Melvin Harmon has been involved with and dedicated to student exchange since 1980, starting with his own year abroad in Malaysia. Inspired by the life-changing nature of his experience, he embarked on a career of international education with AFS in 1986. He currently serves as the Vice President of Marketing, Study Abroad, and Participant Support & Learning, overseeing AFS-USA’s study abroad programs, the support of all AFS participants, program marketing, development, innovation, scholarships, and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Melvin is a member of AFS-USA’s IDEA Workgroup and the LGBTQ+ Exchange, working with AFS-USA staff and volunteers to help AFS become a more diverse and inclusive organization.
In this interview, Melvin discusses the transformative power of intercultural exchange and how, over the years, AFS has become more accepting and inclusive of LGBTQ+ students, host families, volunteers and staff. His story is an inspiring reminder that “it gets better,” mostly because we get better, together.
You’ve had a long and storied career with AFS, so let’s start at the beginning. Why did you decide to study abroad and how did you learn of AFS?
I spent my childhood living from trailer to trailer, in numerous small towns in the hills of North Carolina. My mother and father endured significant struggles to provide us with food, shelter, and clothing. It was, to say the least, an environment that wasn’t conducive to any such thing as AFS. So, that experience as well as exposure to AFS students at my high school propelled me to want to study abroad. Truth be told, I was in need of an escape so that I could find myself. Plus, I was a loner and I always identified more with adults. I was also an under-achiever, feeling a bit hopeless and without motivation, so I only worked hard enough to barely earn a passing grade.
The adults in my life (teachers, folks at church, etc.) knew that my family background wasn’t necessarily a source of support for my unique journey, and they felt that I not only needed the opportunity to go abroad but that it could be the most important experience of my life (and they were right). As a result, the AFS chapter funded my entire trip – from the AFS program fee to my domestic airfare to a suitcase. I was beside myself and hardly able to grasp my good fortune. I went to Malaysia (at a time when applicants could not choose their destinations) and AFS’ choice of Malaysia was, hands down, the perfect choice for me. Truly, the best choice ever!
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What was it like to go to Malaysia in 1980? How did your exchange experience affect your personal development, especially as a gay teenager?
I didn’t have a clue whether I was gay, but I knew that I wasn’t like the other kids at school. Something wasn’t right but I couldn’t figure it out. After all, we didn’t talk about those sorts of things at that time. Madonna had not come onto the scene yet [laughs]. She was one of the first ones to push the topic on the American public. Before Madonna, the only sort of thing we heard about gay people, at least in my neck of the woods, were news stories covering arrests of the dreaded “homosexual predators”.
Being different, people made fun of me, largely because I was effeminate to them, didn’t play any sports, and liked listening to disco music rather than country or southern rock. In high school, I was the kid in the back of the room that never said anything. I sat there quietly and kept to myself.
What the experience in Malaysia [gave me] was an incredible level of confidence. When I returned from Malaysia, I was determined that I would not be broken by anyone choosing to put me down for what they perceived me to be. I felt that I could do whatever I wanted to do – and I went from sitting in the back of the class to the front of the classroom. In summary, I came back to my senior year as a completely transformed person. Had I not had that experience, who knows what would’ve happened? I probably would’ve gone on living in the shadows of my small southern town. My AFS year in Malaysia was transformative in so many ways.
Were there any challenges or obstacles that you faced abroad which helped you grow?
I think some of the obvious challenges were the language, but the language was also the part that was exciting to me because I loved learning languages. Also, going from southern food to the different (and spicy) foods of Malaysia was an initial problem, as the spiciest thing I had ever eaten was a sprinkle of black pepper in my mashed potatoes. The other AFSers that I met exposed me to even more of the world (and of my own country) and today they remain good friends of mine, if not my very best friends.
Also, living in Kuala Lumpur, I was right smack in the middle of a Malay-Muslim neighborhood, so it was an interesting experience of being in a small village but surrounded by high-rise buildings. I learned how to be independent, learned how to take the buses, and how to navigate and live in a big city. Those simple experiences showed me that there was no need to fear something new and different. Also, my Malaysian host mother was an incredible influence on my life. She was a kind and simple woman with minimal education, but it was she who ran her family of four sons, a daughter, and grandchildren. She had a wonderful laugh. When I didn’t want to go to school, she was like, “Great! You can stay here and talk to me.” And she was serious! [laughs]
I learned so much from her. I was in an Islamic environment, and back home in North Carolina all I knew of Islamic culture was “machine guns and turbans,” and she was an example of the most non-judgmental, accepting, tolerant person one could ever imagine. I cannot adequately describe the impact she has had on my life.
How did you end up working at AFS? Why did you choose a career in international education?
Well, when I got home from Malaysia, I went back into my home environment which wasn’t the best, but I was much more outspoken by that time. I was no longer willing to brush aside the daily racist commentary. I demanded either a respect for diversity or, alternatively, silence. It was, at times, contentious.
During my last year at school, I came up to New York City to visit friends in New Jersey and Connecticut, both AFSers with me in Malaysia. I came to New York City in 1985 and said, “This is where I need to be.” In 1986 I decided, “I’m going to work at AFS.” I mailed resumes and letters and made phone calls and such. But they never responded. Why was my dear AFS not answering my letters? I didn’t dare call since a long-distance call would be too expensive.
