Cultural memory and being queer in STEM

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Everyone has those “remember where you were when you heard X” moments in their life. One of the prominent ones in my life was 20 years ago today. I was sitting in my bedroom eating dinner and watching TV. It was October 7th, 1998 and I was 15. 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die, which he did 5 days later.

And if you want to watch the iconic news broadcast from October 12th in full, it’s here.

My own journey to figure out who (or what) I was was still nascent and confusing. It would still be another 7 years before I came out, but the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming was, for many (myself included), a watershed moment in queerness.

If one looked to mark gay/queer culture in North America by epoch, the 80s and early 90s were dominated by HIV. The late 90s and early 2000s, I contend, were dominated by greater connections made thanks to the internet, and to physical violence. We even had a term for it – gay bashing. Interestingly, this rise (and subsequent fall) can be seen in Google’s ngram viewer:

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Shepard’s beating was the basis for the season-ending plot arc on the US version of Queer as Folk in 2001 at a time when the show was starting to become a staple of cable TV, and which I would sneakily watch in my shared dorm room at university when my roommate was elsewhere (the older among you will recall this was before youtube or catch-up or even the ability to watch videos on the internet at all!).

The story, and the reaction of the residents of Laramie was turned into the play The Laramie Project, which was put on at the campus theatre in about 2004, I think. I daren’t audition for fear it would let someone peek in the closet (despite playing a gay character that died of AIDS the previous year, but that’s a story for another post). The play featured interviews done by the playwriting collective with residents of the town, and explicitly did not show Matthew’s murder. I’ve also never seen footage of the actual fence to which he was tied and beaten to death, but in my mind, I have had the same still image associated with the event for the last 20 years.

And it might be convenient to consign these horrific events to the past, but they still occur regularly around the world. Maybe because they are now perceived as being more common, or because they no longer shock or resonate as they once did, they no longer receive either the media attention or national outcry they did 20 years ago. But let us not be complacent – there is still a great deal of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment out there.

In the UK, a newspaper columnist decried the “state transgender agenda“. And half of LGBTQ+-identifying 14 year olds reported self-harming. Some places still refuse to fly the Pride flag.

In Australia, 25 people were charged with hate-speech offences for comments made during the 2017 marriage equality postal vote. And no doubt the queer community is still grappling with the repercussions of putting its rights up for public debate.

In Canada, a video went viral of a man spitting on a rainbow crosswalk, which brought to story of an assault eerily reminiscent of Shepard’s and only two years later into the spotlight (and in the city where I did my PhD only 7 years later, and in places I knew well). And the closing line from Veronica Dymond in the CBC story above sums things up quite well:

Every person in the LGBTQ community has that moment, when they realized they weren’t safe in their communities. So many people have worked hard to make this country a safer place for us, and I’m grateful. But that doesn’t erase the memories, and the struggle is ongoing.

The history of violence against queer folk permeates the culture we share. And that cultural memory can’t be dismissed, or necessarily understood by outsiders.

But cultural memory changes and evolves as those who experienced it become more removed, and those who didn’t try to understand it without having been there. This excellent thread on HIV/AIDS is an example of just that. So is the book How to Survive a Plague.

Now, dear reader, you are no doubt wondering what this has to do with science? Queer folk are less likely to pursue careers in science, and once in science, they don’t always find it to be a welcoming place (though this is getting better!). But many queers in STEM  also carry that cultural memory of the constant loss of friends or just simply queer compatriots we never knew, but might have in different circumstances. Or indeed have experienced it directly themselves (if you want to get an idea of the UK situation, check out the BBC Two 2017 documentary “Is It Safe To Be Gay In the UK?“; though not currently available on the BBC site, it might be found elsewhere). And many of us “tone down” our queerness in science and in public for fear of repercussions. Asking ourselves, is it safe, while looking over our shoulder at who else might be around. It’s the little things. Where ideas like queering our science seem revolutionary, iconoclastic, and risqué.

Lately, there’s not been a week go by where I haven’t been contacted by an early-career queer scientist who just wanted to chat with someone who had a set of shared experiences. I sure as heck don’t have all the answers, and I still struggle myself from time to time (to paraphrase a Star Trek episode title, who mentors the mentors?). One shouldn’t be expected separate one’s queerness from one’s science, even when that queerness comes with a legacy of hurt. Science is people, and people include emotion.

This October 12th, which incidentally is also International Coming Out Day, I’ll work to make my science a little bit more queer, I’ll come out (for the 4776th day in a row), and I’ll reflect on both how far we’ve come in the last 20 years, and how far we have yet to go in science and in society.

 

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Reflections on 13 years as an out scientist

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As I was cooking dinner tonight, it dawned upon me that 13 years ago I made a decision that would would have a profound impact on my personal and professional life: I came out. Or, more accurately, I came out for the first time. I wrote a bit about it earlier this summer:

On September 15th, 2005 after getting home from the lab, I realised I had to tell someone, so I called up one of my closest friends and came out for the first time. The genre of “coming out stories” was quite popular at the time (well, at least for me), so I had read/watched nearly every one I could find on the internet. The ones that went well, the ones that ended poorly. It was not uncommon for advice on coming out to include things like “keep a stash of cash for a couple of days” and “make sure you arrange with a friend beforehand to spend the night, or a couple of nights, if you need to”. Thankfully, I was financially independent and living on my own, but that’s the kind of pervasive environment that existed (or at least that I perceived).

She was, perhaps predictably, fine. Mum was the next day, and was fine in the end, though perhaps a bit surprised. Dad was the day after, and was fine, too. In fact, all the family — grandparents, sister, aunts, uncles — were totally fine once they got over the initial surprise. I was so incredibly lucky. I know others for whom it was not fine.

