was this big, blonde American. That was it. No one was just like, oh, this is a transgender individual. So in that sense, going to Mexico was actually a really nice thing for him, her. Or you could go to Turkey, because they don't use gendered pronouns. They just say, oh, which means he or she. So then you can have people talk about you, and never have that be an issue.
JUSTIN HILL: One is thank you for that question. I think it's a somber question. So fortunately or problematically for me, I didn't have that concern until when my friends showed up, we had concerns about whether or not we would be perceived. I think some of the challenges-- you presented one of the challenges to this, to the program, and to international exchange, and to protecting people who want to seek international exchange opportunities. And for me, the answer simply is we have to do better.
We have a responsibility to all of our citizens to make sure they have the opportunity to go somewhere and do something, especially if it's great work. And so I feel angry that that would be your response when you return home, and that you were transitioning, you received hate mail. One of the things that I did in terms of social online media, I'm a very private person. My friends who are in the audience can tell people.
I don't put a lot of stuff on Facebook. And I only try to post positive things, because I believe that in a world is full of negative externalities, we have a responsibility to bring light and joy to certain spaces. And so I think for me, that has served me well, in terms of how I protect myself from our leave myself open to people being able to reach me with some of the things that you talked about so eloquently.
So thank you so much for that question.
TRISTAN BENNETT: I would like to add, I know we're probably running quick on time. But two things that just popped up in my head. One would be maybe, a good place for improvement too for programs such as the Gilman or the State Department would be to encourage students to study abroad who might not be LGBTI individuals themselves, but who have a parent who is transgender, because I think that that's actually an aspect of citizen diplomacy that I carried out that I never thought about was having friends in Turkey. And they ask about your family or whatever, and if you are open to sharing those things.
I share with them, and my parent, and they might have a question. And so I have a lot of interesting conversations about what it was like to be-- well, not to be, but to have a parent who's transgender, and their perspectives on being transgender. That could definitely open new pathways to spreading this information. And another quick thing is some countries, that might be an issue. So in China, I know that they don't really use a lot of the same sites that we use in America.
So maybe, they could you try a new country they never thought of that just doesn't really have access to those sites.
REGINA WAUGH: Yes please.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Am I tall enough to reach this microphone? No. First of all, I just want to say real quickly, I'm just like tickled pink by this panel in particular, as someone who's from Chicago, but lived in Princeton for three years, and was born in Indiana to two Turkish parents, who Tristan, spot on, just yesterday, my mom was telling my husband how Koreans are her brothers and sisters, and all of Korea loves Turkey, and Turkey loves Korea, and I think every single week, this comes up. So my question in particularly for Molly, you mentioned that you are Jewish and that you attended synagogue, at least occasionally in Russia.
Was that a community where you felt more comfortable, as I imagine Jewishness is an other of itself in Russia. And so was there like a, we are others, others and others. Was that a space you felt more comfortable with concerns to your LGBTI identity?
MOLLY DWYER: Oh, wow. This goes in so many different directions. That was a great question. I think it's interesting, because the Jewish community in Russia is pretty much monopolized by the ultra orthodox by Chabad. They run everything. So it was actually very interesting, because that was an interesting point where they had a three floor synagogue that had been able to be reclaimed after the Soviet time. And the first floor was communal, and it had the worship space, and it had a kosher kitchen.
The second floor belonged to-- there had been an American reform community that invested in Kazan in the '90s, and they were able to purchase the second floor. So the second floor would have guitar Torah study groups, and it was pretty fun. And we'd have our big Shabbat dinners with the young people. And then the third floor, was again, owned by Chabad, and they had the day school there and their other activities there. So I think in terms of the Jewish community there, it was really great when I got there, just to have a place where I wasn't the other as much. As much as even sometimes people look at me and they're like, you're Jewish?
But beyond that, it was really, really comforting in a place where I couldn't communicate very well at first, just to have people come in and say, you don't have to talk. It's OK. You can say the prayers with us, just eat. That was a great message to be sending. But also, at the same time, in terms of the Orthodox Judaism that was being enforced there, things were genderized much more than they typically would be. And I had to wear skirts when I was in the synagogue and the women had to sit behind the partition.
So I think that in that sense, it was not a space that I was comfortable coming out with my LGBT identity.
