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The most successful female diplomats? Women with wives

by | Aug 10, 2020 | The Agenda

In a field still reliant on the dual role played by envoys and their spouses, women with wives are a distinct advantage to international diplomacy. Yet, until now, little was known about the lives and experiences of queer women leading our international affairs – and for good reason, given the structural gender inequality and homophobia that is only just beginning to lift in Australia (as around the world).

While the spotlight is increasingly being shone on gender and diplomacy (including through my own PhD research, a soon-to-be-released study of 80+ senior women leaders and over 30 years of data on gender and Australian international affairs), findings from the first study on gender, sexuality and diplomacy in Australia are due to be released later this month.

In honour of the occasion, this article traces the intersection of gender and sexuality to share some of the most significant findings on women with wives on the world stage.

Historically, LGBTI individuals have been viewed with caution and suspicion, as security risks typically excluded from sensitive diplomatic positions. Queer identity placed individuals especially at risk of being blackmailed and their loyalties in diplomacy and security were questioned, perceived as being part of a transnational cosmopolitan community.

Across the world, 70 countries still criminalise homosexuality, 44 of which equally apply to women, and in many instances, homophobia is not just accepted, but state sanctioned. 

Across the world, 70 countries still criminalise homosexuality, 44 of which equally apply to women, and in many instances, homophobia is not just accepted, but state sanctioned. Further, there is a deeply entwined oppression and suppression of gender and sexuality, which has specific effects on those queer women who do choose to represent their state internationally.

170820 shutterstock 136965863As envoys of the Australian Federal Government, anti-discrimination and equal opportunity law, policies, and strategies bind women and their agencies in international affairs. In theory, these give queer women as many opportunities and protections as any other employment group. Particularly now that Australia has legalised same-sex marriage, queer women are generally afforded the same benefits and allowances as any other staff member, outlined by each agencies’ overseas conditions of service.

However, depending on the host country’s legal and social acceptance of homosexuality, differential treatment, harassment and discrimination was common, with queer women often experiencing a deep form of exclusion. From difficulties in gaining visas and partner allowances, to negotiating home and host society acceptance, queer women posted internationally had a particularly complex environment to navigate. Some participants interviewed went years without revealing the gender of their partner – even though their partner was posted internationally with them, and on a partner visa – highlighting a level of silencing and invisibility only too common to queer women.

From difficulties in gaining visas and partner allowances, to negotiating home and host society acceptance, queer women posted internationally had a particularly complex environment to navigate.

The challenges experienced at the hands of homophobia didn’t only affect queer women however. Because the ideal diplomat remains the heterosexual, (white) man in Australian international affairs, heteronormativity and homophobia effect even heterosexual women who represented a deviation from the masculine norm. Heterosexual participants in my research noted that there was frequently an assumption that if they had short hair, no children and no partner (or a combination of the three), and were a woman in a significant position of leadership, they were often perceived as queer. In the research, this played out as another form of ‘othering’ women typically experienced in the field.

Changes are afoot across institutions and society. Even the representation and role-modelling of dynamic international affairs leaders like Shadow Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong have resulted in some improved conditions. Yet, while LGBTI+ people have long been welcomed into the field of diplomacy, with many early women diplomats and envoys either single and/or LGBTI+, challenges remain in a field dominated by heterosexual men. As Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons’ argue, there is an inherent precariousness of LGBTI identities, whereby acceptance of identity remains conditional, and identities remain marked by ‘not normal’, if not outright ‘abnormality’.

For participants in my research, the risk of fully embracing their identity within the field and workforce was not always practical, or safe. In the past, ‘coming out’ has amounted to career suicide for many senior Australian and international envoys. In many cases, the need to suppress their identity and the personal challenges that came with navigating a particularly male-dominated and heteronormative field, resulted in self-censoring and opting out of many diplomatic appointments. The emotional and psychological toll fell heavily on women and queer individuals.

170820 shutterstock 1297430161The ability to self-select in and out of certain deployments was therefore very important for individuals. Yet, self-selection is not possible across all areas of international affairs, particularly with security and enforcement agencies offering no choice of location – you go where you are sent. Perhaps this highlights the forms of masculinised and feminised sacrifice that are necessary to sustain a readiness for war.

Yet there was a flipside to women’s experiences, with diplomacy also reinforcing the privilege and protection offered by positions. Perhaps more than any other field, international affairs provides a form of diplomatic immunity and protection for queer women in what might otherwise be hostile or even dangerous situations.

The ability of nations to fully support and recognise the full diversity of their representatives internationally also says something about a nation.

The ability of nations to fully support and recognise the full diversity of their representatives internationally also says something about a nation. In Australia’s case, the representation of queer women internationally signals all the values that we stand for – equality and representation being foremost. In many cases, these women are a strong embodiment of Australia’s soft power potential on the world stage – demonstrating an inclusive society and leadership that neatly ties talent with the ability to also represent the people who make up society.

One of the most novel and interesting findings of the research is in the name of this article. While queer women represent a minority within an already marginalised group in international affairs, two women in the same household had evident benefits given the ‘dual role’ still required by both envoys and their spouses internationally. Women were both in roles of the diplomat and the spouse at the same time, in the same household – doubly different to traditional diplomatic norms of the male envoy and female ‘trailing spouse’, and more recently, the female envoy and male ‘trailing spouse’.

Yet, the result was that the queer women interviewed (women with female partners) fared better than their heterosexual female colleagues in terms of meeting the demands of international deployment and the extraordinary requirements of diplomacy. It was not that participants whom had same-sex relationships were inherently were more equal, sharing paid and unpaid labour. Rather, female spouses tended to be more engaged in managing diplomatic households and the informal functions that are a mainstay of international negotiation, than male spouses tended to be.

Female spouses tended to be more engaged in managing diplomatic households and the informal functions that are a mainstay of international negotiation, than male spouses.

Female spouses of the participants who were interviewed were also more likely to undertake the burden of unpaid domestic labour or primary child and eldercare responsibilities, to allow their spouses to dedicate more time for their paid deployed role. The partners of heterosexual women, on the other hand, either tended not to deploy internationally (often to pursue their own career) or simply (rightfully) opted out of the unpaid labour that was expected – a luxury many women spouses felt they could not do, given women’s expected unpaid labour in almost every other sphere of society.

Overall, queer women in Australian international affairs highlighted various forms of silencing and invisibility that those at the intersection of gender and diverse sexuality often endure, despite the high status and visible nature of their work. They challenged the archetypal diplomat or security leader as a heteronormative (white) male and they operated in different cultural contexts with varying negative attitudes towards women in power and homosexuality in general.

They also demonstrated the powerful potential queer women hold on the world stage. As one participant noted, the most successful women in international affairs either have a male partner who has deliberately chosen to be the supportive partner, or they have a wife. As far as the research goes, this appears to be a very successful model, I can tell you.

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