Within the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, there have been obvious advances for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) people and their allies. LGBTQ Olympians from several countries, including Canadian gold medal-winner Eric Radford, competed openly. Canada House served as Pride House, a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ athletes. Out U.S. gay athletes were blunt about their view that Mike Pence was an inappropriate representative for their country at the games.
But only four years prior, the Sochi Olympics of 2014 were preceded by the introduction of a new law in Russia, the host country, that stepped up discrimination against gay people.
LGBTQ athletes and their allies were confronted with a problem. On the one hand, the games are governed by a charter that deems any form of discrimination incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement. On the other hand, the Sochi games would be held in a country where LGBTQ people were not welcome.
The assurance of non-discrimination is part of an equity discourse. The idea that there is an inherent goodness to international engagement relates to a second discourse: Internationalization.
For me, as a lesbian in an academic environment, those two discourses led to a question about my daily life. For the past four years, I have investigated how equity and internationalization come together for LGBTQ people. I turned to my own work setting to explore how LGBTQ people navigate the expectations and complications that come with internationalization in the post-secondary sector.
The business of equity
In Canada, equity regularly appears as a concept in company policies and plans. Typically, discrimination or harassment based on race, gender or sexual orientation is prohibited. These standards are in line with provincial and federal human rights codes and expected in most Canadian organizations.
That expectation is not shared globally, though. There are many countries where being gay is a punishable offence, sometimes even a capital offence.
Certainly, discrimination against LGBTQ people has not vanished in Western societies and post-secondary institutions. In fact, the few studies that exist on LGBTQ academics show that despite institutional efforts and advances, LGBTQ people continue to experience barriers on campus.
Like other organizations, post-secondary institutions are extending their reach globally. This happens through recruitment of students outside Canada, study exchanges, study abroad programs, field research and satellite campuses. On an even more basic level, there are international conferences to attend and international publications to include in courses.
While internationalization is portrayed as crucial in helping students develop intercultural skills, some are concerned that it is about business more than education. What happens when business priorities clash with equity priorities? Equity is too easily sacrificed.
The borders of inclusion and safety
I interviewed 34 faculty members, students and staff based at post-secondary institutions in British Columbia and Alberta. When I asked participants to discuss the intersection of equity and internationalization for LGBTQ people, they talked about different types of tensions.
First, they identified a tension between inclusion and exclusion. A second tension they spoke about was between safety and risk. A third was between the freedom to come out and the expectation to pass.
Many programs, centres and policies have fostered inclusive campus cultures and communities: Hiring policies, women’s, gender and queer studies programs, centres for LGBTQ students, participation in pride parades. These activities do not mean that exclusion has disappeared, though. Trans people’s battles for gender-neutral bathrooms or processes to change name and gender on student records illustrate the persistence of exclusion.
Internationalization can heighten exclusion and risk. For example, participants often thought twice about participating, or decided not to participate, in a conference if it meant travelling to a country where it was illegal to be gay. While embraced by senior administrators and some faculty members, activities located in such countries seemed off-limits to some LGBTQ participants.
The impacts of exclusion and risk can surface in institutional communities, as well as in opportunities to build networks and projects with colleagues elsewhere. For students and junior scholars, the decision to forego international activities can create a risk to career development.
When participants did decide to travel to countries that were cracking down against LGBTQ people, they had to consider how to present themselves. Border crossings, where officials question travellers about their plans and their relationships with companions, were noted as particularly nerve wracking.
Even if they were out at work or in their classes, many participants accepted that travel to certain places entails stepping back into the closet. Doing so can create stress: A denial of their identity means a compromise of their values. It may also generate tension at home, as deciding to travel without a partner or to remove a wedding band can signal a diminishing of important relationships.
Some participants who travel regularly in their jobs take protective measures. They may purchase an extra laptop or cell phone to ensure no personal photos or contacts are on their devices in the event of a border inspection.
Despite these exclusions, risks and barriers, participants recognized that equity and internationalization discourses can converge.
Faculty members or staff in internationalization offices noted that, for international students who identity as LGBTQ, being able to study in Canada can help them figure out who they are and how they might live.
One participant talked about Canadian and international LGBTQ and ally students working together for a class activity on social justice and globalization. That activity became a way to deepen their learning about “intersectionality:” the idea that people’s multiple, interacting identities inform experiences of privilege and marginalization.
A path forward
As I write up my findings for a book, some advances seem to have been made.
At the Pyeongchang Olympics, the LGBTQ atmosphere was much improved over the games in Russia when the Pride House was banned. “I could have never imagined that this whole LGBTQ aspect would have happened [at these games,]” Eric Radford told the Toronto Star. “I just feel lucky that I get to be a part of that.”
In terms of advances in academia, some participants mentioned their institutions’ support to establish networks where LGBTQ people and allies can socialize, learn and generate ideas. Although still uncommon, gender-neutral bathrooms are available. Policies are being updated, with gender identity increasingly added as a prohibited ground for discrimination.
Still, in many institutions, internationalization work and equity work are based in different offices, each with its own staff and priorities. At times, those priorities can converge but, at other times, they diverge.
Internationalization holds opportunities, but opportunities come at a cost. On the whole, the opportunities of Canadian post-secondary internationalization seem to carry different, likely higher, costs for LGBTQ people than for straight people.
The solutions to these challenges are not easy. One obvious step is for equity and internationalization offices to work more closely together.
Several participants suggested developing a protocol — a sort of checklist — to ensure that equity concerns about proposals are flagged.
In the work of internationalization, exclusion and risk should not be apportioned unfairly to LGBTQ people. The aim should be to make equity assurances — whether in athletics or in scholarship — a gold standard rather than gold-plated.