International Educator

NO. 1

Copyright © 1998 by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. 
All rights reserved.

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Working with Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual International Students in the United States

By Nadine Kato

For many people in the United States, the words "gay," "lesbian," and "bisexual" conjure up strong emotions. From curiosity to embarrassment, from self-recognition to fear, the words have the power to elicit a deeply personal response in nearly everyone. The personal emotions attached to the topic of homosexuality, and possibly a fear of controversy, lead many university support staff to remain silent on the subject. This silence leaves gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) students wondering to whom they can comfortably divulge their identity and discuss related concerns. The silence can prevent international GLB students from seeking help when they most need it.

International student advisers (ISAs) are in a key position to offer information to GLB international students on a variety of issues. However, in a survey I conducted of GLB international students across the United States, students reveal that they seldom seek help from ISAs for issues related to sexual orientation. Nevertheless, insightful ISAs can provide a viable option for students looking for support. In fact, their contribution can be especially valuable, as ISAs are generally more familiar with the international aspects of the issues facing GLB international students than are GLB support groups on campus.

My survey was conducted by e-mailing a request for participants to international student offices and GLB student organizations at 170 institutions in the United States. The survey was posted on the Internet so students could access it and submit anonymous responses. A small number of students from my university completed a written survey and sat for an interview. A total of 59 international students completed the survey. The sections of the survey discussed in this article include: issues that gay, lesbian and bisexual students face on U.S. campuses, support services that are and are not utilized by GLB international students on U.S. campuses, and choices students face about returning to their home countries. 

Thirty-six students (61 percent) plan to remain in the United States after they graduate. Twenty-seven students' decisions to stay are based on issues related to their GLB identity, whether it is feeling more accepted in the United States, trying to stay with a partner, fear of the home country, or some other factor. 

Issues Faced by International Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Students in the United States

The survey respondents identified two main problems that they believe most affect the international GLB student population in the United States: fear of returning to a less GLB-friendly home country and difficulty staying in the United States long-term to be with a partner.

Fear of Returning to a Less GLB-Friendly Home Country

The most common cause of anxiety about returning home is the feeling that one must either betray oneself by going back into the closet or be dishonest to others by leading a double life. One French woman respondent says, "I somehow equate going back to France with going back into the closet, after many years of coming to grips with my sexual orientation and finally coming out." Another European woman refers to her parents in her feelings about going home, "I cannot get rid of the feeling of betraying myself by going back into the closet if I go home to my parents." A Nigerian student feels she has to choose between her close-knit family and society at home, or staying in the United States to be out. She comments, "Most of the Nigerians I have met here and in London have either resigned themselves to living a double life, or have totally cut themselves off from non-GLB Nigerians." A Thai woman states, "I [feel] like I no longer have a home." She explains that she will have to choose between being true to her lesbian identity and staying in the United States, or "discarding" that identity and going home. 

A Japanese man says that coming out to his parents is the biggest issue he will face when he returns home. He believes that people, including his parents, will accept his sexual orientation better if he "compensates" for being gay by excelling in some other way, such as by getting an additional degree, gaining fluency in English, or becoming famous.

A few male respondents from Latin America disavowed their home countries. One individual from Honduras describes his disappointment in his home country in this way:

I came out after I graduated from undergrad and returned to Honduras a couple of months later. Moving back crushed the resulting elation from coming out. I felt dirty and shameful. The culture at large saw me as a diseased, sick, perverted individual. I was crushed. I never want to go back to that.... Indeed, I reject my entire cultural identity as a Honduran. I never again want to be a part of it.

Hilda Besner and Charlotte Spungin, authors of Gay and Lesbian Students: Understanding Their Needs, say that "identity disclosure for most gays and lesbians, brings with it a tremendous amount of personal freedom and a more complete integration of their sexual identity and their environment." The Honduran student had just recently come out and experienced a sense of personal freedom in the United States. His return home made him feel isolated and ashamed.

A man from Venezuela describes his feelings about being GLB in his home country:

Being GLB in Venezuela is something so horrible that I didn't have an idea of what to do. I prayed, exercised, and tried to remain as busy as possible. Nevertheless I constantly would have to hear offensive comments about GLB people in general.... There is some kind of national obsession with trying to find out if a man is gay or not, but if somebody acknowledges that they are gay, then people react with an "I don't want to know about that." Also many men engage ... in active homosexual sex but don't consider themselves homosexuals.... I am glad and thank God that I was able to get out of that country because I feel that I have done nothing wrong and nevertheless I would be treated like a crook in my country.... I will never go back; I think poorly of the people in my country and don't want to go there ever again. I will not be humiliated....

