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 the starter list of definitions, which we have updated/added to:

  • 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.
  • sex - Sex is a label - male or female - that is assigned at birth based on the genitals one is born with.
  • sexual orientation - Who one is attracted to physically/sexually; it may not necessarily also indicate romantic attraction (see below).
  • romantic orientation - Who one is romantically/emotionally attracted to. Does not have to match one's sexual orientation.
  • cis gender - (pronounced "sis" gender) - When one's gender identity matches the biological sex one is born with. For example, a biological male who identifies as a "man." The term "non-trans" might also be used instead.
  • non-binary - A term often used by individuals who do not identify specifically as exclusively masculine or feminine. Similar terms include "genderqueer" or "fluid." Individuals may identify as both masculine and feminine, or neither - one's identity is not "either, or."
  • pronoun - Pronouns are linguistic tools that we use to refer to people. In English, the most commonly used pronouns are the ones that refer to a person's gender. Sometimes, people might assume the gender of another person based on appearance or name, which might resulted in sending harmful messages to individuals. A recommended tip is to not automatically assume what pronouns an individual might prefer - wait for them to tell you, or ask. Some examples are she/her/hers, he/him/his, or they/theirs/them. It is possible to indicate one's pronoun in the UI student records system, MyUI.
  • LGBTQIA - An abbreviation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, intersex, and allies. The Q can also refer to those who are "questioning" their sexual or gender orientation, while the A might also be used to refer to "asexual." It is more common to see variations of this, such as LGBT* (the * is meant to represent the wide variety of identities), LGBT, or LGBTQ.
  • lesbian - A common and acceptable term for a female who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to or committed to other people of the same sex. Not to be confused with women who have sex with women*.
  • gay - A common and acceptable term for a male who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to or committed to other people of the same sex. Not to be confused with men who have sex with men*.
  • 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 intersex 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 for many. [A hint – you’ll want to be careful about using this term, as some persons may find it very insulting, as it still can also be used negatively to express bias, discrimination, and harass someone.]
  • pansexual - Attraction to individuals without regard to gender, sexual orientation, or biological sex .
  • asexual - People who do not experience sexual attraction to anyone. ; A variation is "aromantic," for people who do not experience romantic attraction to anyone.
  • intersex - A person born with mixed sexual physiology.
  • ally - A member of the dominant majority, in this case heterosexual, culture who works to end oppression professionally and/or personally through support of, and as an advocate for, LGBT* 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 members of the LGBTQ+ community. 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.
  • no label - Many people choose not to label themselves at all, but may still identify with any of the identities and descriptions above, or others not covered here.

*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

Federal Laws

The U.S. federal government passed the Defense Against Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which prohibited 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. 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 in 2013 DOMA was declared by the U.S. Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. Same-sex marriage is now legal in all U.S. states. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that employers cannot fire employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

State of Iowa

Marriage/Civil Unions – Since 2009, Iowa law permits marriage licenses to be granted to same-sex couples, and was among the first states in the U.S. to do so before the 2013 Supreme Court decision.

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 LGBT* 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 LGBT* 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.

Immigration and Dependent Status

Same-sex marriage is legal in many countries in the world. Others recognize marriages performed in other countries. In some countries LGBT* persons and lifestyles are outlawed and imprisonment or even death may be part of the “punishment.”

With the Defense of Marriage Act being declared unconstitutional in 2013, the U.S. federal government will now issue dependent visas for same-sex spouses who are legally married in a country that recognizes same-sex marriage. Spouses are also able to obtain a green card. This means same-sex spouses of F-1 or J-1 students/scholars may obtain F-2/J-2 dependent visas.

Is Iowa City a Safe Place for Me?

Attitudes vary considerably across the United States, within individual states, even within individual cities and towns. 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. Recent polls of Iowans show majorities support same-sex marriage.

A Word of Caution

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.” This is true particularly when there is risk that family, friends, or the government at home could "find out" and negative repercussions occur. Whether or not any individual wishes to have their identity publicly known is entirely the decision of that individual.

If you are concerned about others from home knowing, be particularly cautious with social media and online news articles. There have been cases where students have granted interviews including information about their identity, and the articles were viewed online at home. In other cases students were told it was "just for a class paper" and then the article ended up being published publicly, and ready by people at home. Or information shared on social media has been shared with family/friends at home to "out" someone. Advisors with 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.

Campus, Community, and Internet Resources

An excellent resource for campus and community programs and support services can be found on the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website and includes information on:

  • Support networks
  • Programs and events
  • Financial aid and scholarships
  • Areas of study
  • Education and advocacy
  • Resources

Other useful campus and community resources include:

What If You Experience Bias or Discrimination?

If you are a University of Iowa student, reach out to the Campus Inclusion Team, who can provide support to you and also assess the situation to see if any campus rules may have been violated and what your options are.

Violence or threats of violence should also be reported to police by calling 911. If you are on campus, you can also contact the UI Department of Public Safety by calling 319-335-5022 or the Threat Assessment Team by calling 319-384-2955.

If you are a University of Iowa J-1 scholar, you may contact the office of Office of Institutional Equity.