It’s Pride month, and this year there are some fantastic initiatives around like 500 Queer Scientists, and the International Day of LGBTQ+ People in STEM. Rainbow crosswalks are no longer relegated to the likes of Sydney, San Francisco, or London. Equal marriage is now the law in >25 countries. And yet challenges still remain.
Five years ago, I wrote the first LGBTQ+-themed post here on The Lab and Field, which was my attempt to articulate to straight colleagues the nature of the unique challenges faced by queer scientists. Since that time I’ve written many more, but there has always been one that I’ve never consigned to a single cohesive story, at least not in this forum – my own journey.
When I first came out in 2005 (and indeed before then, too), I latched on to these kinds of personal narratives for the pure, simple fact that it so closely echoed my own experiences, feelings, and anxieties. I’d religiously watch new videos from I’m From Driftwood, or read interviews on websites long since forgotten or expired. And I found them profoundly helpful, comforting, and affirming. But the one obvious gap, at least for me, was that none of them were by scientists, or mentioned that side of things.
So it’s with that target audience in mind that I share this, and hope that at least some of you find it useful, helpful, or at least entertaining. And if you’re one of those people, like me back then, know that there is an amazing community of LGBTQ+ folk in STEM; and you can always reach out, too. I’ve been there.
I grew up in peri-urban eastern Canada in a city of about 80,000 in the 1990s, and I was a profoundly uncool child. I’d much prefer to write computer programs in QBASIC, cycle around looking for out-of-province license plates (and enumerating them, proving summary statistics each week, though not accounting for survey effort)., and finding refuge in the theatre. Well, until I was awkwardly cast Motel in Fiddler on the Roof (the groom in the wedding). But hey ho there we go. From about spring break of 1995, I knew I wasn’t typical, but I didn’t label it until much later. Deeply closeted in high school (what a hellish, terrible, awful experience in which I used studying and grades and improv to keep up the facade of the wunderkind geek before it was cool, but more cool (and more safe) than being the gay kid), I can still recall a conversation with a good friend at the time. He’d asked what single piece of technology from Star Trek I would most covet. I replied asking if the female character Seven of Nine counted as technology, to which he exclaimed to our group “Hey guys, I just proved that Alex isn’t gay!”. I felt awful.
I also remember in about grade 8 or 9 taking a careers questionnaire which was discussed among the class. I was utterly mortified to find I’d scored the best match with “social worker” or “scientist”. Again, I felt awful.
It was around this time that the US version of the television show Queer as Folk came out, airing late at night on a cable network. I watched it, feeling guilty in undertaking what was essentially a clandestine mission each Friday. The finale to Season 1 featured one of the main characters, a high school student, getting beat in the head with a baseball bat, only about 3 years after Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in Laramie, Wyoming. If the narrative of the 1980s and early 1990s was one of HIV, that of the late 1990s was violence and kids getting kicked out of their homes (not me, but I know of many others, none of which would’ve made the news). It didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
In undergrad, I continued to be profoundly uncool, not drinking, not partying, and spending time studying, in the lab, or the library, but again spending time in the theatre. Despite the generally welcoming nature of the town, the campus, and no doubt many of the faculty at this small liberal arts university, it took until the summer before my senior year (2004) before I finally said “Welp, I guess I’m gay?” to myself in the bathroom mirror, choking down a lump in my throat because I was at work.
This was the summer after Ontario had legalised same-sex marriage, and the debate was raging through the other provinces and territories of Canada. Unlike the horrendously acrimonious public vote in Australia in 2017, equal marriage in Canada was all debated in the courts or various legislatures. But the vitriol remained. And being in eastern Canada, a place with a fairly high concentration of “good ol’ boys”, it wasn’t the most positive and encouraging atmosphere. So the obvious next steps was to run away to a small offshore island!
The first summer of my masters research, on a small island in the Bay of Fundy, was one of incredible growth, professionally and personally. I learned so much about seabirds, conservation, ecology, wildlife management, and science more broadly, but I was also profoundly depressed (and undiagnosed) as I tried to figure out who (and occasionally, what) I was, and how others would interact with me. Remote offshore islands aren’t the greatest place when one’s mental health isn’t that great. But that summer, distracting myself with the hard work and desire to impress a new supervisor, I saw a faint hint of a crack in the closet door. And I was terrified.
That summer/autumn, I had a 20-30 minute walk to campus each day, and to make the journey more enjoyable, I’d pop in a CD to my discman (it was 2005 after all, and I wasn’t cool enough for an iPod). I’d play a single CD for a week or so, and then move on to another. One week I put on my recently-purchased Death Cab for Cutie CD “Plans”. Which in retrospect probably wasn’t the wisest thing for someone with some pretty not-fun depression and identity issues. But the music echoed my mood, and at the time I found it comforting. Now, I can’t listen to it at all.
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.
A few months later, my (future) husband and I went to watch Brokeback Mountain in the theatre, which was both the most exhilarating and terrifying public act of queerness I’d yet undertaken to date. For weeks after, my computer desktop picture was a still from the film of Ennis’ and Jack’s shirts hanging in a wardrobe. It was a way of signalling my gayness without having it be obvious. I felt like such a rebel.
And the thing about closet doors, is that once they open a little bit, they often fly off, splintering into a thousand pieces. For the first time in 23 years I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin, at least personally. I was still in the closet professionally. My supervisor had a bumper sticker that said “Families are Gay”, which I was never sure how to take (years later when I recounted this take, he told me his son had put it there, and it was intended to be indicative of support).
But before I was out in the ecology/ornithology community, I was certainly out on campus, heading up the university’s “Safe Space” project. This was a safe, controlled environment that I knew a priori would be supportive. People came to workshops to learn, essentially, Queer 101 – terminology, what to do when someone comes out to you, where to direct them for help locally if needed. In this time I also met my husband and we moved in together. And then we went off to Newfoundland for my PhD.
If the move to my MSc signalled by personal coming out, my PhD was my professional equivalent. My first meeting with my supervisor (in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on the way to field work in Alaska), he asked about my wife. “Partner”, I corrected him, and tried to suppress the butterflies.
During those four years in Newfoundland, I attended my first Pride (2011), got legally married (2010), binge-watched Queer as Folk one Christmas break for the first time since I saw it on TV a decade ago, and despite being out, I was constantly linked romantically by other staff and students to some of my (single) women fellow grad students (much to our collective amusement at the time).
I also came across my first LGBTQ+ scientist, Joan Roughgarden, and met my first actual honest-to-goodness queer scientist in real life, when a fellow grad student invited a former colleague of his who recently took up a faculty job in California. That lunch in the grad pub was a bit of an “aha!” moment, where I realised for the first time that being gay and a scientist were entirely compatible. Until then, I had always felt my life had at least two separate components that would never overlap. That year, they united to form a perfect circle.
Fast-forward to a postdoc in Saskatchewan, and the founding of The Lab and Field where I had an outlet, for the first time, for exploring life as a queer scientist. Moving to the UK in 2014, and a fairly vibrant Twitter community resulted in the LGBTSTEMinar in 2015, a one-day STEM conference for LGBTQ+ folk that I think is beyond amazing. I still remember when Beth first mentioned the idea, and I pleaded with her to wait until I returned from field work in December 2014 to hold it (so I’m at last partially to blame for the January timing… sorry everyone).
I now have the safety, confidence, and support to be out personally, as well as professionally, though challenges remain (and likely always will, at least during my lifetime). And looking back on my post from 5 years ago, some of the challenges have been overcome, some remain, and new ones have arisen, but those, dear reader, will be the subject of a future post.