On Being a Gay Scientist and Finding a Sense of Community

Last Tuesday evening I had the chance to attend a social gathering of sorts for a national GLBT rights organization. In spite of being gay, I’ve never been involved in GLBT advocacy nor the politics. I was having a conversation with another guy and he asked what I did. I explained that I was a geology undergrad, but that I mostly study meteorites. I went on to talk about my current project and I could sense that I was losing his attention. I tried to explain things in more approachable terms, but the damage was done. All my talk and enthusiasm over shock veins, olivines and zoned pyroxenes was lost on this poor soul. He was there to learn about getting involved with this organization, not hear about space rocks. I was there because I was invited by a handsome guy in PSU’s pre-med program and the prospect of free food and gin.

After that conversation, and a couple others, I realized that I wasn’t among my people. And by that I mean those with whom I share a common language or interest. Generally speaking these are either fellow science nerds or restaurant workers.This wasn’t some earth shattering revelation. I’ve never felt a pressing need to let my sexuality dictate my friendships. Unless I decide to tell some bawdy joke, I’m not likely to talk about being gay. If you’ve read my blog for any extended period of time, then you already know where my enthusiasm is found. If this is your first time here, then take a look at the topics on the right side of the home page. Therein is where you’ll find the subjects that are nearest and dearest to my heart. And if you understand or try to understand those topics, I count you as among my people.

That evening stuck with me. Here I was attending a gathering for an organization that has worked to overturn discriminatory laws and fight for my right to marry who I love, and I was there for the free food. This isn’t an aspect of myself with which I am unfamiliar. I’ve often thought about my apathy towards such advocacy, but never did much beyond that. However, it wasn’t until that point that I started to become somewhat bothered by it.

Later that week I had dinner with two other geobloggers, Michael Klaas and Julian Lozos who also happen to be GLBT. I wanted their perspective on the issue and asked if they’ve had similar thoughts. All three of us arrived at the same conclusion: just because someone is GLBT doesn’t mean there is a connection or rapport that automatically makes them “family”. In fact, none of us have felt much reason to consider the GLBT community our “community”. The three of us were having dinner and conversation because of our interest in science and science communication; not because of our non-hetero normative experiences.

At this point you may be asking yourself why I’m writing about being a gay scientist if I don’t feel the need to publicize it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clear-cut reason. Part of me feels a sense of responsibility to speak up and make it clear that there are GLBT within the ranks of science and academia. After all, it was someone else’s speaking up that made my life as a gay male easier. Do I not have a responsibility to pay the same debt forward for the future generation? And how do I approach that without labeling myself in terms of my sexuality?

Therein lies my major struggle and I have no expectation that any reader answer those questions. I’m simply throwing out some thoughts and ideas that I’ve had over the week. However, feel free to comment on the subject. Be warned though- if any comments are derogatory or inflammatory I will exercise my mighty ban hammer and delete them without warning.

23 thoughts on “On Being a Gay Scientist and Finding a Sense of Community

  1. “I was there because I was invited by a handsome guy in PSU’s pre-med program and the prospect of free food and gin.”

    This made me lol for realz.

  2. I’m definitely interested, despite it sounding all Greek… However, one thing I am certain of, is that I am very proud of you. Geo-nerdism and all that you are ;)

  3. If your life is like mine, you’ll find your interest in advocacy and politics becomes more important as you grow older, and you begin to see more clearly how those things shape decisions that affect you and the people you love. Like you, my passion as a twenty-something was more toward science than sexuality. There are times I regret not giving more attention to that latter aspect of my life, but it as shaped who I am, and that, I don’t regret at all.

    Brave post, and not just with respect to sexuality. It takes some real courage to toss out a complex issue like this, and say, in effect, “I have no idea what the ‘answer’ is. But I’m struggling with it.”

    • Thanks Lockwood. This was not the easiest post for me to write and actually thought about tossing it because I wasn’t sure if I wanted it out there. But I figure that just because I don’t align myself with national GLBT groups, doesn’t mean I can’t talk about my other interests to start the dialogue.

  4. I remember one or two AGU meetings in the 1980s where signs were posted on the message boards announcing a group called “GayGU.” I didn’t look into it further, but I think that was it as far as public GLBT efforts ever went in geoscience. In the context of scientific meetings, science is sexuality-neutral. As for the GSA, Clyde Wahrhaftig caused a righteous stir when he used his Distinguished Career Award acceptance speech to come out and to urge nondiscrimination. That was in 1989, but many came before him, more quietly, and many have followed.

    If a gay person wants a gay scientist as his or her guiding star, such people exist and that’s progress. But part of gay equality, like feminism, is that our gender or sexual identity don’t have to dictate our entire lives. That privilege belongs to everyone.

    • You’re right in saying that science is sexuality-neutral. When I was writing this post I deliberately avoided saying otherwise. I don’t at all believe that someone’s sexuality determines the quality of science that is done.

