Recently, David Smith, a chemistry professor from York, England, posted a video on Youtube that asked “Where are the gay scientists?”  He went on to compare two lists of influential people – one from the general public, of which about 10% were scientists, and one of influential LGBT people, which included 1(ish) scientist in the UK.  Using Wikipedia as a launching point, he also revealed that there was but one living UK LGBT scientist (Sophie Wilson).

So how does Canada stack up?

LGBT scientists wikipedia

Pretty poorly.  Richard Summerbell is at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health, but Bruce Bagemihl is a linguist by training (though he has written about homosexual behaviour in other animals).

So where the heck are the queer scientists in Canada?

There are organizations in the US, like NOGLSTP, and programs like Out To Innovate that out academics in the US can take advantage of.  But the general attitude toward and culture of LGBT folks in the US is different from that in Canada.  North of the 49th, we have had same-sex marriage nation-wide since 2005 (and with that, the same benefits for same-sex partners as our straight neighbours), and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (gender identity still has a way to go, sadly), for example.

But while we might not face the same legal issues as our queer cousins south of the border, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that we do need to talk about in the context of scientific research, academic culture, and our lives as out LGBT scientists.  For example:

  • Travel to locations that are less welcoming of LGBT people (including places were being gay is illegal, some of which might be surprising)
  • Coming out to colleagues, lab-mates, supervisors, and students (including those from less-accepting social backgrounds and countries)
  • Fieldwork in small crews for long periods of time where personal details will inevitably come out (pardon the pun)
  • and generally being “out” in academia

True, these are not strictly “Canadian problems”.  During the fight for marriage equality in Canada, organizations like Egale Canada were a strong unifying force in the LGBT community (much like the HRC is in the US today), but today, they seem to have fallen by the wayside (at least in terms of initiatives apart from their push for gay-straight alliances in public schools).

As an openly gay scientist, these are things I think about on a fairly regular basis.  I want to hear how others in my position have handled these situations, and what they struggle with.  I want to hear about what we can do to foster inclusive environments at our scientific workplaces.  I want to know how we can educate our straight colleagues about the issues their LGBT students and colleagues encounter.

This summer, I met Kyle Hodder, and it was the first time I had discussions about being a queer scientist with another “out” queer scientist.  It was the moment when the “only gay in the village” shroud was lifted.

So where are all the queer Canadian scientists? I think I can certainly learn from them, and hope that I can offer them something from my experiences.

The benefits of out queer Canadian scientists

Another thing that David Smith did was conduct a short anonymous survey to see how welcoming his department was to LGBTQ students.  Here’s a sampling of the response:

Many of the issues LGBTQ folk deal with are country- (or state- or cultural-) specific; having a network of out queer Canadian scientist to mentor each other, and students and other young professionals puts the discussion into a Canadian context.

What’s wrong with the status quo?

Queer scientists are largely invisible, as we’re part of a hidden minority.  The same argument has been made in sports for the last few years to encourage athletes to come out as role models

“The need for positive roles models for gay youth is illustrated by the It Gets Better Project, created by writer Dan Savage in 2010. Savage developed the project in response to the highrates of suicide among gay youth; gays are significantly more likely to attempt suicide compared with heterosexual youth (21.5 percent versus 4.2 percent), and among gay youth, the risk of attempting suicide is 20 percent greater in environments characterized by homophobia or lack of positive support services. As gay youth progress to adulthood, these stresses may continue to manifest themselves in poor health outcomes. My own recent research, published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, drew on a sample of 1,000 gay men from Atlanta, and showed that gay men who reported that they heard statements such as “being gay is not normal” in their youth were more likely as adults to engage in sexual risk-taking. Similarly, Diana Burgess and colleagues at the University of Minnesota noted that compared with heterosexuals, gay adults are 68 percent more likely to experience depression, and 56 percent more likely to experience anxiety. Ilan Meyer, a senior scholar at UCLA’s School of Law, offers an explanation for these disparities through his “Theory of Minority Stress,” suggesting that these health inequities are rooted in discrimination, with negative behaviors acting as coping mechanisms for repeated exposure to stigma-related stress.

Growing up without visible gay role models sends a clear message to gay youth that they are different. A lack of high profile gay athletes sends the message that they don’t belong in mainstream sports. These social scripts act to perpetuate a division of gay and straight; all youth, regardless of sexual orientation, are sent a clear message that gay people either don’t belong in sport, or must hide their orientation until their career is over. As my own research shows, these messages have lasting impacts — sometimes fatal — on health behaviors as adults.”

The very same arguments could be applied to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

A modest proposal

Let’s start connecting.  If you’re an out queer Canadian scientist, drop me a line or get in touch on Twitter (or tell me where you’ve all been hanging out, and how I can get an invite!).  Let’s chat about how we can get a conversation going, how we can engage our LGBT colleagues who aren’t out professionally.  Let’s figure out the best way to keep the dialogue going, and form links among ourselves.  But most importantly, let’s learn from each other, and give back to each other from our experiences.  Most of us have probably experienced the feeling of being “the only gay in the village” already. Science doesn’t have to be that way, too.

With thanks to Kyle Hodder for thoughts, encouragement, and witty banter.