2023 goals


In January 2018, I started noting down some goals I had for the year ahead, both professional and personal. My last post in this category was January 2020, and we all know how well the intervening years went in terms of long-term planning. Ooft. You can read the 2020, 2019, and 2018 editions.

So with the blog seemingly back, why not revive this fools errand of prognosticating about what the year ahead will have in store!

Clear my 3 oldest research projects

These all stem from my postdoc in Saskatchewan from 2011-2014. I got one off the books this year, and have 3 others I’d like to try and wrap up. All the data are there, it’s just a case of slotting them in to my precious research time.

Keep track of time

In my last few years at RSPB (2014-2017), I had a fairly good system for tracking my (approximate) time on projects, which was needed for some grant funding we had. It also served as a useful barometer to see how much time I spent on admin, in the field, or managing my team. I want to have a better handle on how I use my work time in 2023.

Spend some time thinking

I have a couple of projects that need some proper deep thinking time. It’s rare these days that I get more than an hour (two at the most) of time for a task, so I’m hoping some time working from home, in residency at St Nicholas’ in Leicester, or during quiet spells in the field will be useful.

Decide whether two Big Projects are worth it

There are a couple of larger project ideas bouncing around my head (and the heads of a few close confidantes), but they’d require a major amount of work and reprioritisation of time so I want to decide if one or both (or neither!) is actually on the cards fairly soon in to the year.

Increase queerness

This isn’t just a professional blog, after all! Over the pandemic I became more comfortable in my queerness and started to move towards the me I wanted. More on this in 2023 for sure.

Find 7 new dinners

In 2020, we did a major overhaul of our dinner meal options, and the result was a nice selection of new and different things. Time to add some more spice to the mix, so suggestions for quick (<40 mins), cheap, common-ingredient dinners that aren’t “meat, potatoes, and veg” gratefully received in the comments!

Here’s to a happy, successful, and prosperous 2023!

2022 by the numbers


You can find previous “By The Numbers” posts here: 2020, 2019201820172016201520142013. I didn’t do one in 2021.


Years I’ve been in this job as the curator in charge of birds at the Natural History Museum. It’s going well! Though to be honest, I still feel like the “new kid” sometimes.


Papers published this year. Not a huge output compared to previous years, and certainly a lot of what some might call “smaller” papers or collaborative work where I wasn’t the lead. Given my role isn’t research-focused, though, I’ll take it. Albatross, diving petrels, gulls, penguins, COVID PPE, shearwaters (of course), and curlews! And a paper I’m really proud of pushing back against the idea that plastic pollution is a “distraction”, and a brilliant review on seabirds transporting all sorts of things from the sea back to land.


Trips back to Australia! It was lovely to get back to see the lovely shearwaters on Lord Howe, and to spend time with amazing friends and colleagues on Lord Howe, and in Sydney, Hobart, and Albury.


Years between my time spent in Labrador. I grew up there, but moved south in 1992. In 2022 I returned and made my first visit to Nunatsiavut where we’re doing some really exciting work on plastics in country foods (which I assure you are all delicious!).


Tattoos! I’ve wanted one for ages, and a couple of years ago a good friend designed a Joy Division-esque topo map of Qisxa/Kiska, the island where I did my PhD. It sits very nicely on my right forearm. Plans for a second are under development!

Too little

Time off this year. I struggled to use my 27 days of annual leave, and accrued an obscene amount of TOIL this year. I’m generally rubbish at taking time off and that’s going to change in 2023.


The number of days The Lab and Field has been in dormancy. Brought out by being locked out of twitter, and with an increasingly awful environment there, I remembered that I had a blog! And could post things! That people could read! And I could block TERFs with literally no consequences! How novel! It feels like 2012 all over again. Still unsure how I’ll operate in 2023.

If you’re the goal-setting type, tune in tomorrow for what I hope 2023 will have in store.

Thanks for reading, friends. It’s kind of nice to be back.

Reflections on a decade of twittering

In January 2013, I was a postdoc, about 18 months through what would be a 36-month position with Environment (and Climate Change) Canada in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was the heady days of Stephen Harper’s premiership in Canada, noteworthy for his right-wing anti-evidence, death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to public services, and the muzzling of government scientists (where to speak, sometimes even at a conference, was highly regulated from high up the civil service). The blogosphere was taking off in new and exciting ways, and being the only person in my lab group, I found it a bit isolating. I’d had a personal twitter account since 2009, so thought to make a professional one that was, at first, pseudonymous because I could then be a bit outspoken about federal science policy. And so my twitter handle, and this blog, “The Lab and Field” was born.

