Working with Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual International Students in the U.S.

Many of us have been socialized to be uncomfortable with homosexuality and, by extension, with gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. The first step towards recognizing our own discomfort is to assess our attitudes towards homosexuality. It is important to know how willing we are to deal with gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues, and at what level we are willing to get involved with our GLB students. Are we best able to present a booklet of GLB resource information in orientation packets and refer students to those resources, or are we willing to work with the GLB resource center and with students to create educational programs and international GLB support groups?

After getting a sense of your attitudes, evaluate the university’s commitment to support GLB people, including students, faculty and staff. As a whole, does the university acknowledge and support the existence of GLB people on campus? The following questions, adapted from a list prepared by Evans and Wall (1991), will help.

  • Does the campus have GLB student organizations supported by student government funds?
  • Does the campus counseling center have GLB support groups?
  • Does the campus have a GLB faculty/staff association?
  • Does the curriculum include courses on GLB history and culture?
  • Does the institution’s affirmative action statement include sexual orientation?
  • Does the campus minority affairs office deal with sexual orientation issues?
  • Does the student handbook or conduct code include a clear statement prohibiting harassment and discrimination of minorities and GLB people?
  • Does the housing office grant room changes on the basis of sexual orientation or must danger to the resident be demonstrated?
  • Does my professional or student staff include openly GLB people?
  • Does our office have a strong commitment to treat all people equally? Is this as evident with our GLB populations as it is with other minorities?
  • Are GLB colleagues encouraged to bring their significant others or partners to office or campus social events?

If you do not know the answers to some of these questions, do some investigation. If the answers are negative, explore the idea of making a few changes on campus.

After assessing yourself and your institution, the next step is to learn about GLB issues, both in the United States and around the world. GLB sensitivity training, GLB resource centers, conferences, books and some websites are excellent sources of information. A book, video, and web resource list devoted to international GLB information is available from the author.

Student respondents offer a variety of ideas for how ISAs can be more supportive.

  • At orientation, provide all new students with a campus GLB resource guide and announce that the ISA office is open to discussion of GLB issues.
  • Create a “safe” environment by displaying GLB resource materials, books, posters, and pink triangles or “safe space” signs.
  • Do not assume heterosexuality in conversations with students.
  • Offer sensitivity training on GLB issues for ISA staff.
  • Offer support and advice on immigration for GLB people whose partners are U.S. citizens. Provide support and referrals to students from home countries where homosexuality is illegal or the environment is dangerous for GLB people. Political asylum is sometimes granted by the United States, Canada, and some European countries on this basis.
  • Sponsor educational opportunities, such as international GLB discussion groups, forums, seminars, and films.

How should you respond to a student who approaches you to discuss sexual identity? Besner and Spungin (1995) offer the following guidelines:

  • Do not act surprised when someone comes out to you. They have decided that you can be trusted.
  • Deal with students’ feelings first. Most gay and lesbian people who are just coming out feel alone, afraid, and guilty. You can help by listening and allowing them to unburden themselves.
  • Be supportive. Explain that many people have struggled with homosexuality. Acknowledge that dealing with one’s sexuality is difficult. Keep the door open for further conversations and assistance.
  • Assess the student’s knowledge of homosexuality. Replace misinformation with knowledge. Don’t assume that gays and lesbians who are just coming out know a lot about homosexuality. We have all been exposed to myths and stereotypes, so it is helpful to provide clarification.
  • Use nonjudgmental, all-inclusive language in your discussion. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues from the students. Do not label or categorize.
  • Respect confidentiality.
  • Reexamine your own biases so as to remain a neutral source of information and support.
  • Know when and where to seek help. Know the referral agencies and counselors on campus and in your area.

Besner and Spungin add that the most important thing to remember is to “accept the individual as a total human being – do not limit your interest to his or her sexual orientation.”

International students who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual have a number of unique issues that may surface during their time in the United States. Informed international student advisers are in an excellent position to support these students and help them deal with their concerns. Let students know they are welcome to discuss personal issues with you, and refer them to other resources when appropriate. Finally, a reentry program can help students make a smooth transition back to the home country.

Editor’s Note: Complete article, including references, can be found on NAFSA’s web site at under Publications, International Educator, Fall/Winter 1999 Issue.) 
This article appeared in the Spring 1999 edition of Lesbigay SIGnals 

by: Nadine Kato