LGBT students: a forgotten market with potential

Within the mountains of market intelligence, research articles, and data available on international student mobility and recruitment, one niche student group receives very little attention: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students (LGBT). One is hard-pressed to find information on how many LGBT students choose to study a degree overseas; unsurprisingly, there is a lack of information on available student services to support them.

The LGBT market could hold vast potential, but so far it seems little is being done in higher education sectors across the world to target this market by promoting LGBT-specific services, support, or opportunities for overseas study. ICEF Monitor looks at this underrepresented group to determine what more could be done to encourage LGBT student recruitment and global mobility.

The LGBT community travels

While not much data exists on LGBT students studying internationally, the LGBT travel and tourism industry is well documented. World Travel Market (WTM) reports that Out Now Business Class’s LGBT2020 market research study showed, “the annual spend on tourism by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people will exceed US$200 billion for the first time in 2014.”

Speaking to Breaking Travel News (BTN), World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) president David Scowsill put it succinctly: “This is because travel is a way of life for a lot of people in this world, whatever their sexuality. Even in the toughest times, it continues to be a priority for populations around the world.”

What can international student recruitment professionals learn from this? That LGBT students want to go abroad and want to have an overseas experience, but that they might be put off from doing so because of a lack of LGBT-specific support and information on LGBT-friendly opportunities.

LGBT resources

For those who are interested in finding out more about issues affecting LGBT tourism, several good websites outline places of interest, areas to avoid, and LGBT-specific concerns:

For institutions wanting to learn more about what they can do to appropriately market themselves to the LGBT community, two organisations are dedicated to LGBT marketing and market news:

The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) webpage titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender foreign travel advice” lists “acceptable LGBT behaviour overseas” – advice that is not just useful for LGBT tourists but also for LGBT students studying abroad.

Challenges LGBT students going abroad face

LGBT-identifying people face difficult challenges such as discrimination and harassment, particularly when they travel abroad to cultures that may be less welcoming or open than their own. Students must therefore think carefully before deciding on a destination, and how they will be received if they are openly gay, or have an “alternative” lifestyle.

Out Now Global’s International LGBT 2020 Homophobia Report revealed “widespread homophobia, violence and harassment of LGBT people in countries all over the world.” The report collected data from nearly 100,000 LGBT respondents in 21 countries. It found that in some countries, for example Japan, Turkey, Mexico, France, and Brazil, being “out” or openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered is not widely accepted. LGBT people in such countries (and others) face outright homophobia and worse, so this kind of information can give LGBT students a reason to think twice about studying abroad.

Articles on the Internet abound with tales of LGBT men and woman suffering harassment, violence, and discrimination. University World News notes that in Uganda an Anti-Homosexuality Act means that openly homosexual individuals face imprisonment. RIA Novosti reports that in Russia, the creator of an online support group for gay teens was fined for disseminating “gay propaganda.” And before the Olympics, the mayor of Sochi famously said there are no gays in his town: “It’s not accepted here in the Caucasus where we live. We do not have them in our city.”

In the US, some regions and cities may be welcoming and accepting of the LGBT community, but there are still many areas that are not. Even places that might be seen as free thinking and open minded, such as university campuses, can still contain barely concealed prejudices and hatred. For example, The Guardian ran a story last year about an incident on the Dartmouth College campus, which illustrates the tensions concerning homophobia.

What can be done?

At the moment, not much is being done on a global scale to focus on the issues LGBT students face when going abroad to study, either for a semester, a degree, or simply a language course. Likewise, there is little focus in the international student recruitment industry to target this community, but there are some pockets of good practice starting to emerge, examples we can learn from.

Most US colleges and universities have pages on their websites dedicated to providing LGBT students with advice and guidance as they ponder whether or not to participate on a study abroad programme. For example, the Northwestern University Study Abroad Office has a “LGBTQ Students and Study Abroad” resource, which suggests that students ask the following questions before going to study abroad:

  • “Does your right to be LGBTQ in the US conflict with your host country’s religious or cultural values and traditions?
  • How will you reconcile your human rights with the cultural values of your host society?
  • Are there safety considerations that you should be aware of?
  • What are gender relations in the host culture?
  • What is considered typical male and female social behaviour in the host culture?
  • What is the social perception of members of the LGBTQ community?
  • What roles do transgender people play in the host culture?
  • Does your study abroad programme offer LGBTQ friendly housing?
  • Does your study abroad programme discuss LGBTQ considerations during their orientation?”

Recruitment agents and recruitment officers might adopt a similar set of questions to help them advise any LGBT students they might be working with.

Other examples of best practice include asking questions about sexual orientation on college/university applications so LGBT students can choose to identify themselves if they wish, as the New York Times notes. This would help to understand which support services could be helpful for such students – and if more are needed.

In New Zealand the government is allotting more funding to an LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender or intersex) youth plan which Nikki Kaye, youth affairs minister says:

“…will support a range of LGBTI organisations to develop a plan to better address these issues (bullying and suicide). The plan will also provide a view on how to ensure services are provided to young people in a sustainable way.”

A long way to go

Even though there are some examples of institutions and governments being proactive in better serving LGBT students, education providers still have a long way to go before the LGBT student market is seen as just another market to cater to within student recruitment.

Some UK universities have been lauded for being the most “gay-friendly” by the gay rights charity Stonewall, while others are singled out for their particular lack of support. In an interview with Times Higher Education, Wes Streeting, a former president of the National Union of Students (NUS) and the current head of Stonewall says, “If universities aren’t even counting the number of gay students, how can they assure themselves, and prospective applicants, that they are fulfilling their moral and legal duty to provide an inclusive learning experience?”

LGBT students, like any other students, want the opportunity to study in another country, whether short term or long term, for a degree, or to learn a language. Recruitment agents, university support services, and school staff need to be aware of this community and the particular issues surrounding the LGBT overseas study experience and ensure support is in place to address those concerns. In the long run, those programmes with measures in place to support positive experiences for all students – LGBT included – stand the best chance of attracting good word of mouth, and of being happy, healthy study environments.



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