Unintended consequences of internationalization for LGBT scholars

In recent years, efforts to promote equity and internationalization at post-secondary institutions have moved in parallel. Programs, policies, and other activities have strengthened commitments, apparent in statements assuring that campus spaces will be safe and welcoming for people with diverse identities, encouraging the mobility of people and ideas around the world.

As research conducted by Dr. Kaela Jubas highlights, though, while discourses of equity and internationalization may coincide, they are not always complementary. Dr. Jubas investigated how LGBT faculty, students, staff, and allies encounter and experience the discourses of equity and internationalization. The 34 participants, based at post-secondary institutions in Alberta and BC, gave accounts of the complications that arise as they negotiate institutional expectations of both equity and internationalization.

Several interrelated tensions were identified in the research, each with a seemingly positive and negative aspect. Positive aspects – such as inclusion, safety, and freedom to ‘come out’ – were often established prior to or irrespective of internationalization efforts.  Once introduced, internationalization gave rise to a more complicated picture.

Inclusion / Exclusion

Inclusion was often fostered through efforts that institutions, faculties, or colleagues made to promote and communicate inclusion of LGBT people. Having on-campus queer centres and diversity workshops, participating in Pride activities, the presence of out colleagues, and a culture of openness were some key supports that helped participants feel included in their institutions.

Despite these equity-oriented policies and programs, barriers surfaced implicitly in relation to internationalization, and created an awareness of ongoing exclusion. One participant noted a collaboration between their institution and a women’s university in a Middle Eastern country with strict prohibitions against homosexuality and non-normative gender identity. LGBT faculty and allies raised concerns that, what was initially presented as an exciting opportunity to build international relationships and programs through teaching and research abroad, was exclusive in troubling, unspoken ways.

Safety / Risk

The statements and supports already mentioned also helped build a sense of safety for participants in their home institutions. Nonetheless, international projects and partnerships might put LGBT faculty at risk in numerous ways.

Physically, working or studying in certain parts of the world might carry a risk of imprisonment or compromised physical safety. Risks to career might arise when participants decide to forego opportunities to engage in certain projects or conferences. That risk was especially notable for graduate students or junior faculty.

Emotionally, participants spoke about feelings of anxiety about being outed or ‘read’ as lesbian, gay, or trans when travelling, or about conflict at home when they had to explain why they removed a wedding band or left a partner at home. Even simply raising concerns about how internationalization is being taken up and flagging concerns for LGBT people might create strains in otherwise collegial communities and relationships.

While risks associated by international work are not overlooked by institutions, they are taken up in a particular way. Predeparture sessions typically focus on general advice such as avoiding certain parts of town or encounters with wildlife; the riskiness of sharing accommodation or finding a bathroom, issues that trans people encounter, are not on the predeparture agenda. Ultimately, identifying such risks and figuring out how to take suitable precautions are matters left up to LGBT individuals.

Freedom / Expectations

While participants felt free to come out at home, they recognized that being out is always contextual and negotiated, and not entirely within their control. Institutional rhetoric typically advises discretion and sensitivity in intercultural and internationalization work. For LGBT people, that rhetoric translates into an expectation that, in certain circumstance, there is an expectation of stepping back ‘into the closet,’ becoming ‘invisible,’ and presenting or ‘passing’ as straight.

Challenges ahead

A central idea in this project is that institutions are doing important work on both equity/LGBT and internationalization initiatives. The sharing and mobility of scholarship is critical in current academia, yet it should not happen at the expense of LGBT scholars. Beyond academia, the questions explored in this project apply to a range of sectors, from elite athletics to entertainment, news media to cross-border business. Developing clear protocols and being explicit about what the opportunities and risks are for everybody is essential to building an equitable version of internationalization in today’s globalized context of study and work.

*This research was supported by the University of Calgary’s University Research Grants Committee (URGC)*


See more from Dr. Kaela Jubas on her profile


In the Media

Werklund Quick Chat. LGBT Academics in International Contexts. Listen Online.

Connected Citations

Jubas, K. (forthcoming). Equity and internationalization on campus: Intersecting or colliding discourses for LGBTQ people? Sense Publishers.