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The ultimate guide to studying abroad as an LGBTQ+ student

Picture of a pride flag

What to expect when studying abroad as an LGBTQ+* student

(*lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, non-binary, asexual, polysexual, genderqueer and gender variant people)

Studying abroad is a truly life-changing experience with so many fantastic benefits. It’s a wonderful opportunity to broaden your cultural horizons, make lifelong memories and receive a top-notch international education. Alongside undergoing this tremendous personal and professional growth, you’ll leave a trail of awareness and acceptance everywhere you go.

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s important to thoroughly research the overseas destinations that most interest you. Unfortunately, LGBTQ+ rights and levels of discrimination vary greatly around the world. However, you’ll still find plenty of LGBTQ+ friendly countries ready to welcome and embrace you as you begin your adventure of a lifetime.

How to decide on a study abroad destination

You’ll have countless options when choosing where to study abroad. Whether you prefer warm or cool climates, the city or the countryside, you’ll be sure to find the right place for you.

Once you’ve put together a list of potential study abroad locations, it’s best to investigate the cultural and religious beliefs of the region or country. Degrees of LGBTQ+ awareness and acceptance differ within and between countries. Whilst many places celebrate LGBTQ+ identities, some only tolerate the community, and others sadly criminalize individuals.

Look at what kind of rights and protection LGBTQ+ people have, the policies and organizations in place, and the attitudes of wider society towards the community. This will give you a taste of what to expect and can help you choose somewhere you’ll feel safe and accepted.

One of the first things you’ll need to consider is whether or not you’d feel comfortable hiding your sexuality and studying in a country that makes it illegal to be part of the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s encouraging to see most countries taking gradual steps towards equal rights and LGBTQ+ celebrations, but the pace of change is slower in some nations. Unfortunately, members of the LGBTQ+ community can still face sanctions and penalties in some parts of the world. Here are some of the countries that are taking a little longer to change their attitudes:

  • Nigeria
  • Jamaica
  • Malaysia
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Iran
  • Barbados
  • Uganda
  • Pakistan
  • Egypt

Despite their slower progress, these destinations can still offer excellent study abroad experiences for LGBTQ+ students. You shouldn’t completely discount the country you’ve always dreamt of studying in because of its treatment of your community.

So long as you’ve researched the pros and cons, and understand the potential limitations and prejudices that you may experience, you’ll have the world at your feet.

LGBTQ+ friendly countries

If you’re in search of a liberal country with a progressive outlook, here’s a list of some of the most welcoming destinations for LGBTQ+ students:

  • South Africa - South Africa was the world’s first country to make discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. It’s also the only country in Africa where same-sex marriage is legal.
  • Belgium - Not only was Belgium one of the earliest countries to recognize same-sex marriage, but it also had the modern world’s first openly-gay Prime Minister.
  • England - England’s progressive attitude towards LGBTQ+ matters is highlighted in the country’s legislation that prevents discrimination and celebrates same-sex marriage.
  • France - France has maintained a liberal stance on gender and sexuality throughout history. It decriminalized homosexuality all the way back in 1791 and is now widely recognized as one of the world’s friendliest LGBTQ+ countries.
  • Germany - The major cities of Berlin, Cologne, and Hamburg are praised for their hosting of LGBTQ+ events, marches, and parades.
  • Spain - Millions of LGBTQ+ people and their supporters flock to Madrid Pride each year. Same-sex marriage is legal and, on the whole, the country is accepting and welcoming of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Canada - Canada was a decade ahead of its American neighbor when it legalized same-sex marriage back in 2005. Members of the LGBTQ+ community will be sure to feel at home thanks to the numerous pride festivals and vibrant LGBTQ+ scenes.
  • The Netherlands - The Netherlands has been globally recognized as a country at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights since it was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2000.
  • Denmark - Denmark has a longstanding history of support for the LGBTQ+ community. The country’s capital, Copenhagen, has been ranked the most gay-friendly place on the planet.

