A Queer Gap: Invisibility of Queer Theory in the Discipline of International Relations

Author Bio: 

Nalin Jayathunga holds an MA in International Relations from the Nottingham Trent University, UK and BA in English (Hons) from the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Nalin has worked in the development sector in Sri Lanka as an Official Development Assistance (ODA) Specialist for the Export-Import Bank of Korea and as a Project Coordinator for Korea International Cooperation Agency. His research interests broadly include security studies, gender and sexuality studies, International Relations theories and development studies.


Challenging the domination of heteronormativity and gender normativity through an investigation of the relations between heterosexuality and homosexuality has been a central project of queer theorists (Namaste, 1994; Jackson, 1999). Despite the recent growth of Global Queer Studies (GQS) influencing discourses in the field of humanities, there is still, what I would call a “queer gap” in social sciences and International Relations (IR) in particular. This paper intends to establish the argument that although queer theory may not make a significant change to the disciplinary core of IR, it still opens valid critical space for IR scholars (with a queer understanding of the world) who need not necessarily subscribe to hegemonic disciplinary and institutional practices. Since this is a theory-based study, its methodology involves close readings of secondary academic texts. Using the theoretical, conceptual frameworks and prominent debates surrounding gender, human sexuality, and queer theory, the essay draws particular attention to the metatheoretical debates and dominant disciplinary practices in IR to critically assess why queer theorizing becomes invisible in the disciplinary core of IR. By highlighting the relevance of queer-themed work to the discipline of IR which involve the very key themes of IR, it argues that leaving the “queer gap” as it is will lead to a failure and hence urge the scholars to avoid subscribing to hegemonic disciplinary and institutional practices.

Queer Theory
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Nalin Jayathunga. "A Queer Gap: Invisibility of Queer Theory in the Discipline of International Relations". Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research Vol. 7 No. 2 (07 July 2022): pp. 10-10. (Last accessed on 29 May 2024). Available at: https://kohljournal.press/queer-gap-invisibility-queer-theory-discipline-international-relations.

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Prior to a more theoretical and conceptual discussion of gender and human sexuality, I prefer to start by citing a personal experience. Born into a “developing” country in the South Asian region with a colonial history, the panic surrounding the discussions of sex, romance, incest, and sexuality has been witnessed as a normalized, justified response. If a person is asked to reflect on sexuality, certain responses could likely invoke “sex panic” characterized by “fear, anxiety, anger, hatred, and disgust” (Irvine, 2008, p.9-10). Such responses suggest a form of a censorship and silencing effect that can be associated with Foucault’s (1998, p.17-49) “Repressive Hypothesis,” which paradoxically incites legislative, religious, and medical discourses to criminalize, dishonour, and pathologize dissidence and deviance. Such discourses (which are not merely constrained to sex) may likely neglect the constructions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, age, locale, ability, etc. However, when exploring the specificities of sex/moral panics in Sri Lanka, what is important to understand is that such panics do not take place in a vacuum devoid of historical and social contexts, particularly in relation to its colonial past, what Wanniarachchi (2019) terms (borrowing from Jacques Derrida) the “hauntology” of colonialism. Thus, sex/moral panics have to be understood in terms of the introduction of Victorian values, such as the criminalization of non-normative sexuality and gender under the British colonial rule through the enactment of sodomy laws which the Sri Lankan Penal Code still follows (Wijewardene & Jayewardene 2019), the erasures of hybrid pasts and identities through efforts such as colonial census (Rajasingham-Senanayake, 2002), and of cultural practices such as polygamy. Add to this, modern nation-state building and present socio-political formations entrenched in hetero-masculine post-colonial nationalism and neo-liberal politics carrying forward the colonial beginnings of forming “authentic” and “pure” identities through majoritarian politics. At present, the sex/moral panic is often invoked within the political sphere in Sri Lanka. For instance, the former President Maithripala Sirisena, at a political event in 2018, used the queer innuendo/diminutive “samanalaya (butterfly) to laugh at his political opponent, the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. This is a Sinhala term which is often used to mock effeminate gay men. The result is to create fear “in the heterosexual(ized) citizenry that the nation is endangered and is under threat because it has come under the rule of a ‘weak’, ‘effeminate’, queer man who has taken what is rightfully theirs” (Wanniarachchi, 2019). In a similar vein, the last Presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa, was considered incapable of governing and creating a “good future” for the citizens and the youth because he did not have children of his own even though he is married. On the other hand, the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has gained the fond title “appachchi (father), which is used not only by fellow politicians but also by the public at large. Unlike his rivals, he has three married sons, one of whom is a member of Parliament and is considered to continue the family’s political journey.

