GLBT Perspectives and Study Abroad Orientations

Written by the Informal International Educational Task Force on GLBT Concerns, University of Minnesota, (7/14/93)

This document was developed to provide ways to help facilitators become knowledgeable, sensitive, and comfortable about including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) perspectives in study abroad orientations. Since sexual identity and definitions of sexuality are culturally-based, students need to be aware of how this will affect their relationships with host nationals, cultural adjustment and reentry, and the overall study abroad experience. As the following categories are covered during study abroad orientation sessions or in written materials, facilitators should consider how GLBT perspectives can be included:

Personal Development and Self-Awareness
It is generally accepted that study abroad has a significant effect on the development and maturity of students. Many transformations occur in students prompted by the fact that they are no longer restricted by their home culture. Affecting the coming out process can be one of these transformations.

It is important for the facilitators to be aware that coming out is a long process of self-discovery and disclosure, and is not a one-time event. Every GLBT person is out to varying degrees: to themselves, at school or at work, to their family members, etc.

In-country resources and culture-specific information
It is important that students are aware that cultures vary in terms of what is considered appropriate behavior and the interpretation of behavior when interacting with someone from another culture. This applies for platonic, intimate, and acquaintance relationships with strangers. Cultures also vary in terms of how sexual identities are defined and understood.

Often programs place students in home-stay situations so that they may be more immersed in the culture. It is important that all students are aware of the implications of being identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in the host-culture and how coming out might affect the host-family relationship.

Country-specific information on meeting places, organizations, laws, norms/styles of behavior, GLBT media, and general attitudes toward GLBT persons will be helpful for students.

Materials and reading lists provided to study abroad students, such as lists of fiction, non-fiction, and magazines and other media, should include GLBT authors and commentary.

The International Study and Travel Center (ISTC) library is developing resources for GLBT students for study and travel abroad. These resources include guide books and peer advising forms which include specific information about particular countries, filled out by people who have studied abroad. These resources can help students to connect with the gay community.

Program Specific Information
Students need to be aware that, while the study abroad office in the U.S. may be inclusive of GLBT perspectives, the in-country staff and faculty may represent another office and culture that will present a different climate. Students may have to look outside the program for support.

The facilitator can recommend that students learn as much as possible before they leave the U.S. about the culture-specific norms of friendship and dating for relationships between people of any sexual orientation. Safe sex issues should also be covered. ISTC is developing reference materials for GLBT students who are planning to travel abroad.

As mentioned above, it is important for students to realize how behavioral signals that mean one thing in the U.S. may mean something completely different in the foreign culture. Depending on the situation, the consequences can be serious.

Physical harassment, assault, and rape are issues that both women and men have to consider when interacting across cultures because of the chance of misinterpretations of behavior. Furthermore, the legal system in the country may not offer protection for the victim when issues of sexual orientation or other behavior is involved.

GLBT students may find a new sense of freedom during a study abroad program. Making a break from unsupportive family or friends at home can mean that reentry is particularly difficult as student tries to reintegrate with these relationships upon return. He or she may find a need to separate from past relationships to find a more supportive community upon return, which can be both a lonely and exciting process.

Students need to be aware of reentry adjustment and that this process may be intensified when a student has questioned his or her sexual identity. For students who might begin to come out while studying abroad, it is particularly important that they think about the ways they might have changed before they come home. There may also be implications of coming out when back home that need to be thought about. One implication may be that family and friends may blame the study abroad experience for changes in the student, rather than acknowledging a lifelong identity.

The study abroad programs should include discussion of GLBT perspectives prompting them to think about these changes when considering the overall reentry process in reentry materials provided to students before they return or during in-country meetings on reentry.