In our household, there are really only a few key annual events: my & my husband’s birthdays, our anniversary, and our “coming-out-iversary”. Mine is Sept 15th. He beat me by about 6 months.

On the face of it, 13 years doesn’t necessarily seem like that long a time. But in reality it’s just (barely) over a third of my life, and certainly half of my adult life. It spans nearly my entire scientific career (which I peg as starting with my honours thesis on 15 April 2004 in a freezing bird observatory next to a nuclear power plant, at about 5am). And a lot has changed since 2005.

When I canvassed for things that LGBQ+ scientists wish their straight colleagues knew, the idea that “coming out” isn’t a one-off event came up several times. There’s probably not a week that goes by where I haven’t come out to someone. Sometimes it’s subtle (a rainbow lanyard), other times it’s more blatant (a talk about being an out gay scientist).

And after 13 years (at least 7 of which I’ve been much more public in my professional life), I’ve come to a realization — I’m now one of the established gays. To draw a professional analogy, I’ve moved beyond being an Early Career Gay, and have Gay Tenure/a Gay Permanent Contract. This post by Meg Duffy on Dynamic Ecology looks at some of the less obvious, more subtle markers of career progression, and in a sense I’ve passed something similar in my professional gayness.

Some of the markers of this transition have happened particularly in the last 2 years: I’ve had staff or trainees come out to me and ask for advice, I’ve had colleagues ask me if/how/when they should come out to their students, and I’m now asked to give seminars on being an out gay/queer scientist to professional audiences. But it’s the first of these that will be the focus of this post.

Professionally, I’ve had the fortune to work in four nurturing, collegial research groups between my undergrad and postdoc. I learned heaps, both about science, and about HOW to science. Experimental design, paper reviewing, data analysis, permit applications, structuring an outline… I had a good number of the tools needed to become a good scientist.

What I lacked 13 years ago (and to a certain extent, still lack today) is the mentorship to navigate being a gay scientist. And what I’ve noticed in the last two years is I’m increasingly finding myself in the mentor role both in terms of science, but also in terms of being a gay scientist. And it’s one of the most fulfilling things I think I’ll experience, seeing mentees progress and achieve both professionally and personally. I literally beam with pride at their successes and wins.

Science, and academic science in particular, has a habit of segregating the personal and professional. I have a bit of experience with that kind of dual existence, and I can tell you it’s not that healthy. As an undergrad, I couldn’t imagine doing science as a job and saw the science side of my life on the opposite shore of an ocean from the rest of my life. In the closet, to use an analogy, I saw my fundamental niche from inside the closet of my realised niche. Now, the Venn diagram of all of these aspects of my life are well balanced.

When we say that “representation matters”, we don’t just mean the one-way idolization or looking up to a role model, though that’s certainly an important part. It’s more of a dialogue. Straight allies, no matter how wonderful they are, don’t have the same shared experiences. And there simply aren’t enough LGBTQ+ mentors in science (as evidenced by the frequent queries I get from LGBTQ+ folk just looking to talk to someone at a later career stage).

So I guess I’m now, 13 years later, coming out as a mentor (though I feel uncomfortable applying that label to myself. Like “ally” it’s a term that’s bestowed by someone else, and can be transient). If you’re stuck, need to chat, or whatever, drop me a DM on twitter, or an email. Like so many things, I’m offering because I wish someone had offered to me 13 years ago, and I think it’s an important part of science (or indeed research more generally) that’s often neglected.

What LGBTQ+ folk in STEM want to communicate to straight colleagues: unedited responses

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Last week, I put a call out for things that LGBTQ+ folk in STEM wished their straight friends & colleagues could instantly understand. I had previously put together a list of “required reading/viewing“, and was drawing up my own list for a future talk on the hidden diversity in science.

The dozen responses I had were all incredibly useful, and things that I had thought about (though perhaps not articulated as well as the respondents). It was all completely anonymous, and I’m sure behind each answer is a story, or stories, to tell.

The answers are below, unedited apart from typos. So without further ado, straight colleagues: take note:

I’d love people to know more about bi and pansexuality. Because I’m in a heterosexual marriage, colleagues often assume I’m straight. Sexuality doesn’t always have visible cues (not everyone is out as queer or trans, etc.). Bi/pan identities are real, they’re not “fads” or experimentation.

 

That power differentials can make coming out much higher stakes. Yes, I’m aware that my PI has friends that are lesbians. But if my telling her I’m queer affects her comfort with or behavior toward me, that is something I can’t undo. The way some straight women behave toward queer women mirrors the toxic behavior of certain men toward women in the workplace (e.g., leaving them out of professional & social opportunities because they refuse to be alone with them). [I am 100% certain this also occurs for gay cis men & trans/nonbinary folks too, but I’m speaking about my own experience.]

 

There are two things that non LGBTQ+ people may not be aware of. The first is that because of assumptions of heteronormativity, LGBTQ+ do not come out only once; rather, they come out over and over again, often at unexpected times. The second is that it is easy to falsely conclude that STEM is always friendly to LGBTQ+ people. In reality, there are still many people and organizations that are very much not friendly to LGBTQ+ people, they are not necessarily outspoken about it. Taken together, these things can create a difficult environment for LGBTQ+ people by creating the conditions in which coming out happens frequently and with uncertainty about the consequences.

 

It is exhausting to have to keep coming out. I was out to my boss and my labmates at my last job, but I’m not yet to the ones at my new job. And it just annoys me because it is yet another thing other people don’t have to worry about dealing with. As someone who is presumed straight, if I don’t have a partner to mention, it can be really hard to find a way to come out at work (because of the inference that talking about sexual orientation = talking about sex life). I wish it could be a non-issue, but it grates on me when people just assume I’m straight.