This brief opening above is a clear indication as to how the post-colonial modern state is formed within heteropatriarchal relations, reproductive kinship structures and familial norms that seek to discredit non-normative sexuality and gender. What this essay attempts to develop using secondary literature is an in-depth understanding as to how the discipline of IR becomes insular due to its over-reliance on mainstream, problem-solving, positivist approaches and by not bridging the “queer gap” – an epistemic gap that favours forms of knowledge produced through mainstream IR theories over alternative theories such as queer theory, thereby leading to an epistemic injustice within the discipline itself. It does so by pondering the uneasy relations that emerge from queer IR’s encounters with mainstream IR.

The essay is structured in four sections. First, it explicates the theoretical, conceptual frameworks and prominent debates surrounding gender, human sexuality, and queer theory. Second, it pays attention to the metatheoretical debates and dominant disciplinary practices in IR to critically assess the relationship between queer theorizing in IR and the neoliberal university. Third, the relevance of queer-themed work to the discipline of IR will be discussed to understand how IR scholars can make valid contributions through queer theorizing. Finally, the paper considers the detrimental effects of not bridging the “queer gap” in IR.


Gender, Human Sexuality, and Queer Theory

Understanding gender and sexuality necessitates an engagement with the arguments between essentialism and social constructivism. Challenging the essentialist idea that gender and sexuality are biologically determined and fixed, many feminist and queer theorists have argued that gender and sexuality are socially constructed and fluid (Zalewski, 2010; Butler, 2006; Butler, 2011). In addition, the classifications of gender and sexuality are often presented through “definitional binarisms” (Sedgwick, 2008, p.11) where male is defined vis-a-vis female and similarly other categories: homosexual/heterosexual, masculine/feminine, majority/minority, etc. This further resonates with Derridian notion of supplementarity which argues that “heterosexuality needs homosexuality for its own definition” (see Namaste, 1994, p.222). The idea of binary oppositions, therefore, ignores the aforementioned fluidity of gender and sexual identities and as Eisenstein (2007, p.5) argues “the idea that there are two biological sexes is [...] a political limitation/regulation that depends on a formulation of gender as twoness.” On the other hand, articulations of gender and sexuality in terms of binary oppositions inadvertently overlook categories like transgender, transsexual, and intersex. Furthermore, these binary oppositions are not simply limited to gender and sexuality because they are applicable to other categories such as race, ethnicity, ability, etc. When a person has different identities of recognition, they in fact lead to an intersection of identities. For instance, Butler (2006, p.4), discussing the “possibility of the name’s multiple significations,” argues that gender can intersect with “racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities.” In view of these intersecting and/or interlocking identities, it can be argued that such intersections among identities have in fact created integration among feminist, postcolonial critical, poststructural, and queer scholars; that is, queer identities and subjectivities do not exist in silos or as monolithic groups but rather they intersect with other axes of social experience such as race, caste, class, etc. As such, critical queer, decolonial, and feminist scholarships often do not evolve in isolation. Particularly in the South Asian context including in Sri Lanka, one can find narratives of hybrid histories, processes of complex migrations, cultural mixing, multicultural, and multilingual legacies that have been subsequently erased and transformed into hegemonic identity politics through colonial processes and nationalism (Rajasingham-Senanayake, 2002). Hence, the post-colonial identity politics in South Asia are marked by homogenization and hegemonization of mono-ethnic groups, ethnic partitions, and hetero-patriarchal conceptions. In her exploration of how racialized modern ethnic identities in Sri Lanka were configured during the colonial times, Rajasingham-Senanayake (2002) further shows how the post-colonial armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is an example for the consolidation of such modern ethnic identities in previously hybrid border areas. To further understand the importance of the integration of feminist, decolonial, queer scholarship, Shyam Selvadurai’s (1994) coming-of-age novel Funny Boy provides an account of how the protagonist explores his sexuality and gender expression within the backdrop of escalating Sinhala-Tamil ethno-religious tensions in Sri Lanka. This novel is an exploration of a coming out narrative in Sri Lanka that intersects with other axes of social experience such as gender, race, age, class, religion and locale. In order to understand such queer of colour and migrant narratives, this aspect of integration between alternative theories is critical. Furthermore, this integration allows for developing interdisciplinary and/or transdisciplinary work without categorizing them into separate silos. Having examined the constructed nature of gender and sexuality, binary oppositions, and intersectionality of identities, this paper will now proceed to discuss the performative aspects of gender.

