Going abroad as a student can be challenging financially, academically and emotionally, but for LGBT students, their very identity might cause concerns.
Gay marriage is legal in 16 countries and in certain areas of two more, according to the Pew Research Center. But the State Department advises that in many world regions, being in an open same-sex relationship can bring fines, prison sentences or even death.
Still, when Education Abroad adviser Conrad Zeutenhorst assists LGBT students who want to study abroad, he doesn’t discourage them from traveling to countries where LGBT people might not be accepted, he said. For them, thinking about how they will express their sexual orientation in their host country is just another step in the study abroad process.
“Studying abroad is a personal experience for every person, but for students who identify as LGBT in particular, they’ve done a lot to create their identity,” Zeutenhorst, a liaison to the LGBT Equity Center, said. “How will they adapt that identity to their circumstances? They shouldn’t deny themselves from going places where LGBT people have difficult circumstances; it’s just about making smart choices.”
Western Europe is one of the world’s more accepting regions for LGBT people and is often considered one of the safest places to study abroad. But there is “more to the world than just Europe,” Zeutenhorst said.
He said there are great advantages to studying in less traditional places, such as Asia or Africa, with vastly different cultures from the United States. But while traveling in these countries, LGBT students need to be aware that keeping their sexual orientation private might be the safest option, he said.
“We always make sure they’re cognizant of the conversation they have to have with themselves,” he said. “What is the culture like? Will you have to go back in the closet? How do you prepare yourself psychologically for that?”
For Peace Corps regional recruiter Skyler Dobert, a member of the organization’s LGBT Employee Resources Groups, working throughout Africa gave him a newfound sense of confidence.
“It takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you deal with a lot of situations,” said Dobert, who spoke at yesterday’s Queer Lunch at the LGBT Equity Center. “Now when I walk into a job interview, it’s not as scary as thinking about traveling across West Africa by myself.”
Dobert worked in the West African country of Togo, where homosexual acts are illegal. Though he said he usually didn’t reveal that he is gay, he spoke to many local people who were supportive and interested in helping change their country’s perception of homosexuality, he said.
Traveling to a country where you aren’t accepted is a risk, but it can also be very rewarding, he said.
“You need to reflect on what you want to get out of the experience and what you’re willing to go through,” he said.
Senior mathematics major Jake Shriver said he didn’t plan to let the fact that he is gay stop him from traveling, but said he would be cautious depending on the part of the world he was in.
“There’s still places I would like to travel to, but I would be slightly more guarded while I was there,” he said.
Studying LGBT issues abroad has interested Nick Sakurai, LGBT Equity Center associate director, for many years. While leading a group of American University students on an alternative break trip to Mexico City in 2008, Sakurai discovered the city’s powerful social movements concerning LGBT rights.
In 2010, he had planned to offer a winter study abroad trip through this university about LGBT movements in Mexico City, but not enough students signed up. Sakurai said headlines on drug cartels and violence in the country may have scared some students away.
He hopes to try offering another trip to study LGBT movements abroad, possibly to India, and break students out of the traditional choice to study in a European country.
“I’ve seen a lot of fear from people about doing international experiences because of safety concerns or uncertainty,” he said. “But I’d like to offer LGBT movement studies in another country that’s not [in] Europe because in people’s minds, that’s the safe place to go.”
Though LGBT students may need to consider extra precautions when going abroad, they shouldn’t be afraid to travel, Zeutenhorst said. Students studying abroad through the university can still access campus resources while away, he added.
“For LGBT students, there’s a lot more to them than their identities. I just want my students to be aware of the realities,” he said. “Any human being has the right to go anywhere in the world.”