Spotlight – Dr. Ryan Thoreson from Human Rights Watch

“Navigating Professional Spaces: Dr. Ryan Thoreson Provides Experience-Based Tips and Tricks for Creating a Queer-Friendly Environment in the Workplace”

Ryan Thoreson is the Robert M. Cover-Allard K. Lowenstein Fellow in International Human Rights at Yale Law School. He is also a researcher with Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Rights Program in New York City.

For our first ever spotlight, we sat down with Dr. Ryan Thoreson from Human Rights Watch (HRW) to talk about, among other things, navigating the world of human rights as a queer anthropologist. Our conversation centered around Dr. Thoreson’s experiences being out professionally as a practicing anthropologist at HRW. Upon reflecting on the experiences that led him to his position today, Dr. Thoreson also provided advice to students and professionals who are navigating similar circumstances. We present this information in several themes: How “out” to be when navigating professional spaces, advice to students and academics, advice to non-academics, and tips for engaging the LGBTQ+ community.

How “out” to be when navigating professional spaces.

Dr. Thoreson described how an important first step in navigating professional spaces as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is assessing how rewarding the environment is going to be. He described his colleagues at the HRW as more than understanding and accepting, but we all know that not all work environments are LGBTQ+ friendly and that not all colleagues will be allies. A way to assess this environment is by evaluating corporate policy through the human resources department. How does your company handle parental leave or transitioning at work? How do they define discriminatory practices and how do they respond to them? While some of these situations can be mediated with a simple visit to Human Resources (HR), others can be an uphill battle. It is important to recognize which is which.

Whether you find your professional space to be welcoming or not, Dr. Thoreson also stated the importance of finding professional working groups both in your field or adjacent fields. These groups can foster solidarity with peers and serve as platforms from which to change corporate policy.

Next, Dr. Thoreson described gauging how your unique perspective can contribute to your anthropological training, research, and/or work. Dr. Thoreson found that his interest in theories on sexuality and gender from his beginnings in anthropology fed well into his research interests, and as he pulled from his own personal experience, being a queer anthropologist became a part of his developing professional identity. His identity was relevant to put on his resume because it meshed will with his own research. How relevant is your identity to your own research and can being out professionally strengthen your work?

Advice to students and academics.

While Dr. Thoreson has incorporated his queer identity into his professional identity, he emphasized that working on deeply personal issues may not be sustainable if you do not love your work. However, LGBTQ+ individuals are in the unique position to enrich their research with their own personal experiences and reflections. If you are interested in incorporating gender and sexuality into your work,

Dr. Thoreson recommends to not shy away or be afraid of broadening your horizons with the inclusion of these interests.

We also talked about how in today’s current sociopolitical climate, it is easy to become defensive and singularly focused in anything that we say or do. Dr. Thoreson stated that by making bridges and connections between your research interests, gender and sexuality can more easily become components of research that enrich your work overall. Students and academics should also further look to make connections and engage with LGBTQ+ communities and allies in your department and in larger structures within the university. Not only does this set the foundation for future collaboration, but can help us, as queer anthropologists, to help legitimize queer scholarship both within our own research and that of others.

Advice to non-academics.

Dr. Thoreson also provided advice to non-academics and those students who are interested in pursuing careers outside of the academy. Most importantly, find your allies. Think carefully about what sorts of allies you want in your life and think broadly as to the sorts of positions that they might occupy both in the workplace and in your personal life, if necessary. Through our allies, you may be able to forge strong connections that help create positive workplace experiences and promote your well-being. He suggested that a good rule of thumb is to always be as generous with your allies as you’d like them to be with you. Recalling upon his past experiences, Dr. Thoreson suggested that we mobilize our allies to encourage positive change in the workplace through interrogating HR policies, institutional policies, and being vocal about issues pertaining to discrimination based on, for example, sexual orientation and gender diversity.

Tips for engaging the Queer community.

When asked about how to engage the queer community through our research and/or professional employment, Dr. Thoreson recommended that we continue to produce content. Get that information out to those who need it most, to those who view that information as a source of empowerment and those who look to that same information to make sense of themselves and their surroundings. This means finding existing social media platforms that are producing content and forging relationships with the people running those platforms. Doing so will help us make our voices heard. Specifically, it will help to promote queer scholarship, to build and sustain new platforms for communication, and provide a precedence for the formation of ad hoc committees, such as the one that prompted the creation of this blog.

Authors: Caroline Znachko (cznachko@vols.utk.edu) and Derek Boyd (dboyd15@vols.utk.edu).

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