In her seminal work on gender performativity, Butler (1988, p.527) states that “gender reality is performative, which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.” Thus, one can understand gender through the way in which it is performed repetitively. To further this argument, Butler draws on the figure of the Drag Queen, to show the potential of gender in subverting itself. In fact, Butler (2006) argues that drag acts be used to mock the accepted, normative gender expressions. This performative understanding of gender has been also crucial to recent studies on masculinity or rather masculinities “which is not popular among mainstream [IR] scholars” (Carver, 2014, p.113). These concepts of performativity and masculinities have however been studied vis-a-vis IR and their relevance will be examined later using the concept of the state. In order to further understand gender and sexuality, it is also useful to discuss Butler’s (2006, p.185) critique of ontology where she argues that the body “has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality.” This idea challenges the foundations of identity politics and binary oppositions concerning gender, sexuality, race, etc. by unpacking how the identity one purports to express is actually manufactured and continued through public and social discourses and bodily signs. It suggests that the construction of “truths,” in the Foucauldian sense, through acts and gestures create an illusion of gender; one that is articulated and sustained discursively to regulate sexuality and gender within reproductive heterosexual frameworks (Butler, 2006). Understanding this construction through performative aspects and discourses help unpack the foundations on which identity politics are based. In addition, it is built upon the poststructuralist argument that “subjects are no autonomous creators of themselves or their social worlds, [instead] subjects are embedded in a complex network of social relations” (Namaste, 1994, p.221). However, Butler’s idea has also been subsequently challenged by White (1999, p.156) because he believes that “while she [Butler] understands herself to be critiquing all ontology, she is inconspicuously generating another one as her arguments deploy themselves.” Notwithstanding such criticism, I contend that Butler’s argument has been far more effective in terms of challenging the realist view of ontology concerning nation-states, and this will be further discussed in the section “acknowledging the queer work.” Thus, this discussion of Butler’s work on gender performativity, and her post-structural critique of ontology, will now lead the paper to examine the main tenets of queer theory.


Finding the “queer gap”

Similar to the way post-modern feminists attempt to understand both “male and female” categories in gender theorizing, queer theory also attempts to understand both homosexuality and heterosexuality. According to Namaste (1994, p.220), “whereas queer theory investigates the relations between heterosexuality and homosexuality, sociologists tend to examine homosexual identities and communities, paradoxically ignoring the social construction of heterosexuality.” In addition, queer theory draws heavily from poststructuralism and the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (see Smith and Lee, 2015, p.52; Namaste, 1994, p.220). Furthermore, it examines how homosexual subjectivities are discursively produced and reproduced while interrogating how borders, understood physically, organically, and metaphorically in sexual identities, are regulated and constructed (Namaste 1994, p.226). While recognizing the impact that can be brought about by queer theorizing, however, I also assert that, in the same manner feminism has recently showcased how dominant masculinities affect subordinate masculinities, queer approaches may also need to look at how heterosexuality impinges on heterosexuality itself, since “the impact of regimes of normative heterosexuality on heterosexuality has largely been ignored” (see Jackson, 2006, p. 105). In terms of the academic space on queer theorizing, it has been largely constrained to the departments of humanities, which this paper seeks to problematize by extending it to the discipline of IR.

