Rethinking my views on LGBT in STEM

I’ve never been sure where I stand with the association of sexuality and professional status. I’ve always leaned towards the side of considering it a private matter, not something to be either concealed or promoted. It is a personal identifier, not a professional one. Yet I’ve agreed with the notion that, as one clever person put it to me recently, if it helps someone, then it is a good thing. Maybe I’ve just been reluctant to be the one helping.

Recently there was an LGBT-focussed seminar day, where scientists and engineers came together to present their work and discuss issues around being LGBT in STEM. While I didn’t attend, I did follow the tweets and it has prompted some thought and several incidental conversations since. I wondered why all of these extremely clever people thought this to be an issue of great importance, while I was sitting on the fence.

I came out in the last year of my PhD; the imminent void facing me probably prompted a desire to remove at least one future concern. My main memory from that time is the terrible sadness I felt when a very lovely colleague asked me why I hadn’t said so before. They were bringing another colleague to a gay club every Sunday and I could have joined them. The utter futility of all those years of secrecy seemed such a waste.

So when I started my post-doc, I was an out person. On my first day, there was a query about a partner and who she was, and I mentioned a he, and all was well. I’m not sure whether it is on purpose, but ever since I’ve opted to tell the most trusted gossip I can find early on, and any awkward pronoun conversations are avoided evermore. I even managed (accidentally) to get it into my interview presentation at Edinburgh.

So why don’t I see it as an issue? It’s probably because it’s never been an issue for me. My memory of not being out has faded as it is half a lifetime ago. My experience has only been in academia, which has always been an actively supportive environment. That’s my frame of reference.

There can be no doubt that there are issues around supporting LGBT people in a university environment. It’s well documented that at school level, there is significant stress and trauma and associated mental health problems regarding LGBT pupils. And there are workplace studies that discuss the reticence of employees and the associated discomfort of coming out in an unsupportive environment. So while there is not much research for UK (although see here for a good article) it would be folly to think that in between these two phases of life, that there are not issues for our students at university which are worrying.

And it is sad to think that at a time when they should be most free to express and explore, and focussing on my thermodynamics notes, some of my students are instead worrying about how to distract their peers from conversations about what happened at the weekend.

So back to that fence: is it my role to advocate? What does that even mean? I am uncomfortable about the term ‘role model’. Conversations in the last while have certainly changed my thinking, in that I am now leaning towards the feeling that doing something is a good idea, but now I’m not quite sure what that something should be.

Some useful links from the LGBT STEMinar:
Dave Smith’s keynote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p937rh2xBY
Elena Rdz-Falcon’s keynote: https://youtu.be/Sws5EHtY6eU
Good blog post on this seminar: https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/why-the-lgbtsteminar-succeeded-was-needed/ 
Tweets from the day are under the hashtag #LGBTSteminar

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