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The GW Hatchet

AN INDEPENDENT STUDENT NEWSPAPER SERVING THE GW COMMUNITY SINCE 1904

The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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PAUL closes in Western Market
By Ella Mitchell, Staff Writer • April 22, 2024

Perspective: I left the U.S., but not its transphobia

During the spring semester, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Barcelona, Spain for four months. But the long-awaited experience quickly turned out to be one of extreme loneliness and isolation, because I couldn’t find a community of people that respected my queer identity as I had found in D.C. Growing up, I lived all over the place, including five years spent in Lima, Peru. Since then, returning to a Spanish-speaking country and getting to travel has been a special goal of mine. It was devastating to find out that being who I am meant I couldn’t experience studying abroad to the fullest extent.

My pronouns are they/them/theirs and I’ve been out as a queer person for more than four years. D.C. has given me professors who create safe spaces for students to share pronouns and a large queer community that feels like my family. Take a walk through the streets of the District and you’ll see pride flags almost immediately, and D.C. is home to a plethora of gay bars and clubs, including one of the only 27 lesbian bars in the United States. The safe environment D.C. provided me made me comfortable being myself, so moving to Barcelona proved difficult because it felt like I was being shoved back into the box I worked so hard to escape.

Within weeks of arriving in Barcelona, I was forced to hide my identity to protect myself. But, it wasn’t the local Spaniards who I experienced trouble with. My roommates and classmates were all students from the U.S., mostly from the Midwest. One of my roommates specifically told me that, because of my gender identity, I’m a “freak,” “weird” and that if she had to introduce me to any of her friends from her college in Indiana, none of them would understand me because they’ve never met “one of you.” Entering common areas of my suite gave me incredible anxiety and I eventually only spent time in my personal room because that was the only place where I felt safe.

The building in which I attended classes quickly became an unsafe location as well. On my first day of school I introduced myself with my name and pronouns, and my professor expressed confusion. It then led to a class discussion about whether respecting my pronouns is considered hate speech and my professor explained how all opinions are valid, even bigoted ones, but others also have the right to point out that it’s offensive. I had to argue with a quivering voice and tears in my eyes that my identity is not merely an opinion.

A student specifically argued against using my pronouns by advocating for his freedom of speech but my professor said he didn’t want a “diversity issue.” The student then reported the professor for not agreeing with him and dropped the class. This report caused the professor to do a presentation on hate speech, which he gave the next class, “thanks to what Riley brought up,” he said. Not using my pronouns isn’t just disagreeing with me, it’s invalidating my existence. All I did was mention my pronouns and then I found myself explaining and defending my existence to all my classmates for an entire week. I was humiliated and made to feel exactly like my roommate called me — a freak.

The homophobic and transphobic incidents never stopped. My professors misgendered me every day despite multiple attempts to explain how important their respect was to me. The Spanish language structurally genders descriptive words and the Spanish Royal Academy, the leading authority on the Spanish language, doesn’t recognize gender-neutral words. Not only did my pronouns not officially exist in Spanish, but I was also misgendered every time a descriptive word was used for me. It felt like I couldn’t go a day without being deeply reminded that my identity is not recognized by the majority of society.

The best part of studying abroad is that I got to travel for cheap almost every weekend. Since I couldn’t stand how I was being treated, exploring other countries regularly became my safe haven. I was enthralled with everything I could learn and see in one weekend but I would get deeply anxious every Sunday about going back. Eventually it became a problem — my stomach would hurt and I would have panic attacks about returning to Barcelona. Somehow I was simultaneously living my best and worst life.

Sometimes I would try to convince myself that nothing would happen at the beginning of a new week, but I was always wrong. One night I went out and there were men arguing, one using homophobia to insult the other. I told the man to shut up and he yelled back at me saying, “You shut you, you’re a woman and I was born to f*** you.” Not only did he imply that men are entitled to sex, it was also based on the assumption that almost every other person makes about me before I’ve had the chance to come out to them, which is that I am a woman. His words left me speechless and shaking for the rest of the night.

One of the saddest aspects of my studying abroad is that I wasn’t able to experience all of what Barcelona had to offer me because of peers and professors who weren’t even from Spain. I had to remove news notifications from my phone because of the recent passing of transphobic legislation in the United States that reminded me of why my peers felt so comfortable discriminating against my gender identity. 

I don’t regret studying abroad. Thankfully, I met a couple of queer people toward the end of my experience who shared similar experiences to my own. I also traveled to incredible places and will never forget what I learned about myself. However, I did start to feel ashamed of my identity, and my ability to stand up for myself became almost nonexistent. I was exhausted both emotionally and physically, all of the time. My peers and professors took away the safety I need to be unequivocally myself — I felt suffocated.

Homophobia and transphobia from the United States followed me. To combat the bigoted violence I experienced, it is important to continue practicing what makes D.C. feel safe: normalizing pronouns in introductions, supporting local queer bars and clubs, listening to gender-nonconforming people and fighting the legislation that harms them.

Queer students should not be afraid to find each other when they study abroad you need each other. The LGBTQ+ community is resilient and always present. It just takes immense amounts of work to find each other because it is not always safe to exist, but it is beyond worth it. Connection is how humans survive, I just wasn’t able to connect with almost anyone because I couldn’t find people to respect me first. I shouldn’t need permission to exist, nor should I have to keep demanding respect for my identity. Queer people are exhausted and tired of fighting every day just to exist.

Riley Goodfellow, a rising junior majoring in political science, is the contributing opinions editor.

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