The reasons why “IR theorizing often ignores [...] the concerns of queer theorizing” (Sjoberg 2012, p.337) can be firstly understood in terms of the metatheoretical debates surrounding IR. The core disciplinary standards of IR seem to have been already set by the early theories, most prominently by “realism” and “liberalism,” naming themselves as mainstream, scientific, positivist, explanatory, disciplinary, rationalist, problem-solving theories. The power of language itself is evident in the act of grouping the disciplinary core of IR in the above terms to suggest the theoretical lineage characterized by empirical support, which may force critical IR to the invisible periphery. The existence of post-positivist theories in IR, such as feminist, postcolonial, and queer theorizing, therefore comes at a cost, and Weber (2015, p.43) argues that “the hard, troubling, political edges of critical IR were substituted with the softer, more soothing critiques of Disciplinary IR that left most critical politics behind.” The polemic nature of critical theory that “stands apart from prevailing order of the world and asks how that order came about” (Cox, 1981, p.129) was hence tamed by the discipline to allow their existence. This phenomenon can be further understood through Weber’s (1994, p.341) critique of Keohane’s text which classifies standpoint feminists as “good girls...[who] can supplement the core of the international theory,” however dismissing the post-modern feminists as “bad girls” as they do not subscribe to scientific disciplinary standards. Keohane exemplifies the white male empiricist/realist IR scholar, who sets himself the task of teaching feminists about how to theorise about feminism. Weber (1994) argues that Koehane’s attempt to construct these boundaries of feminisms and thus the boundaries of good IR/good science vs. bad IR/bad science is a paranoid attempt to silence and push into the periphery the many voices in the feminist literature and discipline the feminist bodies using his authorial position located within the centre of IR. This potential threat to the centre of IR by feminist work is the very transformative potential of the larger feminist literature (Weber, 1994).

This analysis of the positivist/post-positivist debate then begs the question: can queer theory be welcomed at least into the periphery of IR? Weber (2015, p.44-45) gives an alarming answer to this, when she explains that queer theory in IR will either be substituted with constructivism (if it is associated with poststructuralism) or be placed in a sexuality variable (if it associated with feminism), thereby causing a diminishing effect on the political strength of queer theory. Following her view, it can be argued that until disciplinary IR stops disciplining critical theories by demanding scientific validation, recognizing queer theory within the core disciplinary IR will remain a distant dream. I argue that this competition with alternative theories is self-destructive to the discipline of IR. In addition to the metatheoretical reasons, scholars have identified limitations inherent in queer theory which will be discussed next.

