Transformations can be difficult, however, as students manage parental and peer group expectations, and often, students can find themselves having to rebuild their support network away from home.
For international students whose sexual and gender identities lie outside heterosexual and cisgender (describing a person whose identity corresponds with the one they were assigned at birth), managing those expectations while also studying in a foreign country can lead to isolation.
“Whatever terms one uses, they’re understood very differently by different people”
For institutions, ensuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex students feel welcome requires striking a balance between acknowledging gender and sexual identity and understanding the complexities of cultural identity.
Statistics on the number of international students who are within the LGBTQI+ community are unavailable and generally difficult to gauge.
“If we are to take an approximate, it is widely believed that 10% of the population is sexually fluid,” says Victorian AIDS Council peer education coordinator, Budi Sudarto.
“If we are to estimate at least 400,000 students commenced their studies [in Australia] in 2016, then we can predict that 40,000 students would identify as LGBTQI+,” he says.
However, understanding what it means to be LGBTQI+ is complex, Sudarto adds. As with every part of a person’s identity, it can be difficult to explain the distinctions in terms that everyone can understand, and some prefer not to discuss at all.
A 2016 pilot survey on LGBTQI+ international students in Australia highlighted the level of nuance around identity.
The survey, which was conducted by Deakin University associate head of school international & partnerships Cai Wilkinson and funded by the International Education Association of Australia, found respondents self-identifying with more than 15 gender identities and 11 sexual orientations.
The diversity of experiences show an increased awareness of gender and sexuality among both the domestic and international student populations but, Wilkinson adds, also show the limitations of language.
“Many students ‘came out’ once they arrived in Australia”
“[The responses] reflect the fact that whatever terms one uses, they’re understood very differently by different people and where they’re coming from. That makes things very complex,” she says.
Complexities aside, once a student touches down, the different approaches to sexuality between the society at home and their study destination can be pronounced.
Studying in a city that is perceived to be friendlier towards minority groups could be an opportunity for students to explore their identity, says Sudarto.
“Some students have informed their family of their sexuality and diverse gender identity prior to arriving in Australia, but many others ‘came out’ once they arrived in Australia,” he says.
However, Sudarto also notes being out while abroad presents its own set of challenges.
“They are relying on their family for both emotional and financial support, [but] some students have to constantly manage family expectations of heterosexual marriage, and this can impact their emotional well-being as it can create a stressful environment for them,” he says.
Importantly, simply being overseas does not mean students meaningfully engaging with people outside their cultural group, which can lead to complications for international students whose cultures are less accepting of LGBTQI+ people.
“Many students are experiencing internal conflicts where they perceive their cultural communities as providing support, yet feel that they cannot disclose their identity due to homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia,” Sudarto says.
“Some students have to constantly manage family expectations of heterosexual marriage”
“This can add to the feeling of social isolation and the difficulty of finding a community of support.”
Supporting LGBTQI+ international students
To address gaps in support, providers and organisations offer a variety of services for LGBTQI+ people, some of which are specific to international students.
New Zealand vocational provider Unitec established the Ally initiative, which aims to create a more inclusive and equitable culture by promoting awareness of sexualities and gender identities among staff and domestic and international students.
Working alongside its other support services for international students, the provider notes Ally has aided many students’ transition into their studies, and the initiative won People’s Choice at Unitec’s 2016 awards ceremony.
Similar initiatives are happening around the world at places like the American School of the Hague, an international K-12 school in the Netherlands. Last year the school launched a Gay/Straight Alliance to show support for its high school students.
High school counselor Jen Bieck says the GSA helps students openly discuss LGBTQI+ issues and organise events to ensure everyone feels welcome.
Meanwhile, the Study Melbourne Student Centre collaborated with the Victorian AIDS council in 2016 to launch the Rainbow International Students Network.
Still in its infancy, RIS’N is currently organising events for LGBTQI+ international students. Sudarto says the group’s use of social media has also helped “many students feel less isolated in a new country”.
There are also initiatives to provide educators with the tools to understand the needs of international students. Since its inception some twenty years ago, NAFSA’s Rainbow SIG has become NAFSA’s largest special interest group.
“It was founded to bring together NAFSAns who share goals,” says Rainbow SIG co-chair Lukman Arsalan. The group originally offered a support network for professionals, but now also provides resources for educators to help LGBTQI+ students.
“I get asked: how is it being gay in Jordan? I tell people, ask me how is it being gay in America”
“A lot of advisors would write to [us] and say ‘I have a student who identifies as transgender and they need a I-20 issued. What do I do?’,” he recollects.
West is best?
Despite progress in Western countries in supporting LGBTQI+ people, there is still a lot of work to be done, both in and outside of the international education industry.
Arsalan, who is gay and a former international student, says that while it is true there are more protected freedoms within the US than some other countries, there are also at least two different Americas for both domestic and international LGBTQI+ students.
“Since I am an out, gay male from a predominantly Muslim country and my husband is an American, I get asked: how is it being gay in Jordan?” he says. “I tell people, ask me how is it being gay in America, because not every place in America is necessarily safe.”