 

Don’t assume your coworkers are straight. Lots of outwardly straight-seeming people are queer. Try your best to create a welcoming work culture not focused on heteronormativity so that your queer coworkers feel comfortable being themselves.
Every time I travel- for fieldwork, conferences, even just visiting another university- there’s an extra level of calculations I have to do. How safe is this place for me as a queer person? How much of the truth will I have to hide when meeting and working with local collaborators? How much of my gender expression- generally very non-gender-conforming- will I need to change? Recently I went for the first portion of fieldwork for my PhD. I found there were questions about navigating working in a country I’d never been to before that I couldn’t ask my advisor- since as a straight cis guy, he hadn’t ever had to consider the concerns a queer female-assumed person would have.

 

Another issue is the extra layer of uncertainty about planning for my future. That’s already a big concern just being a 20-something in grad school- but as a queer grad student in one of the most unfriendly states in the US to be queer, there’s an extra level of anxiety. Navigating a relationship in grad school is hard enough without having to worry about whether your state is going to legislate your rights away a bit more this week.

 

Coming out doesn’t just happen once in your life, it is a continual process throughout your life, always calculating how open you can be everytime you meet someone
There can be a constant low level anxiety that your work won’t be taken as seriously, or will be perceived as biased if you (heaven forbid!) address anything vaguely lgbtq2+ in your work.

 

As a cis-bisexual woman partnered with a cis-heterosexual man, colleagues often assume I’m straight. As a result I wind up hearing a lot of homophobic comments. As a result I really don’t feel safe coming out when it’s relevant to conversation. Vicious cycle.

 

I think invisibility is a problem: other groups (women, people of colour, those with clear physical differences) don’t have to explain why they’re different from the community that excludes them. We first have to come out, to explain why we feel excluded, as it might be much less obvious and then fight the battle. There are so many heteronormative assumptions to overcome before we even have an identity that we can sign up to. Also, we face problems that many others don’t (no countries execute women simply for being women, whereas quite a few still execute a man for being gay), which makes even broaching the problem harder.

 

As a trans person, I have to mentally prepare myself for every new person I meet, whether they’re a potential colleague, professor, mentor, etc. Being the first transgender person someone has ever met can be exhausting if they aren’t willing to do any research themselves. In addition, bracing myself to be misgendered and/or dead-named in front of my peers during at least the first week of every semester is continually exhausting. I notice that it takes a lot of time and energy away from my work as a student because when I go to work in a small lab where I’ve never been misgendered and I know everyone respects me, I’m less anxious and much more productive.

 

Working in the tropics, for example in Brazil, in very remote places where faith and church is deeply rooted in people’s minds and daily lives, I want straight people to understand the difference of working conditions. As a white lesbian (although gender conform) working in these places is not only a great adventure – it also means having to hide a very important part of me and to be very careful. I’m willing to make this sacrifice, but I just hope things change, even in these places, someday. Being afraid because of who you are should not be part of work experience …

 

Divorcing your ‘out’ true self from ‘closeted’ self when undertaking fieldwork in countries not that friendly to gay people. Levels of anxiety are always high, right from applying for visas (will they check your social media presence), to (and especially this) interacting on a social basis. The balance between being true to yourself and not wanting to risk the science, or letting down your team is quite stressful.

What do LGBTQ+ folk in STEM want to communicate to our straight colleagues?

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Whenever I’m asked to give a research seminar, I always include a little queer content. Most of the time, this is a shout out at the end when I show my last slide with contact info, website, and Twitter handle, where I give a shout out to LGBTQ+ STEM, which I help run.

But lately I’ve started developing a different kind of seminar, aimed at telling the story of my journey as a gay/queer man in ornithology, and more broadly about some of the challenges, difficulties, issues, and other things that LGBTQ+ folk in STEM experience, think about, and consider, and how that relates to their science. I’ve been doing queer ed since 2006, and to be honest, I was surprised that some of the questions I got earlier this summer in the LGBTQ&A were nearly identical to the questions I had running the campus Safe Space program 12 years ago.

Now, I’m just one person with one perspective (and a white male perspective at that). So I thought it would be useful to canvas a broader cross-section of the LGBTQ+ STEM community.

If you’re LGBTQ+ and in STEM, what do you wish you could communicate to your straight colleagues?

Earlier this summer, I put together a list of things I wish I could instantly transplant into my straight friends & colleagues’ minds that would give them a bit of a perspective on where I come from. As you’ll see, they’re not all science-specific, because being a scientist is only one facet that doesn’t act in isolation from the others.

So if you had the opportunity to convey something to your straight friends & colleagues about being LGBTQ+ in STEM, what would it be? Drop your answer (anonymously) in this Google Form, and I’ll work them into my talk on “hidden diversity” in STEM, and post a summary here.

Looking forward to what you all have to say!

The STEM LGBTQ&A

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Its July. Pride month has wrapped, though some parades will continue through the summer. It was a fairly busy month, blog-wise, for me, largely because The Lab and Field had been so quiet in the last few years (apologies). But one post from June stood out as the one that garnered more feedback than most – my LGBT STEM Q&A / Ask Me Anything. And I’ve had a couple of people say they had wished they had a chance to ask a question, but didn’t have the time.

So… <permanent feature drumroll> welcome the STEM LGBTQ&A!

It was fairly obvious that there was an appetite for an outlet to ask questions about being LGBTQ+, in STEM, or both, so I’ve decided to re-open the form on a permanent basis. So go ahead, ask away. I’ll put the answers up on this page as they come in.

One thing that struck me was that the questions folks sent in were different from those I tend to get in person, and were in many ways similar to those I would get when I ran a campus Safe Space programme in 2005-2007. I think that goes to show that while some people’s personal journeys often outpace those of society as a whole, there’s still a need for broader education and discussion than I realized a month ago.

But no question is too big or too small for me to have a crack at it, so don’t hold back!

Answers to your questions: Queer in STEM AMA

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Thanks to everyone who sent in a question. I know there are a quite a few more who were also interested in the responses. While the Google form is now closed, you can always leave questions anonymously in the comments below, or find me by email or twitter.

Like I mentioned originally, my reason for doing this is because it’s something *I* wish someone had done for me, so I assume that at least one other person will find it useful. And I think the calibre and breadth of the questions bears that out.

So without further ado, on to some questions (and answers)!

We have two young people in our extended family who are transgender. I am completely accepting of this however there is a small part of me that wonders if they are too young (15 & 17) to fully understand this major decision. Did you know and understand at a very young age?

First and foremost, I’m not trans. I’m as cis as they come so I have no concept of what it feels like to have one’s assigned gender not match up and how awful that must feel. There are trans voices out there (though beware some pretty awful articles, often written by cis men), and I’d encourage you to seek them out.

I identify predominantly as gay, occasionally queer. I knew I wasn’t straight when I was 12 or 13. This was in the mid 1990s and I grew up in a pretty off-the-beaten-path place in eastern Canada where there was no exposure to LGBTQ+ culture (aside from one seedy bar). So I think I didn’t “understand” until years after I came out. The one thing that is (and was) painfully obvious is that LGB and particular TQ folk don’t have it easy, and I don’t know anyone who would have willingly gone through the internal (and often external) pain and suffering on a whim.

 

I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to elaborate more about how professional societies can engage with their LGBTQ members. Specifically, I (a queer woman) am involved in the organisation of a small, Europe-based scientific society, and we do have a (very) modest amount of funding and of platform. Any ideas for best practices or suggestions of what I can read to find out more?

That’s great news! My first suggestion is to ask around and find out what your LGBTQ+ members want. What would make the biggest difference to them? An event at your annual meeting? Pieces in your newsletter? It’s quite common for professional societies to really get this wrong, in my experience, or to not even care. I put together a quick list of questions you can ask to figure out what it is you could/should be doing.

 

How advisable is to be out to one’s co-workers in an EEB university setting in northern/western Europe, and how does this vary with the career stage of the co-worker (eg. supervisor to fellow PhD student to supervised BSc/MSc student), and that of the outee (eg. as above)? What’s the best way to go about it?

Deciding whether to come out at work can be a huge step, and everyone’s experiences are different, so I don’t want to be prescriptive. I’ve been out for about 13 years now, so I don’t think twice about it. All my immediate colleagues, and all of my co-supervised students know I’m part of Team Sparkle. Heck, I mentioned it in my job interview. But I knew in advance that it would be a largely friendly audience.

It can get more complex when there’s a power dynamic. As a PI/supervisor, you can signal your outness in several ways (rainbow sticker on your office door, family photos on your desk, mentioning the gender of your spouse if you’re in a same-gender relationship, for example). If you have regular lab meetings, bring up diversity topics. if you have a swipe card/keys on a lanyard, why not consider wearing a rainbow lanyard?

Looking the other way (which is something I do have experience with), much of the same applies as above. I came out to my PhD supervisor in SeaTac International Airport when he saw my wedding ring, and asked what my wife did. “Husband. He’s in electronics sales” was my reply. It obviously becomes easier the longer you’ve been out in other contexts, but you can foster a lab/department/school environment in which folks will feel comfortable being out. I’ll flag in particular the Department of Chemistry at the University of York in the UK as one amazing example. Their webpage has a page specifically for LGBT+ information, they had rainbow flags up during Pride, and have guidance for using preferred pronouns.

 

How do you deal with papers, work, comments, etc from people that is not wholly objective but actually discriminatory? For instance, we know now that the “older men are attracted to young women because of fertility” is false and that it lacks any genetic proof, as well as ignores LGBTQ people. Yet I continue to see people cite it. How do you deal with people, research, etc that just straight up ignores you under the guise of science and objectivity?

I’ve not been personally affected by papers or science that ignores LGBTQ+ folk beyond a bit of frustration (perhaps driven my complacency?). I have, however, been told that being LGBTQ+ has no influence on one’s science, and shouldn’t because science is objective and based on facts and emotionless. That idea is something I disagree with strongly. I think the topics I study, how I study them, and who I study them with are influenced, at least in part (and maybe even unconsciously) by my being gay. It’s a hard one to communicate, though, because it’s not that obvious. But I tend to have a high proportion of women coauthors, and several other LGBTQ+ coauthors. I strongly advocate a way of queering science that’s encapsulated nicely in this Queer Science Manifesto. Anyone who says their science is done in a vacuum without emotion and is entirely objective is deluding themselves.

 

I just got a tenure track faculty position that I am very excited about. I am queer, out and proud in my personal life, but how do I let students know this? I want to be visible and serve as an example of being queer in STEM. However, I don’t present as visibly queer. I’m trying to figure out the most appropriate way of communicating this information and could use some tips! Thanks for doing this!

I think some of this can also be covered by one of the questions above. Rainbow stickers on your door, a lanyard, etc can be powerful symbols. It can be more difficult when one doesn’t present as queer (I know several bi friends in mixed-gender relationships who have this issue of erasure).

The easiest thing is to talk about it. Bring it up in the context of talking about diversity in science, initiatives you want to see from professional societies, local pride parades. I don’t have much experience in a teaching context of student interactions, but there can be ways to incorporate queer material into the curriculum (people, ideas, ways of doing science).

 

Have you ever encountered a situation where another gay, or bisexual, or just curious, man propositioned you, whether it be in the lab, or field, or elsewhere in your professional environment? How did you react? Or if it has never happened, how do you think you would react? Any recommendations on how to handle such a situation?