How to find an LGBTQ+ friendly university

Support and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students can vary widely from university to university. If you’re hoping to enroll at an LGBTQ+ friendly institution, you’ll probably want to do some research first.

Universities’ websites are an excellent place to start. If an institution is serious about creating a welcoming environment for you, you’ll usually be able to find information about LGBTQ+ support services and organizations.

It’s also worth investigating whether a university has LGBTQ+ policies in place. Do a quick internet search or get in touch with the university’s admissions team to find out. If they’re unable to answer your questions, this could be a red flag.

Reach out to former or current students of the university via social media, email, or phone. Even if your point of contact doesn’t identify as LGBTQ+ themselves, they might be able to tell you a little bit about what life is like for the community on campus, any student-led initiatives, and the local LGBTQ+ scene.

Coming out while abroad

Studying abroad might inspire you to embrace your true self without fear of discrimination. However, the thought of coming out in entirely new surroundings could be overwhelming, particularly if your host country isn’t LGBTQ+ friendly.

Telling people about your sexual orientation is a deeply personal decision that is never the same for any two people. If you feel welcome, accepted and safe while studying abroad, then coming out and getting involved in your host country’s LGBTQ+ community might be the best thing you ever do.

If you believe that disclosing your sexual identity could put you at risk of discrimination, or you don’t feel comfortable sharing your sexuality with others just yet, then it’s perfectly OK to wait until you’re ready to celebrate your identity with loved ones who’ll embrace you no matter who you love.

How to find LGBTQ+ friendly housing

Moving out of your family home and into student housing is one of the most exciting and defining chapters of your student life. There are so many housing options available so, with the right research, preparation and planning, you’re bound to find the accommodation that’s right for you.

Most universities have a housing office that works closely with their inclusivity center. You might be asked to complete a series of questions about yourself, your interests, and your viewpoints before being allocated a spot in a residence hall. This helps to ensure that you’ll be living with like-minded people.

If you find yourself living with or nearby people who treat you differently because of your sexuality or how you identify, raise your concerns with your university housing office immediately. They’ll likely make adjustments, attempt to educate the individual, or offer you emergency housing to help you feel safe.

If you plan on renting private accommodation, you could consider looking for housing in areas with an LGBTQ+ scene or gay district. Not everyone living in these areas will identify as LGBTQ+, but at least you know they’ll be welcoming and accepting of you.

Staying with a host family is another great option. Host families are usually open-minded members of the community, but it’s worth asking them to be upfront about their LGBTQ+ views so you don’t wind up living with people who make you uncomfortable. Ask your program provider if the family has housed LGBTQ+ students before, and consider contacting previous residents to get an honest review of how accepting they are.

Who you could turn to for help

  • LGBTQ+ Center - Most universities in liberal countries will have professional student advisors who can help you with navigating life as an LGBTQ+ student in your new home. If you connect with them before you leave, they’ll help to address your concerns and answer any questions you might have.
  • International office - Almost every university will have an international office that can provide additional support and guidance with anything relating to cultural adjustment.
  • Fellow LGBTQ+ students - The internet is a useful tool for reaching out to other LGBTQ+ individuals who have previously studied at your prospective university or are currently working towards their degree.
  • University LGBTQ+ societies - Many campuses are home to student-led LGBTQ+ organizations and societies. These can be a great place to connect with like-minded individuals.
  • Local LGBTQ+ charities or organizations - These groups are a useful source of local knowledge. They can introduce you to other LGBTQ+ individuals, discuss government and police attitudes towards the community and visit LGBTQ+ scenes with you, like bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.
  • Embassy of your home country - If you find yourself in an extreme medical or political emergency, for example, if you fall victim to a hate crime, get in touch with the political ambassador of your home country.
  • Your personal tutor or program director - If issues surrounding how you identify or your sexuality begin to affect your studies, discuss them with academic staff. They might be able to offer additional help and resources to support you.