Back then, there was 140 characters, including links, usernames, and images. We had to manually shorten links with bit.ly, and you would retweet by copying/pasting and prefacing the tweet with “RT @username:”, with suitable abbreviations added to conform to the now shorter text length. Hearts were stars. There was no green circle, and few corporate entities were present. Heady days indeed.

We lobbied for the Experimental Lakes Area, the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Lab, adequate funding to NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR, and bemoaned the job market, much of which I also documented here (just browse the archive, which now stretches back a decade!). During my masters, I was rather active on the PhD Comics forum (or phorum), a bulletin board-style community that I don’t think even exists now. A number of us made the shift to twitter at about the same time, and so some of the reverence and general ECR complaining (rightly so!) came with.

It was where I first really encountered other LGBTQ+ folks in STEM, and in ornithology(!), which also built the foundation for what would become LGBTQ+ STEM and the STEMinar. That was truly life-changing and wouldn’t have happened without twitter. It fostered collaborations, brought partners together for funding proposals, and resulted in at least one paper.

For me, I’d say my general enjoyment of twitter peaked in about 2018 or so. That’s not to say it was all good all the time, but that since then, it’s been in slow decline and I’d been disengaging more and more (even before I was locked out). The rise of TERFs and literal nazis, and the increasingly awful UK political discourse that dominated my timeline in the last few years, along with some increasingly tone-deaf posts from folks I respected were signalling the end, in hindsight.

I remember a conversation in about 2017 or 2018 with a PhD student friend of mine about twitter, and how disillusioned they were becoming with it, and worrying about unfollowing or blocking someone they found annoying but who had a Big Following in Science Twitter™. My advice was to curate a feed for themselves, and it’s probably the best advice even today. Mute, block, and unfollow to your heart’s delight. A general (and over-generalizing) observation was that anyone with more than about 15k followers was better muted than followed.

But like all text-based methods of communication (or indeed ANY method of communication), it’s imperfect and when things got heated, it’s easy to misinterpret intent or motive (or just assume for that matter). That ruined some relationships with folks that I respected and supported for years. I was certainly blocked and muted by more than a few folks, and it stings the first few times, especially when it seemingly comes out of the blue.

If we’ve followed each other, then I’m still about online (mastodon.social/@TheLabAndField) and easily google-able if you don’t want another social media platform.

Lament for the decline and likely demise of twitter. It was a force for good, but also for not-good. It changed the way we communicate, as people and as scientists. It brought us together, but increasingly drove us apart.

This will auto-post to twitter, so if you came from there, a reminder that I’m locked out and unlikely to return so won’t see any comments unless I go looking for them intentionally (which I do not intend to do).

Farewell Twitter

Alas, the ongoing crumbling of Twitter means I’ve been locked out because of a glitch in their two-factor authentication. After a decade, nearly 16k followers, and 130k tweets, I’ve got mixed feelings. Hence a rare revival of the blog.

On the one hand, Müsk is trash, and I’d been slowly disengaging from the site since early 2022. But I also wish I could have said farewell on my own terms. There’s a slim chance this post will auto-post to twitter, so perhaps this is it?

Folks, it’s been a blast.

Twitter brought me so much joy, so many friends (so many!), professional collaborations, and wonderful personal connections that will remain forever in my heart.

It made LGBTQ+ STEM into what it is today and brought together a queer science, tech, engineering & maths community. It filled my heart with joy.

Its demise has been sorry to see. Like an old friend who goes off the rails a little too often and with increasing frequency.

While I contemplate the future of things, you can find me over on mastodon.social/@TheLabAndField. And who knows, maybe the L&F blog will see a rejuvenation.

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and the warmest of wishes for a better 2023.


PS: it goes without saying that as I’m locked out, I won’t see any messages, DMs, or anything really. I’m easily found if you need to find me. x

2020 by the numbers


Read previous years’ By the Numbers: 2019, 201820172016201520142013

Top posts by views

Amusing bird names explained: Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler (2016)
Personal academic websites for faculty & grad students: the why, what, and how (2013)
Free project ideas in ecology & conservation (2020)
What’s in an affiliation? (2016)
Overseas field courses and equity, diversity & inclusion (2020)
How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark (2013)
The advantages of Google Scholar for early-career academics (2013)
Some thoughts on The University (2020)
On finding an error in my own published paper (2016)
Listing grants on one’s CV (2017)

I’m consistently surprised that 2013 opinions on how to build a website has been in the top 10 nearly (if not every) year.