I haven’t (thankfully). Harassment is most definitely a problem in science (see this paper by an amazing team detailing issues of harassment and assault in the field, for example), as well as in the LGBTQ+ community. Same-sex sexual harassment is also certainly a thing, but one that, so far as my googling has found, isn’t well studied (though I have it on good authority that something is in the works and will hopefully be appearing soon!). The recent US National Academy of Science report on sexual harassment of women, though, found higher incidences of assault and harassment in queer women in STEM.

As for how to handle it, I think the same advice as for mixed-sex harassment applies – make yourself safe, and then talk to someone. Stonewall UK has some resources for the harassment side of things that might be useful, as does the HRC.

 

What is your advice for young LGBTQ researchers working in a place where no one is openly part of the LGBTQ community?

I’ll take this to mean in a professional sense. My guess is that there are indeed other LGBTQ+ folk at work, but they aren’t out, or at least out to you. Sometimes all it takes is sticking one’s head above the parapet, however briefly, to draw them out. But I totally understand the situation; I didn’t meet other out scientists until I had been in research for nearly a decade.

I found a community through social media and blogging, and eventually we started meeting in person at conferences or when travelling. It’s been a journey, though. But knowing other LGBTQ+ folk in science is incredibly important because, though they might try, straight colleagues are starting off in a very different place and need to be brought up to speed on some of the things that I certainly wanted to discuss.

I get at an email or message every couple of months from an LGBTQ+ person in STEM who just wants to chat, and needs a friendly ear. And if there’s one thing the queer community has a lot of experience in, it’s creating our chosen families. I was helped, and now I’m paying it forward. If anyone wants to, drop me an email or get in touch.

 

I am a heterosexual male that wants to ensure that people of any gender or sexual orientation feel completely welcome, comfortable, and accepted. Do you have any tips on how to best achieve this?

Yeah, basically that. The thing about unconditional support is that it doesn’t have any, well, conditions. Talk to your institutions diversity/inclusion office if it has one, check out training or events that can help you engage in more allyship (like this one from Stonewall UK, or this from the HRC). Not to be too modest, but check out my list of things I wish I could instantly transfer into straight folks’ brains.

From another standpoint, look at your lab/institution and think of how it might be unfriendly to queer folk. This can be particularly challenging in jurisdictions that are hostile towards queer folk, where institutional or legal support/back-up isn’t there. Do you have gender neutral bathrooms/toilets? Do you parental leave policies apply to same-sex couples? What resources are in place for someone who transitions? Be familiar with what resources are there for queer folk institutionally and locally.

Speak up and counter anti-LGBTQ+ crap regardless of whether you know any LGBTQ+ folk present.

(and thanks to Nasi for permission to include that tweet)

 

Is it important to come out to my boss? I know they won’t care but I feel like it breaks down the professional barrier between us.

That entirely depends on the nature of your relationship with your boss. I have been out to all of my supervisors/line managers, and it didn’t affect the professionalism of that relationship, but your mileage may vary. From a management perspective, it can be good to know because it can help them be more accommodating if needed. It also doesn’t have to be  a “Hey X, I’m gay” or whichever is more applicable. It could be signalled through strategic rainbows for example!

 

How do I find a queer-friendly place to volunteer? I love science and nature, but I’m too old to afford university to get the degree needed to work as a professional. I want to go back to uni but multiple admissions have turned me down and one even laughed in my face. My grades suffered and I eventually dropped out due to queer-related issues that may or may not arise again. Otherwise, I had mostly A’s and a few B’s. Am I doomed to be a hotel maid forever? Even my co-workers keep telling me that I belong in school, but I don’t know how to get back there.

I guess in a sense that depends where you are. If you know some queer folk on the inside, you could chat with them. Otherwise, it might be a bit of a Goldilocks scenario (try one to see if it fits, if not move to the next). Many places now also support flexible schooling (in the UK, check out Open University), though cost could still be an issue. That said, many places do have scholarship programmes, so if you’re not keen on relocating, perhaps arrange a chat with one of the admissions folks from your local university?

 

How do you get over the constant worry that even if you know your colleagues/boss/institution are totally fine with your sexuality, that they’d prefer you to be less obvious about it?

Fuck ’em. Until they stop putting photos of their opposite-sex significant others, talking about their husbands and wives at social or professional gatherings, or using mixed-sex couples as examples for universal issues, you can blast rainbows as far as the eye can see.

I’m totally fine with straight folk expressing their sexuality, though I often wish they were a little less obvious about it 😉

Queer in STEM Ask Me Anything!

Continuing the Pride month series, a short announcement – I’m doing a “Queer in STEM” AMA (Ask Me Anything). If you have questions, queries, quandaries, conundrums or dilemmas around the topic of being an out gay/queer scientist, or just being gay/queer I will have a go at providing an answer.

You can submit your question using this (anonymous) Google form [the form’s now closed, but you can still ask questions anonymously in the comments], in the comments below, or by email (thelabandfield@gmail.com). The only data collected on the form are time/date (autofilled), and your question; there’s an optional field if you want to provide your name, but there’s absolutely no need to (or even indeed to provide your real name).

I’ll put a blog post up here on Sunday 24 June 2018 with my responses.

 

Why am I doing this? Because it’s something I wish I had seen/been able to do from the other side for ages. I didn’t have any other queer scientists to ask questions to until I went to the first LGBT STEMinar, really. And that event has created such a community, but is UK centric because that’s where the folks organizing it live. if I was still living in Canada, chances are I wouldn’t have made the connections I have with other out LGBTQ+ scientists. Making connections with other queer scientists has been personally rewarding (with several new friends), but also professionally fulfilling because it provides an outlet to ask questions and have discussions that I just can’t have with my straight colleagues (usually because it would take too long to get them up to speed on issues or topics that they haven’t really thought about).

