This post was written by an anonymous member in the geosciences who identifies with the LGBT community~
Being part of the LGBT community and a scientist can be a lonely experience. I have been involved with academia in some way since I began my freshman year in 2003. During this time, I have met just six openly queer people in the sciences. This includes my time at three different universities, in four different departments, and at three professional conferences. Of course there were probably others, but where were they? It’s a question that many are asking (Why Is Science So Straight?, Is Science Too Straight?). From what I’ve read, there are about the same number of self-reported LGBT people in the sciences as in any other career field, but they are not as out as some other professions.
Yoder and Mattheis (2015) created an online survey of LGBT people in STEM fields (Queer in STEM) and published their results in the Journal of Homosexuality. A second survey was completed just a few months ago, but the results from the first survey showed: 1) participants were more open about their queerness with family and friends far more so than with colleagues and students, 2) individuals in STEM academia were about as open as those in nonacademic fields, 3) however, people in geosciences, engineering, mathematics, and psychology were less likely to be out than those in life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences. They also found that people belonging to departments with more women were more likely to be out. Lastly, they confirmed that those who belong to departments that are perceived as being accepting and supportive were more likely to be out than those in departments less accepting and supportive.
So we’re out there, but there are many obstacles. Shame, fear, and the other usual suspects keep people in the closet. But in the sciences, there is the old idea that only the research matters, and the personal is not brought into the lab (‘No sexuality please, we’re scientists‘). It may be the there are some LGBT people who don’t care about revealing this aspect of themselves, and it may be indifference, not hostility on the part of their straight peers. Queer scientists are writing about their experiences and bringing awareness of our issues to a larger audience (Why scientists should march with Pride, LGBT in STEM: Progress but still many obstacles).
For me, whether I’m out or not has depended on a lot of variables. When I was an undergraduate in the early to mid-2000s, I was very cautious. As a freshman, only roommate knew, but I let more people know as I got older and made closer friendships. I was pretty comfortable with my bio cohort, but I really panicked at field camp because I just wasn’t sure how they would respond. It became a non-issue, I really worried about it. Grad school was fine, and I actually met other LGBT people in that department for the first time! However, there was an incident that has stayed with me. We were having a discussion about wild times in undergrad, and I told a story about going to the club (a gay one, of course), and one grad student said “Oh my god, everything has to be gay with you! You mention it all the time!” But that’s my life, and it was a gay club, so that is important. I’m still bothered by this.
I’ve been an adjunct for two different departments. With the geology department, I had no issues coming out right away to the faculty. Of course, I knew many of them already, so that helped. I even discussed it a bit with my chair. With the chemistry department, I’ve been very careful. I’m out to only two coworkers, and I don’t see that number changing anytime soon. As I’ve started preparing for new career as a teacher, I’m wondering what it will be like in a high school. There are no state or federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, so I may have to be in the closet again at work.
It’s been interesting writing and researching for this, because it’s made me look back on my time as a student, and I can see the progress we’ve made. The presence of persons who identify with the LGBT community is getting better, and we just have to be as authentic and honest as we can safely be. So if you are LGBT and can’t find anyone else, know that there are other scientists like you, and you will find us eventually!
Citations: Jeremy B. Yoder PhD & Allison Mattheis PhD (2015) Queer in STEM: Workplace Experiences Reported in a National Survey of LGBTQA Individuals in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers, Journal of Homosexuality, 63:1, 1-27, DOI: