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.