So this is my go at providing a forum to help those who haven’t yet found a community, or who may not even be out (personally or professionally). Or those straight friends and colleagues who have their own questions but aren’t sure how to ask. No question is too basic, ridiculous, or even likely one I haven’t already been asked.

 

So ask away! I’ll leave the form up until noon UK time on Saturday 23 June.

 

Essential Pride month reading and viewing for straight friends & colleagues

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For this next in a series of Pride month posts, I’ll touch on a subject that I have often found frustrating, not only in terms of queerness, but many other complex ideas — how to quickly get a large volume of information, and convey the significance of that information, to someone new in a short time. In the context of this post, what would I like to instantly convey to straight colleagues so they could better understand me as a person and as a scientist.

In some alternate universe I would just have to wait until April 5th, 2063, and mind-meld (hopefully avoiding all that messiness about katra transference). But for the time being, I present a series of articles and other links that I’ve often found myself sharing with colleagues, along with a wee explanation of why I think it’s significant. Because these have a personal importance to me, they are just one slice of the diverse voices out there expressing similar feelings, emotions, or sentiments, and telling related stories from other perspectives.

All told, there’s about half an hour of video, and a couple links to short written pieces. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but I (and other bloggers) know how few people actually click on links, particularly in posts that are mostly links (thank you, WordPress stats page!). So if you want to file this post away for some evening after dinner, or that 30-minute commute, or the quiet early morning before the munchkins wake up, please do.

 

Video

Second Class Citizen (cc)

A 7-minute compilation from 2012, and US-centric, but it captures the dominant history of LGBTQ+ rights in North America, particularly in the 2009-2011 period. Much of it based on news clips, if you’ve never really thought about how it feels to have your rights debated in the media, often by the majority, this is a good introduction. It’s also incredibly useful to see not only how far the US has come in the last 7 years, but also what those of us growing up with that cultural influence encountered regularly. Gotta give ’em hope.

 

It’s Time (no dialogue)

A shorter, 2-minute film from Australia, produced in 2011 as part of a campaign by Get Up! for equal marriage (which was finally achieved late last year – hooray!). I think what draws me to it is the mundane every-day that it depicts. Yes, we’re just like everyone else. Shocking. But what’s perhaps more shocking is the need to remind others of that every so often. This one always brings a smile to my face.

 

All The Little Things – Panti Bliss (cc)

Panti is an Irish drag queen, and this video is perhaps the SINGLE link that I absolutely implore you to watch if you haven’t already. “I am 45 years old, and I have never once, un-self-consciously, held hands with a lover in public”, she starts. “I don’t know how many of you can imagine what that might be like”. I certainly can.

It’s an 18-minute TEDxDublin talk from 2015, and it hits on so many points that straight folk don’t often think about. The micro-aggressions, the countless calculations we go through daily, the constant checking of the environments we find ourselves in (the plotting of escape routes in new spaces), being reduced from persons to merely sexual acts. She takes you on a journey through her talk that culminates in the sentiments that so many folk in the queer community feel (including yours truly).

 

Homophobia in 2018 – Time for Love (cc)

A short dramaticised spoken-word piece that begins “It’s Glasgow, March, and we walk hand-in-hand in the park. Now, it’s 3:13 and I’m late and it’s time to make a choice. We’re both boys, you see”. In much the same vein as Panti’s talk, it covers the calculations, the thought processes around what should just be a simple act of affection. Yes, even today. And even in a country where there’s marriage equality. Now, think of the same scenario playing out in a country where being gay is illegal.

 

In a Heartbeat (no dialogue)

Brightening the mood is this absolutely adorable animated short video. Again, the feelings resonate all too well. The fear, the desire, the feeling when the bottom drops out of your stomach, and more. But also powerful because of the (SPOILER ALERT) so very wonderful ending. Everyone should find that joy.

 

Text

Make your Queer Science Manifesto

This one I have printed out in my office above my desk. I wrote previously about how to queer one’s science, and this manifesto I think sums it up well. A manifesto is inherently political, and so, too, is queer science. And before someone jumps into the comments to say that science should be apolitical, devoid of emotion and strictly driven by facts (a common rebuttal), what a silly notion. Scientists are people with agendas, emotions, and experiences that all influence their science. This manifesto not only acknowledges it, but embraces it. Even before I was sent this link earlier this year, I had already been following many of the points it covers, which strengthens my opinion that there is something different in the way queer scientists approach their craft, conscious or otherwise.

 

The “Silence=Death” poster

On the New York Public Library site, a blog post by Avran Finkelstein who was one of the six people who designed the iconic poster in the 1980s. I’ve always advocating knowing where one comes from, in a historical context, and for LGBTQ+ folk, this one is pretty up there. I’m a big fan of Finkelstein’s take on the popularity of the poster: In essence and intention, the political poster is a public thing. It comes to life in the public sphere, and is academic outside of it. Individuals design it, or agencies or governments, but it belongs to those who respond to its call.”

 

24 Coming Out Tips

An archived version of a website that featured these 24 tips for coming out, written ca. 2001, and also appearing in the rag XY at least twice during its initial run (oh, that bastion of white gay twinkness!) . I definitely read [online] these before I came out. #21 always hits me hard. Yes, we queers really did talk about this. And yes, I know kids booted out of their homes in the 2002-2008ish range. And yes, I’ve been someone’s escape route (thankfully not needed).

 

As I said, these are just a few of the links I find myself wishing I could quickly convey to friends & colleagues. I’m sure there are others that LGBTQ+ folk wish they could instantly transmit to someone straight, and equally I’m sure there are others that straight friends & colleagues found useful (add them in the comments!).

