In honor of Pride Month, Fulbridge is featuring the organization Fulbright Prism, which empowers LGBTQ Fulbrighters to be “out in the world.” Lisa Gagnon, a 2017-2018 ETA in Latvia, talked with Tim Sensenig and Michaela Gill, 2016-2017 ETAs in Germany, who founded Fulbright Prism along with fellow ETA Lara Steinike.
LGBTQ: Acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning
Queer: Anyone who does not identify as exclusively heterosexual. (Note that this word has meant many different things throughout history and to individuals!)
Out: When a person has fully accepted their sexual orientation/gender identity. They may or may not “come out” by sharing that with another person
- Why did you choose to apply for the ETA in Germany?
Tim: I studied German in high school and in college and it was a natural fit. I originally grew interested in German and Germany because my high school offered an exchange program with a German high school that none of the other foreign language programs offered and I really wanted to travel and be able to use my language skills in-country. After that, the rest was history! I fell in love with traveling and the German culture.
Michaela: I only started learning German in college so I could study abroad in Germany my junior year. My college had a full-year program in Hamburg, and I fell in love with the city and the country. I was hopeful that I could return to Hamburg for my Fulbright year, and I am so happy to report that I did just that!
- What were some highlights of your Fulbright grant year? What were some challenges?
Tim: It was hard finding queer communities to connect with. That was one of the reasons we started Fulbright Prism, in fact. However, one of my highlights was singing in a community choir, Chor Altona. We would practice once a week and it was always a nice way to meet native Hamburgers and release stress. Eventually, I did actually end up meeting an older gay couple through the choir, and they have served as close friends and mentors to me ever since!
Michaela: The biggest challenge for me was creating community outside of Fulbright. It has always been important to me to create queer networks wherever I am, but I struggled to find queer German spaces where I fit. Luckily, I made some incredible friends through Fulbright, and they continue to sustain me, even now that we live so far away from one another.
- How did you initially get the idea for Fulbright Prism?
Tim: Through our Fulbright grant period, the three of us realized that there were a lot of queer Fulbrighters in the world and that just seemed like an untapped community. Such a community, for instance, would have been very welcome when we were in our grant year. When we saw the work that Fulbright Noir was doing on Instagram, however, we were inspired and encouraged to help past and present Fulbrighters establish a network for each other.
Michaela: I also specifically wanted to try to collect resources for queer people living abroad. Moving to another country is already so intimidating, and having a marginalized identity in a new space can make it extra scary! I thought connecting past and current Fulbrighters would be a great way to help.
- What does Fulbright Prism do? What is its mission and how does it accomplish that?
Our long mission is, “We are a United States 501(c)(3), non-governmental organization. To accomplish the above mission, we: 1) gather resources; 2) build networks; and 3) direct programming for Fulbright Program grantees, alumni, staff, and administrators who identify with a marginalized orientation, gender affiliation, or intersex (or LGBTQ). Through our support, we hope that these Fulbrighters may better effectuate the separate and very important purposes of the Fulbright Program around the world and increase cross-cultural awareness of LGBTQ experiences.”
Fulbright Prism’s Instagram shares the stories of past and present LGBTQ Fulbrighters. Here’s what Michaela had to say about her Fulbright experience and why she wanted to start Fulbright Prism:
As an ETA, I had the opportunity to teach 5th-12th graders of diverse backgrounds. Many of my students were first or second generation immigrants, and I was incredibly humbled knowing that English was their third or fourth language. My students and colleagues had so much enthusiasm for American culture, and it brought me so much joy to teach them about myself and my country every day.
One thing I did struggle with, however, was being out at school. Each and every classroom I entered, I faced students asking me if I had a boyfriend back home in America. Hamburg is a very liberal city, but I still had no idea how to respond. None of my coworkers were out to me, and I felt unsure and anxious. This is the main reason I wanted to be involved in Fulbright Prism – I want to open the conversation about being out at work and in the world for past, current, and future Fulbright grantees. I hope we can help make that happen.
- Did you face any challenges when starting Fulbright Prism?
While we have been met by an outpouring of support from the most serendipitous places, we have faced some major challenges.
First and foremost, finding LGBTQ Fulbrighters. Generally speaking, this hasn’t actually been a problem; however, we have found it hard to find LGBTQ Fulbrighters outside of the European Community because we simply don’t have those personal connections. Also, outside of the U.S. and the EC, identifying openly as LGBTQ may make some people nervous. In this same vein, it’s hard to get people to share their inspiring stories on our instagram page.
Second, it’s been hard to find funding. We have a small operation, but website building and conference planning in particular cost money. We hope that once we launch our website in June, people will be encouraged to support us.
- How have you seen Fulbright Prism evolve since it first started, and what plans do you have for Fulbright Prism in the future?
We went from a simple Instagram page to now a federally recognized and incorporate nonprofit organization. Using this status, we hope to grow our footprint within the Fulbright community and continue to bring LGBTQ Fulbrighters together. Right now, we are planning a conference for Eastern Europe in the fall and building a website to launch in June or July which take up a lot of time. Five years from now, we hope to be a household name in the Fulbright Community so any LGBTQ Fulbrighter will easily find us and be able to participate in the network, if they want!
- What advice do you have for current or former Fulbrighters thinking of starting their own organization?
Be mindful of politics of all sorts: first, the Fulbright community is international, so just like our grant periods, running a Fulbright-related nonprofit requires a lot of diplomacy, patience, and cross-cultural competency. Second, the Fulbright organization itself has its innate limitations, oversight bodies, etc. Organizations wishing to work with the Program must remember these factors and find ways to advance their agenda while also not alienating the Program or putting it in an uncomfortable position.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
We are so grateful for the support we have received from the Fulbright Program, particularly in Germany and in the European Fulbright Diversity Initiative, but around the world as well. We are also grateful to those individuals who have reached out, such as our volunteers, to help us or offer their support.
To get involved with Fulbright Prism, visit their temporary website which includes links to their volunteer survey as well as a donation tab. Be sure to check out their Instagram @fulbrightprism to read more stories of LGBTQ Fulbrighters, and share your own!