  5. Although I am personally a bit more open & interactive with the LGBT because I diversify myself in things that are of common interest. I agree that it is difficult finding any LGBT Scientists out there, would be great to possibly better this with an LGBT Scientist Society or Affiliation :) Such as expanding http://www.noglstp.org/

  6. I was drawn to your blog post precisely because it mentioned both the words “gay” and “scientist,” and I am grateful to you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you that we shouldn’t be defined exclusively by our sexuality; however, “gay scientist” is (in my opinion) too infrequently acknowledged or discussed. I wish there were more of a visible LGBT science community beyond university circles, to increase awareness of our existence and diversity as well as promote a greater sense of belonging and companionship amongst us science geeks. (Maybe that community is already out there, but I haven’t found it yet…)

    • Another reader had pretty much the same comment and he provided a link to National Organization of Science and Technical Professionals. http://www.noglstp.org/
      I think the main reason for the difficulty in finding other LGBT scientists is that science is neutral in those terms. Your sexuality doesn’t dictate the quality of science done. However, I do agree that a little more exposure isn’t a bad thing. Especially if it gets more LGBT involved in science.

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  8. I came here from En Tequila Es Verdad because it’s generally relevant to me and because coincidentally, I had just been thinking about… pretty much the same thing. I really enjoyed the post. I don’t have many answers myself, yet, but I’m starting to lean. I’m a grad student, and bi – in theory it would be easy for me to keep that quiet, but the combination of the fact that I lean more to the lesbian end of the Kinsey scale (and thus, keeping closeted is less easy than people assume) and my own thoughts about activism and visibility have me thinking I probably shouldn’t. Not least because I tried to think of a prominent lesbian scientist and couldn’t. I don’t even know any LGBT women among the grad students at my institution.

    The harder question for me is actually how to go about being visible – do I just decline to hide it when I’m dating a woman? Do I make a point of telling people? If so, who do I tell, and in what circumstances might it hurt my career (I’m intending to stay in academia) to tell? (I know *squat* about this last one. I know plenty about gender statistics and biases in the sciences, sorted by field, region, race, and the kitchen sink, but next to nothing about how LGBT status factors in.)

    And then of course there’s a whole other level of whether I leave it at “I’m dating a woman” or make a point of visibly identifying as bi, because I feel… sometimes an even larger obligation to combat the stereotypes and phobias associated with that identity. (Even in writing this comment, I considered leaving my self-identification as “queer,” because I don’t like the dismissive reactions I often encounter toward the concept of bisexuality.)

    As I said, not many answers… but I feel the discomfort you describe and it’s nice to know that other people are asking themselves the same questions.

    • I’m really happy that you enjoyed this post and it’s given you some comfort in knowing you’re not alone in this issue.

      I’ve always been of the opinion that you don’t need to announce your sexuality verbally as much as you just need to live it. Meaning, if you have a girlfriend you don’t need to say “hey I”m a lesbian or bi and this is my girlfriend”. Simply saying I have a girlfriend is enough to clue people in and assert your presence as someone who is GLBT. As for being bi, people tend to be more dismissive of it because most bisexuals don’t talk about it. And that’s why I wish more bi people would speak up. You can’t be taken seriously as a bisexual if you hide it and don’t make some fuss over it.

      As for finding other open GLBT scientists I highly recommend checking out http://www.noglstp.org/. I was shown this by another reader and it looks like it has quite a few resources.

  9. I have to say, I’m really pleased to see a post like this. As a scientist who also happens to be gay, I have experienced some of what you talk about. I was a bit of an activist in college, but there was a distinct difference between the levels of acceptance one received as a student on campus versus what you might feel at a professional conference. Admittedly, this was the late ’80s and early ’90s, so we’ve progressed from there somewhat, but I can still remember my first GSA conference and a voice in my head that kept saying “don’t let on; you’re the only one here.” At the same time, I’d try to be part of the larger gay community and find I didn’t fit in there either because of my skepticism and geekiness. I’m not much of a social creature, so this just left me feeling further isolated.

    For most of the next 20 years, I was cautious about my sexuality in business/professional circles largely because they were, and still are, largely male-dominated (no pun intended) and I often felt that if my sexuality was known, it would quickly become the main way someone saw me: not as a scientist, but as “the gay one.”

    The thing that’s important now, is that like Anderson Cooper comming out, such things are far more common as non-events than they used to be. The one silver lining of the GOP/Christianist’s campaign since 2004 to demonize (further) us has been that far more people don’t care than do.

    We join groups to feel like we belong. I’m more of a scientist than a gay activist, so I gravitate towards the professional outlets more than the political gay comminuty. I don’t have to be on the front lines to be helpful to the greater cause of gay rights. I only have to be myself . That’s the same message I took away from your post: be yourself. It’s fair to be out and equally fair to expect that such a desision be met with at least indifference if not respect. From my perspective, we’re much further along that path than when I started. So I thank the activists to force the issue as much as I thank people like you quitely demonstrating that we are not the demons some make us out to be, but ordinary people who’s only “agenda” is to live our lives in peace with the ones we love, free of persecution and ridicule.

    • I think you hit it right on the head. When you’re open about your sexuality, it becomes a fine line between being known as the “gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered one” and the “that’s the person that really knows about such-and-such area”. For me, that’s more of the struggle than aligning myself with other GLBT scientists. Although I can understand and support the need for greater visibility in the sciences.

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