Difficulty Staying in the United States to Be with a Partner

The second most common concern for GLB international students is remaining in the United States to be with a long-term partner. Because gay and lesbian marriages are generally not recognized, such partnerships are not accepted as valid reasons for one to immigrate to the United States. Two survey respondents who were “heavily affected” by this problem describe their plight:

I'm presently involved with someone I met [as an] undergraduate, when I came out. We came out together and we are still together. I'm faced with having to go back to my country because I'm running out of visa options. I wish there were a way to marry or some partnership options to be able to stay together. (Colombian man, graduate student)

The most significant issue for my partner and me … has been and continues to be the fact that our relationship cannot be legally sanctioned and that, therefore, we never know if I will be able to stay in the United States. This continuous "deadline," i.e., visa expiration date, is frequently a topic of discussion and is, at times, a significant stress factor. (Dutch woman, graduate student)

The director of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender programs at a large Midwestern university voiced her concern that it would be difficult to find students willing to participate in my research survey. She explained that most international students who come to her would like to remain with their partners in the United States but feel they have no choice but to "go underground" in order to stay. These students believe that by identifying themselves as international students in the survey, they put themselves in jeopardy, since they may remain in the United States illegally to be with their partners. 

This problem is in no way unique to the international student population. Anti-immigration laws that went into effect on April 1, 1997, pose difficult choices for all illegal immigrants. 

W. Lee, a 44-year-old Malaysian massage therapist, and J. Torres, a 38-year-old consultant from Colombia, are both in long-term relationships with American partners. Both refuse to do anything illegal to stay here, such as a "convenience marriage" and stress the importance of doing things the "right" way, and being able "to come out of the illegal immigration closet.” However, both fear what would happen to them if they were deported back to their home countries. (Constable 1997)

Lee states that "homosexuality is not accepted" in Malaysia, and he would have to go back into the closet or "lose everything," if he were forced to return. Torres came to the United States on a student visa that "expired about a decade ago" but does not want to return to Colombia, because "anyone openly gay in Colombia is ostracized. There are even social cleansing squads that hunt [homosexuals] down and attack them."

In recent years, the U.S. government has opened its doors to foreign-born homosexuals. In 1990, it repealed a longtime law barring them from immigrating; in 1994 it began allowing them to seek political asylum. Under the old immigration law, illegal immigrants could avoid deportation by proving that they would face economic or personal hardship if sent back to their native countries. The new law ... requires illegal immigrants to prove that deportation would cause "extreme hardship" to a spouse, child or parent who is a U.S. citizen or a permanent U.S. resident. (Constable 1997)

The Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force, in a 1997 publication, discussed the same change in law:

Previously, an alien could be granted suspension [of deportation] on a showing of extreme hardship to the alien or extreme hardship to the alien's U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse, parent or child. Under the new law, cancellation will only be granted upon a showing of ... hardship to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident spouse, parent or child.

A gay or lesbian visa applicant would have difficulty proving that deportation would cause extreme hardship to a spouse when gay and lesbian marriages are not recognized. Although the United States does grant political asylum to some gays and lesbians based on hardships or abuses experienced in their home country, it will be much harder for illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for years (to be with a partner, for example) to persuade a judge to let them stay. While Torres may be granted political asylum based on the abuse he would receive in Colombia because he is gay, Lee's lawyers think his case is too weak to win. (Constable 1997) 

The Honduran man quoted earlier says, "My partner and I are moving to Canada. My U.S. visa will expire soon and Canada allows us to immigrate together as a same sex couple."

Other Unique Issues Facing GLB Students

GLB students face other issues as well. As the world becomes smaller, particularly with the advent of e-mail, the threat of having one’s personal life become public knowledge back home can be a source of acute anxiety. A woman from Bermuda, an island of just 60,000 people, fears that if she comes out in the United States, word will get back to her home country, and she will not be able to get a job when she returns. A Danish student also tells of a gay friend from Bangladesh who was afraid that students from his home country would discover he was gay and leak the news to his family. Although some may wonder how realistic such fears are, a poignant case has been documented by an Indian woman in Lotus of Another Color: An Unfolding of the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Experience. The author's first "mature" lesbian love affair occurred while she was studying in the United States, but news traveled from the United States back to her father in India. (Ratti 1993) 

Respondents expressed concern over a lack of resources on identity-related issues. A Nigerian woman suggests that having people from her home country who identify as GLB with whom she could "discuss issues" would make life easier for her. Others, such as a woman from Taiwan, wish that their campus had an international GLB group. She states: 

It's hard to tell your American gay friends how ... it feel[s] being a gay and also a foreigner in the States and expect them to understand what you've been through. I would prefer to tell my story to another person who has [a] similar background. The GLB society should be more diverse than simply considering American gay people. 