According to Hemmings (2012, p.122), “the continued reliance on a heterosexual/homosexual opposition skews both our perception of historical change with respect to the relationship between sexuality and political economy, and marks gay and lesbian subjects with disproportionate evidential value with respect to the same.” This argument is a powerful one. Hemmings’ (2012) contestation is that when one gives emphasis mainly on the heterosexual/homosexual divide and the visibility paradigm, it gives undue burden to gay and lesbian subjects to either become transgressive or participate in the capitalist project of profit and exploitation of the most economically disadvantaged, for instance, in the case of gay and lesbian tourist service provision in poor countries. One of the reasons that makes it hard to go beyond this opposition is the need to adopt an empiricist paradigm that gives precedence to visibility politics (Hemmings, 2012). This paper, however, contends that the project of queer theorizing needs not adopt an empiricist paradigm required by other disciplines. The non-reliance on heterosexual/homosexual opposition suggests assimilation with Disciplinary IR, which is the very same project queer theory intends to challenge. Queer theory, without limiting itself to and/or going beyond the categories of “the LGBTQI+,” “discrimination,” “human rights,” “equal inclusion,” challenges the fundamental structures of oppression, exploitation, and violence within the contemporary formations of international power (Richter-Montpetit, 2018). Queer approaches are connected to political analyses that question how gender and sexuality shape foreign policy, military operations, security, development needs, and operations of global political economy. Queer IR sheds light on the impacts of not only the heteronormative and cisnormative frameworks, but also how homonormativity, homonationalism, pink-washing, and homocolonialism continue to shape national and transnational political and economic orders (Richter-Montpetit, 2018). Contrariwise, Kaplan (1992) raises concerns about lack of concreteness especially with regards to Butler’s work on performativity. Even though this essay agrees with this argument (because Butler’s work as well as queer theory itself can be considered rather abstract/unintelligible to students of many disciplines), it is also noteworthy that such confusions arise because of a constructed habit to deal with empirical, essentialist epistemologies, which is readily fulfilled by theories like realism and liberalism. However, queer theory has come under critique often for its elitist nature. Matt Brim (2018) explains the gap between theory and praxis in relation to the US higher education context and argues that the very institutions that are recognized for queer studies have refused to serve students particularly from queer, poor, and minority social backgrounds. Such examples of “bad queer theory,” i.e. institutional elitism in the West, however, cannot be applied to other countries without reflection, particularly to post-colonial countries such as Sri Lanka that to-date offers free education through its welfare state mechanisms. While recognizing that such state mechanisms also have their inherent issues within the neoliberal market economy and questioning whether they can stand long in the face of satellite campuses and other challenges, what the essay suggests is that understanding varied educational contexts and their failures and/or successes, beyond the Western elite institutions, is also of equal importance. Thus, reflecting on the critique of elitism in Sri Lankan Arts Faculties, Haniffa (2022) argues that Humanities and Social Sciences education at university level in Sri Lanka is, on the contrary, struggling to empower those disadvantaged students who did not have adequate Science Education facilities in their primary and secondary education, the majority of whom come from the poorest districts in Sri Lanka and are mostly women. Therefore, it is important to remember that emancipatory knowledge that can be produced through transformative scholarship can actually benefit the most dispossessed, disenfranchised and disadvantaged groups, especially if they are imparted beyond the Western universities and elitist institutions. As Haniffa (2022) explains, “it is not the Harvards of this world that we should emulate, but contexts that have enabled the emergence of labour struggles and cultural critique informed by class analysis.” Hence, this essay argues that it is again the educational structures that are elitist and not the emancipatory knowledge that can be produced through queer theory that can actually make students from disadvantaged backgrounds question the very structures that made possible such disproportionate effects.

In addition to the above limitations of queer theory, the most intelligible or rather simplistic reason for a “queer gap” is the “limited utility” (Sjoberg 2014, p.612) value of queer theory work in IR which restricts its permeability. In other words, the aspects of commercialization and consumerism attached to disciplinary IR, in terms of publications, media interviews, and research funding (that favour high-politics and the largely practitioner and employability aspirations of IR students), can in turn result in trivialization and in the invisibility of queer-themed work in IR. Moreover, the role of “social engineering” to make queer-themed topics more appealing to policy makers is absent. “Social engineering” is the idea that social scientific knowledge is useful as it can be incorporated into social policy making processes in the form of projects of social engineering (Benton and Craib 2011). Therefore, one may easily argue that queer theory lacks the elements of scientific knowledge, validity, practicality, applicability, and appeal to policy makers that are characteristics of problem-solving theories. However, this to me indicates politicization and hierarchization of the disciplinary structures within IR (preferring mainstream theories over alternative theories), which I believe even deconstructive approaches of queer theory cannot fully address. This is a result of the neo-liberalization of academia on a global scale and the relationship between academic disciplines and state official policies. In the post-independence Sri Lankan context, language use goes beyond its instrumental utilitarian purposes, including in academia. For instance, the official language policies are driven by anti-colonial nationalist thinking (eg., swabasha (native languages) as a national level policy) and for exclusion of ethnic minorities (eg., Sinhala becoming the official language in Sri Lanka in 1956, which was remedied subsequently in 1958 when Tamil also became an official language). As Perera (2015, p.56) argues, “language dynamics due to the politicisation of the language provided the most powerful manifestation of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict.” With reference to the Swabasha policy and its impact on academic spaces, Sri Lankan university staff’s struggle with the English language has to be understood not as their personal inadequacies but as a reflection on the structural language policy changes driven by ethno-nationalism and anti-colonialism (Haniffa, 2022). Unpacking these subsequent impacts of modern state-building mechanisms by questioning their very structures is what alternative theories such as queer theory can offer. If not, what is the use of humanities and social sciences and in this case IR, but a scientification and thus legitimation of our colonial/capitalist/sexist/racist world order? As Haniffa (2022) argues, “having students aspire to become CEOs of exploitative enterprises that trap future generations in poverty is the neoliberal project that we should resist.”

