The world can be a scary place for LGBT folks. With conservative countries seeming to increase their homophobic rhetoric and violence (here's looking at you, Russia) and homophobic backlash rising in countries that are making strides towards equality, making the decision to live and study abroad can be daunting. Still, the increased intercultural awareness, better language skills, friendships and adventures that come with studying abroad make it a worthwhile pursuit despite these legitimate concerns. Since knowledge is power, here are five common concerns for LGBT people going abroad and how to deal with/prepare for them:
1. Fear of Physical Violence and/or Assault
Even in the more accepting areas of the world, like the SF Bay Area, LGBT people, particularly people of color, face an increased risk of physical violence. This risk becomes even greater in some countries where being LGBT is explicitly illegal or aggressively condemned. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association provides information on LGBT rights around the world and on potentially dangerous areas.
However, it is important to keep in mind that even areas which have a reputation for openness are not immune to homophobic and transphobic violence. For example, France, which just legalized marriage for all, recently had several LGBT-related hate crimes. Therefore, it can be helpful to read up on the current political climate of the country you'll be staying in, since you never know when extremist political groups will ratchet up homophobic rhetoric in order to energize or gain an in with their base. Try to get as much information about your location as possible to see if there have been any recent hate crimes, and also the method that the attackers used to isolate their target.
Another option to consider is to what extent you are willing to be closeted for the duration of your stay abroad. In certain environments, it may require a big change from life at home or no change at all in order for you to feel safe and comfortable. Although it becomes a trap for many people that they are glad to escape, the closet has and continues to be a necessary tool of survival for many LGBT people. It is important to prioritize your safety and happiness both when choosing a location and when deciding how you will live in the location of your choice.
2. Fear of Harassment or Lack of Support from Government Officials
In addition to fears of violence, another concern is whether, were a hate crime or incident to happen, the police would side with the LGBT victim or the perpetrators, or whether the police themselves are perpetrators of homophobic violence. This is an obvious concern in countries where homosexuality and transgenderism are illegal, but in many other places the police force is also actively hostile to LGBT individuals. Local LGBT organization and people often have information about the behavior of the police.
It is important to keep in mind that even areas which have a reputation for openness are not immune to homophobic and transphobic violence.
Another related concern, particularly for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals is the increased scrutiny they undergo when traveling. The TSA and other travel and immigration organizations have not historically been supportive of transgender individuals. The National Center for Transgender Equality provides tips for transgender travelers dealing with the TSA. Keep in mind that, while trains and busses have less rigorous security measures (particularly if traveling between open-border Schengen countries), they often still check Photo ID, and certainly will if you have any sort of discounted ticket.
3. Fear of Low Quality of Life for Transgender People
Unfortunately, most programs are only just beginning to address the concerns and needs of transgender participants. Although many have a page listing resources for LGBT students, they do not provide a lot of concrete information for transgender people.
These programs do seem very willing to meet with people on an individual basis to discuss concerns and plan for your stay abroad. Nonetheless, this means that you'll likely be dealing with people who have different levels of knowledge about transgender life abroad and the burden may be placed upon you to outline the resources you need. If you're in university, meeting with the campus LGBT or trans* support group can provide you with better tools to advocate for yourself.
UC Santa Cruz has a good list of starting questions to ask your program coordinator. (If you are a transgender person who has studied abroad or has specific resources for transgender people doing long stays abroad, please share them!). Further, study abroad program provider IES Abroad has an excellent collection of resources for LGBT students, including country-specific information.
4. Fear of Discrimination from Host Family or Roommates
One of the fears that come with going abroad to live with people you've never met is how those people will react to your sexuality or gender identity. It doesn't matter if there is only one homophobe or transphobe in the entire country if that person just so happens to be the one you're living with. If your program provides housing and you are worried about bigoted roommates, make specific mention of this and they will likely try to accommodate you.
Still, the increased intercultural awareness, better language skills, friendships and adventures that come with studying abroad make it a worthwhile pursuit despite these legitimate concerns.
If you are looking for housing on your own, there are a few things you can do. Try to find housing in the 'gay district' of your city. Folks there may not necessarily be LGBT but they are likely friendly at least. Consider coming out before you sign the lease. If you're planning on being out during your stay abroad, it might be worth it to come out to your housemates before you arrive so that you have time to change your living situation if necessary. If you find yourself in a bad situation, don't be afraid to get yourself out of there. Stay in a hostel, crash with a friend, see if your program has emergency housing available, while you make arrangements to stay in a safer environment.
5. Fear of Dissociation and a Lack of Community
Going abroad means leaving behind whatever support structure you had at home. This can make it harder to adjust to the entirely new community you encounter abroad, especially for those who were very involved in activism and community organizing back home.
It can be scary to start your relationships from scratch, especially when you rely on people for solidarity as well as friendship. However, going abroad can be a great way to see first-hand what LGBT life, both social and political, looks like in a totally different environment.
Whether it's the tightly-knit small-town scene, or the metropolitan paradise that you're experiencing for the first time, or a small circle of trusted friends, the new community you build will expand your understanding of the diversity of LGBT experiences. Who knows, you could end up adding some international branches to your chosen family tree, and learning a great deal from your studying abroad as an LGBT.
One thing that gives me comfort is that there are LGBT people everywhere in the world. Regardless of the oppressiveness of their environment, they are surviving and working towards happiness.
Going abroad can be a frightening prospect for some LGBT folks, especially if the country of your dreams is not the greatest for LGBT rights. However, living abroad offers unique personal, professional, and academic opportunities (and OutAbroad has some great recommendations of LGBT friendly countries for study abroad). Although sometimes the world's hostility can be dispiriting, for me at least, one thing that gives me comfort is that there are LGBT people everywhere in the world. Regardless of the oppressiveness of their environment, they are surviving and working towards happiness. Even if you don't meet other LGBT people in your host country, they are out there, and you are not alone.
Photo Credits: IES Abroad.