The number of visitors. About the same as last year. I know that L&F has never been driven by traffic, but it feels increasingly like shouting into the void.



The number of countries those visitors came from (or at least their IP addresses mapped to). Shout out to the one person who visited from Togo, Mozambique, Guernsey, Turks & Caicos Islands, Barbados, Macau SAR China, Antigua & Barbuda, Cayman Islands, Solomon Islands, Maldives, Seychelles, Liechtenstein, Nicaragua, Bahamas, Gambia, Isle of Man, Liberia, St. Martin, Cameroon, Swaziland, Brunei, Bolivia, Rwanda, Jersey, Monaco, Kyrgyzstan, Eritrea, and St. Lucia!



The number of field trips this year. Thank you, pandemic.



Papers coauthored this year. Most not as a result of my massive efforts but the perseverance of others. With the pandemic and museum shutdown, I think I did about 1 day of research between April and October. I definitely dropped the ball on a few as well.



The number of kms I ran this year. Given that I only started running a year ago, and had a major break in the summer, I’m pretty pleased. Highlights were a 4:47/km pace in April, and a half-marathon in November.



The number of emails sent this year. Not counting Teams, Slack, WhatsApp, Signal, Messenger, Instagram DM, Twitter messages, and letters.



The number of people who found L&F by searching “what came first booby the bird or breasts”



Mental breakdowns this year. End of July. It was not fun. I’m on the way back up, though.


and lastly,


The number of years L&F has been around. From the heady days of 2013 science blogging to the metaphorical desert in which we now find things. There’s less of an appetite for longer science blogging by random people, and L&F has really shifted from a blog about science to a blog about HOW science happens, which is even more niche. Not that it’s all about the clicks, but with so little engagement it’s hard to see the relevance anymore. The Lab and Field will stay up, but don’t expect any more posts, or at least not with any regularity. Subscribe to the RSS feed (if that’s even still a thing), or get updates by email if you’re super keen. Thanks for joining me on the rollercoaster of the last 8 years.


Science, people, and surviving in the time of a global pandemic

Well, it’s certainly been a year. Looking back at the last 12 months, it seems unfathomable that anything close to normality could persist, and yet despite lockdowns, a global pandemic, massive curtailing of international travel, and a massive shift in how we work, we try to carry on. Which may not have been the best solution, to be honest. It’s a bit of square peg/round hole. And that is likely to be the source of many of the challenges.

In the early days of lockdown in the UK in March, the message was “be patient, be kind”. But as the months went on, the restless wheels of capitalism started straining and the messaging quickly returned to “Business as Usual”. Even through the summer, there was an expectation from some quarters of pre-pandemic levels of engagement and not a lot of flexibility. Rather than pressing pause on things to let folks get to grips with the global paradigm shift (in the true Kuhnian sense) of how we work as scientists, the emphasis became “get back to normal” when everything about it was far from normal.

For me, had three primary effects. First, I had a mental breakdown in July. Like, properly. Thankfully I have a supportive husband who recognized the signs, and a responsive GP who was able to start me on a treatment regimen. I’ve also benefited from cognitive behavioural therapy. Five months in, and though I wouldn’t say “I’m better”, I certainly feel a bit more resilient. I recently asked on twitter (https://twitter.com/TheLabAndField/status/1333142805640859648)  when the last time was when folks felt “well”, and more than 7/10 responded that it had been sometime before 2020 (with ¼ before 2015). We often talk about cumulative pressures on ecosystems and how one additional threat (be it climate change, an invasive species, or pollution for example) can push species over the edge. Many of us know how they feel, and the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how precariously some of us were hanging on.

Add on top of this the summer where “Black Lives Matter” gained more prominence (rightly so), and a year where transphobia reared its ugly head with abandon in the UK (and organizations’ responses to these), and it’s been a particularly tough time for many. We’re all very tired.

