Queer Reflections on 20 Years of Women, Peace, and Security: A Conversation with Dr. Jamie Hagen

Queer Reflections on 20 Years of Women, Peace, and Security: A Conversation with Dr. Jamie Hagen

The following is an edited version of a conversation with PRAXIS

To start things off, would you briefly tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and if there is anything you are currently working on that you would like to share?

I am a lesbian feminist researcher based in Queen’s University Belfast and co-director of the Centre for Gender in Politics. The broader project I’m working on is asking queer questions about peace and security. I’m doing this primarily through queering Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) by asking questions about what it means to take homophobia and transphobia seriously as part of gendered violence. I’m also working on reclaiming some of the lost stories of how queer people have always been here, have always been part of this work, and finding ways to see that in international relations and feminist security studies.

Can you talk more about what asking queer questions looks like?

As Cynthia Enloe asks, “where are the women?” I ask, “where are the queers?” The thing that I find so fascinating – and infuriating – in my work is knowing that lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women have always been in spaces where gendered violence occurs, as well as organizing to respond to it, yet this is erased or somehow made invisible. In fact, when you look at the mainstreaming of women’s rights activism through the UN, lesbian feminists have been involved from the beginning.

Other queer questions concern challenging assumptions about where sexual orientation and gender come up, but also asking how queering challenges us to think beyond unproductive binaries such as Global North/Global South; peace/conflict; activist/expert; perpetrator/victim and complicates this to show how often rather than one or the other there is a grey area of both/and. My queer curiosity makes me wonder how queering help us see differently and produce a transformative vision through challenges that have been hindering those of us working on issues of peace and security from finding intersectional feminist solutions.

Moving on to the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, since it is the 20th anniversary – what are some of the most important contributions the WPS agenda has brought to scholarly and practical frameworks in IR?

The basic point that women’s experiences matter to understanding peace and security is a massive contribution. In the 20 years of implementing the WPS agenda, feminists have also argued it’s important that not only should women take part in the conversation, but they should also lead and be recognized for the agency and power they have. My work in queering women, peace and security is part of the intersectional challenge to always be asking which women, along with interrogating how we define and understand women.

I do think WPS also helps to reframe where peace comes from, what it means to create peace, and how peace can be about transformation. Addressing patriarchy and gender inequalities is central to this transformation. But let’s also remember that recognizing women as actors in WPS means also avoiding essentialist tropes and recognizing women as combatants, as terrorists, as political leaders rather than only, say, as victims or mothers. People always have more than one of these identities, and this is of course true of women too.

When were your first inspired to start applying queer theory to WPS?

Dr. Hagen: I was first inspired to start applying queer theory to WPS after working with a couple of civil society organizations and being fascinated by the space that this agenda has opened up yet being troubled by not seeing LGBTQ organizations active there.

When I saw this gap in attention to queer lives, even in groundbreaking international civil society work to promote women’s rights, I asked what could help explain why this was happening. I’ve learned it is in large part an issue of translation and bridging between siloed communities.

What do you think are the most important contributions this queer perspective can make to WPS?

A queer perspective reminds people that everyone has a sexual orientation and a gender identity and to not assume that only matters for queer people. Also, queer people are already in the room!

There’s emerging work to bring queer people into conversations about peacebuilding, about security, but queer theory and queering remind us that queer people have always been here. Whether or not initiatives to address gendered vulnerabilities recognize that homophobic, transphobic and gendered violence is targeting queer communities, this violence exists. This is missing in the data as well as policy responses.

I was reading your piece with Toni Haastrup, “Race, Justice, and New Possibilities” which also reflects on 20 years of the WPS agenda. It brought up racialized hierarchies that are often present in WPS, as with most IR frameworks. How do you see queer theory potentially intersecting with issues of racial justice and how can that be used as a critical discourse moving forward?

Right now, reframing and reimagining what security looks like is important, especially as informed by critical race scholars and movement builders. If we’re serious about taking on racial justice as a dimension of peace and security work, we must ask real questions about whether or not the state system and the systems of security which support this state system can provide security as would be imagined by queer and feminist movements. This is especially true when it comes to the security of members of marginalized groups.

The key question to my mind is: Can we expect the systems of security (the police, the military, the legal system) which have perpetuated and held up some of this targeted violence against queer communities, to provide the justice imagined by feminists and queers? Movements like Defund the Police in the United States and #EndSARS in Nigeria tell us no.

I’m curious then, to hear if you have any ideas of what an alternative to state- based security would look like?

The alternative visions I’m informed by are community-led initiatives by people invested in social justice and transformation. These groups, often led by queers, reimagine who is in the best place to inform and prioritize matters of security, how to hold people accountable to violence, and alternatives to carceral solutions.

