“I’m gay”. Those two words are still surprisingly difficult to say out loud, even though I’ve been comfortably ‘out’ for many years. Nowadays (if I want people to know); I cheat. Casually bringing up my husband in conversation is much easier than saying those two words. And why should people at work need to know at all?
As we celebrate LGBTSTEM Day, I’ve been asked to reflect on this question and what it’s been like for me to work in science as a gay man. In my case, ‘science’ means academia, where I’ve worked for ten years, first as a PhD student, then postdoc and now group leader, always in the field of microbiology.
As microbiologists, we all know how heated discussions around nomenclature can get, so let’s start there. For those unfamiliar with the acronym and what it stands for: ‘LGBT’ is commonly used by people who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender. “LGBTQI” is also often used, with the “Q” and “I” referring respectively to queer/questioning and intersex. The longest version of this acronym I’ve seen is LGBTQQIAAP (look it up). I’ll stick here with my personal preference, “LGBTQ”, with the “Q” (queer) acknowledging the complex and highly personal significance these letters have to each of the people who identify with one or more of them. The “STEM” then is easy – people working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
There is evidence suggesting that LGBTQ workers are underrepresented in some STEM subjects, and that there may be lower retention of LGBTQ students in STEM subjects at university. It would be easy to put this down to unconscious or overt discrimination, which probably does exist in some places. Alternative explanations put forward include a lack of role models and the emotional toll associated with ‘fitting in’ to a largely heterosexual work or study environment. In fact, in general, members of the LGBTQ community suffer from higher rates of mental health issues than the general population. What sets LGBTQ scientists apart from other groups working in fields traditionally dominated by white heterosexual men is that our status as ‘other’ is not immediately and obviously visible.
Do I then think that being gay has affected my own career? Did perhaps growing up in the 80’s and 90’s through the frightening start of the AIDS epidemic lead me to become a virologist? I don’t think so. Rather I think I fit into that surprisingly large category of virologists who were inspired by the film ‘Outbreak’, or so the family story goes. It’s difficult for me to see a connection between my sexuality and my major research focus, which has been on dengue virus and other mosquito-borne diseases. So if it hasn’t directly affected my research, do I think being gay has affected my career trajectory? That’s a difficult one. It’s hard to tell if you haven’t been invited to the party. I’ve certainly never been aware of any overt discrimination against me. However, there are two important caveats to this: Firstly, you’ll notice from my photo that I’m a white male, so I haven’t been disadvantaged by the compound effects experienced by scientists fitting into multiple minority groups. Secondly, I have spent my entire career working in or near London and New York City, which may mean my experience is not reflective of LGBTQ scientists working elsewhere.
So maybe then, my ‘gayness’ has directly affected some of the career choices I made. There are some great job opportunities I never considered applying for, not because I feared discrimination at work, but because I (correctly or incorrectly) felt that I would not feel comfortable living in an area. This self-selection (and overt intolerance where it exists) leads more broadly to the research community missing out. Individual LGBTQ scientists may miss out on career-building opportunities, and departments may miss out on highly talented researchers if they choose not to apply for job openings in certain institutions and locations. This should be the biggest incentive for institutions to take open acknowledgement and celebration of their LGBTQ scientists seriously, because a more diverse workforce leads to more diverse ways of thinking and more discipline-breaking discoveries.
So if I personally have never been aware of overt discrimination at work, does that mean I’ve always felt 100% comfortable? No. There have been moments. Moments when I have felt compelled to speak up in meetings to explain why gender neutral toilets are important. Moments when my insistence that LGBTQ scientists need better support networks has fallen on deaf ears. All of those little moments can add up to a bigger sense of unease, even for people who do not face overt discrimination or intimidation at work.
Nowadays, my biggest struggle stems from an aspect of my research that I’m perhaps most excited about. We’ve begun working more and more with low- and middle-income countries directly affected by the mosquito-borne diseases we study, some of which have less-than-tolerant attitudes to LGBTQ people. It’s been unsettling being back in a situation where I don’t feel like I can be openly and fully myself. What I don’t know is what to do about this. I’m determined not to let it affect my research. After all, isn’t our own individual curiosity for a particular research question what drives us as scientists?
For now, I’ve chosen to hide (again) an important part of my life from people I have come to like and respect as collaborators and friends. And that’s not comfortable for me. It wasn’t comfortable two decades ago before I ‘came out’. And it isn’t comfortable now.
Let me end by reiterating my earlier question: should the people I work with need to know I’m gay at all? For me personally the answer is yes. I do think that it’s important for students and early career researchers to have visible scientific role models and mentors they can identify with, something I myself didn’t have growing up. It has also been suggested that people who feel comfortable and accepted in their work environment are less stressed and more productive. On the other hand, it’s important that LGBTQ scientists aren’t pressured into openly identifying themselves if they do not feel comfortable doing so. It’s also important to remember that those five (or ten) letters, ‘LGBTQ’, mean very different and personal things to each of the scientists who identifies with one or more of them. There’s no easy off-the-shelf solution that fits all. What we do need, is for all scientists to feel safe, acknowledged and appreciated in our workplace, so that we can all thrive and get on with what we’re really here for, the science.
Dr Kevin Maringer
Kevin Maringer is a Lecturer in Microbiology and group leader at the University of Surrey. His group’s main research interest is how virus-immune interactions in mosquitoes affect the transmission and emergence of mosquito-borne viruses like dengue virus. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer, his funders or the Microbiology Society.