Asking the difficult questions is an important step in supporting LGBT staff abroad

23 May 2017
Pete Mercer

Pete Mercer

Group Manager, Member Programmes

​As part of a series of blogs about staffing and TNE, Pete Mercer from Stonewall discusses the implications of delivering overseas provision for universities in how they support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) staff.

It should perhaps go without saying that there are equality and diversity considerations across all protected characteristics when institutions forge international partnerships and send staff and students abroad.

For LGBT staff and students in particular, however, the stakes are often very high:

  • Legally, more than a third of countries still criminalise homosexuality, 11 of which with capital punishment (13 if you include ISIS held territory).
  • Laws and treatment overseas concerning gender identity are complex. Although many countries do not legislate on gender identity, some countries prohibit individuals 'posing' as the opposite gender or accessing the facilities assigned to their affirmed gender, while others criminalise trans people under laws against same-sex conduct.
  • The dissonance between the law and lived experience in many countries complicates the global picture further.
  • The absence of legal protection in many more states results in untethered and widespread discrimination against LGBT people across the globe.
  • Developments in Chechnya, for example, demonstrate just how quickly LGBT rights landscapes can deteriorate.

According to research conducted by HEGlobal UK HE TNE grew by 13.4% between 2012–13 and 2014–15. Looking forward, four in five universities at the time of research intended to expand their TNE provision over the next 3 years.

In terms of international mobility, universities are sending more staff and students overseas than ever before – a proportion of which will inevitably be LGB or T. And as the UK retains a high position (second only to the US) in world university rankings, the international student market continues to be a strategic priority for most institutions when maintaining or expanding their provision.

With the rapid rate of internationalisation across the sector, there are some pressing questions to be considered:

  • What are the associated risks and opportunities for diversity and inclusion when international partnerships are established? And at what point should they be assessed?
  • As civic institutions, what conversations need to take place at senior tiers to consider how the values of the institution extend through or are reflected in these partnerships?
  • How do institutions meet their equality duties and ensure the safety and wellbeing of any staff and students travelling overseas for work or study?
  • How do institutions best ensure the wellbeing of LGBT staff and students arriving to the UK and what is the institution's role in preparing them for challenges they may face when return home?
  • To what extent might institutions market themselves as LGBT inclusive learning environments in order to attract prospective students?
  • To what extent could or should institutions be advocating for or otherwise supporting LGBT communities overseas and further LGBT equality world-wide?

It can be difficult to know where to start with these questions, but even asking them is a huge advance in offering supportive practice for staff overseas. Various organisations can help with these conversations; for example, Stonewall's Global Diversity Champions programme is one way that institutions can access a framework designed specifically for them. Stonewall designed the programme to help guide universities through some of the key considerations of transnational education for staff and students. Stonewall also provides detailed country briefings, in-depth reports giving up-to-date information on the LGBT legal and cultural situation in hotspot countries.  We have a network of more than 100 global organisations – across a range of sectors – providing great opportunities to share ideas and collaborate on new initiatives, via bi-monthly webinars and events.

Stonewall believes that everyone should be free to be themselves and be accepted without exception – regardless of where they are in the world. The founding principles of our international work require that we place those affected by human rights concerns at the heart of our work. To that effect, we support LGBT networks and groups in over 90 countries to realise the change that they would like to see, on their own terms. Universities can also play a critical role in inspiring and facilitating some of the change we want to see by contributing to a rich international movement for LGBT rights.

To find out more about Stonewall's international work or the Global Diversity Champions programme for universities more specifically, contact Pete directly via or on Twitter @mercerPete

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