Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Identity Abroad
Having a gender identity or sexual orientation that conflicts with social expectations can be challenging, even in a culture you call your own. When you venture out in the world, you carry your identity with you even if it is not readily apparent to those around you. Going abroad can therefore represent a second "coming out", and you will need to make decisions about how and when to express your LGBT identity. If you currently enjoy a community of supportive friends and/or family, contact with those people may be limited to email or other means of long-distance sharing while you are away. It is therefore helpful to think about what kind of support may be available to you in your new environment.
Being abroad will present opportunities to think about identity in a whole new cultural context, which can be a rewarding learning experience that challenges your preconceived notions of what it means to be LGBT. Concepts of identity and the way LGBT individuals are perceived vary from country to country, and even from region to region within some countries. US students abroad may find themselves visiting places that are more affirming of LBGT identity than the United States, and this difference may be reflected in national laws that extend equal access and protection. Other countries may have laws that criminalize homosexuality and an accompanying social hostility toward any public expression of LGBT identity. (See recent map of international laws related to homosexuality.)
National laws and public opinion trends do not always tell the full story of what an LGBT student can expect. Just as there are Iowans who vehemently oppose the legalization of same sex marriage, there are individuals who support LGBT communities in countries that demonstrate legal intolerance. It can be helpful to consider several different sources when gathering information to assess the relative standing of LGBT individuals in any place you plan to visit. It is also helpful to think carefully about your goals for study abroad. How important is it to be in a location that is relatively inclusive of LGBT individuals? What if you academic goals lead you to a place that does not fit this ideal? Some LGBT students may find that the perfect program is in a location that is less than affirming. A great deal can be learned from this type of experience; there is no right or wrong place to study for LGBT students!
Just as the level of support from the local community may vary, some programs may be better equipped to address the needs of LGBT students than others. Any study abroad program available to UI students is a possibility. The key is to identify your expectations and clarify what kind of support the programs you consider are able to offer. Careful program selection and solid pre-departure planning will help you identify opportunities that will allow your LGBT identity to be an asset, not a barrier, to your cross-cultural learning.
How ready is your program provider to offer support or address needs related to your LGBT identity, like arranging a gay-friendly host family? How able will in-country staff be to help answer questions about local attitudes and concepts of LGBT identity? These are important questions to ask as you consider program options. You may wish to take a look at the LGBT Study Abroad Questionnaire and discuss it when meeting with your study abroad advisor or contacting potential study abroad program providers.
Study Abroad Advising and LGBT Identity
Your study abroad advisor will be able to offer insight or recommend resources to learn more about the attitudes toward LGBT individuals in your potential study abroad location. Concerns about your sexual orientation or gender identity should not be a barrier to studying abroad. Please call the Study Abroad office at 319-335-0353 to schedule an appointment with study abroad advisor.
You will be encouraged to consider all program options, and to address any concerns related to identity with the staff of potential programs. Your study abroad advisor can help you decide how best to address the issue with program staff if you are in need of advice or assistance.
Note that some programs may offer coursework addressing LGBT issues, while others may specifically offer LGBT friendly housing options or other student services support. A short listing of examples of each (by no means all inclusive) can be found below. You are also encouraged to read some of the open letters from students and staff about LGBT identity abroad that are posted below.
Programs addressing LGBT issues
Here are a few examples of programs that either address LGBT issues in the academic curriculum or though student services. This is not a definitive list, so your program search should not be limited to the following. A blank program provider questionnaire can be found above in the program selection section. We welcome further submissions for posting.
CIEE: Various Locations Worldwide CIEE has a strong track record of addressing LGBT issues, including proactive searching for housing placements that are LGBT-friendly in a variety of locations. LGBT Questionnaire Responses, CIEE
Augsburg College: Gender and Social Change in Mesoamerica The Augsburg program options in Cuernavaca are particularly well connected to local LGBT community resources, including potential host families. One program in particular addresses LGBT issues as part of the academic program.
The local resources links below are relevant for LGBT students on the UI campus. The national and international resources links include organizations, articles, success stories and tips for LGBT students preparing to go abroad.
Location and information about the University of Iowa LGBT Center.
The University of Iowa's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Allied Union is more than 30 years old, making it one of the oldest campus lesbigay organization in the US. In fact, today it is the oldest state university recognized and continuously funded GLBTA student organization in the US.
National and International Resources
U.S. Department of State
Advice, information, and additional resources that address international LGBT issues.
NYU LGBT Student to Student Guide
A guide to various locations NYU students have traveled complete with legislation, cultural differences, location-specific resources and student stories.
Country-by-country description of LGBT rights in European nations
Gay Middle East
Includes legislation, news articles and travelers stories from countries in the Middle East
Travel information, news, links to resources and organizations and legislation for various countries in Asia
Gay-Mart: Gay and Lesbian Travel and Resource Guide
A city by city guide to resources and places of interest
Behind the Mask
A magazine devoted to gay affairs in Africa, includes: news items, articles and forums.
