This interview is part of a series of interviews with academics and practitioners early in their careers. Current research and projects as well as advice for other young scientists are discussed in the interviews.
Dr. Andrew Delatolla is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Middle East Studies at the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds and Visiting Research Fellow at the Middle East Center of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Previously, he was Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at American University in Cairo. His research focuses on issues of race, gender and sexuality in relation to statehood and state building in the Middle East and North Africa. His most recent publications include Civilization and the establishment of a state in Lebanon and Syria (Palgrave, 2021) and Sexuality as the standard of civilization (ISQ, 2020).
What (or who) made the most significant changes in your thinking or encouraged you to pursue your research area?
I’ve had an incredible journey through science. I started in Fine Arts at OCAD University in Ontario. As an 18 year old starting university, I didn’t realize how privileged it is to be in such a room, to be in such a creative environment and with writers, thinkers and theorists like Donna Haraway, Susan Bordo, Bellhook , Michel Foucault, Jeanette Winterson, Audre Lorde and more. I thought this was common practice at university level. I took it for granted as I was more focused on politics or political discourse within art or art history and became more interested in human rights issues in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Because of this interest, I decided to study political science and it was there that I realized how lucky I was to study feminist, queer and critical science of this caliber and in this room. In political science we have dealt with the standard “isms,” but every time I wanted to come up with something more critical, it was usually answered with a questioning look.
In this course I had to learn a completely new language of “real science”, but then forgot this during my doctorate. I started thinking about my days at art school and not only thinking about the intellectual engagement in the classroom, but also about the lived experience of the art school, where it was normal to have trans * colleagues, to be outside and gay, to talk about Gender and binary issues, the experiences of being queer, which wasn’t necessarily the case when I was studying political science, or even war research after that where there seemed to be a lot of epistemological blind spots.
Unlearning wasn’t something I did alone. I think a lot of the reflection that happened in my PhD is thanks to my particular cohort, Ida Danewid, Evelyn Pauls, Joanne Yao, Kiran Phull, Anissa Hadadi, Sophie Haspeslagh, and many others. Without knowing it, they somehow pushed me out of the comfort zone of “real science” and forced me to rethink all of this. It wasn’t explicit, and a lot of it was just reading their work and engaging in discussions with them. But they were generous and kind with their own thinking and with what they had read themselves. I owe a lot to you and later to the queer community in IR.
In the queer community in IR there are so many amazing scholars who not only paved the way for the ability to be queer in science, study sexuality and queer theory, and some kind of queer theory as a theoretical paradigm in the IR itself centered, but they were also incredibly generous, thoughtful, kind, and honest. That really allowed me to explore questions that I would not otherwise have explored. Growing up queer is expected of you to fit into these heteronormative forms, to be perceived as “normal” and to do “normal work”, but that’s embarrassing. Without these queer scientists, without the people to deal with, I probably wouldn’t love academic work as much as I do now and try to get myself into a shape that just doesn’t fit. We owe a lot to Jaz Dawson, Michael Bosia, Momin Rahman, Melanie Richter-Montpetit, Alison Howell, Koen Slootmaeckers – the list is endless and I forget so many people who influenced me, shook hands with me and helped me on my journey – without her I wouldn’t be where I am today. It shows that there is a strong community of queer scientists out there helping one another and that is so important. Otherwise it can be a lonely and uncomfortable place.
How are the contemporary governance of sexuality in the West and the associated notions of progress being called into question by trans- and queer reactions and activism in West Asia and North Africa?
On the one hand there is a wrong image of western progress, and in dialogue with it, on the other hand, the image of Southwest Asian and North African barbarism and uncivilized engagement. Based on Edward Said’s orientalism, a necessary mirror develops of how the West sees itself in relation to the rest and how the rest reacts to it. This is not intended to ignore the types of rights that have been gained by LGBTQ people and communities in the West, but these rights do not formulate an endpoint. You are by no means the end of the story of LGBTQ communities in the West, even if some think. There is this notion, for example, that gay marriage is the epitome of what is required in relationships and now that it is won the battle is over, but there are many individuals in the west who are being excluded and marriage not necessarily liberating or emancipatory. When engaging in LGBTQ activism, we need to center the bodies and voices that are left out and remain. Without it there is no progress. Pride would not be a “thing” without trans * women with color, queer people of color, black queers, people who have been marginalized because of their race, gender identity and sexuality. We need to take these stories seriously and explore and understand them. In this context, we need to understand the whiteness of courtesy that is tied to state rights such as marriage. When we think of Western notions of “progress,” there is a kind of courtesy embedded in it – be it in the form of homonationalism or homonormativity. We need to be aware of how this politeness policy can silence many people, especially black, indigenous, colored, trans * and gender neutral people.