Second, science took a MAJOR hiatus. Between May and September, I think I managed about 1 or 2 days of research, which was dedicated to supporting students or collaborators. I’ve had a manuscript come back in January 2020 with “major revisions” that I haven’t even found time to dig into. And that should be OK. But what I think will be particularly challenging is how this year will be evaluated (which is a broader problem in science). Thanks to a network of collaborators and students, and a large backlog of work that happened in December 2019, I’ll probably come out of the year in not too bad a shape in terms of publications. But I’m very lucky. What about the early career postdoc, or the PhD student, or the researcher with caring responsibilities? Just like our desire to “be patient, be kind” fizzled out over the summer, the legacy of remembering that anyone for whom 2020 (and likely 2021) will be used to evaluate for a job, a scholarship, a grant, or a promotion will, I fear, be a fading memory, especially by those who were able to buffer the year more than others.

Which brings me to the third point: compassion for people should be (but isn’t always) paramount. I’ve always sad that good science happens because of good people, but lately I’ve found that it (and many other thing) happens in spite of those for whom compassion and understanding is not in the fore of their mind. Increasingly, process and finance dominate. As an example, I was discussing with a colleague about a potential future event which involved groups of people indoors, which they were adamant happen “before the end of the fiscal year” in March. I was utterly flabbergasted, but equally not surprised in the least. In a year when so many of us have felt so besieged, so beaten down, so mentally drained, and unable to embrace, compassion and inclusion should be driving our conversations. I’ve tried my best to filter out and counter some of these pressures for the folks I work with, and I know my manager has done the same. But this isn’t universal, or I hazard to guess even all that common. And the pandemic of 2020 has pulled back the curtain on the utter absurdity of these artificial constraints, but not for all (and most importantly, seemingly not for those in power).

Overall, 2020 has revealed just how unprepared we were for any disruption to our status quo, as individuals and organizations. What we need isn’t more wellbeing seminars or working groups, but to catch up with the paradigm shift and the new state in which we all find ourselves. One where people come first, processes are in place to serve us (not the other way around), and where we can hopefully thrive again in our infinite wonder.

Queer in STEM ask me anything – another LGBTQ&A



About 2 years ago, I opened up my inbox for you to ask quite literally anything about being LGBTQ+ in science. Since then, some things have changed in the world, and I’ve had a chance to engage with lots of new folks around equity, diversity, inclusion & access both in science, in the museum, and more broadly.

Pride Month this past June was also exhausting, and I know from speaking with a few people that some of these issues were new to them. That’s fine – we make our own journeys when trying to make our fields, professions and workplaces better. And I know it can be intimidating if this is a new area for you, and you don’t want to “mess up” or get things mixed up.

So what better time than to open up the ol’ inbox again.

So if you’ve got a question about being LGBTQ+ (in STEM or more broadly), you can ask it anonymously using this Google form. I’ll leave it up for the next week, and then compile the answers.

Don’t be shy – I have, almost literally, been asked everything under the sun in the 15 years that I’ve been doing LGBTQ+ education & diversity training in some form. If you want, you can also read a bit about my own journey here.

And now, over to you.

Overseas field courses and equity, diversity & inclusion.


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For many fields in science, field work and field courses can be an important (some would argue necessary) component. Geology, geography, ecology, conservation, anthropology, archaeology, taxonomy, and more involve, to some extent, the study of parts of the natural world. And it’s an attraction to some part of the natural world, be it a species, a place, a feature, or an experience, that draws many of us into these fields. Speaking personally, you may be surprised to find that birds weren’t my first love, but rather coasts and islands. The birds just happened to be there.

Many universities’ taught programmes include field components, most of them local day trips, or occasionally an overnight. Some, though, include multi-day overseas field courses which are marketed as giving students a broader international perspective on <discipline name>. But they can be deeply problematic.

There are still about 70 countries where being gay, in particular, is illegal. Many of these inherited such laws from (British) colonial occupation, and there are varying degrees of enforcement (both for local residents and foreigners). But the fact remains that the law is still on the books. Holding field courses in such countries puts students and staff at risk unnecessarily.

I was interviewing for a faculty job at a UK university that will remain unnamed (at least for now) in 2016. During the campus interview panel, the expected teaching requirements were laid out, and it included a field course in Ghana, where being gay is illegal. This wasn’t mentioned in the advert. I knew right there that I wouldn’t take the job because it would mean I would either have to fight (again) with folks I didn’t know and therefore had an unknown chance of losing, or turn down the job if I was offered it. My heart sank. It was all I could think about for the rest of the interview and campus tour. I returned to my hotel by the train station at the end of the day and wept. That university has, for the last several years, changed their social media avatars each June to be wonderfully rainbowed. What a pile of meaningless corporate performative allyship.


