IR hasn’t made serious progress on LGBTQ+ inclusion. Here’s why

Anna Meier

A half-ripped pride sticker on a lamp-post, 26 June 2021. Photo: Ivan Radic via Flickr

Increasingly, stated government support for LGBTQ+ rights is a benchmark for belonging to the community of Western neoliberal countries. The legalization of same-sex marriage in several countries, alongside an increasingly substantial queer presence in Western media, has convinced many non-LGBTQ+ people that most LGBTQ+ discrimination is a thing of the past. Though instances of discrimination may still occur, they are framed as one-off aberrations in an arc of history that bends toward acceptance.

Academic departments are no strangers to this narrative. After a research center at my PhD-granting institution expressed alarm that a majority of students wanted hate speech punished, faculty members seemed surprised when I told them I felt safer when they chose to stand with students. ‘I don’t think you need to feel unsafe,’ one said, echoing larger societal beliefs about increased tolerance. However, despite real progress on the acceptance and celebration of LGBTQ+ people, discrimination, bigotry, and harm are not gone from academia. Moreover, our focus on the progress already made in this area is making the problem worse.

Marketing inclusion while perpetuating discrimination

As a queer woman in International Relations (IR), I have repeatedly had to explain to straight academics that my being physically safe in a department does not mean I am mentally or emotionally safe, and that mental and emotional harm is in fact harm with profound and lasting consequences. Such harm manifests in a variety of ways within the academy. In a 2007 survey by the American Political Science Association, 24% of LGBT respondents reported being unsure that they would be safe if their supervisors or chairs knew about their sexual orientation. This uncertainty is a constant source of stress because the cost of assuming allyship when it is not vocally expressed can be extremely high. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, 31.7% of LGB respondents to a survey of academic staff in 2009 reported receiving homophobic or biphobic comments from colleagues, with 23% of trans staff reporting being denied promotion due to their trans status in the same report.

These figures may surprise some straight scholars, especially those who consider themselves allies but have not vocally expressed as much or remain silent upon hearing homophobic, biphobic or transphobic comments in department settings. The attention paid to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in many politics and IR departments, although often impartial and symbolic at best, has nevertheless allowed departments to portray themselves as more progressive than they actually are. This enables continued prejudice against LGBTQ+ community members, especially those of color, so long as it falls short of physical violence or outright public bigotry — and sometimes not even then.

This lack of safety is compounded by an ongoing failure to take LGBTQ+ representation seriously across the discipline of IR. Despite having received my PhD from a relatively liberal department, I was required to read only a single article about LGBTQ+ politics during my graduate training, in a course I took as an elective. This means a majority of LGBTQ+ students in my program — and a majority of all LGBTQ+ political science and IR grad students, I’d guess — receive their degrees without ever seeing ourselves represented in political science scholarship. Outside of syllabi, I have never had an openly queer instructor and was only aware of one openly queer faculty member (a cisgender man) in my PhD-granting department. When another cis woman in my department came out as bi, I remember feeling such profound relief and peace that I could finally discuss my experiences with someone like me within my workplace.

I speak in this piece from my own experience because harm occurs in different ways for different members of the LGBTQ+ community, and my experiences as a white bisexual cisgender woman cannot stand in for those of my trans colleagues or my queer colleagues of color. I have watched administrators in departments with openly trans and nonbinary students insist that making bathrooms gender-neutral is too bureaucratically difficult. Advisors and self-professed allies continue to misgender my trans colleagues, a harm for which they apologize but which continues to occur because they ‘didn’t mean anything by it’ — they are allies, after all.

Meanwhile, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual academics may not even have their identities recognized as real, especially if they are in a relationship with someone of the heteronormatively ‘opposite’ gender. It is thus vital to recognize that LGBTQ+ scholars are not a homogenous group and that white, cisgender and gay and lesbian experiences often risk being foregrounded at the expense of those with other identities when attempting to confront LGBTQ+ exclusion within the discipline.

How to do better

These experiences do not gel with the relatively progressive and collegial picture many departments like to portray of themselves. Yet, if the aim is to achieve not progressive aesthetics but truly supportive and just academic spaces, political science and IR departments must take LGBTQ+ discrimination seriously and acknowledge that it remains prevalent in their institutions. To make politics and IR less harmful disciplines for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff, departments should:

  1. Recognize that ongoing education for straight and cisgender people on what constitutes homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour still needs to occur;
  2. Include LGBTQ+ identities and experiences in course materials so students see themselves represented, and staff normalize discussing LGBTQ+ issues;
  3. Include LGBTQ+ non-discrimination statements in job ads and student recruitment materials, and advertise through LGBTQ+ caucuses and fora;
  4. Invite out members of the LGBTQ+ community to speak at department colloquia;
  5. Remove gendered language from department materials and normalize sharing pronouns by cisgender people in syllabi, Zoom calls, email signatures, and any other settings where one introduces oneself, so as to remove assumptions about gender identity and increase safety for trans and gender non-conforming students and colleagues.

These recommendations are not one-off tasks to cross off a list, but must be ongoing practices incorporated into curriculum design, advising, staff meetings and department culture. Anything short of continual work risks perpetuating a veneer of progressivism without any real commitment to keeping our LGBTQ+ students and staff members safe and, ultimately, moving past basic security to acceptance and celebration.

Anna Meier (she/her) is an incoming Assistant Professor in the School of Politics & International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Her research examines institutional responses to white supremacist violence in Germany and the United States.

The Inclusive IR blog series aims to provide a forum a forum for discussing the multiple structural exclusions that exist within the IR academia and policymaking as well as actions that can be taken to remove, challenge an address them.

If you are interested in contributing to the series you can contact the IA team at jhills@chathamhouse.org

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store