I’ve just returned from a month in the field on Henderson Island in the South Pacific. The trip was, for several reasons, a career highlight for me. I’ve known about the Pitcairn Island since I was an awkward, precocial, pain in my grade 5 teacher’s side and we were asked to do a Geography project on a country (Pitcairn, I should point out, is a UK Overseas Territory, and was therefore not eligible because they are not totally self-governing. I think I ended up doing another obscure Micronesian island state, which largely entailed copying sections from the World Book Encyclopedia in the library). But I digress. The point is, this was the first field expedition in 15 years where I didn’t know (or hire) everyone beforehand. We had scientists, journalists, storytellers, divers, artists, and more amongst our group of 13. We were based on the supply ship that runs between New Zealand, the Gambier Islands of French Polynesia, and Pitcairn – the MV Silver Supporter – which was on this occasion crewed by a Russian & Lithuanian crew of absolutely fantastic people. And if any of them happen to be reading this, what follows isn’t directed at you or anyone else, but is the confluence of years of collective societal directions, expectations, and norms.
Since returning, the inevitable first question to come from 95% of people is “so how was it?”. In a scientific sense, it was pretty successful. We got most of the data we wanted (only one of about 8 projects didn’t materialise for reasons we couldn’t control), which is pretty good for a 2-week expedition. And I definitely met some colleagues that I would love to work with again. So after describing that, and mentioning that I did manage to see all 5 endemic bird species on Henderson and the one on Pitcairn (yay!), I often wrap it up or start in on some of the longer stories. But when the person asking how it was is one of my queer pals, before we get to the stories, I wrap up the summary of my experience with one more tidbit: it was *exceptionally* heterosexual.
Now, I’m a white, male, cis scientist with a permanent job and from a country where my human rights are, for the most part, protected. I carry a lot of privilege. But being the “only gay on the boat” for a month, despite the presence of two good friends, was still … noticeable.
Well so what? I’m sure no one cares, I hear some (non-queer) folk say. But field work brings that extra layer of social interaction – there are only 12 other people with whom you will interact for a month. You’ve no choice but to interact with them, and them with you, during work, meal times, and even in shared cabins on the ship. And you can’t just take a break or get away.
What many straight friends & colleagues may not appreciate is that, to some degree, every new interaction, every new place, and every new person has a layer of risk assessment for lots of queer folk (including yours truly). Will I come out? If so how? What will the likely reactions be? How safe will I be? How will it affect social interactions? Will that have professional consequences? Can I get out if I need to? What should I say if they mention my wedding ring? Or assume the opposite-sex person I’m with is my partner? Is it safe to speak up and call out someone’s heterosexist comment? If you think queer folk don’t go through such questions several times a day, think again. It happens in the field, in the department, at conferences and meetings… everywhere. For my last month-long field expedition, I need both hands and feet at least twice over to count all the times these questions passed through my thoughts, however fleetingly.
And in an international context, there are additional layers about local laws, customs, cultures, and that of the other international expedition members, conference attendees, etc. The consequences manifest differently for different folks. I tend to “straighten” myself and my vocabulary (yes, ugh, I know, and I wish I didn’t but hey there’s lots of fun consequences of growing up closeted in the 90s!).
So why am I telling you this? I’m a pretty resilient chap and won’t suffer any lasting harm from this trip (especially now that the 2cm bit of tree is out of my left shin). It’s because I’m reminded of something one of my first field techs told me on a pretty grim day in 2006 when all our field kit kept breaking and it was pouring with rain — “It could be worse!”, I quipped. “Yes, but it could also be a hell of a lot better” was their reply.
I often get asked “What’s it like being queer in science?”, and this is partly prompted from a fab twitter discussion. What if we shifted the question to be “what can I do to make it better for queer folks in science?”. In that twitter thread, Dan Simpson flagged something that I’ve really struggled to articulate, writing that queer folk don’t have “object permanence” for most folks. That is, “they kinda forget about us and organise everything accordingly. Then when they have to remember we exist, they often fall apart.” There’s also no way for me to know someone’s thoughts… you could be the most wonderfully accepting, affirming, validating ally, but allyship is demonstrated through actions, not self-identification. And unless you demonstrate that, many of those questions will pass through my stream of consciousness.
So what can you do to make it better for queer folk in science, and particularly in the field? Here are a few random thoughts:
- ditch the macho temptation to lift the most field gear, hike the fastest, carry the most.
- have a rainbow sticker on your office door? Why not have one on some of your field kit?
- Call. Out. Heteronormative. Crap. From. Others. On. The. Expedition.
- if your trip is international, read up on the local climate for queer folk in advance and offer support if needed
- if your accommodation is split by binary perceived gender, might want to think a bit about that one (h/t Lewis Bartlett)
- think about how things will be perceived by a queer colleague. What’s that, don’t want to me thinking about it all the time? Tough beans, because we certainly do.
I’ll post more about the expedition, its science and stories in the coming months as we go through thousands of images, crunch thousands of data points, and as projects come from the various expedition members. Working on Henderson has been a goal of mine for more than 5 years, and I’m thrilled that I was able to go. Next time, though, I’ll try to make it just a bit more queer.