REGINA WAUGH: See if we can go over here.
AUDIENCE: Can you hear me? My name is Nicholas [INAUDIBLE]. I am from Uganda. First of all, I want to thank Chloe for coming up here and seeing what she said earlier. I appreciate you so much. The time you are in Uganda, I actually met Chloe when she was in Uganda at the time she spent in Uganda, and she introduced me to very interesting people at the university where she was working.
And the professor [INAUDIBLE] you introduced me to, we are still friends, and he's still doing very good work. So actually, there are people in Uganda who are very hateful, but there are people who actually appreciate you and they love you. They know the kind of work you're doing, and they know how important you are to this community of ours. Now, back to the panel, I want to thank you. I was part of an exchange program.
It was a leadership program, the State Department Program from Uganda in 2012. And it was such an honor and privilege, because I think I was the only LGBT person in the entire program of 2012. And we came here for three weeks. In fact, I came to DC. I went to other states. It was such a privilege, because I met many organizations and other activists. Even though I was the only LGBT activist on the group, I felt so empowered, but I also felt like there was a space for me to share my experience.
So I was giving out, but I was also learning very much. One of the things that I learned was the fact that as a movement back home, we started a movement as friends very passionate about human rights, and very passionate about our lives, and standing for our rights. But then we did not have the profession touch, in a sense. So we didn't know even though we have many organizations in Uganda, we have more than 30 LGBT organizations in Uganda. But we did not have the expertise in that sense.
So for me to be on the program, I met people here running big organizations, [INAUDIBLE]. So I was exposed, in that sense, to also get that expertise touch. I would love if actually the Department of State gets more LGBT activists from the African continent, because it seems like even though this year, I know a colleague of mine came through, I think the last month and a half, but it's not enough. We need more people to come up, we had to really create a generation of leaders that can articulate things and can run movements in ways that we can sustain the movement to grow.
And the other thing that I felt when you guys were sharing was oh, my god. It's so sweet. I wish I had the same space for me to share my experiences with my colleagues back home. And it's so unfortunate that all along, from 2012 up to now, I have never had a chance to share the beautiful experiences and all the things that I learned. The only thing that I did is I went back, and I did part of my project for change, which I didn't finish because of whatever is happening in my country. And it is just unfortunate.
And even the government not realizing the importance of us even coming here, what we can do, the value we can add to our economy and the devotement of our countries. So I would also encourage the Department of State to create that kind of environment in a way for participants. For example, if they go back, how can they actually implement the projects that they're trying to employ in the communities? Thank you very much.
REGINA WAUGH: Thank you. So Jeremy, you can advise me. We have two minutes left officially. I know there's a reception. So if folks want to take their questions to the outer room or if there's a little bit of flexibility, not to put you on the spot.
JEREMY: No, we have the space until 4:00 PM. If people don't mind having a shorter reception, would rather ask more questions, then [INAUDIBLE].
REGINA WAUGH: OK. So let's take the three that are here, and then we'll get some very quick wrap up thoughts from our panelists and get a move on. Please. And for you, if you all can keep your questions as short as possible, that would be great.
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Katia. I'm originally from Finland, recently from North Carolina. And I first came to America as an exchange student, and I moved to North Carolina. And I think I was expecting to change my opinion about America, but what I wasn't expecting was to change my perspective about being Finish, and Finland, and then to realize how gay I actually was, because this was the Bible Belt. And I'm from Finland, and it's very low excitement on any particular aspect. But I'm curious about your experiences, as I'm sure you changed your views about the country that you were in and the people in there.
But how did your view and perception about America, and being an American, and being an LGBTI American person changed during your time and after that. Thank you.
REGINA WAUGH: So I'll also ask you guys to keep your responses short.
TRISTAN BENNETT: I'd just really like to quickly answer about a comment I made earlier about how in Turkey, it really reminded me of what I think it was like in America back in the '60s and '70s within the civil rights movements, and also, just generally, the Free Love Movement. And I think that definitely, it made me reflect on what America's been through. And to see Turkey at this point in history, where their LGBTI community could go and really interact with society on the more of a human rights level, not just an LGBTI level. It made me really happy and hopeful for Turkey's future, and where America has been, and also made me think, wow.