So, I packed up my huge monstrous car (a 1970-something Ford LTD) with my TV, stereo, and some clothes, arranged to stay with my friend in New Jersey, and I parked myself in the AFS lobby. I said, “I need to talk to somebody about working here. Whether its mopping the floors or whatever, I just need to work here. This is where I’m supposed to be.” They finally talked to me that day because I wouldn’t leave. I got a job as someone’s assistant – the person responsible for family and student recruitment in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. I did lots of typing and took calls from volunteers. That was how I got in the door.
How has AFS policy and perceptions of homosexual students changed since your time as an exchange student?
The first experience I had with AFS about having any sort of opinion about kids being LGBTQ+ was when I came to work at AFS. At the time, I was an assistant typing notes and letters to volunteers, so I don’t know if it was a policy, but I did know students were being sent home, seemingly because they came out of the closet and nobody would host them. Now, I wasn’t privy to all of the details, so there may have been other circumstances, but it certainly felt like, from my vantage point, that they were being sent home for being openly gay. In a sense, it seemed that AFS encouraged a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach. To be clear and fair, though, they weren’t sent home in a punitive fashion. They would come to NYC and have closure counseling and the people from the support team were very kind and friendly, but the idea was to send them home without feeling like a failure.
So, that was disturbing, even if it wasn’t the whole story. Even as a staff member, when I was moving to another AFS office, the HR Department was initially unwilling to view my partner as they would a spouse, thus not covering his move expenses (airfare, etc.). So, still confident from my AFS experience, I refused to move if the expense in moving my partner wasn’t included. Basically, I risked being fired. From that point on, I heard that LGBT staff were no longer running into those obstacles. So, like with society in general, changes occurred when someone was willing to stand up and say they weren’t going to accept it.
In the 1980s, would AFS have accepted a host family that was gay?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know if there was a written policy, but if a gay host family expressed interest in hosting, I think most of our volunteers would’ve said no, though I can’t speak for all of them. At that time, a gay family would not have even bothered asking to be a host family. In all my time at AFS in the 80s, I didn’t hear of any LGBT families asking to host.
But, of course, we’re doing this interview now because progress has been made. You and your husband Manny have hosted seven exchange students over the years. Why did you decide to host and what was the experience like for you and Manny?
We’ve gotten the chance to experience parenthood—and not just the nice, rewarding aspects! We’ve dealt with problems, rebellion, and more. I always thought if I were a parent I’d be super liberal, but when the time came, and the child wasn’t my own, I became quite strict. [laughs] Ultimately, it was a great experience and we’ve traveled to visit nearly all of our children and their families.
What advice do you have for LGBTQ+ students who want to study abroad?
LGBTQ+ teenagers shouldn’t limit themselves to studying abroad only in progressive countries like Germany or Denmark. Don’t limit your choices, although you may need to make adjustments if you’re going to go to say, Malaysia. You need to consider how important it is for you to be out and proud or, alternatively, are you willing to step back into the closet for a period of a time because you want to experience a certain culture. But, by stepping back into the closet, it doesn’t mean you aren’t achieving something quite remarkable, because years later, after I came home and my host family, friends, and relatives in Malaysia discovered I was gay, it opened their eyes in a new way. They loved me, and I loved them. They were like, “Oh! Really? Okay!” That’s how we change minds.
Do you have any advice for LGBTQ+ host parents and host families?
When we were hosting, the schools weren’t accustomed to having two dads or two moms to come in for PTA meetings or Parent-Teacher Conferences. My advice is, try not to let those types of things upset you. We don’t achieve much when we get angry. Rather, when I was a host parent, I made it a point to always dress nicely when going to the school to talk to the teachers. I always showed interest, tried to be really friendly, and to have nice conversations. I wanted to be respected as a parent. There were some trials and tribulations because we weren’t considered a real family (like the time the History teacher asked our student if he had his own bed). It was through lots of engagement with the school that taught people that we’re not so bad after all. [laughs]
How can AFS-USA continue to make strides in building an organization and supporting a network that is open, accessible, and inclusive for members of the LGBTQ+ community?
I think we’ve made considerable progress. I believe most, if not all AFS organizations around the world are quite supportive of LGBTQ+ students, but they feel limited within certain cultures as far as finding host families, even facing serious legal issues in some countries.
I don’t think we have much of a problem with our own staff around the world and, to a large extent, our volunteers. And so I think one of the best ways we can tackle [bias] and make change [is by showing] that, even in the most conservative of environments, we do have students who, like I did, go to a family, get placed, without knowledge of that student’s sexuality, they have a great experience and later on let the family know after they come home “We had such a good time together and guess what, I’m gay.” And that has a domino effect and impacts a lot of people. It’s so simple and one of the most effective ways that we can help AFS organizations around the world to feel more comfortable and confident that they can accommodate openly gay kids.
A final note… My AFS experience changed my life in ways that continue to surprise me. I honestly can’t imagine what I might be doing today had it not been for the generosity of AFS supporters and volunteers. I’ve worked in international education for all of my adult life, and that’s not by accident – it’s because I have a profound belief in the impact these transformational experiences have on individuals and on the world – and we urgently need more such experiences today!
Melvin is a shining example of the power of intercultural exchange and the importance of championing diversity and equality at AFS. The LGBTQ+ community has always been a part of AFS. Now more than ever, LGBTQ+ people are openly included at every level of our organization.
The AFS-USA LGBTQ+ Exchange, composed of AFS Staff, Returnees, and Volunteers, is proud to offer support and resources for students, host families, and volunteers who identify or ally with the LGBTQ+ community.
Send us an email at [email protected] to connect with the community.
To donate towards our Pride Scholarship, which provides funds for openly-identifying and exemplary LGBTQ+ students to study abroad, please visit give.afsusa.org/diversity.