However, in order to advance their political agenda, feminist and queer theorists may have to adopt what Spivak (see Butler 1988, p. 529) terms “strategic/operational essentialism” whereby they imagine a “false ontology.” This means queer theorists may have to strategically compromise on their ontological critique in order to “allow the subaltern to speak” (Steans, 2013, p.34). On the whole, this quarrel over metaphysical elements however will continue to exist between positivist and post-positivist theories. Despite these reasons for a “queer gap” in IR, the relevance of queer-themed work to the discipline of IR should not be ignored.


Acknowledging the queer work

One of the vital arguments presented through queer and feminist work is that “the personal is political” (See Morris, 1992, p.161). This is in fact one of the most simplistic yet powerful answers one can give to a person who questions the relevance of queer theory to IR. Butler (1988, p.529) further expands on this idea by stating that “it is primarily political interests which create the social phenomenon of gender.” This conversation has been elevated substantially by Cynthia Enloe (2014) who has argued how “gender makes the world go round.” Thus, in order to make feminist sense of international politics, it is necessary to follow diverse women, for instance, “domestic workers, hotel chambermaids, women’s rights activists, women diplomats, women married to diplomats, women who are the mistresses of the male elites, women sewing-machine operators, women who have become sex workers, women soldiers, women forced to become refugees, and women working on agribusiness plantations” (Enloe, 2014, p.27) and places that are often considered “private,” “domestic,” “local,” or “trivial” as all of them participate in shaping complex international political life. To be more specific with the relevance of queer theory, it is necessary to see how queer theorists have contributed to knowledge-production in the discipline of IR.

According to Weber (2015, p.28), “the primary foci of most queer-themed work published by IR scholars are classic IR themes such as war, security, sovereignty, intervention, hegemony, nationalism, empire, colonialism and the general practice of foreign policy.” For instance, scholars like Judith Butler, Cynthia Weber, Cynthia Enloe, Stevi Jackson, Eve Sedgwick, Jon Binnie, Terrell Carver, Rahul Rao, Jasbir K. Puar and many others have been in the vanguard of gendering and queering global politics. In this light, the following sections of the paper will pay particular attention to a few recurrent themes of queer-themed work, notably heteronormativity, masculinity, performativity, and intersectionality in order to understand their relevance to the discipline of IR.

Unearthing heterosexist, homophobic structural undercurrents of global power discourses has been constantly evident in queer theorizing. This is achieved most often by challenging the tyranny of heteronormativity. As a concept, “heteronormativity denotes the normative power of heterosexuality in both society and politics” (Carver and Chambers, 2007, p.428). This concept is used as a tool to understand how actors in IR such as states have institutionalized heterosexuality as a normative practice. Thus, the concept of heteronormativity can be applied to studies on war, nationhood, nationalism, militarism, and militarization where queer theorists can present counter hegemonic arguments to negate the inherent heterosexual underpinnings and subtexts of such studies. For instance, queer theorists have paid attention to global political discourses where the “nation is ... [seen as] heteronormative and that the queer is inherently an outlaw to the nation-state” (Puar, 2013, p.336). On the other hand, this is closely related with the recent theorizing on masculinity in IR, where for instance scholars have viewed war as a paradigmatic hetero-masculine enterprise (Enloe 2014; McLeod 2012; De Mel 2007; Carver 2014; Hemmings 2012). In addition, heteronormativity is also considered in studies of International Political Economy and Globalization. There have been critiques of neo-liberalism for the way in which it “capitalize[s] on and extend[s] marketization of identities to make ‘gayness’ a commodity” (Hemmings 2012, p. 127). In this light, Binnie (2004, p.1-2) also argues that globalization matters to students of sexuality because 1) sexual politics are at the centre of internationalism; 2) globalization itself is produced through sexuality. This discussion of heteronormativity and masculinity in the political and economic spheres leads the paper to consider how queer theorizing has become useful in examining the concepts of performativity and intersectional identities in relation to IR.

