Coming Out and Coming Back: Re-entry Issues for LGBTQ College Students who Study Abroad

Andy Dunlap, Susquehanna University
Note: This is Text from a panel presentation at the CIEE Conference on “Underrepresented Faces and Non-Traditional Places”, Atlanta, GA, November 2002.

Re-entry issues for LGBTQ students can be assessed within the framework of clinical social work. Identity development for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual youth touch on some of the issues that they may face upon returning from study abroad. It might be useful to consider as a beginning conversation towards understanding developmental issues as they apply to study abroad and LGBTQ students. Notably, transgender and bisexual people will experience different challenges in establishing positive identities. Also, it should be noted that members of multiple minority groups are likely to have much richer challenges associated with developing positive LGBTQ identities.

Let me begin by sharing some ideas about human development. Eric Erickson, a psychologist and prominent voice in the field of developmental psychology suggests the idea of developmental tasks over the course of a lifetime. Erickson proposes that as we move through life we first must learn to trust, then to be autonomous, then to learn to take initiative, then to learn to be industrious, next comes establishing a secure sense of identity, then resolving issues about intimacy, then move towards creation in our lives, and finally establish an integrated sense of who we are in the face of our impending deaths.

As traditional aged college students struggle with these issues they can be said to be experiencing developmental difficulties. Some students might struggle for a semester or two, some for longer, obviously they are not mentally ill, simply figuring themselves out. Typically, once underclassmen have mastered being at school (i.e. trust, autonomy, initiative, and industriousness) they come to the larger issues of college life. Identity: Who am I? And Intimacy: Can my genuine self be with someone else?

Students who study abroad are on a multi-layered voyage; one of those layers has to do with developing a firmer sense of who they are in the world. For most students study abroad is an opportunity to move out of the comfortable incubator of their culture and into the world. Our hope is that through the action of stepping outside of their comfort zone, they will return with a greater perspective on that which is familiar. We hope that they will return with a greater understanding of their role in the world, and with a stronger sense of who they are.

Enter the gay or lesbian student who for years has been aware (or unaware) of their difference. Who for years may have worked just as diligently (or not) as their heterosexual peers towards greater competency and maturity, and, who, for years may have been dreaming of studying abroad. Unfortunately for them, the challenge of developing a secure identity gets a little more complicated.

Since the early 1970s, researches have noted a predictable set of stages that non-heterosexuals move through as we develop a firm sense of self-identity. Notable in the field are Vivian Cass and Richard Troiden, each working in the 1970s. They present similar models observing stages that lesbians and gay men move through as they develop a healthy sense of who they are. In the past 25 years others have researched and refined these models or proposed their own similar models, and most recently, Susan Meyer and Alan Schwitzer developed a model paralleling Cass’ but recognizing that twenty-five years later there are more resources and support available for LGBTQ youth.

Common themes emerge from many of these models. Many of them describe the same stages in a different language. These stages are: identifying a difference within oneself, gaining information about this difference, exploring the reality of this difference as it exists outside of oneself, internalizing these explorations, and privileging these experiences. Some of these models go one step further to suggest that the integration of sexual orientation into ones fuller identity is a final task, and I would tend to agree with them.

The developmental tasks of identity and intimacy are more complicated for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students because of a persistent level of heterosexual bias in our culture. It’s important to realize that GLBT students may need more support than their peers not because of who they are, but because of the culture that they live in.

Gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual students can be expected to have much the same kinds of study abroad experiences as their peers. However, for many of them, the role of outsider is one that they are already intimately familiar with before they even leave home. Because of this, many LGBTQ students may be better able to manage a transition into a new culture. Some students may find that there is an established LGBTQ culture to which they can plug into in their new host city, and may have an easier time integrating than their heterosexual peers.

LGBTQ students in early stages of identity development who study abroad can have a parallel experience to “getting away” to college for the first time. Studying in a place where no one knows you gives you a freedom of deciding if it is time to break from old expectations of family and friends. For some students, study abroad can be a time to experiment with coming out. Some students might make important first steps towards developing a positive GLBT identity while abroad. They might explore social opportunities or do research that they would not consider doing at home. They might experiment with [romantic] relationships.

Upon returning home these students may actually experience a painful re-closeting, returning to a life that they had all but left behind with limited or no support for the important growth that they have experienced overseas. These students are perhaps most at risk, and you simply will not know who they are unless you have already established your office as a resource for LGBTQ students.

Students in later stages of coming out who have integrated a higher degree of acceptance may find themselves struggling with coming out again to a new host family or peers and should be advised appropriately. However, these students are also more likely to have thoroughly researched living arrangements or cultural expectations with sexual orientation diversity in mind. They are also the students who are likely to come to you ahead of time and ask about LGBTQ resources, and the ones who will not be shy about telling you about their experiences afterwards. Like their heterosexual peers reintegration issues for them may be more straightforward, revolving around returning to an environment that seems to have changed little, while they have grown immensely.

