I’ve just returned from a conference, but it was unlike any other conference I’ve attended. The attendees weren’t drawn together because we share similar research interests, or work in similar places, or are from similar institutions. We had physical chemists, medical physicists, medical geneticists, engineers, mathematicians, and conservation biologists from academia, industry, and NGOs. What drew us together was that we were all (or >90% of us were) LGBT* scientists attending the LGBT STEMinar

I’ve written before about the need for LGBT scientists to make links, the challenges we share, regardless of discipline, and how conferences can help that. Which is why, when Beth Montague-Hellen raised the idea of a conference targeted specifically at LGBT scientists, I was quite keen to see how it would turn out.

The actual event in Sheffield on Friday blew me away.

There were more than 80 LGBT scientists attending from all over the UK (and one from Sweden!), plus a few expats living in the UK, such as myself. In addition to amazing high-quality science, it was a chance for us to, frankly, be ourselves. Never have I been to a conference with such a wonderful sense of humour, camaraderie, and palpable excitement among those attending. We didn’t have to worry about awkward coffee break small talk about partners, reactions of colleagues, or be guarded about which pronouns to use. All of these coping mechanisms that hide our true selves are exhausting, and the sense of liberation around the room was infectious.

We opened with Dave Smith’s talk ’No Sexuality Please, We’re Scientists’, based on some of the research he did (and that I highlighted) a few years ago, on the lack of visible LGBT science role models. It was an excellent primer for the day to come, and a video will be up on Youtube in the near future is on Youtube.

What followed were around 15 oral presentations from other scientists, ample time to socialize during long coffee breaks / lunch, and an opportunity to view about a dozen posters.

The day wrapped with an inspiring talk by Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, who highlighted the challenges many LGBT folk in STEM still face – the feeling that by being ’out’, it might impede career progression. But the message that I took away was much bigger. A number of surveys have revealed that even though departments of workplaces may be accepting, though not overtly so, LGBT staff and students still feel a lack of support. It’s not good enough to be accepting, we have to be encouraging.

I’m of the belief that by being an out visible LGBT scientist, it will, in however small a way, be useful for others to see. Not everyone is necessarily comfortable with this role, but I’ve chosen to own in a bit. And since I started blogging about being an out gay academic back in 2013 (though I’ve been out in my personal and professional life for more than a decade), several other LGBT scientists have gotten in touch to discuss the challenges we face as a group, or their own personal journey. I don’t necessarily have all the answers, but the starting point for the conversation is further ahead than many, or all of their straight mentors.

So bringing together all these LGBT scientists who would otherwise not encounter each other (or at least not in nearly so large a number) is a Good Thing.

One of the other most amazing things about this conference is how Twitter-driven it was. Many of us knew each other via Twitter, though had never met in real life. Before Friday, I had only met 3 or 4 other out LGBT scientists. I can now add so many more. More than a few people commented at the end of the day how many new Twitter followers they’d received simply though other attendees. I’ve added as many as I could recall to the QueerSTEM Twitter list, so follow along if you’re interested (or let me know if you’d like to be added!). The conference hashtag apparent trended during the day, and there were more than 500 tweets (which will eventually be organized into a Storify).

There were also many other LGBT scientists (both in the UK and elsewhere) following along on Twitter, and many expressed a wish to attend such a conference. My advice is to just do it. It’s a non-trivial amount of work to pull off, and is likely more challenging in Canada or the US owing to distances between universities, but it is so, so worthwhile. And Beth (and her wife Kate, and all other other helpers from Sheffield) pulled off an amazing day.

Following the official wrap-up function, several of us headed out for a drink and bite to eat. Now, everyone has their own journey when dealing with their sexuality, and had the conference happened during my MSc 10 years ago, I likely wouldn’t have been too $%!&-scared to attend. And many folks live or go to university or work in places where there aren’t that many other queer folk around so the idea of or ability to go out socially with other out LGBT people isn’t possible. So this was clearly a case where the non-science part of a conference could be equally important, and highlights, at least in my mind, the importance of being out and visible.

Lack of diversity in science is a hugely important issue, and our conference was by no means an exception. The vast majority of attendees were white, most were male. I have no idea how this reflects the population of LGBT scientists in the UK, or UK scientists in general, but as we move forward to discussing both visible and invisible diversity, it’s something that we need to keep in mind.

It looks like this might become an annual-ish thing, so I hope to see more of you at the 2017 LGBT STEMinar.


*A shorthand, I admit, for any non-straight person