Moving past the binaries of identities and borders
Moving past the binaries of identities and borders
Moving past the binaries of identities and borders


By Dane Rowley, Director of International Admission, California Lutheran University



I came out the second the plane touched the runway

—Sam, a student arriving in a new country for university studies


Sam’s journey from the Eastern edge of India to one of the most selective universities in the United States was not without obstacles, barriers, and borders to cross ("Sam" is the pseudonym he chose when asked if I could share part of his story). 

Like most international students around the globe, Sam navigated an array of academic, financial, and immigration barriers. Yet, unlike a majority of his fellow global scholars, Sam’s LGBTQ+/queer* identity brought additional considerations and far heavier weight to his university search, selection, and transition. 

He had to worry about being cut off financially by his parents back home or even threats against him based on how "out" he chose to be in public. He also shared that he had no role models for what a brown, international, gay kid should expect in college. He struggled to find his community among predominantly white and wealthy peers. 

He felt that they understood few, if any, of the many intersecting identities he embodied. 

We have to know better, so we can do better

How he and so many other LGBTQ+/queer-identifying international students experience and find meaning from their journey has become a personal, professional, and academic passion for me and many others worldwide. Sam's story, and so many others like his, should challenge and inspire us to know better to do better. 

It is true that in many countries, the rights and opportunities available to queer people have expanded. However, progress has been far from consistent. 

Among UN member nations, 67 criminalize consensual queer relationships. Between 1980 and 2020, 56 countries expanded rights while almost an equal number became even less accepting during the same period. In the US, over 300 bills are categorized as "anti-LGBTQ+" under consideration in state legislatures as of summer 2023. 

We are at a pivotal moment in the struggle. We have to know better, so we can do better. 

What does this mean practically for us as counselors, teachers, guides, and champions of students? I offer some brief reflections on how we can move forward. These come from years in the field, working with students like Sam, and through research, and the focus of my doctoral studies. Yet, I'm an imperfectly passionate and earnest ally. I share this in the spirit of collaboration, with an invitation to discuss, challenge, and push each other to grow for the sake of our students.

International educators are both bound by and try to move past all kinds of borders

Our schools and institutions are sites of so many border crossings of culture, language, geopolitics, religion, plus gender and sexuality. We are professionals who are passionate about transcending borders. At the same time, we enforce borders. 

We decide who is admitted and who is denied. We decide who passes and who fails. We advise students to apply to one university, but perhaps not another. We have borders enforced on us by administrators, parents, or the wider social/religious context of the places where we live and work. We are often guests in countries with our own concerns about how our identities and ideals may conflict with our hosts. 

Because of all these things, we, of all people, must resist the binaries of borders that seek to hold back our queer students. 

I believe that more than any other group of students, queer international students will not be bound by borders; they move within and across borders. They transgress and transcend cultural, gender, sexual, and national borders with a resilience and strength that should inspire awe and respect. True, there are threats and struggles. 

Yet, before doing anything, we must recognize, celebrate, and amplify our students’ strengths, gifts, talents and stories. They may have internalized some harmful messages. You might be the first person to give them a mirror that will reflect the wonder they really are.

Supporting queer students in secondary education

I have learned so much from my friends and colleagues who are teachers and counselors at international schools. Many have helped students organize pride or gay-straight ally clubs. Others go about their work much more quietly, showing subtle signs of inclusion in their office and classroom decorations and 1:1 consultation with students. Others have constructed or used gender/sexuality communication plans with students to understand better how and with whom they can communicate about the student's identity. 

I've been in awe of counselors who carefully, skillfully advise students in their university search, knowing that finding the right institution for them could make the difference between life and death. 

If you are new to a school or country this year, first take some time to assess the local and school culture. How "out" can folks be? What expectations do your administrators, parents, and boards have? From there, you can plan how to push some of those boundaries while also deciding for yourself how you will show up for your queer students. 

Find some of the great communication and advising resources out there to help your work with queer students. Find ways to show your support and invite trust and confidence. And, if you can, talk openly in pre-departure programs about the complexity of race, gender, sexuality, and class that your students will encounter as they cross borders to pursue higher education.

Supporting queer students in university education

Many universities are falling far short of their potential to help queer students transition into and thrive as they pursue higher education. 

If you are a university practitioner, here are some questions you can ask about how your institution supports queer students:

  • Does your orientation program help students encounter and make sense of how their identities intersect with the racial, cultural and social borders of where you are located? 
  • Does your data system in the admission process provide ways for students to share a chosen name? 
  • Even more importantly, does the campus customer relationship management (CRM) system keep professors, student account technicians, academic counselors, or career coaches from "dead-naming"** trans and non-binary students? 

If your campus has a Genders & Sexualities Alliances (GSA) or Pride Club, I invite you to treat the club president and faculty advisor to a cup of coffee. Talk about how the intersections of race, class, religion, or class may impact how welcome an international student feels in the club. Brainstorm ways to invite and expand kinship and community and what resources might be available on and off-campus for students in crisis. 

If you are on a campus without a Pride Club, volunteer to advise one! And, if your campus is hostile to queer people, I’d recommend finding ways to push for steady, incremental change. 

It may hurt sometimes, and if you ever want to talk about the backlash you might get, please reach out to me. My door is open. 

Another important reality is that international student healthcare companies and providers are failing our queer students. 