People were doing these things way back when in America. But why aren't people doing it now, like they are in Turkey? Maybe it's because it's more accepted to hear. And it definitely gave me-- I can't think of the word-- a resolve to contribute more in ways that I can.
MOLLY DWYER: Yeah. I think it just made me appreciate what kind of society we have here in the US, where free speech is allowed, and encouraged, and the civil rights we get to enjoy. And then as an LGBT individual, not necessarily saying that Indiana is a hospitable place. But it certainly made me appreciate the privileges that I have here.
JUSTIN HILL: Thank you for the question. For me, it opened my eyes. I'm originally from Memphis, Tennessee, and I'd never traveled abroad before and lived in a place for a year. So for what it did, in terms of my Americanness, it made me realize just how American I was in certain ways. But it also made me I realize how with just the soft diplomacy of interacting one person, one person, you can make giant changes. So some of the conversations that I had in Barbados were some of the most amazing conversations. And they left an indelible mark on how I see the world and what I want to do.
So I would say that it made me very aware of our place as Americans, that we aren't-- like when I was growing up, I was like, America loomed large. But now, I'm very much more aware of how we are all cohabiting a world, and how important it is for us to think of ourselves in that framework of being global citizens, and what that responsibility means. So I think that's one of the things that the Fulbright gave to me in that way.
REGINA WAUGH: Great.
AUDIENCE: My name is Mark Grubstock, and I'm a program officer at the Meridian International Center, and I'm the program officer that was working a lot of the group that's been mentioned a couple times earlier, the 13 visitors that are in the United States for two weeks, looking at the prevention and combating of hate based violence against LGBTI populations around the world. I'm really glad that my new friend from Uganda spoke, because I think the voices of the IVLP alumni, or the alumni of exchange programs that are inbound are really great to hear. I've learned so much from this group the last week. They're in Atlanta today.
They met with the police department in Atlanta and met with the Gay and Lesbian Liaison unit of the Atlanta Police Department. And tomorrow, they're going to New York City. And I can tell you, they're all very excited about that. But they're just tremendous, amazing, inspiring activists who are doing tremendous work, such as my friend from Uganda, who is also on an exchange program, and just wanting to reflect that other aspect of the alumni community focused on this work. And it occurs to me that it would be phenomenal. And there may be all sorts of ways why this might be difficult, but of connecting American LGBTI participants on exchange programs in countries with the alumni of these programs that have been to the United States on programs with some really wonderful synergies that I think could take place there.
So I wanted to throw that out there before recepting.
REGINA WAUGH: Great.
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Travis, and I work with the State Department at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. And first, I just want to thank you for providing such thoughtful commentary on your rich experiences. I think we've all really enjoyed it. And so my question is twofold. I think there's been a lot of commentary and questions provided on how you were able to mitigate risk being an LGBTI individual in your travel experiences. But part of me is also wondering if you ever felt like you were in situations or opportunities where you felt an urge to have a conversation about being LGBTI and like exposing yourself, because you thought you might have felt comfortable, and that you would like to have that rich conversation?
And secondly, I'm wondering-- I'm sure that might not have been the case for some of you, but if you also were privy to opportunities or events in which you felt like the conversation around LGBTI was well received? LGBTI events that you thought were actually somewhat effective in your context? I know that you've mentioned that an American face in the conversation might not be the most effective, and that's something that we've talked about quite often at State. And so I'm wondering if you were ever able to be an observer of a conversation that was more effective. Thank you.
TRISTAN BENNETT: I would really like to answer that question, because I was extremely surprised. I think because it's a really good question too, by the reception of people in Turkey, in general, to not just me being an LGBTI individual, but to all their peers and their friends. So I witnessed a good number of really interesting, intellectual conversations I never would have expected to witness when I was in Turkey. And I think that one of the more-- there were a number of events that I said, were LGBTI focused, but also urban issues focused. And during the summer, when I was there, the LGBTI community hosted this events that was a satirical awards ceremony for the news networks that had censored the protests going on by airing penguin documentaries.
So they had this really long, convoluted title about penguins and hormones. But the host was a transgender individual, and they had this really funny-- it wasn't necessarily a deep, intellectual conversation, but this very funny and satirical awards ceremony, giving out the best so and so awards to CNN Turk, and to whoever. And I think that while they were doing this and engaging the more opposition community in general, it was very effective, because then, less than a month later, they had the Istanbul gay pride parade. And it was amazing, because I joined that parade.