This was part of a thread from Prof Christopher Jackson following his announcement that Imperial College London would no longer have a geology field course in Oman. If you want an example of the kind of feedback those fighting for equity, diversity, access, and inclusion in science face, scroll through the replies.

I have often been asked about such field courses, and what folks (from students to instructors to departments) can do to make them better, so rather than write everything out for the umpteenth time, I thought I would put them all in one place.

The first thing to know is that it’s not about being arrested for having sex. It can be anything that, in one’s own home country, would rarely be seen as “same-sex” anything. For example, a British tourist arrested in Dubai after touching another man’s hip as he moved through a bar in 2017. Or a British tourist arrested in Morocco after authorities searched his phone and found images used to prosecute him. Or where even waving a rainbow flag in Egypt resulted in Sarah Hegazi’s arrest, torture, exile, and eventual suicide.

It’s simply not safe for queer folks.

The first question you need to ask if your institution runs an overseas field course, is whether it’s in a place that’s safe for your queer students & staff. The Wikipedia page is very up to date, and the annual map from the ILGA is also a useful (and multilingual) resource. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.

But if that isn’t enough to convince you, let’s look from an institutional perspective. Field courses are run with varying degrees of oversight (and if we’re honest, many are pretty low on that oversight spectrum). Besides generic “consult travel advice from the Foreign Office” platitudes, does it say anything about the additional threat to queer students and staff? If you run a field course, ask yourself how you could get a student out in less than 24 hours. Do you know who to call? Who will pay for the flight? Who will meet them when they get home? What support they need? What support YOU need? What’s covered by your insurance? Universities are not known for being the most compassionate corporations organizations, so don’t assume you can pop it on your MasterCard and expect thousands of pounds to be reimbursed.

If you can’t answer these questions before you depart, Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.

A “solution” I’ve seen suggested is that folks just “tone it down” while away. To be clear, anyone suggesting that needs a swift thwack up the side of the head. To suggest queer folks return to the closet for the sake of a field course is harmful, insulting, and immediately suggests you don’t have the student’s (or staff’s) best interests in mind. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.

And lastly, just because you may not perceive a threat doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Will your trans students be arrested for using the bathroom that matches their gender? Will your gay students be taken aside because their binoculars have a rainbow pin? The number of cases of this, which is ENTIRELY AVOIDABLE is >1, which is more than should exist. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.

There are other justifications for moving field course locations, too. Their a financial burden (another barrier to under-represented groups in science). One UK university has a Masters course (£9000 tuition) that has an Antarctic field course (another £9000). That’s not equal opportunity. There’s the environmental/carbon cost of flying a pile of students & instructors around the world for marginal, if any, benefit. And at least in the UK, the colonial look of it all (let’s all go to <country> to study <megafauna> because it’s so wild!); getting a bunch of students to meaningfully engage with the colonial history of science in such a short time is difficult, if not impossible, and certainly not prioritized in the curricula of such courses.

And lest there be any doubt, many of the arguments above apply to universities’ overseas campuses, which is a whole other kettle of fish, and an argument for another day.


tl;dr – overseas field courses reward & amplify privilege, are unsafe for queer students & staff, and have marginal, if any, justification compared to field courses run closer to home. MOVE. YOUR. FIELD. COURSE. LOCATION.

What a long year the last month has been


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I know I’m not alone in feeling like there’s far too much wibbily-wobbly timey-wimey lately. We just passed 100 days of working from home because of Covid-19, the bubbling undercurrent of anti-Black racism and police brutality has (finally?) has broader recognition (though not without tragedy), and Pride Month has largely been replaced by Wrath Month (traditionally celebrated in July, but brought forward by unanimous consent after a Big Queer Meeting in which it was the first item on our agenda). For lots of folks, it’s like the hits just keep coming, as so wonderfully illustrated by this calendar my friend Izzy Jayasinghe put together for a talk:


And even since Izzy’s calendar, we’ve had the release of a report from the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity in STEM highlighting yet more disparity, and UKRI, the main research funding mechanism in the UK, releasing data on applicant diversity showing just how, well, awful it is.

Throw in some internal institutional battles and frustrations, profound disagreements with the UK government’s Covid-19 response, and our first heat-wave of the year, and it’s been tough. It seems like every week for the last 2 months I’ve felt utterly drained, and each week I seem to find more scope for further draining with even less respite. And no sign of respite in the immediate future (in the UK we still shouldn’t be travelling great distances for overnight stays, hotels etc are still closed, and work demands mean a week of leave isn’t really an option). Pride Month is also often quite tiring, as requests for guest blogs, seminars, and media ramp up in a way that suggests many of us don’t exist the other 11 months of the year.