The notion of performativity has been used by queer theorists to deconstruct concepts in IR. I intend to explain this using the concept of the state. From a realist point of view, it becomes possible to understand the ontology of a state because one assumes it pre-exists within a host of inherent characteristics such as aggression, rationale, or self-preservation. However, a queer theorist can give a completely different worldview to the sovereign nation-state. If one looks at the subject of state with a queer understanding, it can be argued that “sovereign nation-states are not pre-given subjects but subjects in process...[which] are the ontological effects of practices ... [being] performatively enacted” (Weber, 1998, p.78). This idea not only disrupts the theoretical claims of disciplinary IR, but it also provides valid critical space to look at the existing world order from a different vantage point that would have otherwise been ignored. For instance, the way in which countries form nationalist and hegemonic identities can be understood and challenged using such ontological critiques. In addition to states, these critiques can be extended to other entities in order to understand the ways in which they performatively enact norms and ideologies they subscribe to. Thus one can consider how international organizations such as the United Nations Security Council, intergovernmental military alliances such as the NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization), state military groups, or the groups that have been labelled by state actors as “terrorist groups” subscribe to a set of norms and ideologies that are performatively enacted and propagated. Furthermore, the idea of performativity is closely linked with issues of identity and subjectivity.

In terms of understanding queer-themed work on identities and subjectivities, it is useful to explore how scholars have theorized the notion of intersecting identities. Apart from the activism addressing LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) rights for immigrants and/or queers of colour, there is a whole body of literature dedicated to showcasing the historical underpinnings of intersectional identities (sexual, gender, racial, ethnic, class, etc.). These works have close links with studies on migration, citizenship, bio-politics, ethnicity, etc. (Smith and Jaffer, 2012). For instance, postcolonial queer theorists have discussed the “Western life of the heterosexual/homosexual divide [...] and the use of this divide as a violent regulatory mechanism with respect to migration” (see Hemmings, 2012, p.122). Considering the way in which different schools of thought (such as queer theory and postcolonialism) integrate to disrupt normative thinking, it can be argued that IR has interdisciplinary characteristics that blur the boundaries set by disciplinary IR, which Weber terms Global Queer Studies. On the other hand, the notion of intersectionality has been further expanded to bring forth critical concepts such as “homonationalism,” developed by Jasbir Puar (2007), which “refers to deployments of gay rights for racist and Islamophobic ends” (Zanghellini, 2012, p.357). Butler (2010) also invokes the same idea when she explains that sexual politics are used against Islam to reaffirm US sovereignty and violence within contexts where the so-called “war on terror” took place. These insights provided through queering global politics can be therefore used to disrupt normative thought among students as well as scholars in IR, thereby inviting critical inquiry into the discipline.


Bridging the “queer gap”

