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The Invisibility of International LGBTQ+ Students

U.S. colleges must do a better job of welcoming international LGBTQ+ students.

Key points

  • The collective experiences and challenges of LGBTQ+ students remain invisible.
  • There are 70 countries where sexual activity by LGBT people is considered a crime.
  • Faculty and staff can help to create a safe space for these students.

While U.S. higher education promotes the benefits of U.S. college students studying abroad and attracts the world’s top college students to study in the U.S, it is especially important to make sure we are attracting and supporting international LGBTQ+ students. Unfortunately, their collective experiences and challenges often remain invisible.

I know this because I was one of these students. I was an international student from South Korea for 10 years, I experienced ignorance, invisibility, and difficulty relating to LGBTQ+ support groups and student organizations on campus.

Now, I am an Associate Professor at San José State University, with 3,000 international students. I co-founded International Safe Zone and have been compiling coming out stories and news about LGBTQ+ rights and activism in China, India, Uganda, Mexico, Germany, and other countries in the past five years. With my collaborators, we have been working to increase the unique needs of international LGBTQ+ students and provide culturally informed approaches for faculty and staff to create a safe space for those students.

Approximately 1,075,469 international students enrolled in U.S. higher education, according to the Institute of International Education. International students face unique legal status challenges on campuses. The majority are F-1 visa holders, which means they are sponsored and funded by individuals, such as relatives. This visa type restricts visa holders from working off-campus, creating a strong dependency on families for tuition, education materials, and living costs. Moreover, these students have enormous pressure from their families to succeed and be role models for the rest of their siblings and families.

Upon graduation, an F-1 visa expires and international students must immediately find an employer willing to sponsor a work visa (H-1B visa). Legal status and limitations create extreme anxiety and uncertainty. In addition, social support is often available around co-national communities, such as churches and mosques. When cultural norms do not support LGBTQ+ rights, it is challenging to find such social and cultural connections and support within their own cultural communities, particularly for international students from countries where non-heterosexual identities are less accepted or even persecuted. Like where I grew up.

Despite the enormous visibility of LGBTQ+ rights and equality in the United States, many countries prosecute homosexual activities and disapprove of same-sex relationships. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association lists 70 countries where sexual activity by LGBT people is considered a crime. The death penalty can be imposed for same-sex intimacy in 11 of them, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Hate crimes such as murder, torture, and incarceration, targeting LGBTQ+ individuals are still prevalent around the globe. Among international LGBTQ+ students, sexual migration and exiles motivated by fleeing from persecution and violence and seeking love and companionship in a less oppressive environment are common. LGBTQ+ students from those countries are walking on our college campuses, and they are in need of special support.

Based on my personal and professional experiences, I offer the following suggestions for faculty and staff to support international LGBTQ+ students on campuses:

Become familiar with common issues of international LGBTQ+ individuals, including fear of consequences after returning home, unfamiliarity with LGBTQ+ terminology, difficulties in developing intimate relationships, lack of knowledge of resources, and legal issues.

Be knowledgeable about LGBTQ+ movements and advocacy activities around the globe. Create trust and build allyship with international students and gently invite them to discuss complex and sensitive topics by asking questions: “What are the norms around gender and sexuality in your home country?” “What kinds of culture clashes or new ideas are you exposed to on campus?”

Develop comprehensive cultural competency training that increases the awareness of the unique needs of international LGBTQ+ students and make inclusive campus policies to protect those students legally and culturally while studying in U.S. higher education.


This article was also published at Visible Magazine.

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