Culture differences do not disappear in the GLB community, of course. Among my survey respondents, an Italian man, an Indian man, and a Taiwanese woman describe themselves as outsiders, even among the GLB community, based on the fact that they are from different cultures. For some, their core values or their views on what it means to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual differ significantly from those of the GLB student population, and GLB groups in the United States are not communities in which they feel comfortable. 

For international students in the GLB community, the term racism does not necessarily refer to the sort of overt problems that we typically associate with racism, such as name-calling or cross-burning, but instead refers to more subtle forms, described here by a male Malaysian undergraduate:

In Minnesota, cross-racial relationships ... are relatively rare. Most white people are not attracted to minorities, especially those around college age. For me, that created a sense of racial embarrassment that persisted for a while.... That has been hardest for me to adjust [to].... It's not outright racism, because people have multiracial friends, it's only [that] attraction across racial lines is absent or very much reduced.

One woman from Taiwan expresses her disappointment and disillusionment that racism exists "even in queer society," and quotes Audre Lorde's ironic question in her 1982 book, Zami: "Of course, gay people weren't racists. After all, didn't they know what it was like to be oppressed?" Racism does exist within the gay community, and some respondents perceive it to be a large problem. 

The survey revealed that religion continues as a source of anxiety and even hostility in the GLB community. Michael Ford, author of The World Out There: Becoming Part of the Lesbian and Gay Community, explains why: "Many people in the gay community see religion in all of its forms as one of the biggest enemies we have." After all, he says, many religious leaders tell us we are sinners and do not want us in their churches, temples, or synagogues. "Because of these attitudes, there is a lot of resentment, anger, and hostility toward religion in the gay community." Some GLB people who practice a religion may be regarded as traitors by much of the GLB community.

While many of our students revel in the freedom they feel at being away from home and in a more accepting environment, others feel quite restricted by the conservatism of American society. For example, the Danish student remarks that the United States feels very "old fashioned, uptight, and conservative" compared with his home country, and, therefore, he is more reluctant to come out to people in this country. The woman from the Netherlands agrees, describing the feelings she had when she arrived and was confronted with some of the "ignorant attitudes and biases" against gays and lesbians. "I was sent back in time approximately ten years," she said. Although she is involved with someone in this country and wants to stay here with her, she always looks forward to going home "because it gives me a chance to temporarily escape to a much more liberal and progressive place."

Support Networks and Services

Most of the respondents expressed a desire to have their issues addressed.

A strong support network is crucial for most university students, international or domestic, GLB or heterosexual. Some respondents stress the importance of support from peers from their home country, or at least the same region. Since GLB international students are a cross-section of minorities, it is important?though perhaps more difficult?to find people around whom they feel completely at ease. Two female graduate students, one African-Brazilian and one Taiwanese, express their experiences with multiple identities: 

I believe that the fact that I'm lesbian, Latina, black, from working-class background, etc., places me in a situation in which I have to struggle and explain to people the meaning of those intersections in my life. This multiplicity of identities is not easy to handle. 

Being a woman and a person of color, [I] have already ... experienced much social oppression and discrimination. The idea of becoming a lesbian is even scarier because [I] know now [I'll] have another "opportunity" to be oppressed.... Under these circumstances, probably the only "power" I'll retain is through ... knowledge?being an educated person.

In the survey, I asked students to rate how comfortable they felt on a scale of one to five?with one being "not at all comfortable" and five "completely comfortable?around certain groups of people they might encounter on campus. The groups included students from the home country, other international students from other countries, American students, GLB students from the same home country, GLB students from other countries, and GLB American students.

Respondents feel the most uncomfortable when their sexual indentity is known to students from their home country. Thirty-nine percent feel not at all comfortable or only sometimes comfortable being out to compatriots. The one group that students consistently feel most comfortable with, whether or not the students publicly identify as GLB, is American GLB students. These findings are consistent with other comments from respondents noting that they are unaware of other international GLB students on their campus, including their own countries. 

