LGBT students worry about safety, identity abroad

When Marc Caporiccio embarked on a month-long foreign exchange program to South Africa with a group of fellow university students, he faced an onslaught of internal questions about his identity as an openly gay, Canadian man.
Marc Caporiccio takes a ferry to Robben Island during his one-month study abroad in South Africa. Caporiccio said that, as an openly gay man, safety was one of his top concerns before departing on the trip. (Marc Caporiccio)

When Marc Caporiccio embarked on a month-long foreign exchange program to South Africa with a group of fellow university students, he faced an onslaught of internal questions about his identity as an openly gay Canadian man.

"Am I safe? Can I be out? Should I go back in the closet?" Caporiccio, a 25-year-old graduate student who came out in stages soon after he entered university, asked himself before departing on the trip.

"The question on the top of my mind is: am I, am I safe being me abroad?" he says.

The study abroad veteran, who previously completed an undergraduate exchange in Germany, is not alone in his concerns.

Students feel 'left to their own devices'

Brita Doyle works as a study abroad adviser at American University and co-chairs the International Association of Educators Rainbow group, which aims to help post-secondary staff support queer students as they participate in foreign exchange programs.

"[LGBT students] have a lot of the same concerns that any student would have about adapting to a foreign culture, worry about academic credits, safety concerns," she says.

The question on the top of my mind is: am I, am I safe being me abroad?— Marc Caporiccio, 25-year-old graduate student

"But, then they also might have some extra concerns [such as] whether or not there are different laws in a country that might pertain to them as an LGBT individual."

Caporiccio, whose two study abroad programs were run by different universities, says LGBT students are often "left to their own devices" when it comes to answering these questions and researching attitudes toward homosexuality in potential host countries.

Before going to South Africa, he reached out to alumni to determine what sort of treatment he could expect abroad, which he says really helped him prepare for the trip.

Noticing a common experience between him and two other queer-identified students on the trip, Caporiccio decided he wanted to provide a venue to speak about "something that isn’t being discussed currently, but that every LGBT student when they study abroad has questions about, [like] acceptance and safety and culture."

More resources, in-country services wanted

The masters of higher education and student affairs student organized a panel of LGBT students and study abroad participants to discuss how universities can better prepare closeted and out queer students for their school-organized international experiences.

Many agreed too much of the onus is placed on students. Eight LGBT students and alumni, including two currently on an exchange who attended via Skype, explained to an allied audience of students and staff the gaps that exist in pre-departure training and on-site support.

While Caporiccio recognizes that feeling vulnerable is part of the foreign exchange experience, providing students with useful information prior to travelling and strong services within the host country "can only enhance" the experience.

The panellists suggested that schools could:

  • Designate a site ambassador for each host country to give students a first-person account of life there.
  • Create a database of LGBT resources and information, including recent gay rights news and relevant laws.
  • Organize a meet and greet for LGBT students and allies upon arrival.
  • Provide students with a list of queer-friendly organizations so students can engage in volunteer work as part of their immersion experience.

Closeted students a tougher target

Doyle says many university advisers are keen and approach her asking how they can help support their LGBT-identified students who plan on studying abroad.

She instructs them to make their international program offices visibly LGBT friendly, by showcasing positive space stickers and encouraging staff to complete safe space training.

It is important to address LGBT issues with all students, she says, because some may still be secretive about or discovering their sexual orientation. University organizers should incorporate queer concerns into general information sessions.

"Just like we would talk about considerations you need to make if you're a history major, we also want to talk about considerations you would need to make if you are LGBT."

UBC's strong support system

That is the approach the University of British Columbia's Go Global program takes, says Katherine Beaumont, who has served as its director since 2004.

Go Global makes LGBT information available to all students in a variety of formats. In addition to wellness information sessions, an abundance of safety information and LGBT resources online, and readily available staff, Go Global posts returning student questionnaires about their host country on its website as a resource for any students trying to decide what country they would like to travel to.

Marc Caporiccio at the Ukutula Game Lodge and Lion Centre during his one-month study abroad in South Africa. Caporiccio hosted a panel at his university for LGBT students to discuss their top concerns about studying abroad. (Marc Caporiccio)

One of the questions centres around cultural acceptance of a diversity of sexual orientations.

Two students who travelled to Hong Kong provided mixed reviews.

"The culture differs too much," wrote one, suggesting that LGBT students may not want to consider a different option.

The second student wrote that they had a gay roommate during their study abroad, and he "he seemed to enjoy himself very much and did not bring up any prejudiced experiences."

One student who had just returned from Botswana pointed out that homosexuality is illegal and most LGBT people remain private about their preferences.

Students who want to hear more about these experiences can contact study abroad alumni who have volunteered to field questions about their former travels, said Beaumont.

Caporiccio agrees that these resources are important for all students, whether or not they openly identify as LGBT.

"Having supports available, having resources available, knowledgeable staff available — it all is imperative for students' success abroad."