I don’t know how many times I’ve heard from my fellow scientists (and others) something along the lines of, “It shouldn’t be any more important that I’m a lesbian than that I have brown eyes.” The cultural norm seems to be to downplay being gay, to try to make it not relevant, not an issue, let’s move on please, ok? So when I’ve been networking and advocating and what-have-you for queer science issues, I often get asked why I care? Why does this matter so much to me? And it’s been hard for me to put that into words. But with a few years’ insights and hindsights, I’m beginning to articulate what I find at the tension between being queer and being a scientist.
To start with, there’s the simple fact that, as a grad student, science is much more a part of my identity than any job has ever been. Though previously I’d studied science and worked in science, though I’ve been the one with a science background in a multidisciplinary crowd, this is the first time that I feel fully justified in claiming the label: “I’m a scientist.” And it’s as much a statement of who I am, not just a job I do. It’s not just a suit I put on for 9-to-5 and then go back to my real life. To undertake – much less complete – a Ph.D. demands a deep motivation and commitment. I’ve thrown my heart and soul into this work, damnit, and it’s drawn plenty of blood, sweat, and tears along the way. I don’t know how to do that halfway, to give that much of myself and yet be only partly present. I can’t keep part of me tucked away in some little box and only let it out after working hours.
As I started to see myself as a scientist, I was actively looking around me for role models, starting with the scientists in my department and related fields at the University, seeing all the variation in how they do their work and live their lives and make it all happen. And it was a bit chilling when I realized that I didn’t know a single GLBTQ scientist. If we’re on the order of one in ten…where the heck are the gay scientists? Mind you, I was very thoroughly networked into the GLBTQ community on campus, and had met queer profs from plenty of other disciplines – but not a single scientist, engineer, or mathematician.
When I looked at my role models, and I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, I seriously started to wonder if I was in the absolute wrong field. There’s probably a good reason there aren’t any gay people here…maybe I shouldn’t be here, either.
It runs a lot deeper than just the invisibility of GLBTQ professors and other scientists. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m very involved in the queer community on campus. And throughout all of that, I’m doing it as a grad student. The queer community is during work hours and part of my professional life in a way it’s never been before. So for me, one part of being a grad student is going and joining in the work and play of the GLBTQ community. But another part of being a grad student is coming back to my part of campus, into my building, and stepping into a world that feels like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
If you came to my part of campus a few years back, you wouldn’t find a single flyer for GLBTQ events at the University. (it’s slightly better now) Walk the hallways in my building, and you still won’t find a single Ally sticker – and the only rainbow emblems or queer-related anythings on someone’s office door are on mine. It’s enough to make my head spin, where my professional life juxtaposes cutting-edge queer activism and this deafening silence. All of a sudden, when I’m back “home” in the core of my grad-student scientist’s world, all the passion and energy, all the hopes and dreams, all the parts of me that came so alive in the queer community – that silence says there’s no space for those parts of me to exist here.
Don’t worry, Gentle Reader, I won’t end the story on that depressing note. I’m not one to just put my head down and merely try to make it through alive. I became an ecologist because I wanted to save the world, right? So I’ve been doing what I can to change things. I’ve been networking heavily, especially among GLBTQ grad students, and finding some professors as well. (One wryly-amusing anecdote comes when I was talking with one of the straight professors in my field, and she outed two gay profs in my department to me. She assumed I knew – they were out to their fellow faculty, after all! But students don’t meet faculty members’ partners the way other faculty do.) It’s amazing the support and strength that comes from having a community of one’s peers. We’ve started a local queer-science group and used that as a vehicle to increase our visibility in the STEM fields here and recruit both on-campus and through local high-school GSA’s. I’ve found a very receptive and supportive (though passively so) climate among colleagues in my department and college, and I’ve discovered some amazing allies in unexpected places.
Things are definitely changing – slowly, with effort, but even something as massive as academic scientific culture can change course, as long as even a small delta-vee keeps on pushing steadily along.
And in the end, it’s because I love science so much that I keep on pushing.