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.