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Proud to be a Diplomat: The Experiences of LGBTQ+ Career Diplomats

10 Jul 2024
By Mr Jack Hayes
Diplomats for Equality, Europride Vienna 2019. John Samuel/Wikimedia Commons/

The international landscape remains contradictory and fraught for the LGBTQ+ diplomat. Anecdotal experiences underscore broader issues faced by LGBTQ+ diplomats that shape their professional and personal lives abroad.

Earlier in 2024, as part of my doctoral research on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people working in international diplomacy, I sat down with a European diplomat as we reflected back on his first official posting. It was to an embassy in North Africa, and had started with all of the usual excitement and nerves, the frantic finalisation of visas and embassy paperwork—that strange mix of strict protocol and MacGyvering that makes up a surprising amount of diplomatic work. Within a year, he said, his excitement had soured into frustration, and he ultimately left the posting early.

He might have been able to finish the full three years if not for a colleague in a heterosexual relationship posted at the same time. “It was like a controlled experiment. In that first year, I watched as her boyfriend joined her on a full partner visa. Mine could only visit as a tourist, and he had to fly home at our own expense every two weeks. Worse, the embassy treated me like I was naive to have expected their support. Emotionally, mentally, financially…we just couldn’t keep it up.” Heeding the advice of other LGBTQ+ colleagues, he brought a lawyer with him when he met with his home ministry’s human resources team a year later. It was a cautionary first step into the role of career diplomat, one that sits at odds with the highly visible Western “Pride diplomacy” and the LGBTQ+ protections that are assumed to come along with it.

This anecdote joins a growing collection I’ve gathered from interviews undertaken during my doctoral research into LGBTQ+ diplomats with spousal or partner visas, representing just one complexity among many experienced by career diplomats of diverse sexuality and gender expression.

Historical (and ongoing) hostility

It’s important to note from the outset that LGBTQ+ experience is not a monolith, and that individual experience is informed also by identity, defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the term intersectionality, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” Experiences of gender, class, disability, race, and religion all inform lived experience, how one practices diplomacy, and how one is treated by diplomatic institutions. These varied aspects of identity may feature just as much as, if not more so than, sexuality. Yet throughout my interviews, some common themes have emerged. Firstly, though, why has sexuality and gender identity emerged as an area of inquiry in diplomacy?

The answer is, of course, complex. Legal reckonings of homosexuality (that is its criminalisation) were, and in some countries remain, ingrained in national hiring and firing policies. In the mid-20th century, amid the “Lavendar Scare,” these discriminatory policies were much more explicit, with the dismissal of somewhere between 7,000 to 10,000 U.S. federal employees on the grounds of suspected homosexuality.

This is far from ancient history. In Asia and the Pacific, 27 legal jurisdictions criminalise same-gender sexual activity, with the death penalty a legal possibility in 12. While diplomatic immunity provides a protective legal cover for LGBTQ+ officers, it does not protect against cultural and social homophobia or transphobia for LGBTQ+ diplomatic corps members. It certainly does not protect the LGBTQ+ diplomats who live and work in states with discriminatory and sometimes dangerous legal realities.

A relational career

Diplomacy seeps into every corner of communication and if there is an aspect of human-to-human connection, an officer can practice diplomacy across it. The success of a diplomatic mission sometimes rests solely on the social skills of a handful of officers, working across institutions with other diplomats, NGOs, local government, and staff. LGBTQ+ diplomats face many considerations when entering this environment, most notably at the intersection of cultural understandings and legal reckonings of LGBTQ+ identity.

Many diplomats mentioned the challenges of “coming out” while on post. The myth of “coming out” suggests that sexuality or gender disclosure is a single and final act when, in reality, LGBTQ+ people are often compelled to “come out” to multiple people at multiple times. All of these situations and more have been cited as points of concern by diplomats in my research.

In environments with shifting cultural and social tolerance of LGBTQ identities—including state police forces that use same-sex dating apps to “lure” foreign nationals or weaponise decency laws to suppress use of Pride symbols—there is additional stress on relationships with local staff or the community, in navigating diplomatic social functions, or problematising the recognition of gender identity for transgender or non-binary diplomats by host states.

There is also the challenge of postings to states that criminalise same-gender sexual acts. This, again, is a complicated space. There are very few jobs that require you to live abroad for years at a time and also implicitly require that you remain celibate for the duration of that time. Ministries with supportive policies towards LGBTQ+ people rarely have policies regulating employees sexual or romantic lives; it is instead relegated to the more nebulous respect towards a host states domestic law. While some diplomats I have spoken with are confident of their own protections if placed in legally fraught situations, those same protections are not extended to vulnerable local citizens, some of whom bear the brunt of social or judicial repercussions.

The story continues

The international landscape remains contradictory and fraught for the LGBTQ+ diplomat. In 2022, an historic forty-two heads of mission co-signed the Diplomats for Equality’s Joint Statement reaffirming their commitment to defend and advance the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons. In 2023, President Yoweri Museveni signed into Ugandan law one of the world’s most punitive anti-LGBTQ+ laws, a political footballing of LGBTQ+ rights that is increasingly common in authoritarian states around the world. Altman and Symons note that while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2011 remark that “gay rights are human rights” galvanised global support for LGBTQ+ rights, many governments proved so hostile that it served rather to “undermine support for human rights more generally.”

Regardless of the prescriptive support or discrimination of LGBTQ+ populations by governments, LGBTQ+ people will continue to be born, live, and work everywhere. Common sense would indicate there have always been same-gender attracted people working in diplomacy—my research seeks to shed a little light on these experiences, and if possible make the corridors of diplomacy that much more accessible for all kinds of people wanting to work as career diplomats.

If your story could contribute to this research, please consider filling out this survey or scheduling an interviewyour information is confidential, anonymised, and entirely voluntary.

Jack Hayes is a Research Assistant at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership. His research expertise includes LGBTI+ representation in Australian politics at a local, state and federal level, democratic and electoral health, and good governance in public service. Jack is also a PhD candidate in International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Coral Bell School for Asia Pacific Affairs, researching LGBTI+ experience in international diplomacy.

This review article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.