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Understanding the scale and nature of the problems faced by LGBTQ+ staff when engaging with international travel: Safeguarding and empowering colleagues

24th May 2024

Author: Dr Frances Hamilton, Associate Professor, School of Law, University of Reading

I am thoroughly delighted to obtain funding from the Society of Legal Scholars Research Activities Fund. The funding will go towards employing a Post Graduate Research student to carry out 45 interviews with LGBTQ+ staff (acronym used for brevity) working in Higher Education. The interviews will explore the lived reality for LGBTQ+ persons when engaging with international academic travel, as best understood through an intersectional lens.

Internationalisation has been set as a priority by the UK government in successive education strategies.  Staff cross international boundaries to establish international branch campuses, for visiting scholarship or conference attendance. Staff who engage in globalisation benefit from increased career progression, but LGBTQ+ individuals often face challenges to their welfare and safety due to varying legal and cultural landscapes when travelling. Over sixty countries globally retain criminal sanctions concerning sex between men, others criminalise lesbianism, do not protect LGBTQ+ persons against discrimination, recognise same-sex marriage, civil partnership or child custody rights or target transgender people through laws prohibiting ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘disguise’ offences. My previous research with Cameron Giles in 2021 found that only 17% of universities have policies expressly addressing LGBTQ+ welfare in international travel (Hamilton and Giles, 2021). Yet, Higher Education Institutes (‘HEIs’) as public bodies have an enhanced duty of care under the Equality Act 2010 to ‘eliminate discrimination and foster equality of treatment.’ This issue is topical and important if HEIs are going to be able to simultaneously pursue the competing agendas of (1) internationalisation and (2) equality and diversity. In 2023 I obtained funding from the University of Reading rapid response impact fund allocating monies from the UKRI to develop (with research assistant Tahlia Virdee) the “LGBTQ+ International Travel for Work Policy Development Tool” LGBTQ+ International Travel Tool (lgbtqtraveltool.com). This freely available resource fills a crucial void in safeguarding by helping organisations develop policies addressing the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals crossing international borders. It also empowers individuals to check if their employer has relevant safeguards in place, providing tailored recommendations through blending original research, practical solutions and lived experience.

UK HEIs can only truly address this issue if they have a comprehensive understanding of the real-life concerns of LGBTQ+ staff when crossing international borders. In 2022 a pilot level project run by myself and Virdee interviewing 15 LGBTQ+ academics demonstrated the importance of research in this area. The results of the pilot study demonstrated that the interviewees had a palpable fear of travelling to jurisdictions with which many HEIs have links. Yet eleven felt that engagement with international academic mobility was beneficial for their career. This affected the interviewees’ abilities to carry out their work. Only six felt able to be open about their LGBTQ+ identity when travelling. However, this pilot study was only small in scale, did not consider intersectionality factors and was mostly limited to interviewees based in England and Wales. In order to pursue the objective of understanding the lived experience of LGBTQ+ academics when engaging with international academic mobility, the project funded by the SLS allows me to employ a Post Graduate Research student to carry out 45 interviews with LGBTQ+ staff.

The originality of the project is also demonstrated as we propose to study each of the elements contained within the acronym of ‘LGBTQ+’ who face separate challenges (see second paragraph) together with studying LGBTQ+ staff in full intersectional context (understood throughout to refer to gender, social class and ethnicity). This is needed because of the known difficulties faced by those with intersectional characteristics when considering HE accessibility (Wang Crawford and Liu, 2020). Intersectional characteristics may exacerbate or compound (or potentially ameliorate) LGBTQ+ persons’ experiences. Our study will provide a robust account of the challenges faced. The scale and nature of the problems need to be confronted before HEIs can be fully advised on what they need to do to develop policy and practice to tackle the problem.

We are now looking for volunteers to interview. We will interview 45 LGBTQ+ staff individually (one hour each), covering the topics of: (1) extent of engagement in international academic mobility; (2) level of personal comfort in travelling worldwide; (3) impact of international academic mobility on career development; and (4) level of HEI support by policy and practice. The main recruitment criterion is that applicants should identify as LGBTQ+.

If you would like to participate please contact the PI f.r.hamilton@reading.ac.uk or the research assistant on this project Radhika Goel r.goel@pgr.reading.ac.uk. Ethical clearance has been obtained from the University of Reading and your confidentiality and anonymity is assured.

Please see the attached call for participants poster..

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