LGBT STEM Day: Time to Talk About It
“It’s ok to be gay – just don’t tell anyone.” That was the advice that a senior administrator gave me as I started my career as an assistant professor. My would-be mentor didn’t feel she needed to name the consequences of being out as they were obvious. As women we were already sorely underrepresented in our fields. Why call further attention to yourself? She tacitly implied that it was the safe thing to do as it shielded me from homophobic jokes, harassment or discrimination. And, surely, it was good to not make people uncomfortable or, heaven forbid, further rock the boat.
As my LGBT colleagues can attest, being silent never really makes you feel safe. You guard your speech, referring to the love of your life as your “roommate.” You gulp down your shame when you fail to stand up to cruel jabs at the handful of scientists brave enough to live and love openly. You certainly never share your experience of hate crimes and assault. For me, all that safe silence was a low-level yet constant drain on my creativity. Silence built walls between me and my colleagues. I have a bonafide vita gap from this era. Clearly, this was not a good strategy for working towards tenure, let alone a satisfying career.
So, I came out professionally, slowly but steadily. First to the people who already knew me well. Then, people who I would never see again in my life — think seat-mates on a long flight. Finally, anyone, everyone. In owning my full identity, I released a torrent of energy that propelled my scientific career and fueled an even more adventurous personal life.
So why do we need a special day for LGBT STEM? The data speak for themselves. According to a 2013 study in Nature, 43% of our scientific community is not comfortable being out at work. It breaks my heart because I know what it’s like to live in that shadow. I suspect that those individuals are paying the price for their silence in reduced creativity, collegiality, and mental health. This is simply unacceptable at a time when the world needs the full creative potential of all scientists to push the envelope of innovation to tackle the wicked problems of our time.
What will you do on July 5th? I’m asking you to simply acknowledge LGBT STEM Day. Start a conversation! Quote some data! Express some empathy! Just do it! As my younger colleagues would say, it’s a thing — treat it as such. I guarantee you that your LGBT colleagues and students will take notice. Your actions signal that your lab or field site is indeed a safe and welcoming place. And, if you’re one of the many LGBT scientists out there, take a moment to congratulate yourself on everything you have survived to get here. I’ll be celebrating with you.