Scholarships for LGBTQ+ students

For some students, studying abroad can seem out of reach because of the financial costs involved. The Point Foundation (2020) found that LGBTQ+ students, in particular, are often forced to delay their study abroad ambitions because of a lack of family support and application rejections from mainstream educational scholarships.

Thankfully, there is a range of scholarships set up to support LGBTQ+ students on their international adventures:

US

  • Rainbow scholarship: This is a program that awards up to $10,000 to US LGBTQ+ students hoping to study abroad
  • Pride Foundation: There are over 60 scholarships available for LGBTQ+ students living in Alaska, Idaho, Montano, Oregon, and Washington
  • The LEAGUE Foundation: The foundation provides financial support to US LGBTQ+ students looking to study in the US or Canada
  • Point Foundation: This is the US’s largest scholarship program for LGBTQ+ students
  • Gamma Mu Foundation: This scheme awards scholarships to US gay men under the ages of 35 who are looking to enter higher education
  • Stonewall Community Foundation: For nearly 15 years, SCF have provided financial support to LGBTQ+ students across the US, with a specific focus on New York

Canada

  • LOUD Foundation: Scholarships are awarded to Canadian LGBTQ+ students who possess the qualities to raise awareness and make a real difference in the community
  • The Bill 7 Award: Financial support is given to LGBTQ+ students who are pursuing their first degree or diploma at any higher-education institute in Ontario

Australia and New Zealand

  • The Pinnacle Foundation: Scholarships are awarded to LGBTQ+ students to help them achieve their academic ambitions at a university in Australia
  • Rainbow New Zealand: New Zealand citizens who identify as LGBTQ+ and are hoping to enroll at any higher-level institution can apply for a scholarship

The rest of the world

Things work a little differently in the UK and across Europe. There are very few broad LGBTQ+ scholarship schemes, but individual universities sometimes have their own financial support programs in place to assist prospective students. It’s worth talking to the university admissions team to see what kind of scholarships or awards you’d be eligible for; it could end up saving you a lot of money.

World’s best pride events

One benefit of studying abroad is that you’ll have the chance to experience some of the world’s best pride festivals.

Pride is an important celebration of the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. It’s a time when people stand together to honor the progress that’s been made and continue the fight for equality.

Here’s a roundup of some of the best pride celebrations across the world

  • New York is widely recognized as the birthplace of pride marches thanks to the 1970 Stonewall riots. Today, more than 2 million people flood to join in with the city’s celebrations.
  • Madrid’s ‘Fiestas del Orgullo Gay’ is Europe’s largest pride event. It was established after the death of the country’s fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, in 1979. It has grown ever since, with record crowds reaching 3.5 million.
  • The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is a key event in Australia’s social calendar. The city brings together over 500,000 allies of the LGBTQ+ community to enjoy pool parties, pop star performances and DJ sets.
  • London is home to the UK’s biggest pride festival. Crowds from far and wide descend on the city to revel in the great food, music and atmosphere.
  • Paris’s Magical Pride brings together Disney, glitter and rainbows to create the most elaborate Pride parade.
  • Cologne’s Christopher Street Day (named after the location of the first Liberation Day marches in New York) is not one to be missed either. Between one and two million LGBTQ+ supporters enjoy the city’s festivities each year.
  • Toronto Pride is one of the oldest and largest pride parades in the world. In a remarkable show of solidarity, the extravagant marches are led by the country’s Prime Minister.
  • Amsterdam's world-famous canals are flooded with a colorful parade of boats each year to mark LGBTQ+ pride. Back on dry land, the celebrations continue with street parties and live music.

You’re all set

Congratulations, you’ve made it through all of the research, planning, and preparing (now there’s only the packing left to do before you jet off).

Everyone has the right to love who they wish, express their true identity, and explore the world. Education is a powerful weapon in the fight against homophobia, transphobia, sexism, discrimination, and harassment.

Don’t let cultural differences or narrow mindedness discourage you from embarking on one of the most exciting experiences of your life. The perfect study abroad destination and university awaits. Be proud of who you are and never give up hope that one day our world will treat everyone equally.