Studying abroad as an LGBTQA student and being out while abroad can have implications for your experiences in a different country, and it is essential to explore what this may mean for you. It is highly likely that no matter what destination you choose, you will encounter ideologies that differ from those in the United States, and you will learn to adapt to different customs while abroad. Many countries are more accepting of LGBTQA rights and equality than the US. Some countries are less accepting, and this may mean not being as open about your gender identity or sexual orientation as you are at home, in order to protect your safety.
It is important to research and be well informed on what the attitudes, customs, and laws of your host country might be. In addition, finding supportive peers, family, or other relationships and support networks in the United States and abroad is important to ensuring that you have a healthy and successful transition each way.
Get to know your destination
Explore LGBTQA travel guides and internet resources. Talk with other LGBTQ and allies about their experiences in certain countries or regions to gather as much information as possible upon which to make your choices and decisions. Once in your host country, find out what local newspapers, e-magazines or online resources may be available. Some questions to consider may include:
- How open will I be about my sexual orientation and gender identity or my identity as an LGBT ally with my teachers, peers, friends, host family and others?
- How important is it to me to find other LGBT students and friends while abroad? How will I make connections with other LGBT students, local residents, or community organizations and gathering places?
- What resources are available in my host country for LGBT people?
- Are there any LGBTQA-friendly establishments nearby? How can I find them?
- What are my safety needs and perceptions, and how can they best be met?
- Will I need access to any medications, supplies, or services due to my transgender status? Are they available in my host country? If not, will I need any additional documentation to travel with my medication or supplies?
Understand the context, customs, and attitudes in your host country
Understand the context, customs, and attitudes in your host country. Similar expressions or behaviors may have vastly different meanings in different places. In some locations when you are outside distinct gay 'neighborhoods' or specific vacation or resort facilities, open expressions of your sexual orientation might be frowned upon.
In some other areas of the world, expressions of friendship (such as eye contact, a smile, touching, and physical proximity) may be quite different than those expressed among your U.S. peers and cause you to experience confusion or uncertainty about who may or may not be LGBTQA. 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. Some questions to consider may include:
- What are the cultural and local attitudes towards Americans, tourists, and sexual orientation and gender identity in my host country?
- What are police attitudes towards local residents, tourists, LGBTQA visitors?
- What is considered typical male and female social behavior and customary gender relations and social patterns in the host country?
- What may make the coming out process different in the host country compared to the U.S.?
- What are the norms and behavioral expectations within the LGBTQA communities in my host country?
- What is the social perception of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in my host country? How are allies socially defined? What roles do transgender people play in the host culture?
Learn your host country's LGBTQA-related laws
Learn the laws of your host country regarding LGBTQA issues, same-sex sexual behavior and expressions of LGBTQA identity and community. You are required to follow the law in your host country. Once outside the United States you are no longer protected by U.S. laws. If same-sex acts are illegal in your host country and you are caught engaging in them (or presumed to have engaged in them), you could be arrested and imprisoned in that country. Some countries are more liberal than the U.S. and in other countries, the penalties are very severe. Some questions to consider may include:
- Are there “public decency” laws, or “public indecency” laws?
- What is the age of consent? Does it differ for heterosexual versus same-sex couples?
- Does the law require having “proper identification” at all times?
- What is the police attitude towards the local LGBTQA community?
- Will laws and attitudes be the same for different social classes or geographic areas?
Think about changes that may occur when you return home
A journey 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. Returning home is therefore a time of transition that can be difficult at times. Please see the Returning From Study Abroad page for more information and ways to handle the transition to life back home. Some questions to consider may include:
- If you choose to come out while abroad but haven't been out at home, how will this affect your return to friends and family? Will you be able to re-integrate these relationships upon your return or will you need to find a different supportive community?
- While abroad, did you deal with any difficult situations or questions about your sexual orientation or gender identity? Remember that CAPS is available to talk through any issues you might like, and the Prism Center is also a great resource.
- How have you grown and changed through your experience abroad?
Diversity Abroad - Information on preparing to study abroad as an LGBTQ+ student
ILGA - Information on individual country legislation concerning LGBTQIA rights
IES Abroad - Information for transgender students
Michigan State University - In-depth step-by-step questions, links, and information
Pathways to Safety - Information and international toll-free crisis phone number/live chat for sexual assault and abuse survivors