So what can we as professionals do to help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students get the most out of their study abroad experience and support them as best we can upon their return?

A good first step is tuning into the very real difficulties for LGBTQ people. The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, National Association of Social Workers, American Medical Association all agree that a non-heterosexual orientation is a normal variance in the human experience. Despite this, many LGBTQ folk get the message that their sexual orientation is just a choice and that they can change it like they can change their clothes. Therapies aimed at changing sexual orientation have been discredited but continue to do great harm to LGBTQ students.

There is a strong conservative cultural bias against gays and lesbians in the United States. We are still treated as second-class citizens; our relationships are not equally recognized, in no state are we allowed to marry and receive the legal privileges associated with heterosexual marriage. [Editor’s note: with the exception of Vermont]. In many venues, such as the Boy Scouts of America, we can legally be discriminated against. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Boy Scouts of America.

It is important to realize that the LGBTQ civil rights movement has made great progress in the last quarter of a century, but that in the United States we have a long way to go before LGBTQ people are accorded equal citizenship.

Why is this important? Because it is the [cultural] environment that LGBTQ students live in every day. It is important to realize that these environmental factors are the reason that LGBTQ youth are more at risk to be depressed and to consider suicide than their heterosexual peers. They are also three times more likely to suffer from alcohol or drug addiction. These environmental factors, heterosexism and homophobia, are important reasons that LGBTQ youth in the United States have a more complicated series of developmental tasks to perform than their culturally endorsed peers. These environmental factors are the reason that LGBTQ students may need extra support when returning from studying abroad. It is not because they are different, but because they are second-class citizens in their own culture.

Trying to understand how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students’ experiences abroad might be different is an important part of helping them. We can do this by informing ourselves about the process of identity development for LGBTQ students. We can make some assumptions based on data they have provided about themselves. We can take into account the country in question and the perceived climate for LGBTQ students and we can make some assumptions. But in the end, we need to realize that LGBTQ students are all individuals with individual experiences, just like their heterosexual peers. It is crucial to be well informed about possible student experiences and equally important to realize that, in the end, all of our assumptions are just that.

It is also important to tune in to your own struggles with homophobia and heterosexism. If your level of internalized homophobia is such that you cannot sit in the same room with a LGBTQ student, then you should be referring that student for assistance elsewhere until you can. If you are not able to meet with a lesbian student without viewing her in the full complexity that you would view any other student then you should consider referring her to a colleague who can. If you cannot refrain from compulsively talking about your opposite-sex spouse while meeting with GLBT students, think about sending them to someone else for assistance. If your vision of the LGBTQ experience is limited to a bedroom issue, please take opportunities, like this panel today, to educate yourself. Gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual students do not come to your office to give you an opportunity to work through your issues, they come to your office for the same reasons that every other student does. Consider doing some of your own work around these issues, maybe invite a representative from a local LGBTQ group to come and speak to your staff. Tuning into your own issues about sexual orientation and gender identity are important components of being a good ally, but it would be a mistake to believe that your work stops there.

Concrete and visible actions to demonstrate that there is a safe zone within the study abroad office need to be taken to show students that they can get support there and that they would not be rejected because of their sexual orientation. Set obvious signs out in the office. For example, safe zone stickers, pamphlets targeted at gay and lesbian students, and travel resources of LGBTQ youth are a good start. Know that LGBTQ students are perhaps more likely to access resources electronically, so have lots of good information on your web page.

While LGBTQ students have need for many of the same types of information as their heterosexual peers, they often want specific information about some things like the perceived climate towards LGBTQ students in the country that they are studying in. They might like to know if there is a possibility of marrying someone of the same sex in the country they are traveling to. Popular vacation spots for LGBTQ people are important to know about. If your office provides information on safer sex while abroad, LGBTQ students need to be included in this. Here is the hard part: Give all this info to everyone. Do not make people ask for it. The ones that really need it will not ask for it.

In the final analysis the most important thing that you can do to aid students either returning from study abroad or considering it for the first time, is to make your office known as a safe place on campus. You can do this by educating yourself on LGBTQ issues, being visible in your support for LGBTQ students, and being inclusive of issues particular to them.


Cass, V.C. (1979). Homosexual Identity Formation: A Theoretical Model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4(3), 219-235.

Dilley, P. (2002). Queer man on campus: A History of Non-Heterosexual College Men, 1945 to 2000. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Erickson, E. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.

Meyer, S and Schwitzer, A. (1999). Stages of Identity Development Among College Students with Minority Sexual Orientations. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 13(3), 41-65.

Troiden, R.R. (1979). Becoming Homosexual: A Model of Gay Identity Acquisition. Psychiatry, v.42, Nov 1979,362-373.

This article appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Lesbigay SIGnals.