Resource Page for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues for International Students
ISSS welcomes all international students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. We recognize that students coming to study in the United States come from a variety of perspectives and experiences, and will likely encounter numerous social and cultural ways that differ from home. This website offers an anonymous means for international students to learn more about these issues, read definitions of commonly used terms, learn about local, state, and federal laws, and view links to campus and community resources.
The terminology used by Americans is often confusing to international visitors. To begin with, we’ll start with a list of very basic definitions. We thank the University of Minnesota’s International Student and Scholar Services office for a very comprehensive and succinct list of definitions:
- sexual orientation - a person’s emotional, physical, and/or sexual attraction and the expression of that attraction. Most people become aware of their sexual orientation during adolescence.
- heterosexual - a person who is emotionally, physically, and /or sexually attracted or committed to members of the other sex.
- homosexual - -a person who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted or committed to members of the same sex.
- gender identity - A person’s sense of being masculine, feminine, in-between or androgynous. It is important to recognize that this is independent from a person’s biological sex.
- gender identity vs. sexual orientation - Gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation. Gender identity, the sense that one is a boy or a girl, is usually manifested by the age of 3 or 4 years. Sexual orientation, the sense of which gender one is emotionally, physically and/or sexually attracted to, does not manifest itself until much later in life, usually after puberty and often not until full adulthood.
- LGBTQIA - an abbreviation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, intersexed, and allies. While not exhaustive, this abbreviation is often used to represent the community as a whole. The Q can also refer to those who are questioning their sexual or gender orientation.
- gay - a common and acceptable term for a male homosexual, this includes those who identify as male and are emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to or committed to others who identify as male. Not to be confused with men who have sex with men*.
- lesbian - a common and acceptable term for a female homosexual, including those who identify as women and are emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to or committed to others who identify as female. Not to be confused with women who have sex with women*
- bisexual - a common and acceptable term for a person who may be emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted or committed to members of both the male and female sexes.
- transgender - a broad term for all gender variant people, including transsexuals, transvestites, drag kings, drag queens, and intersexed people, and is meant to include anyone who does not identify with the traditional roles of male/female that are imposed by biological sex.
- queer - a historically negative term meaning homosexual; which members of the “queer” community have reclaimed, the term has a positive and/or political connotation. [A hint – you’ll want to be careful about using this term, as some persons may find it very insulting.]
- intersexed - a person born with mixed sexual physiology.
- ally - a member of the dominant majority, in this case heterosexual, culture who works to end oppression in his/her professional and personal life through support of, and as an advocate for the oppressed population, in this case GLBTQI people.
- homophobia - the irrational fear of homosexuals, homosexuality, or any behavior, belief, or attitude of self or others, which doesn’t conform to rigid sex-role stereotypes. It is the fear that enforces and is enforced by sexism and heterosexism. The extreme behavior of homophobia is violence against homosexuals. It can occur anywhere- on personal, social, institutional, and societal levels.
- heterosexism - the assumption that all people are or should be heterosexual. Heterosexism excludes the needs, concerns, and life experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people while it gives advantages to heterosexual people. It is often a subtle form of oppression which reinforces realities of silence and invisibility for gays and lesbians.
*The terms gay and lesbian refer to socially constructed identities which may or may not be applicable in a new cultural context. There are many cultures in the world that do not equate a social identity to same sex sexual behavior.
Laws, Marriage, and Discrimination
To date, laws relating to same-sex unions/marriages, civil rights protections, benefits, etc. are very decentralized in the U.S.
At the federal level, there are currently no laws that protect GLBT persons or permit same-sex marriages or unions. In fact, the U.S. federal government passed the Defense Against Marriage Act in 1996, which prohibits the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex unions but did give individual states the right to decide on their own whether they would recognize same-sex unions/marriages permitted by other states. However, in 2011 the federal government did take major steps such as repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the U.S. military, and movement is underway by some congressional leaders to repeal the Defense Against Marriage Act.
State of Iowa
Marriage/Civil Unions – Since 2009, Iowa law permits marriage licenses to be granted to same-sex couples. As of 2011, five other states currently grant marriage licenses: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, plus Washington, D.C. Oregon’s Coquille and Washington state’s Suquamish Native American tribes also have tribal laws permitting same-sex marriage. The state of Maryland currently recognizes same-sex marriages but does not grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Several other states permit “civil unions,” which provide varying levels of the rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples.
Discrimination – In May 2007, Iowa Governor Chet Culver signed a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, education, public accommodations, and credit practices. Iowa is also a state that provides protection to GLBT students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation/gender identity. This means it is against the law to fire someone, deny renting an apartment or providing a bank loan, etc. to someone based on sexual orientation/gender identity.