A collaborative effort to celebrate Pride month: the LGBTQ+ Rights Bot

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There are many topics that I often find myself explaining to my straight colleagues. Mostly it’s out of their desire to know more, or better understand my experiences as an out gay scientist. But in the 13 years or so since I’ve come out (and in fact for several years before then, too) the one thing that I’ve consistently had the most reactions of surprise from straight colleagues is that there are places in the world to which I simply refuse to travel because of anti-gay laws.

Professionally, this comes up in the context of field work, conferences, or other meetings. And each queer scientist I’ve met with and discussed this topic with has their own take (as well they should!) that balances their safety, personal take on the environment, and comfort. I know several out scientists who have extended field work (as in several months) in what I would term hostile countries, which works for them (or at least they make it work, for the time being).

But so far, every straight colleague to whom I’ve mentioned this had been entirely oblivious until we had the conversation. Some got it right away, others still think I’m being unnecessarily negative. “It’s not like you’re having sex”, one said. No, I’m not, but that’s because I’m married and my partner’s not there. What if I were single? What about the local collaborators, field techs, guides, and others one might be working with? We’d all be held to a different legal standard The presence of such laws, their enforcement, and public debate around them is often a litmus test for other things. I wear a wedding ring (and have for years, leaving a fairly unmistakable “dent”), and the most terrifying bit of conversation with folks I don’t know in a place where my safety isn’t guaranteed is “I see you’re married; what does your wife do?”

 

So as a public service, a combination of Twitter, R, and Wikipedia, and as an excuse to work on a project with my friend Dave Hemprich-Bennett, we present the LGBTQ+ Rights Twitter Bot!

This is a twitter bot (an automated account) that periodically samples data from this Wikipedia article on LGBTQ+ rights around the world, and tweets them out along with the countries’ flags. It’s entirely automated and selects the country and rights in random order, and sends it directly to your Twitter timeline. So perhaps an obvious question is, why?

It’s an attempt to make more broadly known the challenges that queer folk face around the world, which probably isn’t something many straight folk have thought about all that much. And it’s also a place to celebrate the victories where equality has been fought for, and won. The Wikipedia article is remarkably well referenced, and generally considered up-to-date, and is also easily incorporated into the code for the Twitter bot. More detail can be found the IGLA’s annual State Sponsored Homophobia report.

I’ve had the idea for this soon after I saw Dave’s other Twitter bot, The Bat-signal. And fortunately he was able to relatively easily adapt the code, and do the leg work. If you’re interested, you can see the code over on Github.

In a way, it’s quite fitting to roll this out during Pride, which itself is a simultaneous celebration of how far we’ve come, and a reminder of how far we have yet to go. The battle doesn’t stop with marriage equality in our home countries (if indeed we’re fortunate enough to have won that battle already).

 

With special thanks to Dave Hemprich-Bennett for his amazing bot-building skills, and suggestions for this post.

My journey

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It’s Pride month, and this year there are some fantastic initiatives around like 500 Queer Scientists, and the International Day of LGBTQ+ People in STEM. Rainbow crosswalks are no longer relegated to the likes of Sydney, San Francisco, or London. Equal marriage is now the law in >25 countries. And yet challenges still remain.

Five years ago, I wrote the first LGBTQ+-themed post here on The Lab and Field, which was my attempt to articulate to straight colleagues the nature of the unique challenges faced by queer scientists. Since that time I’ve written many more, but there has always been one that I’ve never consigned to a single cohesive story, at least not in this forum – my own journey.

When I first came out in 2005 (and indeed before then, too), I latched on to these kinds of personal narratives for the pure, simple fact that it so closely echoed my own experiences, feelings, and anxieties. I’d religiously watch new videos from I’m From Driftwood, or read interviews on websites long since forgotten or expired. And I found them profoundly helpful, comforting, and affirming. But the one obvious gap, at least for me, was that none of them were by scientists, or mentioned that side of things.

So it’s with that target audience in mind that I share this, and hope that at least some of you find it useful, helpful, or at least entertaining. And if you’re one of those people, like me back then, know that there is an amazing community of LGBTQ+ folk in STEM; and you can always reach out, too. I’ve been there.

 

I grew up in peri-urban eastern Canada in a city of about 80,000 in the 1990s, and I was a profoundly uncool child. I’d much prefer to write computer programs in QBASIC, cycle around looking for out-of-province license plates (and enumerating them, proving summary statistics each week, though not accounting for survey effort)., and finding refuge in the theatre. Well, until I was awkwardly cast Motel in Fiddler on the Roof (the groom in the wedding). But hey ho there we go. From about spring break of 1995, I knew I wasn’t typical, but I didn’t label it until much later. Deeply closeted in high school (what a hellish, terrible, awful experience in which I used studying and grades and improv to keep up the facade of the wunderkind geek before it was cool, but more cool (and more safe) than being the gay kid), I can still recall a conversation with a good friend at the time. He’d asked what single piece of technology from Star Trek I would most covet. I replied asking if the female character Seven of Nine counted as technology, to which he exclaimed to our group “Hey guys, I just proved that Alex isn’t gay!”. I felt awful.

I also remember in about grade 8 or 9 taking a careers questionnaire which was discussed among the class. I was utterly mortified to find I’d scored the best match with “social worker” or “scientist”. Again, I felt awful.