NAFSA Rainbow Special Interest Group
Includes general information about study abroad, country and region specific links, articles, study abroad programs, and scholarship opportunities
This is a program provider site that lists resources by country and provides some helpful guides for parents and students.
The Global Gay Guide Network
A worldwide directory of sites or interest, accommodations, events and news articles
LGBT Travel in Africa Report
A report written by the US Department of State on issues and conditions an LGBT student might face while studying abroad in Africa.
Before you go abroad, it is important to reflect on the culturally based ideas and definitions of sexual identity and consider carefully how your identity as a LGBT person may affect your relationships with host country nationals, your cultural adjustment and your overall study abroad experience. It is important to be aware that cultures vary in terms of what is considered appropriate behavior when interacting with someone from another society. Cultures also vary in terms of how sexual identities are defined and understood.
Part of your pre-departure preparations should include reflecting on the larger context of your LGBT identity while abroad. What role as a visitor do you, or should you, have in the host culture? Does your right to be LGBT in your home country conflict with your host country's religious or cultural values and traditions? How will you reconcile your human rights with the cultural values of your host society? Are there safety considerations that you should be aware of? Refer to the resources listed below and consider the following:
Culture and Identity
Cultures vary in terms of what is considered appropriate behavior and how sexual identities are defined and understood. Learn as much as possible before you leave about the culture-specific norms of friendship and dating, styles of behavior and general attitudes. Behavioral signals (such as eye contact, a smile, touching) may lead us astray in a foreign culture. For example, in several Middle Eastern countries hand-holding among males is a custom of special friendship and respect and does not necessarily imply homosexuality or a gay identity. While LGBT people are part of the social fabric throughout the world, the very notion of such identities as they are defined in North America may not exist in your host country. As these issues are complex and vary widely throughout the world, you may want to contact (through e-mail, etc.) other LGBT people from the host country to ask them specific questions. For more information on this topic, consult the following book, available in the UIowa Main Library: Same Sex, Different Cultures: Exploring Gay and Lesbian Lives. Gilbert Herdt. Westview Press, 1998.
Obtain country-specific information on the support systems (meeting places, organizations, etc.) available in your host country. Are these appropriate for you? Do you visit similar places in your home community?
Familiarize yourself with the laws of your host country. In some countries, where sexual orientation can be a basis for persecution under the law, personal safety considerations may require you to hide your sexual identity. Inform yourself about country-specific laws on age of consent, traveling with print or other materials on sexual orientation, etc. If necessary, are you willing to hide your sexual identity? After finding out about the laws of the host country, would you re-consider your options?
If you are “out” in your home country, reflect on what it means to leave behind a support system of friends and family. Being LGBT abroad has been described by some as a second coming out. How will you re-establish your identity overseas?
Often programs place students in home-stay or housing situations so that they may be more immersed in the local host culture. It is important that all students are aware of and consider the implication of being identified as LGBT in the host-culture and how coming out might affect the host-family relationship. Are housing arrangements sensitive to the needs of LGBT students?
Program Specific Information
While the study abroad office in your home country may be inclusive of LGBT perspectives, the in-country staff and faculty may represent another office and culture that will present a different climate. Depending on this climate, you may need to look outside of the office for support related to sexual identity issues or LGBT community information. Ask your program provider.
Before you leave the US, we encourage you to learn as much as possible about the culture-specific norms of friendship and dating for relationships between people of any sexual orientation. Inform yourself of important safe sex practices, and access to LGBT sexual health advice (see Health and Travel section below).
While You're Abroad
While you’re abroad, you will certainly realize that attitudes and tolerance toward LGBT issues vary from country to country. LGBT students may find that their sexual identity takes on different meaning or significance within the host culture. In some situations, your identity as a US citizen may be a greater influence on your interaction with host country nationals than your sexual identity. The benefits of the study abroad experience remain the same, however, whatever your identity. A sojourn abroad is a time of personal growth and discovery. Many transformations in personal development and self awareness can occur, prompted by the fact that the restrictions of the home culture have been removed. Enjoy the experience and learn from every situation!
Check out a recent blog from a UI student who attended Mardi Gras 2011 in Sydney, Australia, one of the largest LGBT events in the world. The Sydney Mardi Gras started in late June 1978, in an effort to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that spurred the modern Gay Rights Movement in New York City in June of 1969. The first event in Sydney met with police violence. By 1993, the now mainstream event attracted over half a million participants. Sydney Mardi Gras takes place each summer over the course of several weeks and has grown to include parties, parades, performances, a film festival, fairs, harbor regattas and more. A history of the event and other information can be found on the official Mardi Gras website. The flamboyant and sexual overtones of some elements of this event (and others like it elsewhere in the world) have at times sparked controversy, both outside and within the LGBT community.