Because of this premise of courtesy, the West paints a picture of barbarism using queer communities in the majority world; highlight violence against LGBTQ communities, but when similar types of violence take place in the West it is ignored. For example, the types of violence that are sustained on the western borders or in the context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We have to listen to criticism that dismantles homonormative and homonationalist structures that are heavily based on heteronormative and heteronationalist foundations. The problem is that we tend to center heteronormative and heteronationalist structures and institutions, which are magnified versions of household relationships, as “right” or “good”.
When I talk about budget relations or governance, I am thinking of Fredrich Engels and his arguments about the budget, the emergence of capitalism, and how the state becomes an enlarged version of the budget. We see this focus on family and household in heteronormative and heteronationalist discussions, their production in the state and how this allows the state to count bodies as productive units. Because rights are so state-centered, when we think of cultural struggles over LGBTQ rights, be it in Eastern Europe or the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere, a lot revolves around “traditional family” and “household” values. One way to rethink the family’s bond with the state and the rights and the resulting violence is to criticize the state, state governance that is anchored in social and national values and layered in ideas that give the family a certain way search. This has been at the center of so much activist work and thinking by blacks, indigenous people, colored people – a fantastic and timely book that sums up the state’s relationship with black queer communities is the book by Ger Shun Avilez 2020 Black Queer Freedom: Spaces of Injury and Pathways of Desire.
However, when our research and ideas travel to include the voices of these activists, we must also proceed carefully, understanding our privilege, and sometimes the privilege of those who are able to be activist, as well as the sacrifices that go with it are made despite the privilege. We must also remember that while concepts travel, their meanings do not. For example, if one thinks about LGBTQ as a label, there may be a reproduction of the LGBTQ label among urban middle and upper middle class communities that do not necessarily exist in the same conceptual framework in rural or working-class communities in Cairo and Beirut. In these spaces, even if they are in the same state or city, there is a politics and economy of reproducing the LGBTQ label and a politics and economy of not using it. This disrupts our understanding of sexuality and gender identity because the labeling policy that has framed Western “progress” does not necessarily translate neatly into these spaces or communities. This does not mean that these identities do not exist or that these labels or identities are imperialist and should therefore be rejected, but that in understanding the social, political and economic foundations, how these labels and identities are mobilized (or not mobilized) from different locations ).
What does indigenous knowledge offer about western imperialist sexual governance Queer IR?
I’m not an expert on indigenous knowledge, but I really enjoyed reading and talking to Manuela Picq. Your work and that of many others are helping us to break away from the limitations of LGBTQ labels, gender binaries, and it is really a process of queering in many ways because these labels and binaries don’t necessarily translate to different geographies, cultures, and classes can become -based societies and communities around the world. I find the work on indigenous knowledge and sexuality so rich and well developed in its understanding of the world, social context and politics. It makes you realize how limited and restrictive many Western labels are. This type of self-imposed conceptual limitation needs to be broken. I think there is a politics in the labeling, and in relation to sexuality, politics refers to Western ideas of progress that invoke problematic, contemporary and developed narratives on cultural wars, issues of imperialism, the “gay internationals” etc. from privileged places . We have to contextualize and problematize these ideas of progress. I think this in terms of indigenous knowledge production regarding sexuality and what that meant historically is one way of doing it and says a lot about where queer IR is going.
What is homocolonialism and how does your conceptualization contribute to existing understandings? How do you think homocolonialism helped intensify marginalization across race, gender and class during the pandemic?
I am trying to pursue a historical understanding of homocolonialism in terms of how labels, paradigms, and the politics of sexuality emerge in Western imperial histories with anti-homosexuality laws and anti-buggery laws. These laws were exported and helped to structure the state and society in a heterocolonialist way. This means that we see in these stories an attempt to export a certain amount of binary gender relations that are constitutive of our conception of family and gender-specific work in the household. This policy was justified as part of the civilizing projects of imperialism and colonialism and thwarted with racial hierarchies.
What is happening is that we are moving from a hetero-colonialism to a homo-colonialism, in which a certain framework for how one can be “gay” is constrained by heterosexual norms, structures and institutions. It is a continuation of the civilization project that displaces the radical politics of the queer liberation movement and instead locates the acceptance of gays in capitalist engagement and in the state. As homocoloniality increases on a global level, homosexuality becomes a battlefield where rights – according to Western governments – look a certain way and homosexuality – according to majority governments – is viewed as alien and neo-imperial. It is the queer community and black, indigenous and queer colored people who are often ignored and end up paying the price.