It was around this time that the US version of the television show Queer as Folk came out, airing late at night on a cable network. I watched it, feeling guilty in undertaking what was essentially a clandestine mission each Friday. The finale to Season 1 featured one of the main characters, a high school student, getting beat in the head with a baseball bat, only about 3 years after Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in Laramie, Wyoming. If the narrative of the 1980s and early 1990s was one of HIV, that of the late 1990s was violence and kids getting kicked out of their homes (not me, but I know of many others, none of which would’ve made the news). It didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

In undergrad, I continued to be profoundly uncool, not drinking, not partying, and spending time studying, in the lab, or the library, but again spending time in the theatre. Despite the generally welcoming nature of the town, the campus, and no doubt many of the faculty at this small liberal arts university, it took until the summer before my senior year (2004) before I finally said “Welp, I guess I’m gay?” to myself in the bathroom mirror, choking down a lump in my throat because I was at work.

This was the summer after Ontario had legalised same-sex marriage, and the debate was raging through the other provinces and territories of Canada. Unlike the horrendously acrimonious public vote in Australia in 2017, equal marriage in Canada was all debated in the courts or various legislatures. But the vitriol remained. And being in eastern Canada, a place with a fairly high concentration of “good ol’ boys”, it wasn’t the most positive and encouraging atmosphere. So the obvious next steps was to run away to a small offshore island!

The first summer of my masters research, on a small island in the Bay of Fundy, was one of incredible growth, professionally and personally. I learned so much about seabirds, conservation, ecology, wildlife management, and science more broadly, but I was also profoundly depressed (and undiagnosed) as I tried to figure out who (and occasionally, what) I was, and how others would interact with me. Remote offshore islands aren’t the greatest place when one’s mental health isn’t that great. But that summer, distracting myself with the hard work and desire to impress a new supervisor, I saw a faint hint of a crack in the closet door. And I was terrified.

That summer/autumn, I had a 20-30 minute walk to campus each day, and to make the journey more enjoyable, I’d pop in a CD to my discman (it was 2005 after all, and I wasn’t cool enough for an iPod). I’d play a single CD for a week or so, and then move on to another. One week I put on my recently-purchased Death Cab for Cutie CD “Plans”. Which in retrospect probably wasn’t the wisest thing for someone with some pretty not-fun depression and identity issues. But the music echoed my mood, and at the time I found it comforting. Now, I can’t listen to it at all.

On September 15th, 2005 after getting home from the lab, I realised I had to tell someone, so I called up one of my closest friends and came out for the first time. The genre of “coming out stories” was quite popular at the time (well, at least for me), so I had read/watched nearly every one I could find on the internet. The ones that went well, the ones that ended poorly. It was not uncommon for advice on coming out to include things like “keep a stash of cash for a couple of days” and “make sure you arrange with a friend beforehand to spend the night, or a couple of nights, if you need to”. Thankfully, I was financially independent and living on my own, but that’s the kind of pervasive environment that existed (or at least that I perceived).

She was, perhaps predictably, fine. Mum was the next day, and was fine in the end, though perhaps a bit surprised. Dad was the day after, and was fine, too. In fact, all the family — grandparents, sister, aunts, uncles — were totally fine once they got over the initial surprise. I was so incredibly lucky. I know others for whom it was not fine.

A few months later, my (future) husband and I went to watch Brokeback Mountain in the theatre, which was both the most exhilarating and terrifying public act of queerness I’d yet undertaken to date. For weeks after, my computer desktop picture was a still from the film of Ennis’ and Jack’s shirts hanging in a wardrobe. It was a way of signalling my gayness without having it be obvious. I felt like such a rebel.

And the thing about closet doors, is that once they open a little bit, they often fly off, splintering into a thousand pieces. For the first time in 23 years I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin, at least personally. I was still in the closet professionally. My supervisor had a bumper sticker that said “Families are Gay”, which I was never sure how to take (years later when I recounted this take, he told me his son had put it there, and it was intended to be indicative of support).

But before I was out in the ecology/ornithology community, I was certainly out on campus, heading up the university’s “Safe Space” project. This was a safe, controlled environment that I knew a priori would be supportive. People came to workshops to learn, essentially, Queer 101 – terminology, what to do when someone comes out to you, where to direct them for help locally if needed. In this time I also met my husband and we moved in together. And then we went off to Newfoundland for my PhD.

If the move to my MSc signalled by personal coming out, my PhD was my professional equivalent. My first meeting with my supervisor (in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on the way to field work in Alaska), he asked about my wife. “Partner”, I corrected him, and tried to suppress the butterflies.

During those four years in Newfoundland, I attended my first Pride (2011), got legally married (2010), binge-watched Queer as Folk one Christmas break for the first time since I saw it on TV a decade ago, and despite being out, I was constantly linked romantically by other staff and students to some of my (single) women fellow grad students (much to our collective amusement at the time).

I also came across my first LGBTQ+ scientist, Joan Roughgarden, and met my first actual honest-to-goodness queer scientist in real life, when a fellow grad student invited a former colleague of his who recently took up a faculty job in California. That lunch in the grad pub was a bit of an “aha!” moment, where I realised for the first time that being gay and a scientist were entirely compatible. Until then, I had always felt my life had at least two separate components that would never overlap. That year, they united to form a perfect circle.

Fast-forward to a postdoc in Saskatchewan, and the founding of The Lab and Field where I had an outlet, for the first time, for exploring life as a queer scientist. Moving to the UK in 2014, and a fairly vibrant Twitter community resulted in the LGBTSTEMinar in 2015, a one-day STEM conference for LGBTQ+ folk that I think is beyond amazing. I still remember when Beth first mentioned the idea, and I pleaded with her to wait until I returned from field work in December 2014 to hold it (so I’m at last partially to blame for the January timing… sorry everyone).

I now have the safety, confidence, and support to be out personally, as well as professionally, though challenges remain (and likely always will, at least during my lifetime). And looking back on my post from 5 years ago, some of the challenges have been overcome, some remain, and new ones have arisen, but those, dear reader, will be the subject of a future post.