LGBT IN STEM

Last Thursday (5th July) was the first international LGBT+ in STEM day. What a great idea! To my shame, I had to be reminded about this afterwards by one of my students and so missed the opportunity to contribute anything on the day itself. Nevertheless I have now seen the results on Twitter and was thrilled to read of such positive support from the broader STEM community.

For me, one the many great outcomes of the day was to show that amongst UK chemists there is a wonderfully active and growing number of out LGBT individuals and their supporters. Yet at the higher levels of the system, the number remains smaller than I’d like. So while there have been many words already written about LGBT life in STEM subjects, it feels like it may yet be relevant and worthwhile to add to those words some thoughts and recollections of my own. (How self-indulgent!)

Those who argue that sexuality is irrelevant in science must have experienced a very different research environment to the one I did as a junior researcher. It was absolutely the norm for groups to interact with the wives and children of their group leader. Partners would be invited to events. Professors talked openly of their lives as married men. It was not uncommon for group members to date, nor was it unknown for them then to marry, nor occasionally divorce. Many conferences offered – as they still do – itineraries for ‘accompanying persons’, which would presumably be less of a feature if scientists had no sexuality.

Yet in those early days it wasn’t clear that a single LGBT Professor existed at all. One or two students were openly gay – it was Sydney in the noughties after all. And my then supervisor Cameron Kepert did have a partner called Dale. But my hopes of Cameron’s being a gay academic role model were dashed when it turned out Dale was a woman. Cambridge was no different: there was almost no LGBT visibility at the time, and certainly not amongst the Faculty. So there was this overwhelming sense that academia was just incredibly straight and male.

It wasn’t just the absence of obvious role models that mattered. There were many small individual incidents that collectively portrayed an unwelcoming – or, worse, hostile – attitude towards LGBT scientists. I could give many examples, but the one that sticks particularly in my mind took place on the first official college event after my appointment at Oxford. A senior colleague, on learning that I was Australian, shared his hope with me that I wasn’t from Sydney “because they’re all f**king p**fters in Sydney”. Unfortunately I was unable to disprove his assertion.

This all happened only nine or ten years ago. And yet it feels as though so much has changed – and very much for the better – in that time. There will be many reasons for this (general awareness of LGBT issues, the role of social media, visibility of LGBT scientists, the amazingness of the newer generation…?) and others will be able to speak much more authoritatively than I on the topic. For my own part, it is just a relief to feel quite genuinely that I don’t need to hide my personal life in professional circles, and can simply get on with the job I’m so lucky to be paid to do.

One thing that has helped enormously is that, since establishing my own research group, I have been fortunate to supervise a number of LGBT students. And I am equally fortunate that the group as a whole – and my collaborators and colleagues – have been extremely supportive of those students, of me, of my husband Jonathan, and of LGBT issues in general. Increasingly it seems that one’s sexuality is less and less of an issue in a scientific career – just as it should be.

Yet it would be naïve to suggest challenges don’t still remain. Science is an international endeavour and many other countries are still very unwelcoming places for LGBT individuals of any professional persuasion. For LGBT scientists, it’s not simply a case of coming out to one’s colleagues in a single cathartic event. Instead it’s a repeated process of coming out time and time again, as one meets new contacts at conferences or meetings, often in environments that are obviously less supportive than what we have started to grow accustomed to here in the UK.

But what makes me so optimistic is the attitude of the students. To them it seems so clear that what matters is the quality of what one does rather than sexuality or gender identity, or race. How refreshing! We are quite simply all the better off for such an outlook. And so I feel lucky to be an LGBT academic at a time of such tangible, long-needed, and productive change.