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Sex, Gender and Sexuality

Two students standing on rainbow colored stairs in NetherlandsWhen considering education abroad, it’s important to think about the cultural and local attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity in your host country. Familiarize yourself with local laws and customs so you can make informed and safe choices to ensure your destination and program will best fit your needs.


Get to know your destination

Explore LBGTQI+ travel guides and internet resources. Talk with other LBGTQI+ and allied people about their experiences in certain countries or regions to gather as much information as possible to make an informed decision about your education abroad destination. Find out what local newspapers, e-magazines or online resources may be available. Also think about how you can support fellow LBGTQI+ peers while abroad.  Some questions to ask include:

  • How open will I be about my sexual orientation and gender identity with my teachers, peers, friends, host family and others? 
  • How important is it to me to find other sexual minority students and friends while abroad? How will I make connections with other sexual minority students, local residents, or community organizations and gathering places?
  • What resources are available in my host country for sexual minority people?
  • Are there any LBGTQI+ friendly establishments nearby? How can I find them?
  • What are my safety needs and perceptions, and how can they best be met? Is the program able to make special accommodations for students who request single rooms, private baths, or certain roommates? Is it possible to request host families who are LBGTQI+ allies?
  • As a transgender student, will I need access to any medications, supplies, or services while abroad? Are they available in my host country? If not, will I need any additional documentation to travel with my medication or supplies?

Learn the laws of your host country regarding sexual and gender identity
You are required to follow the laws 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. In some countries, the penalties are very severe and can even include deportation, corporal punishments, and worse.

Be familiar with local laws and customs so you can make informed and safe choices about destinations and programs which will be the best fit for you and your needs. Some questions to ask include:

  • Are there public decency 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 documentation” at all times?
  • What is the police attitude towards the local LBGTQ community?
  • Will laws and attitudes be the same for different social classes or geographic areas?

Context, customs, and attitudes toward relationships 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 LBGTQ. 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 ask 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, LBGTQ 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 LBGTQ communities in my host country?
  • What is the social perception of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in my host country? How are LBGTQ people socially defined? What roles do transgender people play in the host culture?

Be aware of changes coming back from abroad
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.

  • If you choose to come out while abroad, 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?

Be aware before you come back home of the ways in which you may have changed both independent of and as a result of your coming out.

Consider the implications of coming out when back home. Often family and friends may want to dismiss your sexual orientation as temporary due to the experience abroad, rather than acknowledge a lifelong identity.

As difficult as it is to adapt to an entirely new culture, it can be just as challenging to come back home after being away for any period of time. It is best to know what you might encounter in order to prepare for this adjustment period.

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