Adoption – Iowa permits unmarried adults to adopt children; there are no restrictions that prevent GLBT individuals or families from adopting.
Local Laws and University of Iowa Policies
Iowa City Laws – Iowa City included sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in its own civil rights code before the State of Iowa did so. Iowa City also provides same-sex partner benefits to municipal employees
The University of Iowa - The University of Iowa prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation/gender identity. It too offers benefits to same-sex partners. Iowa was the first school in the Big 10 conference to offer health insurance coverage to same-sex partners back in 1992. All schools in the Big 10 conference now offer benefits to same-sex couples, except Nebraska, which recently joined the conference. Discussion by the Nebraska Board of Regents in 2011 has opened the door to possibly adopting same-sex benefits at public higher education institutions there.
Immigration and Dependent Status
As of 2011, same-sex marriage is allowed in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden. Other countries see same-sex marriage available in specific states or cities, such as Mexico and the U.S. Still other countries recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. In some countries GLBT persons and lifestyles are outlawed and imprisonment or even death may be part of the “punishment.”.
Despite being legal and/or recognized in several countries, unfortunately these marriages and unions are not recognized by the U.S. federal government. Thus same-sex spouses/partners are not able to be included as dependents on the student’s or scholar’s immigration document. In other words, an I-20 or DS-2019 cannot be issued and they cannot obtain F-2 or J-2 dependent status.
This leaves many international GLBT families with visa problems. Any attempt to obtain a dependent visa for a same-sex spouse/partner will be denied by the Department of State, and any dependent or Green Card applications denied by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Nor is it possible to marry a same-sex partner in Iowa or any other state that permits same-sex marriage, and then apply for a Green Card based on marriage. Since immigration laws are federal laws, the Department of Homeland Security will not recognize marriages, even those performed in states where it is legal.
In cases of “bi-national” relationships between U.S. and foreign citizens, the foreign same-sex partner must have their own independent status that permits them to stay in the U.S. For example, being here as an F-1 student, or an H-1B employee, or being sponsored for an employment-based Green Card. In fact, even if a bi-national same-sex couple is married in a place that permits it, such as Connecticut or Massachusetts, or abroad in Spain, Canada, etc., that could actually harm the non-U.S. partner’s immigration status if the marriage is discovered by U.S. immigration. This is because the non-U.S. spouse would be viewed, via the marriage to the U.S. citizen, as having the intent to remain in the U.S. (the same assumption is made regarding opposite-sex marriages to U.S. citizens or permanent residents), which violates the terms of non-immigrant visas. Immigration could then deny future immigration benefits to the non-U.S. spouse. ISSS strongly encourages seeking professional legal advice from attorneys experienced in GLBT and immigration issues.
There may be some hope of rectifying this in the future, although that future may yet be distant. The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 by Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, and to the U.S. Senate by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The bill would amend U.S. immigration law to make it possible for same-sex partners and spouses of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to seek permanent residency just as opposite-sex spouses may. Currently there does not exist sufficient support in either body to move the legislation forward at this point, and it appears unlikely that anything will happen in the near future. However, the chances of such a bill, or a similar version, being passed increasingly improves as American attitudes toward same-sex unions change and evolve.
Is Iowa City a Safe Place for Me?
Attitudes vary considerably across the United States, within individual states, even within individual cities and towns. There is no doubt that certain areas of the U.S. are much more conservative, and in some cases more repressive and even dangerous, than others. Iowa City is not immune to such problems. But overall in Iowa City this is rare, and Iowa City is generally judged to be a fairly safe place to be “out.” Iowa City has always been known as a fairly “liberal” university town. Yet Iowa is changing, as are other places, particularly in the urban areas such as Cedar Rapids or Des Moines. A recent state-wide survey of Iowans shows that 6 out of 10 support some sort of legally recognized unions for same-sex partners. We also recognize the fact that while Iowa City may be “safe” for most Americans, international students may have different reasons to be concerned or hesitate to be “out.” Advisers with the International Student & Scholar Services are always available to discuss any concerns students may have; you may also wish to contact some of the local organizations listed below to seek input from group members.
Students may find the UI’s Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender and Allied Union website very useful with suggestions for GLBT students living in the dormitories, how to handle harassment on campus, etc.
Campus, Community, and Internet Resources
- UI Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender and Allied Union 
- UI Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Staff and Faculty Association 
- University Counseling Service 
- Connections Iowa City community group 
- Women’s Resource and Action Center 
- One Iowa 
- Immigration Equality 
- Lambda Legal 
- NAFSA Rainbow Special Interest Group (for international educators with information specifically regarding international students)