Elise Rainer (Ph.D. International Studies 2016) is Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington and Associate Professor of International Relations at American Public University, after having worked over a decade in foreign affairs. She is a former diplomat with the U.S. State Department, U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and USAID. Rainer is the co-founder and principal of Aurora Global Advisor, consulting and advising foreign policy leaders on human rights and justice global programs.
Along with her recent book on LGBTI* rights in foreign policy, Rainer has published numerous foreign policy related articles in a range of outlets including, Foreign Policy, Democracy and Security and Diplomacy & Statecraft, and NPR’s Academic Minute.
We asked her to share the inspiration behind her first book, “From Pariah to Priority: How LGBTI Rights Became a Pillar of American and Swedish Foreign Policy,” which was published by Suny Press in November 2021. The book is a unique diplomatic, insider perspective to explain the unexpected incorporation of LGBTI rights into American and Swedish foreign policies.
JSIS: You recently completed your first book. Tell us what inspired you to write on this topic.
Elise Rainer: I was inspired to write on this topic from my work in the U.S. Department of State. In 2011, I worked under U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she announced that LGBTI rights would become the primary human rights issue with the U.S. relationship with Uganda and other countries that had the death penalty and severely oppressed their LGBTI citizens. This was in stark contrast to her predecessors, where U.S. foreign policy leaders historically were silent on LGBTI human rights abuses.
Starting in the McCarthy era, the U.S. Department of State formerly fired anyone even perceived as homosexual in what was known as the “Lavender Scare.” LGBTI diplomats could not serve openly until the 1990s, and discrimination persists. Making LGBTI rights a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, was an unexpected change from this very same institution. When I came to the University of Washington Jackson school of International Studies for my Ph.D. studies, I was able to take a step back and analyze how this change in U.S. foreign policy occurred. I wanted to understand better how advocacy efforts impacted the U.S. Department of State to reform its agenda, as well as how human rights concepts evolve in international affairs.
JSIS: How did you select Sweden to be the other case study on LGBTI rights in foreign policy?
E.R.: Sweden was the first country in the world to include LGBTI rights considerations formally in its development and foreign policy. This precedent changed human rights norms in international affairs: Other countries began replicating Sweden’s work and programs in supporting LGBTI global civil society. I am married to a Swede and am raising two Swedish American children. I follow Swedish politics and foreign policy closely. The book is an in-depth analysis about the evolution of LGBTI rights becoming institutionalized into Swedish foreign policy as well as advocacy efforts that led to that development in Sweden and the European region. Some distinct differences emerge regarding the relationship of civil society and government institutions in this comparative analysis.
JSIS: What more do you think needs to be done for LGBTI rights in foreign policy?
E.R.: In 2022, about 70 countries still legislate laws criminalizing LGBTI identities; about nine countries implement the death penalty. In many places, such as Chechnya or Pakistan, authorities themselves take part in committing atrocities against LGBTI individuals and groups. There is an enormous need to prioritize this issue more in foreign affairs. More funding is needed to support fledgling global civil society groups, organizations that sometimes function, i.e., paying their rent, conducting advocacy trainings, etc. only through support of foreign funding. These local led efforts need to be much more supported by foreign policy leaders to make sustainable reforms.
JSIS: You currently teach students at the university level about LGBTI rights and foreign policy. Why do you think it is important for the next generation of foreign policymakers to take your class?
E.R.: I incorporate my research into my classes: Human Rights Diplomacy; LGBTI Rights in International Affairs; Democracy, Human Rights and Security, and a new class I created this year, Gender Diplomacy and Human Rights. It is vital for students to understand the current human rights situation around the world; the prevalence of gender-based violence and oppression of women and LGBTI people often shocks Seattle-based students. I also impress upon my students the importance of responsibility. As U.S. taxpayers they have a stake in the game for U.S. foreign policy priorities and funding. We discuss advocacy efforts, diplomatic work, and the global human rights movement in my classes.
JSIS: What are the common misconceptions students – or government or human rights practitioners – have when it comes to LGBTI rights as foreign policy?
E.R.: This is an important question. I find a common misconception about how the federal government functions is that people often think of ‘the government’ as a black box, run by about four or five people at the top surrounding the president. In fact, our government is one of the largest bureaucracies in the world, with multiple agencies and offices focused on various aspects of human rights issues. For example, anti-child labor in the Department of Labor, anti-human trafficking in the Department of State, or indigenous rights in USAID. Through the Global Equality Fund, the U.S. State Department is the largest funder for global LGBTI civil society, a fact that often surprises advocates to discover. The U.S. has an expansive and diverse government. Officials meet with local and international civil society groups and can influence policy from within government from their positions of power.
Governments are sometimes the biggest human rights abusers. At the same time, without government commitments to an issue, human rights issues such as combating gender-based violence and, political freedoms, upholding human rights will not be sustained. Rather than marching on the street, or conducting advocacy efforts from the outside, it’s important for people to learn how to work with receptive officers and agencies from within the government.
JSIS: What was the most impactful educational experience you had at the UW?
E.R.: This book is a culmination of many years of research that started at the Jackson school of International Studies during my Ph.D. program. I am grateful for the support my Chair, Sabine Lang, and committee members Christine Ingebritsen and Daniel Chirot.
*phrasing/descriptions in this article are pulled from the source documentation and may vary.