As a friend and I discussed, it’s soul-level tired, to-the-core-of-my-being tired. All  I want to do is cocoon myself in a crofter’s hut in the Highlands for a week with good books, tea, and food and a couple of good friends that I haven’t seen in months. But that will have to wait.

I started to write this post early this morning, and promptly abandoned it until I read Ben Britton’s piece that touched on so many of the same thoughts and added some much needed fuel. In particular the utter frustration so many of us have when trying to address systemic inequities in science resonated quite deeply:

If you present at the hospital with a severed arm, your Doctor does not immediately start drafting legislation about the safe use of chainsaws, or even how best to trim a hedge. They fix you up, address your needs, and move on from there.


It’s an analogy I’ve used when talking about how we can address plastic pollution, another global systemic issue – it presenting at A&E with a bleeding head wound, one doesn’t start by thinking about how to clean up the floor.

And doing this – “causing trouble” as Ben puts it – is necessary. Progress will always be slower than we want, and I genuinely don’t know if “true” equity will exist in my career, or my lifetime (I suspect not seeing as we’ve made it this far and, well…). I’m a cis white man, and if *I* find it this exhausting, think about how my trans BIPOC friends & colleagues must be feeling (hint: it’s probably more tired, and for longer). But we keep pushing because it’s the one thing we must do.

That pushing, though, takes effort. You can’t expect Sisyphus to run a marathon between each ascent of the mountain up which he pushes his boulder. When research/academia already feels like a Sisyphean task, fighting to make it a more inclusive, equitable, diverse and accessible part of society can feel like running the marathon. And then another, and then another. This is where other folks can help.

I have a fraught relationship with the term “ally”, especially when self-applied. It’s a transitive state that’s defined by one’s actions, not one’s desire to be so labelled. Allegiances can change, diverge, or be revealed to be something else. Ben Britton (can you tell I’m a fan?) has adopted the term “co-conspirator” or “accomplice” because this means the person has some skin in the game (i.e., if you get cornered & need to fight out, they’re also there), and it’s rooted in action, the doing of things rather than just cheerleading from the sidelines that leads to so many empty statements (hello organizations with rainbow social media avatars in June), promises of further study and working groups and committees that will have no genuine power, influence, or resources to achieve anything.

We don’t need allies. We need accomplices.

In The Guardian this morning is coverage of a EU Fundamental Rights Agency report on LGBTQ+ experiences across Europe. It paints a pretty bleak picture. It contains many sobering statistics, but the one I find most straight folks find the most confronting is whether someone would avoid holding hands with a same-sex partner in public for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed. Looking at at my own demographic (gay/queer man in the UK) tends to bring this home. 37% say “always”.

And when we toss in those who answered “always” or “often”, it’s 70%.


Including me.

It’s not about abstractions, or fighting for the sake of fighting or equality “league tables”, or causing “trouble”, but real tangible impacts on people’s lives that many just can’t even fathom.

And that’s in science, in academia, in research, and in our broader society. It’s not easy, it’s bloody exhausting, but when it matters this much, we have no choice but to keep fighting. I often say that “science is people” – and people will always come before “science” in my books. That’s part of the unseen and/or unrecognized community mentorship and support that many marginalized groups do, and will continue to do.

I can’t say it’s been a “happy Pride Month” (not that last year’s was much better). But (he said, wanting to end on a marginally positive note), the fight goes on.

The gap in queer activism and the stories untold



It’s coming up to Pride Month in June, and this summer also marks 15 years of marriage equality in Canada, so I find myself in a particularly pensive and reflective mood. This is especially true with the lockdown in the UK at the moment which affords my brain ample time to run amok. This is also not much of a sciencey post.

Last weekend was the 30th International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), and in some reflections on Twitter, Shaun O’Boyle flagged this 45-minute documentary he co-produced on the 2 years since the equal marriage referendum in Ireland for Newstalk Radio (and it’s now been five years today, as it happens). In it, they interview folks that they spoke to during the campaign in 2015, and see how the experience had affected them. It’s brilliant and you should go listen to it.

