LGBTQ Culture and Life in the U.S.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer people (LGBTQ) have been publicly advocating for equal rights and responsibilities within U.S. society since the late 1960’s. The United States has made considerable progress in its acceptance of sexual diversity, as it has in racial and religious diversity.  As of June 2015, all states in the U.S. permit gay marriage, although cultural acceptance of gay marriage varies widely from region to region, and person to person.  LGBTQ issues have emerged as a major social and political issue nationally.  However, many rights and benefits afforded to LGBTQ individuals, as well as openness toward sexual diversity, still vary in the U.S. depending on geographical location, local culture, and individual backgrounds.  Many cities and private businesses provide the same or similar benefits to the LGBT employees and their families as heterosexual married employees. Representations of LGBTQ people and issues are increasingly visible within US media and popular culture, and are now mainstream within American life.  Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) estimate that as many as 1 of 10 individuals are LGBTQ.  An estimated 8.8 million gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals live in the United States and the 2000 US Census reports at least 601,209 gay and lesbian families/ households.  (

International students coming from some countries (such as Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and South Africa where same-sex couples have the right to marry and gender roles may be more fluid) may find US attitudes or instances of homophobia and heterosexism puzzling and “behind the times.”   LGBTQ individuals still face numerous challenges and instances of heterosexism and homophobia in their daily lives.  By contrast, some international students may find U.S. culture and laws to be much more open and accepting of sexual diversity than their home culture and may find this openness exciting, new, or different.

Many LGBTQ students find Madison to be a very welcoming and open environment.  UW students, faculty and staff are usually very friendly toward LGBTQ people, and our institutional culture encourages and expects acceptance and fair treatment of all LGBTQ people on the part of all members of the University community. All students, regardless of sexual orientation, should know that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has an official and enforced non-discrimination policy which prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, race, color, religion, sex, national origin or ancestry, sexual orientation, and other protected classes.  Inquiries concerning this policy may be directed to the University Housing Human Resources Office, or to the UW-Madison Office for Equity and Diversity, 179A Bascom Hall, (608) 263-2378.

While the University policy covers only direct forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, within the University community it is also considered polite to always assume the possibility of LGBTQ identity. Thus, for example, when invitations to parties are distributed, consider adding the phrase “partners and signifcant others are welcome” rather than the more traditional “spouses are welcome.” This phrase has the benefit of encompassing both different-sex and same-sex partners.

LGBTQ people at UW-Madison vary in their degree of openness about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Many talk about it to their friends, their colleagues, their professors or their students.  Some LGBTQ people will talk about their partners or gender identity as part of their every-day conversation in the same way a heterosexual student would talk about their boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife.  You may see both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ couples displaying affection for one another on campus.  Other LGBTQ people will prefer to keep their sexuality private. It is important to let individuals choose whether or not they are comfortable speaking with you about their sexual orientation.  The metaphor of “coming out of the closet,” refers to the process of an individual choosing when and to whom to be open about one’s sexuality, and is not a one-time event.  “Coming Out” can be freeing or stressful and frightening for a student, as they may not be sure how the listener will respond.  Listening and being open and caring to your LGBT peers or friends is an important way to help them feel comfortable and safe.  On campus, it is likely that you will meet LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff- both domestic and international.  Take advantage of the opportunity to meet and learn from the experiences of people from multiple backgrounds.

UW-Madison offers many services and programs for LGBTQ students and the campus community.  International students are invited and welcome to participate in LGBTQ events and support services.  Check out UW-Madison’s Gender and Sexuality Campus Center for information on programming, support, social events, and leadership opportunities.

If you would like to talk to LGBT-identified staff members or LGBT allies at International Student Services about a concern or simply to visit, email or call 608-262-3468.  Your call or email will be responded to in a confidential manner.  As a student, if you are experiencing stress or personal concerns and would like to talk with a counseling professional, you may contact Counseling Services at (608) 265-5600 for appointments and general information.  (Also visit University Health Services)


Sexuality across Cultures

Different cultures use different terms to describe and talk about the LGBTQ community.  You might wonder, “What should I call someone who is gay?  There are so many terms.” “How do I know what gender pronoun to use for someone?” The best answer if you’re not sure is to ask the person how they self-identify.  If you don’t know, LGBT is generally a safe and acceptable term to use.

Not every language has specific words to describe women or men who are emotionally and physically attracted to or who fall in love with people of the same sex.  Not every language has words to describe people who change their gender or sex or who are neither or both masculine and feminine.

Words used to describe same-sex love or same-sex sexual activity do not always translate into English very well.  Similarly, concepts and terminology used for transgender people and people with atypical gender expressions do not always translate into English very well.

In many Western cultures, same-sex love and sexual activity are not seen simply as behaviors.  They are often part of the way people identify themselves.

In the U.S., the concept of transgender identity is different from the concepts of gay, lesbian, and bisexual identity.  These terms are not interchangeable. 

Here is a list of several terms you might hear or use in the U.S.
LGBTQ Related Terms and Definitions