Because I’m a gay man working in international education, students, parents and advisors often ask for my advice regarding LGBTQ study abroad students. Should we advise our gay students to stay in the closet while studying in less accepting places? Is it OK to tell anyone to hide an orientation or gender identity abroad? Here are my responses to those questions.
- It helps to remind students that our definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity are American definitions, rooted in our culture. Different cultures approach these matters differently, just as they might approach marriage or gender roles differently. Some cultures might be more accepting; others might be less accepting. When I speak with strangers in China, for example, I sometimes respond to their usual questions about my family by telling them directly that I’m married to a man—something I’m not always comfortable doing in the US. The reaction is almost always one of friendly curiosity: “Oh! You foreigners are different from us Chinese!” We should advise students to explore these differences before traveling abroad, reminding them that learning about cultural differences is part of the overall study abroad experience.
- For students studying in locations where homosexuality is illegal or LGBTQ identities are not welcomed, it’s OK to discourage students from coming out—in fact, it is essential to their safety. For students who have struggled to come out at home, who are proud to identify as LGBTQ, this can be difficult to accept. But there are real safety risks for LGBTQ students in certain regions of the world, including parts of the Middle East and Africa. Students who are not interested in heading back in the closet may want to consider alternative study abroad destinations. Even in locations where people are known to be accepting of LGBTQ identities, I often recommend that students who are unfamiliar with local culture proceed with caution. My advice? Don’t tell your local roommate or host family you identify as gay on your first day. Instead, take your time and learn about their views of LGBTQ matters—make sure you will be supported and accepted—before revealing this part of yourself to your hosts.
- Finally, advisors who work with LGBTQ students should help them explore online resources before they head abroad. For example:
- NAFSA’s Rainbow Special Interest Group (SIG) advises international educators on LGBTQ concerns and offers resources.
- The US State Department recently began offering travel advice for LGBTQ travelers, and they are continually expanding and revising their country pages to include relevant health and safety information.
- Once in country, students can work with on-site staff to identify resource centers serving local LGBTQ communities.
Like all study abroad students, LGBTQ students can have amazing, transformational experiences overseas. I often encourage them to explore local LGBTQ communities in order to understand what’s different, what’s the same, and more broadly, how our cultures differ. And I like to remind them that their unique experience in the US—growing up different—may be the thing that helps connect them to local people and make new, lifelong friendships.
By Mark Lenhart, Executive Director of CET Academic Programs
About CET: CET Academic Programs is a study abroad organization based in Washington, DC that has been designing and administering innovative educational programs abroad since 1982. CET offers semester and summer study abroad programs in Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Tunisia and Vietnam, as well as short-term, customized programs worldwide. Connect with CET on Facebook and Twitter.
About Mark: Mark Lenhart is the Executive Director of CET Academic Programs. Mark began his CET career as Resident Director of CET’s Harbin Chinese Language Program. After nearly five years studying and working in China, he became CET’s Director in 1995, and he oversaw CET’s expansion from a small provider of two Chinese language programs to a much larger organization with programs in eight countries. Mark frequently presents at national conferences on topics related to study abroad health and safety, the LGBTQ experience, and CET’s local roommates. Say hello to Mark on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.
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