And I found myself thinking about my experience in Canada. The situation was different; we had several years of provincial governments passing legislation until the 2004 Supreme Court Reference Re Same Sex Marriage (wiki page here) and then things slowly swept across the country, either through legislation or provincial court cases (marriage is a provincial rather than a federal matter). But in the intervening 15 years, there’s been, well, not a lot of public reflection like Shaun’s piece about Ireland. And what defined a cohort of queer activists (and queer bystanders), all those experiences and more than a decade of fighting, might be lost, like so much queer history in Canada. This feels particularly the case outside the big cities, and most acutely on the east coast.

But perhaps this isn’t all that surprising. Unlike the UK did in 2017, we didn’t mark 50 years of decriminalization in 2019. Talking with younger queer folks today, few know the landmark pieces of history: Vriend v Alberta (wiki), Egan v Canada (wiki), M v H (wiki) or Hall v Durham Catholic School Board (wiki). Now, I’m not trying to be the “old man yells at cloud” kind or be all “when I was your age…”, but these cases defined the national equal rights agenda for much of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. It’s what I read about in the newspaper every morning at breakfast (because I was a nerd, even from a young age). It’s what was on the 10:00 news on CBC. 

And then equal marriage in Ontario in 2003, and nationally two years later. I still remember hearing on CBC radio when the decision for New Brunswick came through from the Court of Queen’s Bench in June 2005 (Harrison v AG of Canada). I wasn’t yet out, struggling greatly with that burden and also the first field season of my masters, and wondering what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks I was doing. I felt relief (though given the wave of other provincial decisions and the reference question at the Supreme Court, the chances that it wouldn’t happen in New Brunswick were slim), and though I couldn’t really celebrate (being closeted and all), it was an indication of where society was going. That decision by Justice Judy Clendenning (and the positive media coverage around it) was part of what ultimately prompted me to come out 4 months later, because I could see something that would make life easier, even a little.

At the national scale, marriage equality was such a unifying issue (though not entirely) for the LGBTQ+ community because it had such a broad relevance, and it was a big win in Canada, Ireland, Australia, the UK, the US… in many places. And now, 15 years on, we often say “the fight doesn’t stop with equal marriage” because there are so many other challenges that LGBTQ+ folks face, in science, in research, in academia, in society more broadly. But in a way, it HAS stopped. Or it seems like it has. What are we collectively fighting for with the same fervour and determination of 15, 20, 25 years ago? We can’t, as a community, point at something and say to someone “This. This is what we need to do because…”. Maybe we’re all tired, maybe we don’t care as much, maybe the problems are too nebulous to use the old tools and tactics, maybe the challenges are perceived as too “niche”. But it feels a bit like we were a light going through a prism – before, we were focused, unified, together, united, and after though we were a beautiful rainbow, we spread out, going everywhere, divided. Or maybe I’m stretching this analogy too far.

When I look at Canada, even though it’s now 6 years since we lived there, there doesn’t appear to be a leading queer advocacy organization with the same power and pull that Egale had in the early 2000s. Yes, Egale still exists, but one rarely hears them in the national press (and certainly not when I dip in and out of Canadian news coverage from the UK). In the UK, there is Stonewall who do amazing work, but we’re not all rallying around them leading the charge on The Next Big Thing For Queer Rights. Perhaps that’s because there’s also been a shift in activism to smaller local, grassroots organizations who do not have a media presence. Their work is no less important, it’s just outwardly less visible. And that lack of public visibility in the way we had in the early 2000s could be interpreted by some as an implicit license for their discriminatory behaviour or hateful acts.

And I come back to Shaun’s documentary about Ireland, and how that very public fight for validation, equality, and basic rights affected people, much as it did in Australia in their 2017 postal survey. And I look at Canada, and the experiences (and aftermath) I and my peers had, which is largely a story untold. It’s a bit of a gap in stories about queer folks – there are more and more films, documentaries, and reportage on the AIDS epidemic and aftermath (I highly recommend How To Survive A Plague, Pride, and 120 BPM for starters), and a recent flurry of contemporary takes on queer life (Love, Simon, God’s Own Country), but that in-between period that means so much to me is absent (the contemporaneous Queer As Folk notwithstanding). I can’t help but wonder if that is also at least a partial function of the aimlessness in the shadow of marriage equality, but also how we can become focused again, fight the fights that need fighting, and tell the stories that need telling.


With thanks to Shaun O’Boyle and Landon Getz for their critical feedback and inspiring discussions; opinions and errors remain my own.