Although respondents stress the importance of support from peers from their home country, or a country similar to their own, these ratings reveal that GLB international students may not seek or receive the same level of support from their compatriots that their heterosexual counterparts do because of the hesitation to divulge their GLB identity. On the other hand, while they may feel the most comfortable with American GLB students, at least a few report feeling very much in the minority as an international student in the GLB campus organization. The combination of discomfort about divulging one's GLB identity to students from the same home country and cultural differences within the student GLB organization can lead to intense isolation.

Specific Sources of Support

Most respondents identify close friends as the most supportive resource. Many also seek GLB communities and resources off campus, such as GLB bookstores, dance clubs, coffeehouses and bars, political action groups, and support groups. Other sources of support include GLB campus organizations, celebrity role models such as Martina Navratilova, movie stars, rock stars, television personalities, poets, authors, clergy, counselors, and gay pride parades. Some have found that a particular class played a pivotal role in their development. A small handful have found support in a professor, the campus women's center, family members, partners, books, or a GLB campus religious group. Four respondents, three of whom are Asian, find that the GLB presence on the Internet "provides a tremendous degree of information to GLB persons in developing and accepting their sexuality." 

Only two respondents, one European and one Latin American, found the international student adviser particularly supportive. Forty-seven of my respondents (80 percent) did not even consider approaching an ISA to discuss GLB issues. Of the small number who did consider this as an option, five chose not to go to the adviser, six mentioned it to an adviser in casual conversation, and only two specifically brought up the topic for discussion with an adviser. The two who did bring it up describe having very positive experiences. The Latin American student says, "I felt very lonely upon arrival, so I talked with an ISA. Just coming out to someone and talking about it made me feel better. She made me feel very comfortable." In the European student’s case, the ISA was a lesbian, which made it easy for the student to discuss GLB issues with her.

Many respondents wish that the campus GLB group and the international student adviser were more helpful. Others mention international student groups, department faculty, administration, church, family, school in the home country, community gay center, heterosexual friends and society in general.

Bridging the Gap between ISAs and GLB International Students

The international student adviser is often an international student's first contact in the United States. In some cases, contact begins even before the student arrives, through the application and acceptance process. Once the student arrives, the ISA is usually the first person to greet an international student. The initial weeks are the most difficult for students because some of them have left the home country for the very first time, and many do not know anyone else at the school. As the first and primary contact throughout the orientation period, the international student adviser is in a position to identify herself or himself as a resource person and to demonstrate interest in the student's welfare?both academic and personal.

Some student survey respondents, however, believe that their ISA is "pragmatic," "patronizing," "not there for us to discuss personal issues," or "more concerned about the relationship with the university and the INS than with the students." Others feel that they would be more comfortable going to a counselor or another campus resource person. However, some believe the ISA is different enough from a counselor that he or she is in fact more approachable, since in some cultures, to go to a counselor implies that one is somehow sick or mentally weak. By the same token, people from some cultures feel much more comfortable confiding in someone with whom they already have a relationship, rather than confiding in a complete stranger, such as a counselor. Furthermore, most ISAs are likely to have an international perspective, which allows them to appreciate some situations that a counselor or GLB support group might balk at, such as an international student's fear of being out at home because of the effect it will have on his or her family's status in the community.

What an ISA Can Do

In view of the support needs voiced by the survey respondents, ISAs should consider learning more about GLB issues and presenting themselves as a potential resource for students. 

Many of us have been socialized to be uncomfortable with homosexuality and, by extension, with gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. The first step towards recognizing our own discomfort is to assess our attitudes towards homosexuality. It is important to know how willing we are to deal with gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues, and at what level we are willing to get involved with our GLB students. Are we best able to present a booklet of GLB resource information in orientation packets and refer students to those resources, or are we willing to work with the GLB resource center and with students to create educational programs and international GLB support groups? 

After getting a sense of your attitudes, evaluate the university's commitment to support GLB people, including students, faculty and staff. As a whole, does the university acknowledge and support the existence of GLB people on campus? The following questions, adapted from a list prepared by Evans and Wall (1991), will help.

