Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Identity Abroad

Jump to student and staff reflections

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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ. Concepts of identity and the way LGBTQ individuals are perceived vary from country to country, and even from region to region within some countries. U.S. 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 LGBTQ identity.

National laws and public opinion trends do not always tell the full story of what an LGBTQ student can expect. Just as there are Iowans who vehemently oppose the legalization of same sex marriage, there are individuals who support LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ individuals? What if you academic goals lead you to a place that does not fit this ideal? Some LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ students!

Program Selection

Just as the level of support from the local community may vary, some programs may be better equipped to address the needs of LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ identity? These are important questions to ask as you consider program options. You may wish to take a look at the LGBTQ Study Abroad Questionnaire and discuss it when meeting with your study abroad advisor or contacting potential study abroad program providers.

Study Abroad Advising and LGBTQ Identity

Your study abroad advisor will be able to offer insight or recommend resources to learn more about the attitudes toward LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ issues, while others may specifically offer LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ identity abroad that are posted below.

Student and staff reflections


Programs Addressing LGBTQ issues

Here are a few examples of UI-sponsored programs that either address LGBTQ 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.


The local resources links below are relevant for LGBTQ students on the UI campus. The national and international resources links include organizations, articles, success stories and tips for LGBTQ students preparing to go abroad.

University of Iowa LGBTQ Resources

UI Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Resource Center
The LGBTQRC opened its doors in Fall 2006 as a space to interact with other LGBTQ students and enhance student educational experience at the University of Iowa.

Spectrum UI
Spectrum UI (formerly called the University of Iowa Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Allied Union) is more than 30 years old, making it one of the oldest campus LGBTQ organizations in the US. In fact,  it is the oldest state university LGBTQ organization that has been continuously funding and recognized in the U.S.

National and International LGBTQ Resources

U.S. Department of State
Advice, information, and additional resources that address international LGBTQ issues. Country-specific profile pages on this website include a "Local Laws and Special Considerations" section that frequently details safety considerations specific to LGBTQ travelers.

A crowdsourced compilation of information about the legal status and social climate for LGBTQ people worldwide, with listings by country.

NYU LGBTQ Student to Student Guide
A guide to various locations NYU students have traveled complete with legislation, cultural differences, location-specific resources and student stories.

ILGA Europe
Country-by-country description of LGBTQ rights in European nations

Utopia Asia
Travel information, news, links to resources and organizations and legislation for various countries in Asia.

NAFSA Rainbow Special Interest Group
Includes general information about study abroad, country and region specific links, articles, study abroad programs, and scholarship opportunities.

NAFSA Rainbow Scholarship
This scholarship will be awarded to a deserving LGBTQI student who aims to participate in a high-quality, rigorous education abroad program. Applicants must meet general FEA scholarship eligibility requirements & preferences. 

IES Abroad
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.

International Lesbian and Gay Association
A worldwide federation of 1,200 member organisations from 125 countries campaigning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex rights.

LGBTQ Travel in Africa Report
A report written by the US Department of State on issues and conditions an LGBTQ student might face while studying abroad in Africa. 

Immigration Equality
Immigration Equality represents gay and transgender people fleeing Russia and other dangerous countries. Through its LGBTQ asylum program, it represents more than 400 people every year.

Preparing for International Travel: Reflective Questions

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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ identity while abroad. What role as a visitor do you, or should you, have in the host culture? Does your right to be LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ 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 LGBTQ 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.

Local LGBTQ Community, Networking and Dating

Obtain country-specific information about the support systems (meeting places, organizations, etc.) available in your host country. Are these appropriate for you? Are there safety issues to consider? Do you visit similar places in your home community? In many locations, there will be a sizable community with multiple LGBTQ resources and venues. In other locations, this may not be the case. It is not always advisable to seek out connections to the local LGBTQ population if there are legal and safety concerns about doing so. If you are traveling short-term with a structured group itinerary, the goals of your travel will not typically allow for extra time for making personal connections.

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 all sexual orientations. This is a great way to explore cultural differences that will be relevant to your interpersonal interactions. If you might consider being sexually active abroad, gather information about safer sex practices and local laws first. Inform yourself of local health issues and preventative guidelines by consulting the CDC Travelers' Health webpages.

Local Laws and Personal Safety

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? If you find out there are restrictive laws in your intended host country, will you re-consider your options? Check the national/international resource list on this webpage for ways to explore legal and social climates LGBTQ people face in various countries.

Deciding Whether to Be "Out"

If you regularly share your LGBTQ identity in your home country, reflect on what it means to leave behind a support system of friends and family. Being LGBTQ abroad has been described by some as a second coming out,with multiple decisions to be made about who to tell, when and how. How will you re-establish your identity overseas? Have you selected a program provider that can offer moral support and cultural interpretations as you learn more about what it means to be LGBTQ in your new environment? If you are working with a program provider, can they connect you with other LGBTQ students who have traveled to the program location before you?


Some programs place students in homestays with local famiies,  or in other housing situations that encourage immersion in the local host culture. What are the  implications of being identified as LGBTQ in the host-culture? How might coming out affect the host family or roommate relationship? Are housing arrangements sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ students?

UI Study Abroad Staff Support and Program-Specific Information

UI Study Abroad staff are dedicated to LGBTQ inclusion in education abroad. When you leave Iowa, you may encounter in-country staff and faculty representing other institutions who are bound by a different set of laws and cultural norms. This may present a different climate of  receptivity and awareness. UI Study Abroad staff are available to help you learn more about the climate you can anticipate abroad, and to help you find identity-related support information. You don't have to plan alone; ask a study abroad advisor for help!

Additional resources: How to Plan a Safe Trip for Gay and Transgender Travelers

While You're Abroad

While you’re abroad, you will certainly realize that attitudes and tolerance toward LGBTQ issues vary from country to country. LGBTQ 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!