Having lived in six US states so far, Arsalan says his experiences in each have been very different, ranging from welcoming to outright hostile. At its worst, he was a victim of gay bashing in Arkansas.
“When I talk to international students, based on [my] experiences… I usually say ‘think about what is important to you’,” he relates. “You can easily draw up the map and realise: I want to be in a city because they can be more open, or in a blue state. Just the fact you’re in the United States doesn’t mean every place is safe.”
Bieck notes that despite the Dutch reputation for being open-minded – it was the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001 – she received pushback to the Gay/Straight Alliance program from pockets within her school’s community.
“You can easily draw up the map and realise: I want to be in a city because they can be more open”
“We’re in an interesting place… being an international community, we have some evidence of conservatism,” she says. “[A GSA] has tried to happen a couple of times and was always something we weren’t really ready to be proud of yet,” she continues, pointing to an earlier Students Aligned for Equity group as the preliminary step towards a GSA.
Bieck says with a GSA set up, there is still a level of apprehension towards acknowledging LGTBQI+ students outside of the high school.
The Netherlands isn’t the only country where LGBTQI+ affairs continue to be political triggers.
The US has an ongoing debate over whether transgender people should be allowed access to the bathroom of the gender they identify as, while in Australia – the only major Anglophone destination that has yet to legalise same-sex marriage – Qantas CEO Alan Joyce recently had a pie thrown in his face because of his support of same-sex marriage.
International students are acutely aware of public discussions of sexuality, and the vitriol that can come up during them. Several respondents of Wilkinson’s survey, for example, commented on Australia’s stance on same-sex marriage.
“There is an assumption that someone wants to be publicly disclosing their sexual orientation”
“Marriage equality is still not accepted, which means queer people are still second class citizens and Australia seems to be ok with it,” one respondent said.
There is also an incorrect belief that the West’s approach to gender and sexuality fits everyone, Wilkinson says: “One of the things that came out of the survey and certainly some of the interviews is a very particular understanding of what it means to be LGBTQI+.”
“[There is an] assumption that someone wants to be publicly disclosing or acknowledging their sexual orientation, rather than it being seen as something more of a private matter or something where you can live with, what Western countries tend to perceive as, having to lie or having to hide.
“The reality is that if we begin to unpack sexual orientation and gender identity, we very quickly find the situation is a lot more nuanced.”
Of those nuances, Wilkinson notes a person’s behaviour does not necessarily correspond with how they describe their sexuality. For example, she highlights that not all people who engage in same-sex sexual activity identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer.
“It’s one of those sort of quandaries in the West. We tend to see sexuality as something fixed and as an identity, rather than being about practices.”
Taking a Western approach to coming out can also have long-term adverse effects, says Arsalan, who advises anyone counselling LGBTQI+ international students to understand the cultural context of a student. “You can’t really apply a model that would be: oh, you should come out to your parents… I’m sure they’ll be fine,” he says.
“It’s one of those quandaries in the West. We tend to see sexuality as something fixed”
“If you have a Saudi student, who’s on the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission scholarship, who’s dictated to return to Saudi Arabia, and you’re telling this guy to come out, what are the actions that would happen because of that?”
Coming out is an ongoing negotiation of to whom, when and where to disclose one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Wilkinson notes that many students choose to be out in their study destination but not in their home country, and says educators need to support these decisions rather than pass judgement.
In a bid to combat Anglo-centricism, LGBTQI+ community groups that understand cultural and religious nuances have started to form, often developing their own vocabulary.
Organisations such as Gay Asian Proud, Marhaba and Helem, which cater to Asians, Muslims and Lebanese students respectively, can quickly form part of a student’s support network. Terms such as Latinx, a gender-neutral descriptor for Latin Americans, similarly provide members of the community ownership over the language used to describe their identity.
What educators and professionals can do
It’s ok to make mistakes when engaging with LGBTQI+ international students, says Arsalan. Students are more likely to appreciate genuine attempts at understanding their sexual and gender identities than they are to get upset by the use of incorrect terminology.
“You don’t have to be an expert. Simply producing an inclusive environment is more important”
“You don’t have to be an expert. By simply producing an inclusive environment, by displaying affirming visuals, that’s more important,” he says.
Wilkinson agrees, saying the complexity of identity and limitations of language should not dissuade educators from speaking to students about their sexuality.
“Provided the language can be kept reasonably neutral and people actually make an effort to be sensitive, for example by avoiding terms that common guides indicate are definitely outdated or pejorative, that’s still very much preferable to the silence we’ve got at the moment,” said Wilkinson.
For students who do not directly want to engage in discussion about their gender and sexuality, Wilkinson says including information on LGBTQI+ issues in orientation materials or resources for other topics, such as work rights, can be effective.
“The question is not about targeting groups, or LGBTQI+ students particularly, but very much including the information there and just making sure it’s part of the discussion,” she says.
The biggest piece of advice most educators give is to be open and to understand the individual contexts of each student.
“It’s just understanding that people come with different stories to tell,” says Arsalan.