Considering the detriment of using heterosexuality to discredit homosexuality, it can be similarly argued that using the paradigm of disciplinary IR (combined with dominant institutional practices) to discredit and/or overlook queer theory in IR is detrimental. This section therefore not only intends to discuss the costs of leaving the “queer gap” intact, but it will also urge scholars to avoid subscribing to hegemonic disciplinary and institutional practices. The inability to bridge the queer gap does, on the one hand, prevent IR from embracing its interdisciplinary and/or multidisciplinary potentials. This would lead to the insulation of IR scholars (Carver, 2014, p.123; Buzan and Little 2001, p.19), limiting their capacity to engage with issues holistically. On the other hand, I suggest that scholars who are at the centre of disciplinary IR should not authoritatively question whether queer theory may/may not have something valid to offer to the discipline of IR. Instead, they should consider the reverse, where they need to question what they are losing by parasitically surviving on disciplinary and institutional practices. This parasitic nature is not due to limitations of queer theory but is a result of the demands of the higher education system where publishing, obtaining grants, and an ever-increasing teaching workload take precedence over dedication to transformative scholarship. To reconcile these two, it is necessary within the Humanities and Social Sciences to understand the knowledge that alternative theories such as queer theory can offer and to insist on the overlaps between queer and decolonial approaches. Second, broader conversations and interventions are needed to understand the structural issues that hinder recruiting students and lecturers (particularly those who face structural disadvantages due to class, gender, ethnic, race, and sexual identities) for gender and sexuality courses, publishing, grants processes, etc. Instead, parasitically clinging to the disciplinary core of IR, questioning the validity of queer theory to IR and such contentions are only likely to provide half-solutions to issues IR attempts to deal with, thereby paradoxically leading the “disciplinary failure on the discipline’s own terms” (Weber, 2015, p. 31). Furthermore, by pre-empting critical inquiry into disciplinary norms, hegemonic disciplinary practices will continue to suppress “disciplinary innovations” (Butler, 2009, p.774). These reflections of detrimental effects will hence keep the discipline at stake. As such, institutions as well scholars of IR may need to perhaps pay attention to the invisibility of queer theory in curriculums, and academic discourses. With the growing body of feminist and queer literature, one can clearly see the significance of gender and sexuality not only in IR topics such as security, war, or political economy, but also in the key actors/subjects in IR such as states, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, international organisations, and importantly the people. Yet even the universities that teach queer theory do it at surface level within broader IR theory courses, with lecturers who are specialized in general IR theory. This does not mean that queer theory may transform the discipline and make a significant change to the disciplinary core of IR. Instead, what I suggest is that, considering the valid and legitimate contributions it can make to the discipline, queer IR theorists should not feel bound by the stabilized disciplinary and institutional boundaries (of knowledge-production) when making contributions that are politically significant, including broadening the horizons of research exchange and dissemination by bridging the gap between academia and the general public. What I emphasize is that, considering its transformative capacity, even the limited production of knowledge through queer understandings hence should not be confined to the safety of an ivory tower. In order to address that, the essay recommends creating awareness by organizing teach-outs, disseminating work beyond the classroom through trainings, opting for open-access publication, and alternative publication spaces going beyond the neoliberal modes of publication. In particular, these interventions should incorporate multilingual spaces and resource persons from all backgrounds in terms of sexuality, gender, ethnicity, race, ability, disability, class, etc. For example, in Sri Lanka, such programmes and publications need to cater to Tamil, Sinhalese, and English languages with translations, interpretations in sign languages, and resource persons from all language and ethnic backgrounds. The need for queering the practical social context while addressing the socio-economic-cultural-political-legal restrictions behind the gap suggests the need for encouraging interdisciplinary and/or transdisciplinary research studies throughout the South Asian region without limiting it to Western queer scholarships. In this regard, the task ahead is to explore ways to express without using jargons, buzz words, and importantly to make the academic debates in queer theory more intelligible, relatable, and less elitist for which it has often come under critique.



The notion that queer theory cannot be made visible in IR is used to the detriment of the discipline itself. The issue here can be explained using an analogy. In academia, certain academics get troubled when they are not addressed by their professorial titles. This is an existential issue where their entire existence hinges on a title. Similarly, it can be argued that the discipline of IR is suffering from an existential issue where scholars’ existence is based on normative disciplinary and institutional practices that constantly search for legitimacy and validation. Queer theory, which is aptly referred to as the “bastard child of gay and lesbian studies and postmodern literary theory” (See Binnie, 2004, p.41), may not fit into or assimilate with such normative practices. Although gaining visibility for queer theory in IR seems like a distant dream, what this paper attempted to achieve is to understand why it cannot be on par with mainstream IR despite its critical relevance; and then invite the students and scholars to be aware of what they are losing by blindly subscribing to hegemonic disciplinary and institutional practices. However, whether or not the invisibility of queer theory in IR will define its own visibility one day remains a question which may perhaps need another kind of inquiry.


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