Being Out While Studying Abroad

Studying abroad as an LGBTQ individual brings unique issues to consider. While some countries may be more tolerant and open to LGBTQ people than the US, other countries may have more shame or social stigma attached to LGBTQ people. It is important to research your destination to find out about how LGBTQ individuals are treated in the local culture, what legal protections or restrictions exist for LGBTQ individuals, and some local LGBTQ resources you can connect with for support in the host country. You will have to decide on how open you would like to be with your sexuality and/or gender identity while abroad based on your level of comfort and the host country’s culture.

Returning to the US after studying abroad usually results in ‘reverse culture shock’, where aspects of US culture now seem strange due to the different experience the student has had while studying abroad. Some students have experimented with a new relationship, or a new sexual orientation or gender identity, or a new level of out-ness while abroad. Upon returning to the US, it may feel difficult to integrate the new parts of your identity with your old environment.

More information about Williams College Study Abroad Programs http://study-away.williams.edu/

Before Leaving, Plan Ahead:

Before you leave, it is important to review the policies and laws in your host area. They may differ from those in Williamstown, the United States, or your home country. It is important to inform yourself about your host country.

Things to consider before you leave campus

  • Is your identity legal in your new location? Are there any aspects of the law that you should be aware of?
  • Are behaviors (eye contact, smiling, hand holding) perceived differently in your new location?
  • Are there cultural differences based on sexuality that differ from the U.S. that you should know about?
  • What are the laws on assault and sexual identification? Countries may have more or fewer laws than the U.S. when it comes to protecting LGBTQ people from assault.
  • What are the support systems and organizations available for LGBTQ people?
  • Are you “out” as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or an ally? Cultures vary on how sexual identities and genders are defined and understood.
  • Some LGBTQ identifying people have described going abroad as a second coming out. How will you reestablish your identity in your new location?
  • Will you come out to the students going with you?

All of your advanced planning will be well worth it to enjoy your experience instead of worrying over the details. Making yourself as comfortable and safe a possible is key to your success abroad.

Safety Abroad:

Countries vary widely as to what (if any) legal protections are provided to LGBT individuals and whether “homosexual sex” is criminalized.

Research the legal status of LGBT people in your destination carefully, as you must follow all of your host country’s laws or risk prosecution. The International Lesbian and Gay Association provides information on LGBT legislation worldwide. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission also provides country-specific information on human rights violations against LGBT individuals.

What to do if you have a problem:
If you face problems due to your sexual orientation and/or gender identity while abroad, contact the head of your study abroad program immediately.

If you have been threatened or attacked for being LGBT, contact the US Embassy (or your country’s embassy if you are not a US citizen), the director of your study abroad program, and the local police immediately.

If you face prosecution due to criminalization of “homosexual sex”, immediately contact the US Embassy (or your country’s embassy if you are not a US citizen).

Health and Mental Health:

Health care systems differ around the world and may be different in their level of awareness of LGBTQ health needs. Be aware that while abroad, you may need to advocate for yourself when in need of health care or to maintain current treatment (i.e. prescriptions, HRT etc.)

If you will be sexually active while abroad, learn about the resources that will be available for safer sex in your host country. You can bring your own safer sex materials for use abroad if you are unsure as to their availability in the host country. Do not neglect your sexual health while abroad!
If you are traveling to a destination where you do not feel comfortable being out, be mindful of your mental health and stress level during your trip and keep information about existing resources available for consultation or assistance.
Coming Back:

It is important to keep in mind that others around you did not have the same experience as you, and you may have changed while away! Take it into consideration and think about how those changes may affect those around you.

Prepare yourself to experience some amount of reverse culture shock, as the unexpected confrontation with the familiar can be difficult. You may think differently about the US after your experience as you reflect on the differences between it and your host country. Friends and family may try but not fully understand, but remember that others who went abroad may feel the same way.

If you decided to come out while abroad, consider the implications of coming out when back home. Family and friends may want to dismiss your sexual orientation as temporary due to your study abroad instead of acknowledging it as a lifelong identity, or they may be interested to find out about the LGBTQ customs and attitudes you experienced in your host country.

More Info:

  • Information on Laws per Country: www.ilga.org
  • European Specific Information: www.ilga-europe.org
  • Middle East Specific Information: www.gaymiddleeast.com
  • Asia/Pacific Specific Information: www.utopia-asia.com
  • Overall Africa Information: www.overseas.iu.edu/lesbigay/resourcesafrica.htm
  • Latin and South America: www.clam.org.br

Some information above is adapted from:

Indiana University Office of Overseas Study (www.overseas.iu.edu/lesbigay/students.htm), Michigan State University Office of Study Abroad (www.studyabroad.isp.msu.edu/forms/glbt.html) and the Colgate University Office of LGBTQ Initiatives.