5 LGBTQ Study Abroad Safety Issues & How to Plan For Them

Laura Carroll

Laura is a writer and international development professional based in the Washington, DC area. She has lived, worked, and studied in five different countries, as well as traveling to 20+ others.

Charles-Éric L., Start Me Up Indonesia
Photo by: Charles-Éric L., Start Me Up Indonesia

Every study abroad student has concerns about health and safety while traveling, and many of their questions and concerns are universal.

Is it safe to drink the tap water?
Do I need any vaccinations?
Are there neighborhoods where I should avoid walking alone at night?

Most if not all of these questions are likely to be covered in any guidebook about the country or region that you plan to visit.

Some questions and concerns, though, are specific to the LGBTQ community. Below are five health and safety tips to consider as an LGBTQ person studying abroad.

1. Local Laws & Law Enforcement

There are numerous countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal, even in 2018. It's a disheartening fact, and an unfortunate reality that guides the decisions for many LGBTQ students who want to study abroad.

To compound the issue, there’s a great deal of variety in the level of enforcement of these laws and the types and severity of the penalties. In many countries, the laws about homosexuality (pro or against) might not apply to foreigners -- unless they’re dating local people (as in a highly publicized case in Morocco in 2014).

In short, if you plan to be out while studying abroad, you should start by researching if any particular destination you have in mind is open to that and, if so, to what degree.

How to Plan Ahead For This Issue:

  • First, research. If you’re planning on studying abroad in one of the more than 76 countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal, look for country-specific guides to find out what specifically is and is not permitted. You may also want to look for online travel forums to ask questions of recent students who've spent time in that country.
  • Next, look for resources about how law enforcement reacts to issue that involve gay people in this country. Pay attention to whether the individual is local or a foreigner, and how cases vary (if they do).
  • Shortlist additional destinations, cities, or programs that may provide better support for LGBTQ students like you, if you find that your initial destination is too hostile. Here's what to look for in an LGBTQ-friendly study abroad program.

2. Openness to the LGBT Community

Looking past the legal side of things, there are other aspects of how welcoming or unwelcoming a country can be while studying abroad. It's important to consider how society responds to gay foreigners, independent of what the law says. On a daily basis, it doesn't matter so much if being gay in the country you study abroad in is legal, if everyone you meet is hostile to you anyway.

For example, in some countries like China, homosexuality is legal but not always socially accepted outside of large, urban cities. You might be able to go to a gay bar in Beijing and flirt openly with your date or partner, but you’d probably want to be more discreet when visiting a smaller town or a rural area.

How to Plan Ahead for This Issue:

3. Healthcare & Check-Ups

Many study abroad programs require you to get a complete physical before you travel, along with any required vaccinations for your destination. For LGBTQ students hoping to study abroad, however, this is particularly important.

Many countries lack LGBTQ sensitive medical care, which means that you want to get any needed care out of the way before you leave home. Similarly, you should try to get an advance supply of any crucial medications; we have a great resource on the factors you should consider when heading overseas with a medical condition.

Research and knowledge are your best ally to make sure your study abroad experience is memorable even if not everything goes right.

Unfortunately, it's hard to plan in advance for health issues that might arise and no great resources on LGBTQ healthcare or the performance of hospitals/physicians worldwide. Much of the advice so far, about researching the country/city you want to study abroad in before you book, will help you better understand any potential healthcare you might need.

How to Plan Ahead for This Issue:

  • Try Googling combinations of words like "LGBTQ hospitals in [country]" and "medical emergencies in [city]" to find online resources that answer your general questions about healthcare. Each country and city likely has their own resources; if you can find one that allows you to compare hospitals or doctors with a rating system, this can be tremendously insightful.
  • Plan ahead as much as possible. Bring a small First Aid kit and any medications you know you'll need.
  • Double check that any medications you bring -- both prescription and over-the-counter -- are permitted in the country you choose to study in. Almost every country has online resources about the drugs that are allowed and those prohibited.

4. Dating Across Cultures

Dating across cultures can pose challenges no matter who you are, but it can be particularly difficult to navigate in the LGBTQ world. As you can imagine, many of the factors we've mentioned so far compound one another, making dating an almost unpleasant prospect. That's not a great way to feel about studying abroad, which should be an opportunity to experience the world and a new culture!

First, ask yourself if you want to date while studying abroad in the first place. If not, things are obviously a bit simpler; you still may change your mind once you arrive and meet someone special, so read on.

If you decide to date while studying abroad, there are two scenarios: dating a fellow foreigner, or dating a local. If you’re dating someone from your host country, take note of how “out” they feel comfortable being. They may not be able to disclose their relationship with you to their families, or they may not be willing to be physically affectionate in public. It’s important to respect those boundaries -- remember, you’re a visitor in their country, whereas they’ve had a lifetime of learning to navigate the laws and social norms of the place where they grew up.

If you date a fellow student abroad, remember that you'll not only need to take your respective cultures into account, but that of your host country too. While it may require some difficult conversations much earlier in the relationship, try and approach it together as a unique multi-cultural experience, and an opportunity to practice cultural sensitivity at a whole new level.

How to Plan Ahead for This Issue:

  • First, decide if you want to try and date, wait and see, or not date at all.
  • If you meet someone you want to date while studying abroad, you'll need to communicate clearly and respectfully.
  • If you make local friends while studying abroad, ask for their insights into dating while abroad. You may get some pro-tips on where to go, who to meet, and how to make dating a smoother experience.

5. Sex & Relationships

For many students, college is the doorway to freedom and study abroad is a giant archway. Not only will you be free of the constraints of living at home, and exploring the world as an independent adult, you'll be studying abroad in a new culture, new place, and with new people. If you're sexually active, study abroad can be an exciting time.

Most of our advice here is common sense for all students going abroad, but it never hurts to remember that LGBTQ students face unique barriers to being sexually active while studying abroad. If you meet a partner, communicate clearly, and are prepared, you can safely enjoy sex on your own terms while studying abroad.

How to Plan Ahead for This Issue:

  • If you’re planning (or hoping!) to have sex while you’re abroad, you may want to bring safe sex barriers from your home country. These items aren’t always readily available in different parts or the world, or they may not be available in the same materials or quality that you’d find in North America or Western Europe.
  • Research if sexual health clinics exist in your study abroad destination, if your host campus health clinic supports sexual health, and where to go if you need support while abroad.
  • Expectations for how quickly a relationship should develop and how and when sex should enter the picture can also vary, so make sure that you’re communicating with your partner to stay on the same page.

While LGBTQ students abroad face unique safety issues that other students may not have to deal with, they are totally surmountable, especially with some advance planning. If you keep these issues in mind, research, and plan ahead, you can choose a great study abroad program in a host country where you'll get an immersive and memorable study abroad experience. All that's left is to start the planning process!

Read Next: The Most LGBTQ-Friendly Campuses for Study Abroad