Students have a lot to consider when they decide to study abroad, from selecting when and where they want to go to how they are going to pay for it. But for LGBT students, the search has an added layer of complexity because they also have to consider the host country’s attitude towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
While the United States is neither extremely progressive nor conservative regarding LGBT rights, other nations have different views towards the LGBT community which, according to Delfin Bautista, director of the Ohio University LGBT Center, can be both more or less accepting. In some places, like many European nations, LGBT people have more rights than in the U.S., while in other places like Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death.
Because of this, it is important for students to research and be aware of certain factors before making a final decision. Catherine Cutcher, Program Director for Ohio University’s Office of Education Abroad, believes that one of the differences students need to consider is how their self-expression will be received by another culture.
“[LGBT students] may need to adjust how they represent themselves or their identity, whether it’s their gender expression or their sexual identity,” Cutcher said. “Anybody has to consider, when you’re going into another culture, there’s certain things you might have to adapt to in order to fit in in that place.”
Transgender students or students who don’t consider themselves strictly male or female also have to think about how closely they match what is on their identification card.
“One of the things to keep in mind is having to go through airport and then customs and that one’s ID may not necessarily reflect who they are… having to go through identifying as a female, but my license and my passport say I’m a male [could cause problems],” Bautista said.
Besides dealing with security, transgender students also need to consider how their choice in host country will affect access to any needed medication.
“If you’re going through a gender transition and you need to have access to hormones, it might be difficult to access the same kind of medications you have access to here in the U.S.,” Cutcher said.
Although some countries may be more difficult for LGBT students to visit, others are more accepting of LGBT people than the United States. This can provide students studying abroad with an eye-opening experience juxtaposing America with their host country.
“I think some… LGBT students, when they travel to a place like Europe, they start to see…the U.S. is a really conservative culture in comparison to some other countries in the world,” Cutcher said. “They’re lightyears ahead of us in terms of the guarantee and protection of human rights.”
Bautista also noted how an LGBT student could notice the difference, even to the point of feeling more welcome in their host country than their home.
“There is that sense of ‘Wow, I can get married in Canada; I can get married in Mexico City; I can get married in Spain. I can’t get married in my home country,'” Bautista said. “I think that’s a positive experience some students may have.”
Another experience a student may have that is different from culture in the U.S. is the acceptance of people who consider themselves as a mix of male and female.
“There are communities scattered around the world… where there are third and fourth and fifth genders that are recognized and celebrated,” Bautista said. “People who walk that line between being male and female in some cultures are affirmed and celebrated.”
Even in countries that are perceived to be critical of LGBT people, there could be communities or movements that could help support study abroad students.
“There are other countries where one has to be very careful, but even within those countries you may be surprised at some of the things that are happening, that it is not all doom and gloom,” Bautista said.
To find these groups, students may need to look outside of their study abroad program which, according to Cutcher, may not be the best resource to direct students to such places, especially if the staff in the host country is not accepting of LGBT people.
One resource for students studying abroad is New York University’s Q-Chat, an anonymous online chat-room that meets in various places around the world. Other resources can be found through the Ohio University’s Education Abroad webpage, and the Office of Education Abroad will also hold a presentation about LGBT travel safety from 12:00 to 1:00 pm. on Tues. Oct. 15 at the LGBT Center.
But set aside any considerations LGBT students should think about and the bottom line for anyone studying abroad is to learn and grow.
“I want people to feel like they can have all the same experiences that any other student can have,” Cutcher said. “We want students to be safe. We want students to be healthy. We want students to know what the challenges are, but we also want to encourage students to do it because it’s one of the best things you can do in your whole life, and I think that for any student, no matter who you are, you’re going to grow and change in ways that are really enriching.”
Bautista adds that the different experience students might have abroad could help promote better LGBT relations in America.
“Do one’s homework and just be open to different narratives and experiences of being an LGBT person abroad,” he said. “I think that’s the really cool thing, just to see that, yes, there is a queer community or a gay community here in said country and this is what I’ve learned from them and bring that here to the U.S. to challenge us to be more inclusive and welcoming.”