International Relations and the Invisible Queer

When my friend suggested I use queer theory in my undergraduate thesis in international studies, I thought she was joking. Queer theory? In the discipline where, if we were lucky, we typically had a day a semester to talk about feminist theory? I laughed it off at first, but when I got home that night, a quick google search brought me to Cynthia Weber’s book, Queer International Relations, and a new world was opened to me.

Because it is relegated to the margins of academic theory, especially in IR, a brief explanation of the basic premises of queer theory is called for. Essentially, queer theory was born out of the experiences of LGBTQ+ folks, especially those which challenged and transgressed traditional binaries of gender and sexuality. However, while it is rooted in these experiences, “to queer” something does not mean to add queer folks and stir – to queer is to subvert, to question the assumptions behind our most fundamental understandings, to move beyond binaries and leave them behind shattered. For example, liberal feminisms ask why women are subjected to men; queer feminisms ask why we uphold a gender binary to begin with. Queer theory recognizes that everything, from our social norms to the international system, is constructed, and in this construction sees possibilities for new ways of thinking and being. You can queer anything, and in doing so, underlying assumptions and possibilities unfold.

Flash back to the end of my junior year as an undergraduate, and I was on the hunt for a thesis advisor. I didn’t have a solid grasp on a topic yet, but I knew I wanted to queer something, I wanted to interrogate the structures of the international system and contribute to the small but vibrant body of work by scholars working with queer theory in IR. Unfortunately, this task was more difficult than I had initially anticipated. None of my previous professors had ever used (or heard of) queer theory, especially not in an IR context, and I had several meetings before I was able to find someone who had the theoretical background I needed for my project.

I was fortunate to find a wonderful advisor, finally, but the number of highly educated individuals I had to go through before finding someone with a grasp on queer theory was frankly alarming to me, and emblematic of how marginalized queer theory is within the IR discipline. Before I started work on my thesis, my IR classes had never touched queer theory and would barely graze the surface of feminist IR, despite the vast contributions these frameworks have made to the discipline. The focus on the frameworks of realism and liberalism in IR education creates the illusion that these are the only ways to understand issues in this field, undermining and ignoring alternative frameworks with vast potential for innovative scholarship and practice.

Even within feminist IR, and especially in the international system, there is too often the unspoken assumption that “gender” equals “woman.” Programs which focus on gender or claim to have a “gender lens” take the approach of focusing solely on cisgender women’s experiences and ignore the complexities of a true gender analysis. While it is important to include women in research and programming, if an analysis does not include an understanding of gendered power structures and their impacts on men and queer folks too, it is not truly a complete gender analysis.

There are personal stakes for me in this as well, both as a scholar and an individual, as I am queer. I am both bisexual and nonbinary; I have personally rejected the gender binary, among others, and I do so in my academic work as well.

During these first few months at Fletcher, I have found that I, much like queer theory, am often invisible. I have been inundated with programming for “empowering women in IR,” but there is no mention of those of us who exist outside of the binary. There are no structures or programs beyond one-off events for how to be queer in IR – largely because no one really knows, and most do not know or care enough to ask. Furthermore, while Fletcher is known as being more progressive than many other IR schools, I have met only one other person who openly identifies as nonbinary thus far. Similarly, in my undergraduate IR program, I did not know a single other person who was nonbinary, and very few others who were queer.

There is a reason for the lack of queer people working in IR, and it is because we, like the theory that bears our signifier, are relegated to the margins. In my classes that focus on gender, both at Fletcher and in my undergraduate program, we typically spend a few days talking about masculinities, and one day focused on LGBTQ+ folks. Classes without a focus on gender do not mention us at all. Part of the reason for this is the lack of IR scholarship on queer people, but there is little incentive for students to focus on queer scholarship when it is so deeply undervalued by the IR community at large. LGBTQ+ people and perspectives are relevant in every issue and should be included in IR theory and practice on every level. Instead, we are often pushed to the margins of study and practice, seen as a niche and controversial topic not worth engaging in. I would say queer experiences are obliterated form the canon of IR, but how can something be destroyed that was not there to begin with?

In mainstream IR scholarship and practice, queer theory is made invisible. It is relegated to the margins, viewed as having little to offer mainstream IR and rarely presented to students as a valid mode of inquiry. Nonetheless, it exists, and it has much to offer if we are open to challenging our most innate assumptions and learning to see the world not as it is, but as it could be.

Written by: Kathryn Constantinides MALD F22