My intellectual starting point in thinking about how the state is gender specific and how it creates gender and sexuality begins with the anthology by Swati Parashar, J. Ann Tickner, and Jacqui True, entitled Revisiting Gender States: Feminist Concepts of the State in International Relations. I also connect this to discussions of social reproduction – when I think of Spike V. Peterson – in relation to the state and sexuality; how gender roles are necessary for social reproduction and capital accumulation; and how this positions state structures and institutions as necessarily dependent on heterosexual relationships. Without understanding the historical and sociological foundations of homocolonialism, we cannot do justice to the understanding that homocolonialism is the legacy of other imperialist forms of government that seek to civilize bodies in particular ways. This helps to contextualize and break through many debates about international rights regimes, cultural wars, debates about “tradition”, religion and differences in religions.
The pandemic itself has dramatically changed our life expectancies and restricted the freedom of movement for so many people. But individuals who are particularly racial and gender specific had to deal with these restrictions before the pandemic, and I fear that this will affect these individuals; further restrict their mobility. Especially with the closing of borders, vaccination passports and the hierarchy of vaccines, some communities in the world are now being further displaced and marginalized, with even less mobility after the pandemic. To be honest, I haven’t thought about how homocolonialism plays a bigger role in this dynamic.
How could the study of sex and sexuality in IR, especially queer IR, change due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of sexual governance in the West?
The pandemic is having an impact on funding, departmental structures and what higher education executives call “good research”. In the UK, we are seeing mandatory layoffs and cuts in government funding that have ended a number of Official Development Assistance (ODA) projects and international research project centers. In the UK, a lot of this has to do with a pandemic, but it could also be related to Brexit. But it’s not just the UK, there are university funding cuts almost everywhere and this will have a huge impact on public health research. While some think this area will be a priority, public health research needs to speak to researchers studying race, gender and sexuality, revise corporate governance and come up with new solutions. Without critical research, we cannot have new solutions.
The pandemic also came at a time when we were witnessing the rise of nationalism and populism, especially the populist right. We see this play out in debates over the critical race theory – various politicians in the US, UK and France are essentially denouncing the critical race theory without knowing what it is and then turn to and claim to be anti-racist. It confuses the mind, but it is very much based on the context of (white) nationalism, where the pre-existing language of security has been strengthened by the pandemic. This, coupled with dehumanizing discussions about gender, queer and trans * people, makes it really worrying where this is going.
In view of funding cuts and attacks on Critical Race Theory, BLM, gender queer and trans * individuals, it is more necessary than ever to give the discipline of international relations a strong front. We have to make it clear that our research is important, that it is not a marginal discussion, that it is not relegated to the last week of teaching. It should be the starting point for everything we teach. For example, can we better understand the logics of realistic theories of international relations if we first discuss white masculinity? I think the next few years will be extremely stressful, promoting ourselves and our research as always, but also for our colleagues. If there is a union at your university, please join it. It will make our work and our work stronger.
What are you working on at the moment?
I work on a number of things. I’m working with the fabulous Jamie Hagen and Samuel Ritholtz on an anthology on Queer Methodologies – hopefully this will bear fruit in the next two years. We managed to speak to a number of researchers and the interest is huge so it’s nice to pull together. I’m also working on a book with Ahmad Qais Munhazim. We are at the beginning and are in dialogue with each other about the idea of civilization and sexuality and their history and politics. Hopefully it will take on a more concrete shape and form as the summer progresses. I am excited about these projects and it is a privilege to work with such fantastic, supportive and generous colleagues.
What is the most important advice you can give to young academics, especially queer IR fellows?
Queer spaces in IR are very inviting – just speak to the people. That surprised me as a doctoral student. I would never have gotten into the International Studies Association (ISA) LGBTQ caucus if a friend and colleague, Jaz Dawson, hadn’t grabbed my hand at an ISA conference and pulled me to a workshop where I went to meet other queer scholars to discuss research and experiences. I wasn’t working on queer IR or sexuality at the time, but being around people that I could be myself with was nice. Saying all of this, finding and getting in touch with your community, whoever it is, and never considering yourself a burden – that kind of thinking limits you. Most of the time, people will be very happy to read and comment on your work. It’s okay to be scared and intimidated, but don’t hesitate to reach out to someone about it. You will likely see it come from a good place and you will greatly appreciate it. As a queer scholar, it is uncomfortable to be in heterogeneous spaces and to have to assume certain types of gender roles. Much of it is conditioned. It takes time to remove these barriers and take out each stone one at a time. And once you start the process it becomes very liberating. It is also very important to interact with your cohort of PhD students as much as possible. Without the sense of community I had when I started my PhD, I would not have been challenged as I was and developed my thinking the way I did. You won’t notice it right away, but you make friends, and those friendships are long-lasting and supportive.
Further reading on e-international relations