Melvin Harmon has been involved with and dedicated to student exchange since the late 1970’s, starting with his own year abroad in Malaysia in 1980. Inspired by the life-changing nature of his experience, he later embarked on a career of international education with AFS in 1986 and today he 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, the marketing and development or our outbound programs, and overseeing diversity and inclusion initiatives for our participants. Melvin is a member of AFS-USA’s IDEA Workgroup, 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 combined with 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 bit of 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 (primarily my teachers) 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 making sure I had a suitcase. I was, of course, in a perpetual state of disbelief, hardly able to grasp my good fortune. I went abroad at a time when AFS applicants could not choose their destinations and, looking back, that proved to be a very good approach since AFS’ choice of Malaysia was, hands down, the perfect choice for me. Truly, the best choice ever!
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 quite 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 [of sexual orientation/identity] onto 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 predators, whispers about the two women who referred to themselves as “sisters” or, on a national scale, the latest rantings from Anita Bryant.
Being different, some of the kids at school 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 much of anything. I sat there quietly and mostly kept to myself.
What the experience in Malaysia [gave me] was an incredible level of confidence. By the time I returned from Malaysia, I had 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 of high school 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 in my small southern town. My AFS year in Malaysia was, in a word, transformative.
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 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 would laugh and say, “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 – and continues to have – 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. For example, 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, whether it was within my own family or in other, more public settings.
During my last year at school, I went to visit friends in New Jersey and Connecticut, both AFSers with me in Malaysia. One day during that visit, I took a bus to check out New York City – a place I had always dreamed of visiting. When I arrived, I said to myself, “This is where I need to be.” Not long after returning home from that visit, 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?
So, I packed up my huge monstrous car (a 1970-something Ford LTD) with my TV, turntable, and some clothes and made my way north. I had arranged to stay with my friend in New Jersey, and, a few days after arriving at her home, I returned to New York City and proceeded to park myself in the lobby of the AFS building. I informed the receptionist that, “I need to talk to somebody about working here. Whether it’s mopping the floors or whatever, I just need to work here. This is where I’m supposed to be.” Eventually, someone from HR talked to me that day because the receptionist had informed her that I wouldn’t leave. By the end of the day, I was offered a job as someone’s assistant – the person responsible for family and student recruitment in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Less than a month later, I moved to New York and started my AFS career doing lots of typing and taking tons of calls from volunteers. And that was how I got in the door.
How has AFS policy and perceptions of LGBTQIA+ students changed since your time as an exchange student?
The first experience I had with AFS about having any sort of opinion regarding students being LGBTQIA+ was when I came to work at AFS. At the time, I was an assistant typing notes and letters, so I wasn’t aware of actual policies regarding students and host families, but I did hear that students were being sent home, seemingly because they came out of the closet and, after doing so, were kicked out of their host families and nobody else 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 because they openly identified as LGBTQIA+. 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 what was called “closure counseling” and the staff from the Participant Support team were very kind and friendly, working toward a goal of sending them home without feeling like a failure.
In the 1980s, would AFS have accepted a host family that identified as LGBTQIA+?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know if there was a written policy, but if a host family that included parents (or even children) identifying as LGBTQIA+, I think a majority of our volunteers would’ve said no, though I can’t speak for all of them. For some volunteers, they simply felt that the social stigma at school would add an additional layer of stress to the student’s adjustment (as opposed to the volunteer believing that LGBTQIA+ families weren’t suitable for hosting). At that time, an LGBTQIA+ family probably wouldn’t have even bothered asking to be a host family. In all my time working at AFS in the 80s, I didn’t hear of any LGBTIA+ 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, with several of them visiting us quite regularly over the years.
What advice do you have for LGBTQIA+ students who want to study abroad?
LGBTQIA+ teenagers shouldn’t limit themselves to studying abroad only in progressive countries like Germany or Denmark. Don’t limit your choices, although it’s important to recognize that you may need to make adjustments (and even sacrifices) if you’re going to go to a country like 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. The notion of going back into the closet sounds like an unimaginable approach and, for some, it is and is simply too great of a sacrifice. But, for those who choose to do so in order to experience a specific culture, chances are that they will end up achieving something quite remarkable. For example, after I came home and my host family, friends, and relatives in Malaysia discovered I was gay, it probably opened their eyes in a new (and more positive) way. They loved me, and I loved them. I imagine their reactions to have been something along the lines of “Oh! Really? Melvin’s gay? Okay, whatever.” This level of [almost] non-reaction is one very effective way in which we change hearts and minds.
Do you have any advice for LGBTQIA+ 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. Things have changed a lot in a short amount of time and, in many schools and communities, LGBTQIA+ parents/guardians present a familiar family composition. But, that’s not the case everywhere and, for those living in communities that are less familiar with LGBTQIA+ families, my advice is to be patient with the reactions to our families that stem from a lack of familiarity. It’s easy to get angry and impatient but, in doing so, we rarely achieve what we need to accomplish. Stay the course, engage, show interest, make a good impression. For me, I wanted to be respected as a parent and sometimes that was challenging. Some teachers at the school gave the impression that they didn’t consider us to be a “real” family or they suspected us of having dubious motives for hosting a student. So, it was through lots of engagement with the school, showing up for every school event that included parents/guardians, and attending the PTA meetings that taught people that we weren’t 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 LGBTQIA+ community?
I think we’ve made considerable progress. I believe most, if not all AFS organizations around the world are quite supportive of LGBTQIA+ students. I understand that some AFS organizations feel limited within their cultures as far as finding host families, with some even facing serious legal issues.
I don’t think we have a significant level of challenge within our own staff and volunteers – and that includes most all AFS countries. 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 or identity), 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. In fact, it has already been happening for decades!
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 LGBTQIA+ community has always been a part of AFS. Now more than ever, LGBTQIA+ people are openly included at every level of our organization.
AFS-USA staff and volunteers are proud to offer support and resources for students, host families, and volunteers who identify or ally with the LGBTQIA+ community.
For more information, contact the AFS-USA IDEA Workgroup at [email protected].