Studying abroad is a life changing opportunity to experience another culture. If you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexed, or an ally (LGBTQIA, for short) this could include experimenting with and expressing alternate identities, both sexual and non-sexual.
It is important to evaluate your study abroad options considering how your new environment might impact the expression of your sexual orientation and/or gender identity. LGBTQIA life exists almost everywhere, but the degree to which it is visible varies. As you get to know people and places more intimately, you will find a plethora of welcoming institutions and hangouts. Approach the expression of our identity as another cross-cultural challenge. Be positive, flexible, and use sensitivity and openness in every interaction.
Choose Wisely and Plan!
As you choose a program, take the location’s entire environment into consideration in addition to whether or not your academic needs are being met. Be as open and honest as you can with your study abroad advisor and program staff so they can tell you about any culture-specific issues you need to consider. Ask how the host culture interprets and handles different sexual identities and gender expressions. What laws exist that affect LGBTQIs? What support services are available to deal with issues that could arise regarding housing, health, or safety?
Adapt to Your New Environment
While abroad, you'll be a guest of your host country. To engage fully, you must be willing to balance your own cultural values with those of your hosts. By actively listening to locals, you’ll become sensitive to subtle cues that indicate what is considered acceptable behavior. Hopefully, you won’t need to hide aspects of your true identity, but you might need to be more careful of your behavior. On the flipside, in some cultures good friends of the same gender hold hands, and kissing is a common way friends will greet one another.
Observe Local Manners
Understand when it's safe to discuss your sexual identity or gender expression with fellow students or hosts. What is commonplace discussion in public and private settings in the U.S. may not be considered polite conversation in your host culture. Same-sex marriage, gay adoption, same-sex partner benefits, and gays in the military may not be subjects of open debate overseas. Are all forms of sexual or gender expression, including kissing or holding hands (whether gay or straight) considered a private matter? Is any sexual topic a social taboo? Consider what can or should be discussed publicly in the classroom, in your housing situation, at social events, and in interactions with the local community. Don't take omissions or silences as intolerance, though. Be flexible, trust your instincts, and ask your on-site program director if you have any questions.
Doing what you can to stay in good health is essential whether you’re at home or abroad. Eat well, sleep enough, exercise regularly, and practice responsible sexual behavior to guard yourself against sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies, and undesirable social consequences. The incidence of HIV/AIDS is much higher in some parts of the world than it is in the U.S., and, it knows no boundaries of country, color, or sexuality. Know your HIV status, learn safe sex practices, and communicate openly with sexual partners. If you need health care overseas, choose a provider who is sensitive to sexual and gender issues if that could be relevant to your needs. If you're transgender, research options for continuing treatments while abroad and restrictions on traveling with certain prescription medications.
Local laws and practices differ greatly, and the reality is that how you express your sexuality and gender could pose safety concerns while abroad. Make sure you know the laws relating to sexuality and gender expression; if you're transgender, note legal issues related to travel and immigration. Homosexuality remains illegal in some countries, and even in countries without legal barriers, cultural norms may prohibit outward expression of your sexual identity. In some places, even the perception of being gay or lesbian could put you at additional risk. These risks may include outward hostility from locals or harassment from even law enforcement officials. The good news is that if you come to your study abroad experience with good planning and keen understanding of the issues, your time abroad should be as healthy, safe, and meaningful as any students.