Improving LGBTQIA+ Students' Experiences in International Education

A Middlebury Institute of International Studies research project synthesizes information sourced from 76 studies focusing on queer international students and shares concrete suggestions for universities and international educators and practitioners.

by Quintessence Townsend, Anne Campbell, and Marissa Ruhno

A group of young, diverse students smiling on campus.

According to an IIE Generation Study Abroad Report, an increasingly diverse group of students are being encouraged and supported to study abroad. This includes LBGTQIA+ or queer students, who, according to a 2021 Gallup poll, comprise approximately 21% of Generation Z Americans, and may also be more likely than their peers to pursue education abroad. International education can shape their identities – including their queer identities – while overseas. Yet, these individuals are often “invisible” on U.S. campuses.

In honor of International Education Week, we call attention to queer students in international education, and how their communities impact their experiences. Some of these communities are sources of comfort, inclusion, and belonging for queer students abroad. Others produce conflict and tension, making their overseas experiences more complex, demanding, and anxiety-producing. Campus climate and local and national policies also affect queer students’ wellbeing. Many queer students come from – or study at a university in – one of the 69 countries where same-sex behavior is criminalized. By increasing awareness of queer students’ experiences in and ways of navigating higher education overseas, we hope to reduce conflict and promote positive transformative educational experiences for queer students.

We have read 76 studies that focus on queer international students and found four prominent communities that are central to shaping queer international students' experiences and identities. These communities are universities, family, friends, and religious and cultural communities. While we can't cite all of the studies here, we have linked a few key ones in this post.

Students have had positive experiences through universities and university staff. Openly queer staff - and queer international staff - who serve as both role models and sources of information and support particularly accounted for many positive experiences. Resources related to students’ queer identities and clubs, organizations, and associations for international or LGBTQIA+ students also provided positive experiences.

However, queer international students have also experienced conflict at universities. Underpinned by a climate of cisheteronormativity and xenophobia, university staff, clubs, resources and services, and classmates can also cause stress and conflict. For example, university resources and services, especially mental health and counseling services, can fail to accommodate students’ queer and international identities.

Family can also be a source of conflict for queer international students. Queer individuals have experienced rejection, discrimination, and violence from family. Pressure to maintain culturally influenced expectations to marry and have children was specifically a major area of conflict and concern for students regardless of whether they were in their home or host country. However, family members can potentially become more queer-accepting when their cisgender, heterosexual children relay positive stories of queer friends and other contacts while abroad.

Like universities, friends also occupy roles of comfort and conflict for queer international students. In some cultures, friendships are deepened by revealing personal information, pressuring queer international students to “come out” by sharing their queer identities and experiences with friends. This can create stress and fear for students in contexts where queer identities are stigmatized, and indeed, queer students have lost friends following suspicions that they were queer, or after coming out. Conversely, friends have also been sources of comfort and socioemotional support for queer international students.

Many queer international students come from cisheteronormative cultural and religious communities where being queer is an affront to valued religious or cultural values. Cultural and religious groups carry significant power, influencing policies and individual actions upholding cisheteronormativity and facilitating conflict, violence, and discrimination against queer individuals. As a result, many queer individuals seek out international student mobility as an escape from cisheteronormative demands like marriage and gender conformity and to live their identities openly and freely. However, many simultaneously struggle with finding spaces accepting their queer identity and their cultural and religious identities, and therefore may not come out while abroad.

Given these challenges for queer international students, we would like to offer some insights on supporting queer international students:

  • International student advisors can support queer international students by creating a sense of belonging through LGBTQIA+ affirming office spaces and prioritizing students’ safety and security.
  • Role models - especially in the form of queer staff - are also critical for positive queer representation and for serving as an additional resource and form of support for students. Also, they can act as guides, helping students feel safe enough to discuss their identity and navigate experiences of being queer in unfamiliar environments.
  • Queer international students that come from backgrounds where LGBTQIA+ identities are ostracized or criminalized may not have been provided the space to discuss their queer identity in their home countries. Therefore, they may need LGBTQIA+-relevant language resources to discuss their queer identity in either English or their first language.
  • Campus organizations and clubs dedicated to the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ international students can also offer support. Individuals involved in LGBTQIA+ clubs are less likely to feel unsafe and more likely to feel a sense of belonging in their community. The University of Minnesota’s International Student Programming, for example, provides various resources like mentoring and support groups for queer international students.
  • Not all LGBTQIA+ international students are out and open about their identity. Everything shared should be considered confidential, unless the student says otherwise. As previously noted, there are 69 countries that still criminalize same-sex activity. Consequently, there are students whose lives may be at risk if their identity were to be revealed. Privacy – both on campus and online – is crucial to the safety and well-being of LGBTQIA+ international students.
  • Allies are also key for supporting queer international students, and there are several ways to show support. Using inclusive language, asking for - and sharing your own - pronouns, attending LGBTQIA+ trainings and staying up to date on LGBTQIA+ news and trends are all ways to demonstrate allyship. Mental health professionals should continue educating themselves and others on campus and in the community regarding cultural differences and biases to prevent miscommunication in supporting queer international students. More insights on supporting queer international students can be found here.

We have learned a great deal from researchers and practitioners working with queer students in international education. However, there are many remaining questions and opportunities for increasing awareness of, and reducing tensions for, queer students abroad. For example: Do certain countries or states attract LGBTQIA+ students? Are we as international educators equipped to provide quality guidance, advice, and support before, during, and after their education abroad experiences? Or might international education be unintentionally producing increased stress and conflict for queer international students? Do queer students return to their home countries or campuses, and are their new identities welcomed?

It is this last question that spurred our current research project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. We are investigating whether queer international students return home after studies in the U.S., how they manage their choices and identities, and how universities and visa rules impact and can better support this population. To answer these questions, we are interviewing former international students from 23 countries that do not safeguard the rights of queer individuals. More about our research is here. And during International Education Week, and throughout the year, thank you for your support of queer international students!

Quintessence Townsend (she/her/hers; they/them/their) is a M.A. Candidate in Public Administration and International Education Management, 2023 at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). They are also a current graduate research assistant supporting the Queer International Students research project.

Anne Campbell (she/her/hers) is an Associate Professor of International Education Management at MIIS. Dr. Campbell leads the Queer International Students research project, supported by the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation.

Marissa Ruhno (she/her/hers) is a M.A. Candidate in International Education Management, 2023 at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). She is a current graduate research assistant for the Queer International Students research project.