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LGBTQ Students & Study Abroad

You may already identify as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, or queer student, or you may still be exploring your identity. In either case, you will find that the social climate, laws, and personal interactions of other cultures will often differ from the U.S. While researching study abroad programs and preparing for departure, it is important to reflect on the culturally based ideas and definitions of gender and sexual identity. Consider carefully how your identity as a LGBTQ person may influence your relationships with host nationals, your cultural adjustment, and your overall education abroad experience.

Learn about your host country before you go

In some cultures, Western understandings of "gay" and "straight" don't exist, or don't carry the same importance as they do in the U.S. People involved in same-sex relationships may not see this as an identity. In other cultures, there are active social movements for civil rights for sexual and gender minorities. In preparing for your study abroad experience, it is important for you to research the LGBTQ climate of the country you will be visiting.

If you are open about your gender and/or sexual identity, consider the following as you research potential study abroad countries:

  • The culture of a country might make you feel like you are either "sent back into the closet" or, in countries that are more progressive than the US, freer to express yourself.
  • If your host country is NOT progressive or accepting of the LGBTQ community, make sure you understand the political climate and consider your personal safety before confronting this way of thinking.

If you are not open about your gender and/or sexual identity, along with the above, consider the following as you research potential study abroad countries:

  • Some countries will make it easier for you to come out; make sure that you have a support network during this time.
  • If you are not public about your identity, realize that finding that community will be a bit more difficult while abroad. Finding groups or organizations before you go is essential. Check out the links in the campus and international resources sections.

Questions to ask

As part of your pre-departure preparations, ask these questions of yourself, your study abroad adviser, and your study abroad program.

  • Does your right to be LGBTQ in the United States 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?
  • What are gender relations in the host culture?
  • What is considered typical male and female social behavior in the host culture?
  • What is the social perception of members of the LGBTQ community?
  • What roles do trans* people play in the host culture?
  • Does your study abroad program offer LGBTQ friendly housing?
  • Does your study abroad program discuss LGBTQ considerations during their orientation? 

Legal issues to consider before going abroad

The laws governing LGBTQ relationships and sexual activity differ from country to country. U.S. citizens must abide by the laws of a host country; knowing these laws may help you to decide what countries you might like to visit if you will be out abroad or if you will pursue relationships while abroad. Even if you do not plan to have a sexual relationship while away, you should be informed about specific laws pertaining to sexual behavior and sexual/gender identity. When doing your research, try to ascertain:

  • The legality of same-sex sexual behavior (sometimes male-male sexual behavior is illegal while female-female sexual behavior is not), including sodomy laws
  • The age of consent for sexual behavior (which may differ from the age of consent for opposite-sex sexual behavior)
  • Restrictions on freedom of association or expression for LGBTQ people
  • Anti-discrimination laws (these can be national laws or specific to local areas)

You may find that you can be more open about your identity than in the U.S., or that you would need to hide your sexual or gender identity completely to avoid cultural ostracism or arrest. Understanding this will help you decide where you would, or would not, want to study.

For information on laws in countries you may be visiting, please look into these websites: LGBTQ rights around the world.

Campus resources

Rainbow Alliance: Rainbow Alliance provides a safe space for students of all genders and sexualities by supporting an active and social LGBTQQIA community.

Northwestern Greek Allies: This longstanding fraternity/sorority organization promotes educational programming and diversity with regard to to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students and their allies.

LGBT Resource Center: A branch of the Center for Student Involvement, the LGBT Resource Center acts as hub for organizations, resources, services, and programs of interest to the LGBT and Allied community at Northwestern.

LGBTQA Campus Advisory Network: This network works to identify the needs of Northwestern LGBTQA community members and provides training and educational resources.

International resources

International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ilga): Country specific information related to legal rights and social climate.

Amnesty International Human Rights: Amnesty International is a global movement that campaigns to end human rights abuses.

Behind the Mask: A web magazine devoted to lesbian and gay affairs in Africa, this site includes the legal and social status of gay and lesbian communities in each country.

Gay Lesbian Arabic Society: GLAS serves as a networking organization for Gays and Lesbians of Arab descent or those living in Arab countries.

Global Gayz.com: Journal website documenting the travels of LGBT persons throughout the countries and cities all over the world.

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission: IGLHRC protest and advance the human rights of all people and communities subject to discrimination or abuse based on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.

The International Lesbian and Gay Association: This world-wide federation of national and local groups focuses public and government attention on cases of discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people.

Rainbow SIG: Rainbow SIG goals include counseling international students and study abroad students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Trans* and Traveling: This website focuses on trans discrimination during security procedures in airports.