At NAFSA (for international educators and formerly known as the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers) and other conferences, I've gone from booth to booth asking questions. I have yet to find a company that provides coverage for medical care essential for students who need to undergo treatment related to gender transition or reassignment or even maintain their health after transition. They advise directing students to our state government health insurance exchange to buy more insurance. 

Shockingly, few companies provide testing or proactive treatment against the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. 

As university employees and student advocates, we can raise our voices to our senior international officers, principal designated school officials (PDSO), controllers, and chief financial officers that this is unacceptable. We can continue to ask and push healthcare brokers and providers to know better and do better. 

Finally, I want to identify a significant area for development for many universities: Career Services. 

We invite international students to our pride clubs and raise a rainbow flag in June. We invite them to be their authentic selves and tell them it is safe. But once they graduate, what then? 

Many students seek education abroad and find themselves in places they feel accepted, perhaps hoping their studies will lead to immigration options. But their studies end, and maybe they must return to a home country where rights may be different and go back into hiding their authentic selves, back into the closet, and for some, into serious danger. 

Please talk to your career counseling colleagues and alumni relations offices. Invite them into conversation with your PDSO and designated school official (DSO) about how much more important curricular practical training (CPT) and optional practical training (OPT) are for your queer international students. Talk about ways to expand access to alumni networks, career and grad school counseling, and a global job search. 

Understand what legal networks may be in place locally, especially pro bono or low-cost ones, to help students who may be faced upon return to their home countries with prospects of forced marriage, imprisonment, abuse, or death.

Moving forward 

As we engage in the work before us, we must hold in tension the reality our queer students face. There are risks and challenges with physical and mental health and cultural and religious borders. 

Yet, there is a bigger truth that is transcendent above all the challenges and risks. There is strength, resilience and limitless potential among our queer international students. I’m convinced that they have the power to show us the way forward to a world less bound by limitations, binaries, borders, and biases that limit human potential. 

In closing, I offer some key takeaways and conversation starters as we move forward: 

  • Seek out and recognize the unique strengths, abilities and super-powers of our queer students, even as we support their struggles and remove barriers
  • Challenge the binaries of borders in our schools, our organization, our field, and our nations 
  • Expand resources and tools for supporting students at schools and as they transition to universities, including communication plans and proactive counseling
  • Universities should consider how to assess and improve their data systems and campus-based resources to support queer students, especially during orientation and the first-year experience
  • Universities should also consider how to expand and amplify resources, networks and support for students as they transition out of university


Join Dane and your peers to discuss these topics further on 18 November

Workshop in Dublin: Reducing Bias & Cultivating Inclusion in University Guidance, Recruitment, & Admission Practices

How can bias impact students as they apply for university? We created this workshop to help university guidance and career counsellors at schools and recruitment representatives in universities learn together how to cultivate inclusion and reduce bias in the application and admissions process. Guided by specialists, you will have the opportunity to share your practices with your peers and consider additional ways to address bias in university guidance, recruitment, selection, and admission processes.

This opportunity is specifically for university guidance and careers counsellors in CIS member schools, and admissions and recruitment representatives in CIS member universities.

Our members can register here



Sources & about the author:

Please contact Dane if you are interested in learning about his sources for this blog.

Dane has been working with students from the United States and around the world in outreach, counseling, admission, advising, and teaching for over 19 years. He currently works for California Lutheran University, where he is responsible for international undergraduate and graduate student enrollment. Dane earned a master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance in 2008. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. The focus of his dissertation study will be the stories and lived experiences of LGBTQ+ international students as they traverse and transcend borders. By amplifying their voices, he hopes that other practitioners, researchers, and especially students themselves will be able to see a broader spectrum of experiences that include strength, joy, resilience, and thriving.



* A footnote about language and words. Queer, as a reclaimed word, has become common in academia in North America and Europe as both a powerful way to make meaning out of a binary world and as a self-identifying term used by many LGBTQ+ individuals and groups. At the same time, many grew up with that word hurled at them with harm and violence. In this field of international education with deeply entrenched histories of colonial attitudes and practices, we have to be careful how Western, especially English, words are imposed. There are many other ways of being and loving and living that do not fit within white, cis, Western, pre- and post-colonial words or constructions, including same-gender-loving women, two-spirited individuals, tongzhi in China, onabe in Japan, the hirja of Bangladesh, as well as meti, lala, skesana, motsoalle, mithli, kuchu, kawein, muxé, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, and hamjensgara from cultures around the world. So, while understanding that words fall short, I used the term queer in this post as my imperfect attempt to provide an umbrella term for identities and ways of living, loving and being that are not bound by the binaries of male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, in/out, gay/straight, cis/trans. 

** “Dead-naming” is to call (a transgender person) by their birth name when they have changed their name as part of their gender transition.


About the images used:

These are stock photography images and do not portray the student whose story is included in this blog.

Related content:

Workshop: Reducing Bias & Cultivating Inclusion in University Guidance, Recruitment, & Admission Practices 18 November, Dublin, Ireland


Webinar: On-demand webinar ‘Safeguarding LGBTQ+ students and faculty: Advice for international schools and universities’ is available to members in the CIS Community portal>KnowledgeBase>Webinars.

Moving past the binaries of identities and borders
  • Diversity (I-DEA)
  • Global citizenship
  • Intercultural learning & leadership
  • Student well-being
  • University admission & guidance
Moving past the binaries of identities and borders