Finding My Queer Community Abroad

The following article was written by Jordan Sparrow, a KU alum who studied abroad in Costa Rica for 3 consecutive semesters during his undergraduate career.

In January 2010, I embarked on the most transformative experience of my life: studying abroad in Costa Rica. More than a decade later this statement stands true, but in different ways than I could have ever imagined. Studying abroad as a recently out, 20-year-old gay man allowed me to find my queer community, meet my husband and redefine what “home” means.

This journey began the day that I came out my freshman year of college. I began to navigate what it means to be gay and I slowly grew into my own skin during a year. With just three semesters of university under my belt, I made the decision to study abroad for one semester at the Universidad de Costa Rica. To this day, I remember telling myself “You are only going to Costa Rica for a semester then you’re coming back.” I was very wrong.

My experiences abroad allowed me to dive deeper into what it meant to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community. I was unsure what the queer community would be like abroad, as I knew that Costa Rica was a very conservative and Catholic country. One of the biggest fears I had before traveling abroad was related to my identity; would it be safe to be openly gay in Costa Rica? Luckily, the first Costa Rican friend I made happened to be gay. He remains one of my best friends, and was influential in introducing me to Costa Rican queer culture. It was in Costa Rica where I had my first group of gay friends, where I first went to a gay bar and where I met my husband. I became a part of the queer community in Costa Rica and felt like my true self in many ways. I was able to explore what it really means to express myself without judgment in the company of people who had similar life experiences. As my first semester abroad came to a close I knew I had to stay longer; I had found community in a place that I was beginning to call my second home. Making a long story short, I ended up studying abroad for three consecutive semesters and moving to Costa Rica after I graduated.

My husband was the main reason I ended up staying in Costa Rica for so long. That’s not the answer I gave to my study abroad advisor, but it’s clearly the truth now. As our relationship grew, so did my sense of belonging and connection to Costa Rica. After spending more than six years together in Costa Rica, we embarked on a new adventure together and moved to Colorado. We got married in Colorado, a place where neither of us had lived before, and our closest Costa Rican friends came to their first gay wedding. For the past four years my husband and I made Colorado our home, making sure to visit our friends and family in Costa Rica as often as we could.

Fast-forward to March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My husband and I were both working in Lima and had to figure out where to go before Peru closed its borders. Do we return to Colorado, or to go Costa Rica? We made the decision to go to Costa Rica, where we both felt most at home. We adjusted to our new normal of lockdowns and facemasks; but in the midst of these changes, Costa Rica legalized same-sex marriage on May 26, 2020. This was a monumental day for Costa Rica, and I realized that it was more meaningful for me than when the United States made the same reform in July 2015. Why? It dawned on me that my queer community, life partner and some of my closest friends have one thing in common: Costa Rica. “Home” is not your residence, but rather where your community is. The following day, May 27, my husband and I celebrated our three-year wedding anniversary in San José.

One decade after studying abroad, as I look back on everything I have accomplished both personally and professionally, I can credit most of it to studying abroad. It gave me a sense of adventure, curiosity and ambition to try new things and embark on new journeys. I became part of a community that I never expected to find. For all of the LGBTQ+ students out there considering study abroad, just do it. Being queer comes with it’s own unique set of challenges, yet I found that studying abroad helped me form part of my identity as a gay man. As queer people, not everybody understands us, which is a challenge that every study abroad student faces. The challenges that LGBTQ+ people face are preparing them to succeed as a study abroad student. Studying abroad is a challenge that must be met with bravery, courage and an open mind; but embarking on this journey, regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity, will teach you things you will never expect to learn.