  • Does the campus have GLB student organizations supported by student government funds? 
  • Does the campus counseling center have GLB support groups? 
  • Does the campus have a GLB faculty/staff association? 
  • Does the curriculum include courses on GLB history and culture? 
  • Does the institution's affirmative action statement include sexual orientation? 
  • Does the campus minority affairs office deal with sexual orientation issues? 
  • Does the student handbook or conduct code include a clear statement prohibiting harassment and discrimination of minorities and GLB people? 
  • Does the housing office grant room changes on the basis of sexual orientation or must danger to the resident be demonstated? 
  • Does my professional or student staff include openly GLB people? 
  • Does our office have a strong commitment to treat all people equally? Is this as evident with our GLB populations as it is with other minorities? 
  • Are GLB colleagues encouraged to bring their significant others or partners to office or campus social events? 
If you do not know the answers to some of these questions, do some investigation. If the answers are negative, explore the idea of making a few changes on campus.

After assessing yourself and your institution, the next step is to learn about GLB issues, both in the United States and around the world. GLB sensitivity training, GLB resource centers, conferences, books and some websites are excellent sources of information. A book, video, and web resource list devoted to international GLB information is available from the author.

Student respondents offer a variety of ideas for how ISAs can be more supportive.

  • At orientation, provide all new students with a campus GLB resource guide and announce that the ISA office is open to discussion of GLB issues. 
  • Create a “safe” environment by displaying GLB resource materials, books, posters, and pink triangles or "safe space" signs. 
  • Do not assume heterosexuality in conversations with students. 
  • Offer sensitivity training on GLB issues for ISA staff. 
  • Offer support and advice on immigration for GLB people whose partners are U.S. citizens. Provide support and referrals to students from home countries where homosexuality is illegal or the environment is dangerous for GLB people. Political asylum is sometimes granted by the United States, Canada, and some European countries on this basis. 
  • Sponsor educational opportunities, such as international GLB discussion groups, forums, seminars, and films. 
How should you respond to a student who approaches you to discuss sexual identity? Besner and Spungin (1995) offer the following guidelines:
  • Do not act surprised when someone comes out to you. They have decided that you can be trusted. 
  • Deal with students’ feelings first. Most gay and lesbian people who are just coming out feel alone, afraid, and guilty. You can help by listening and allowing them to unburden themselves. 
  • Be supportive. Explain that many people have struggled with homosexuality. Acknowledge that dealing with one's sexuality is difficult. Keep the door open for further conversations and assistance. 
  • Assess the student's knowledge of homosexuality. Replace misinformation with knowledge. Don't assume that gays and lesbians who are just coming out know a lot about homosexuality. We have all been exposed to myths and stereotypes, so it is helpful to provide clarification. 
  • Use nonjudgmental, all-inclusive language in your discussion. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues from the students. Do not label or categorize. 
  • Respect confidentiality. 
  • Reexamine your own biases so as to remain a neutral source of information and support. 
  • Know when and where to seek help. Know the referral agencies and counselors on campus and in your area. 
Besner and Spungin add that the most important thing to remember is to "accept the individual as a total human being?do not limit your interest to his or her sexual orientation.”

International students who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual have a number of unique issues that may surface during their time in the United States. Informed international student advisers are in an excellent position to support these students and help them deal with their concerns. Let students know they are welcome to discuss personal issues with you, and refer them to other resources when appropriate. Finally, a reentry program can help students make a smooth transition back to the home country. 

?Nadine Kato is the international student adviser in the Office of International Students and Scholars at the University of Nevada, Reno. The foregoing article is based on the author's research for a master's degree in intercultural and international management from the School of International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont.


Besner, Hilda and Charlotte Spungin. 1995. Gay and Lesbian Students: Understanding Their Needs. Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis.

Constable, Pamela. April 23, 1997. "Fighting for Their Lives: New Law Gives Gay Illegal Immigrants Fewer Ways to Stop Deportation," Washington Post. 

Ford, Michael. 1996. The World Out There: Becoming Part of the Lesbian and Gay Community. New York: New Press.

Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force. Winter 1997. Task Force Update. New York.

Lorde, Audre. 1982. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press.

Moses, A. Elfin and Robert O. Hawkins. 1985. “Two-Hour In-Service Training Session on Homophobia.” In Lesbian and Gay Issues, ed. H. Hidalgo, T. Peterson, and N. Goodman. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers.

Ratti, Rakesh. 1993. Lotus of Another Color: An Unfolding of the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Experience. Boston: Alyson Publications.

Copyright 1998 NAFSA: Association of International Educators. All rights reserved. International Educator, a quarterly magazine, and, a weekly bulletin distributed by electronic mail, are benefits of membership in NAFSA.