And they had the highest attendance they had ever had at that parade, and a lot of it was because they were so successful in engaging other aspects of the community and getting them to get this feeling of solidarity for we're all people, and we all demand our rights, and let's have a fun time, and say crazy slogans, and jump, and play music. And it was the most amazing outcome that I could ever think of from these conversations.
MOLLY DWYER: I'll reiterate that a lot of this discussion in Russia is very much tied with politics. And I think that's a complicating factor is that it's not just about you, as an individual, or a human rights issue. It's seen as a political issue, with how the government has talked about things. So actually, when I was in Kazan, it was really before things that had come into the general conversation. It was before the homosexual propaganda law came on to the books or was being discussed. And Russians, in general, as people, their culture is to keep sexuality behind closed doors.
It's just really not something that's talked about. So that was the odd thing about that homosexual propaganda law, was that it brought something into conversation that people were already not comfortable talking about, which made them even more vehemently against it, so it seems. But that unfortunate law also did have chances to bring it into conversation where we were discussing it. I'm referencing not my time honestly, but the past fall semester that I spent in Moscow, we were discussing that the law with a professor who had spent time in the United States.
So that's one factor, pushing it closer to saying, I might be able to say something to this person. She had spent time in the United States, an was asking for our opinions on it. And she was pushing a certain narrative about it. And it finally came to the point of portraying LGBT individuals as certain types of people. And I finally just was like, what do I have to lose in this? I just raised my hand. I was like, well, I'm a lesbian, and I'm a normal person sitting here, and I'm not interfering with your life, and you're not interfering with mine, and we can sit here and have this conversation.
And it worked. It was something that brought a new perspective into the conversation. And I think in terms of how we see things positively, like a positive interaction, my host mother in Moscow had already discussed how her previous host student, the student the year before me, he was a little bit light blue, which is a Russian slang for gay. And she said, oh, Nicholas. Oh, I had to do so much laundry. He changed clothes five times a day. You're so much easier.
So I already knew again, another pushing factor that she might be more open to this. And I developed a relationship with her over a semester and had talked to her in changing the pronouns terms about past relationships and finally decided to not change the pronouns. And it was a discussion that continued.
JUSTIN HILL: So your question was how those conversations are happening successfully in the country among native born Barbadians? So across the Caribbean, there's a lot of action taking around LGBTI issues. So there's different laws in different places. So Suriname doesn't have a law around LGBTI conduct.
So that's one. And the Bahamas, it doesn't have laws around that too. So people are cross pollinating different strategies about moving the conversation forward in their respective countries. So there's a different ambiance, depending on whatever country you go to. So for me, one of the things that I got to bear witness to was that there was a lot of action happening through some of the organizing of one of the gay groups called UGALAB in Barbados. And they were doing a lot of groups, meetings, and parties, but also, parties with purposes, in terms of like people organizing, thinking through different ways in which they could present themselves, and talk about things, and try to galvanize change.
So I think there are some successful models throughout the Caribbean. It would just be about sustaining it and moving that conversation forward.
REGINA WAUGH: So we'll make this the last questions sir. And then maybe in response to this, if there's a way for you all to wrap up your thoughts, that will be great.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. Just a quick comment. My name is David Levin. I'm the Diversity Coordinator here in the Bureau of Education Cultural Affairs. So I really wanted to just add my thanks to Jeremy and the community for bringing this session together and for our panelists. Mark was talking about living by positive example. That's so critical. And I've got some great ideas from what I've heard today about what the Bureau can do more to really do more engagement with the whole range of organizations and associations, trying to reach out to in terms of LGBTI, but other minorities, as well.
But it's part of this whole notion of diversity and inclusion that DC is promoting, and this has really been helpful to me, giving me some great ideas that I can work with so many of you, as we carry this ball forward. Thanks very much.
REGINA WAUGH: So I'll echo that thank you and just ask each of you, as we wrap up, are there any things that we haven't covered that you feel are essential for us to know and be thinking about as we continue this conversation? All right. We did it you guys. We got everything out of them. Please join me in thanking our panelists.