It’s exciting to see the framework of mutual aid taking hold in new ways now. Mutual aid refuses a top-down, state-centric approach to caring for one another, for addressing what we might frame as human security within the WPS and international literature. With the climate crisis, the ongoing economic crises, and the violence of asylum and migration regimes, it’s time to look beyond limiting state-based solutions. There need to be cross-community solutions, and that cross-community is also across borders.

The move away from this notion of top-down security is interesting to watch.

It is. So much of this work is about reimagining who can distribute justice and create the infrastructure to provide this justice, when so many who are queer, trans, undocumented and people of color continue to be outside of the current systems of justice. Books like Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement really motivated me to think differently about how strategies of transformative justice can inform gender, peace and security work. There is a desperate need for different structures of accountability too, especially when it comes to working for racial justice. These mutual aid efforts have already put in significant work to help show us what these structures can look like when community-led and outside of the limiting logics international security and even WPS so often reproduces.

There’s often a lot of resistance to the use of alternative theories and frameworks, especially critical theories such as queer theory. How has this resistance impacted your ability to use this frame of analysis in your work, and how do you function within a system that isn’t always receptive to critical contributions?

As a white lesbian who got a Ph.D. in the United States, I have had a privileged access to the discipline of IR. I’m an aggressive networker, so that helps, but I was never told not to research the topic I’ve researched, or that Queer IR is not real IR. That said it’s not just about whether queer work can be taken seriously, but who gets to do the work that is critical and gets taken seriously. It’s actually a question more about race, and the continuing problems of which issues are seen as real in international relations scholarship as well as who gets to do that work and make a career of it.

Confronting resistance to doing critical work in IR comes down to having a supportive department, those who can serve as mentors, and a cohort of students who you can reflect on these challenges with, much more than having the expert on IR as your advisor. I’ve been fortunate to work with people who, while they aren’t necessarily queer IR people, saw me addressing a gap in the literature and made space to support that.

As IR has slowly become more receptive to critical frameworks, do you think a queer WPS could become more mainstream?

Dr. Hagen: I do think it’s likely to become more mainstream to not rest so lazily on assumptions about cis identity and heterosexuality. I think it will become more mainstream to ask questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s not where queering ends, but it starts a conversation.

For me the ambition was never to say, “WPS is now queer,” but I do think it will become more mainstream for WPS programs to commit to connecting with LGBTQ organizations and include them in their projects rather than someone pointing out at the last minute a complete lack of LGBTQ identities in programs. A real change would be to include and center queer leadership from the start, with a commitment to moving beyond cisheteronormativity.

Whether or not there’s a real queering of WPS goes hand in hand with whether or not people are questioning states as providing security and traditional notions of peacekeeping – both much broader than WPS.

As a final question, do you believe that the WPS agenda has the potential to be reformed and queered in important ways, or is there a need for new frameworks with which to approach issues of human security?

My hopeful argument for all of this rests on the idea that WPS is centered on people. Individuals take part in shaping how the agenda is operationalized. From the first time I read UN Security Council Resolution 1325, queer people were there in the document, in my understanding of a gender perspective. I didn’t need a new resolution to tell me this agenda was also about lesbians, bisexuals, and trans women; that this resolution was actually also about me too.

The practice of queering is largely about challenging heteronormativity, which links up directly with resisting misogyny. Recognizing this linkage makes it clear why it’s never just been important to queer lives to address queerphobia. We have to be careful about making the argument that supporting queer people is good for straight people – that’s a dangerous argument – but it does happen to be true! I don’t think that’s legible to as many working on WPS as it should be that doing this work right now to respond to the misogyny that resists women’s inclusion in peacebuilding is connected to responding to and confronting the violence against LGBTQ people. It would be a huge shift for people to really understand that.

We’re at a norm-shifting moment. There is an opportunity to see that as part of how movements, how policy makers, how scholars, how practitioners understand and respond to backlash against women’s rights and the violent framing around ‘gender ideology’. It’s incredible when I see these connections being made, and I think there’s room for even more movement and shifting within those committed to a feminist future for the WPS agenda.

Jamie J. Hagen is a Lecturer in international relations at Queen’s University Belfast where she is the founding co-director of the Centre for Gender in Politics. Jamie received her PhD from the University of Massachusetts Boston in the Global Governance and Human Security program in 2018. Her work at the intersection of gender, security studies and queer theory appears in a number of peer reviewed journals including International Affairs, and Critical Studies in Security. Jamie was the 2018-2019 ISA James N. Rosenau Post-Doctoral Fellow. For Spring 2019 she was also a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School for Economics and Politics. You can learn more about her and her work on her website.

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