I grew up in Atlantic Canada, a region comprising the provinces of Newfoundland & Labrador (9+ years), Nova Scotia (4+ years), Prince Edward Island (sadly never lived there), and New Brunswick (15+ years). It’s the sort of area where within about 5 minutes you can easily find a common connection (you both went to school with Jack’s cousin’s brother), where doors are still kept unlocked, and if you’re lost you just knock on the nearest door, and they set you right (after a cup of Red Rose tea and a Dare maple leaf cookie).
I spent uncountable nights camping in fields, forests, beaches, mountains, and rivers and was totally at home. I’ve hiked every marked trail in Fundy National Park (including two complete “Fundy Circuit” treks, a connected loop of 45 km of trail, including about half a dozen river crossings traversing the park). It’s where I did my very first field work, at the Point Lepreau Bird Observatory back in 2004. Where I discovered my love of the outdoors, working at Cape Enrage from 2002-2004. And where, despite not living “back home” for almost a decade, I still feel drawn.
I cut my teeth as a field biologist, working 3+ month field seasons for 9 years between 2005-2015, in some pretty remote places (check out a map here), some of which were me and one other person with no resupply for 11 weeks. I loved it. I had amazing techs and collaborators in the field, and I’d hire each and every one of them again if I could. We weathered massive gales, volcanic eruptions, semi-aquatic beach landings, and even one 3-day stranding. We lost generators and batteries halfway through the season, tents were destroyed, water in short supply, and challenges seemingly insurmountable. But we always made it through. I loved it.
What links my time in the field with growing up (and living) in Atlantic Canada is remoteness. They’re both places where there are few people, where it’s easy to get away or be alone, and teeming with nature. They’re also both not the most queer-friendly.
Here, dear reader, is the reconciliation I have yet to achieve: my love of ruralness/remoteness and my queerness.
And that pains me.
So it was with a stomach-clenching feeling that I read about the intentional vandalism of a rainbow crosswalk outside Riverview High School earlier this summer. That was my high school. The place where, for four years, I successfully(?) hid who I was out of fear while savouring my first introduction to science and research.
I’ve also had two field work instances where I’ve felt either unsafe or purposefully excluded because I was out (though lots of others where I’ve felt isolated).
Being a queer scientist has been, for me, a series of reconciliations. I still remember when I was told that my out-of-semester research component of my honours thesis (4 weeks counting migrating seabirds in southern New Brunswick) would be *paid*. Until then I had no idea one could be paid to do science. I mean, I obviously knew several professional scientists at the university and the local Canadian Wildlife Service office, but that *I* could be paid to do science was revolutionary. I still remember telling a good friend and mentor, and he simply smiled.
And of course, the process of coming out is one giant reconciliation, of two lives lived in parallel, neither of which was entirely satisfactory. And at the time I first came out (September 2005), the advice included “have some cash, and a place to stay if things go badly”, and was only a few short years after Mathew Shepard’s murder.
Then for several years I thought I had squared every circle, and was wonderfully out and wonderfully science-ing. But it took meeting a visiting speaker in 2010 for the other shoe to drop: I could be a queer scientist. It seems silly to say, but I’d had no concept of what that meant, how to do it, or why one would even want to. But over lunch, it was like a wall came down (the product, dear reader, is a growing corpus of posts on this increasingly queer blog).
So it’s in this vein that I share with you the latest challenge I find myself facing: my love of rural places, the very places where I find it more challenging to be open and out.
Atlantic Canada has a reputation for being relatively conservative (particularly outside of major centres), strongly religious, and where “the men are men, and the women are too”. Of Canadian regions, it had the lowest support for same-sex marriage in a 2019 poll (PDF). Yes, there are wonderfully accepting pockets, and of course it will have a different level of acceptance than where we currently live, half an hour from central London on a fast train. I just wish it was slightly less awkward for queer folk.
This reconciliation was brought to the fore when I watched the 2017 British film God’s Own Country which, without spoiling, features the struggles of a young Yorkshire farmer, and the two lives he seems forced to lead. I do highly recommended it. Though not parallel, there were definitely glimmers of similarity between myself and Johnny Saxby (though, thankfully, not the drinking to excess), both looking to merge who we are with where we are (or indeed where we might want to be).
On the field work side, it was particularly wonderful to see the British Antarctic Survey’s team at King Edward Point raising the rainbow flag on LGBT STEM Day. And it reminded me how much I ended up code-switching in the field, even through I’m still out, and that’s generally known among my fellow field workers. But I’ve never brought a rainbow flag to the field, though that will change on my next field trip.
And perhaps, eventually, we’ll end up back in Atlantic Canada, queer, happy, and rural.