Safe, Neutral, & Negative Locales for LGBT Study Abroad

by Julia Zaremba

Growing up in a liberal environment, it might seem perfectly normal to dress up as rainbow fairy or unicorn and march in LGBT parades. With pro-LGBT protests, social movements, and legal rights increasing every day, a utopia of support develops, and that glare someone gave you in the parking lot for holding hands with your same-sex partner becomes the evening’s heated dinner topic.

LGBT flag hanging next to an American flag
Cultures and forms of expression vary between countries.

Honestly, this is great. In many countries of the world, the LGBT community has come a long way, and each victory should be celebrated until equity has been reached. However, this isn’t the case in all countries in the world.

In April’s Over the Rainbow webinar about LGBTQ-responsive international exchanges, Randal Mason talks about the degree of queer inclusion in study abroad organizations, and how the process can be made easier for students that identify with that demographic group. Toward the end, he mentions that cultures and forms of expression vary in different countries. This is something that study abroad applicants should be conscious of, both during the application process and their time abroad.

Just like queer people seek respect and affirmation, it is their job to understand the LGBT culture of a country before leaving for a study abroad program. Certain beliefs and progressive rights have not been accepted by many countries, and, as an LGBT student going abroad, it is not the host country’s job to advocate for these rights. I’m all for social justice, but it’s important to understand that what is accepted in our society might be penalized by death in others. Studying abroad as a LGBT student certainly adds another layer of preparation to the study abroad process, and there are extra things to be aware of throughout your time abroad too.

That being said, LGBT students are not technically banned from studying abroad in any country in the world. What they should be aware of, however, is that reality might be different abroad, and adjustments in behavior might be necessary. Understand your social agenda, decide how much you are willing to compromise, and then take a look at the countries below. The following countries cover the spectrum of support for LGBT people and their rights:

LGBT-Friendly Study Abroad Locations

More developed countries, especially those in northern Europe, have the most affirming LGBT communities. If you would like to continue your crusade for freedom, get involved with LGBT activities at school, and have an open relationship with your partner, these options will let you focus on studies without sacrificing any of your colorful bracelets or PDA moments.

Gay couple touching foreheads
Even today, there are countries where “homosexual acts” are illegal.

Canada. Toronto is home to Canada’s largest gay community, with no shortage of LGBT-approved neighborhood nooks and events throughout the year.

France. A more egalitarian social mindset allows for a general acceptance of the LGBT community. France was one of the first countries to remove transsexualism from its list of mental illnesses, and Paris specifically offers a supportive network for LGBT students abroad.

Scandinavia. The first country to recognize same-sex partnerships, Denmark, also hosts the impressive Copenhagen Pride event every year. Norway, Finland, and Sweden offer more civil rights to the LGBT community than many other European countries.

New Zealand. With a growing network of LGBT-friendly homestay options, New Zealand is increasing in acceptance rapidly, and even hosts a Gay Ski week at the end of August (the biggest gay party in the Southern Hemisphere, I’ve heard).

Prague, Czech Republic. The Czech Republic, for the most part, mirrors the homophobia present in Eastern Europe. However, Prague sparkles bright as a LGBT beacon in the region, and offers some of the most active LGBT communities, with monthly events.

LGBT-Neutral Study Abroad Locations

If you don’t want to feel threatened by your sexual orientation, but have no need to lead equality marches, parts of Asia and Central America has plenty of nature, history, and delicious treats to offer study abroad students without infringing on their sexual identification.

China. Unwanted attention in China will likely come from skin color, rather than sexual orientation. While social pressures force many people to remain “closeted,” the LGBT movement has grown significantly in the last ten years, and new rights are being steadily gained.

Japan. Since its samurai days, expressions of gender dressing have been more open, with skirts, long hair, and facial piercings not uncommon. Today, same-sex marriage and gender changes are legal. Society might not be open as publically as other countries, but that is changing every day.

Costa Rica. Even though Catholicism and Latin American machismo are still present in Costa Rica, the high volume of international travelers are establishing a growing acceptance of the LGBT community. San Jose offers LGBT-friendly areas and same-sex relations have been legal since 1972.

Girls walking in a pride parade wearing rainbow angel wings
Not every country has pride parades

LGBT-Negative Study Abroad Locations

Unfortunately, many parts of the world do not approve of LGBT identification. While all are welcome to study abroad in these locations (and the opportunity for cultural revelation can be great), it’s not recommended to flaunt your personal life and romantic choices publicly.

Malaysia. As an Islamic nation, homosexuality and gender changes are not supported by law, and society’s understanding of specific terms is very limited. Penalties for such behavior include up to 20 years of imprisonment.

Nigeria. With over 95 percent of the population not accepting of homosexuality and same-sex acts punishable by death, Nigeria is the least LGBT-friendly country in Africa. It shares its opinion with many neighbors, such as Mauritania, Sudan, and Somalia.

Jamaica. Although the LGBT community here is starting to fight for rights, there are still many violent crimes directed toward homosexual and bisexual people. Sexual acts between men can result in ten years of imprisonment, and homophobia is high in society.

Boat decorated for the Amsterdam pride parade
The Netherlands is an extremely liberal country, a great spot for LGBT study abroad students interested in social justice, and world famous for their crazy pride parade!

As a rule, LGBT communities are more prominent in larger cities, where mindsets are more liberal and the demographic more varied. In more rural areas, traditional mindsets, most of these rooted in religion and social norms, tend to be more prominent. So, when wanting to explore Eastern Europe, opt for Prague as a home base. If you are intrigued by Mexico, Mexico City offers an active LGBT scene, but other regions are not as accepting. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are some of the most popular LGBT tourist destinations, but LGBT hate crimes are on the rise in the rest of Brazil.

Regardless of which country you chose as your next study abroad venture, it is important to understand local customs of host countries. Even if LGBT practices are legal, maybe culture discourages coming out publically (and this is probably true of many private matters, don’t take it personally). At the same time, you can use this as an opportunity to show others that LGBT people are just humans who happen to identify or love differently than most people and teach others some new vocabulary; just be smart about your approach.

LGBT acceptance is a growing trend, but it still has much room for evolution until global equality has been reached.

It is important to continue the fight, but it is also important to understand your role in other nations. Sense of confinement is not positive, but knowing safety zones is important. Especially when opting for a homestay option, reach out to program advisors and state your situation. It’s better to explain concerns before they become issues.

For further help, download GoAbroad's LGBT Study Abroad Guide. Study abroad should be an enriching, positive experience for everyone, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.