Today’s guest contribution is by a postdoctoral fellow in Portland, OR. She holds a Ph.D. in Immunology and her research focuses on the contribution of the immune response to neurodegeneration and brain inflammation after stroke. Oh, and she’s gay!
I knew that I wanted to be a scientist from the age of twelve. What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t be open about until graduate school, was that I was gay. What does one have to do with the other? Everything, when you’re a lesbian in the sciences.
I grew up in the conservative center of the Bible Belt. Although my family was relatively liberal, I will always attribute my late “coming out” to the environment in which I was raised. For me it was simple; I had no LGBT role models as a child. It wasn’t something that was known or accepted. Being gay wasn’t an option. Similarly, there is a noticeable lack of out and open LGBT individuals in the sciences. Why does sexual orientation matter in the research setting when one’s science can speak for itself? Without visibility of LGBT science role models we will fail as a community to encourage young science minded individuals from all backgrounds to enter the field. In my case, when I knew I wanted to be a scientist but was questioning my sexual orientation, I could have benefited from a strong, lesbian scientist role model. Maybe I would have had the confidence to come out earlier.
As many women in the sciences know, being a postdoc can be a pretty isolating experience. That isolation is compounded as a gay female postdoc. The lack of LGBT community in science professions is staggering. As a graduate student in the Midwest, I didn’t know of another gay grad student or postdoc in my department. Currently, I’m doing my postdoc in a larger, more liberal city but still am only aware of a handful of LGBT grad students, postdocs and faculty. If isolation is one of the primary factors leading to women leaving the pipeline to tenure faculty, then the path is even less conducive for lesbian scientists.
Now I’m getting ready to face the major decision that every scientist has to make in their career: whether to pursue a position in academia, industry or leave the sciences all together. Being gay will play a huge role in that decision. If I’m so concerned about visibility of LGBT individuals in the sciences, why would I consider leaving academia? Shouldn’t I stay and be that strong, lesbian scientist role model for other youth that I always wished I had? I struggle with this daily. But looking for positions in academia often means major compromises in location. I’m not sure that I’m willing to risk the possibility of living in a conservative city or state to stay in academia. Even though I have experienced very little homophobia in my field, both my wife and I have dealt with our share of homophobic incidents outside of the workplace. Additionally, we plan on having a family soon and it is a priority that our children grow up in a safe space where they won’t be bullied or feel different for having two moms. Since we both grew up in the conservative Midwest, we want a different upbringing for our children. Our location restrictions will severely limit my academic options. Therefore, I’ve been preparing myself and my resume for non-science positions in order to stay in the very LGBT friendly city that we currently live in. I have absolutely no issue with my career taking second place to our comfort, safety and happiness.
When I look at my decisions and mindset on the future of my career in science, I completely understand the lack of out LGBT individuals in the sciences, specifically, in academia. Being women in science, we also understand the importance of diversity in academia. As the visibility of women in faculty positions increases, I am excited for LGBT to follow. Although I may not end up being the lesbian role model that is so necessary in academia right now, I will always volunteer with girls and LGBT youth interested in STEM fields. We still have a lot of work to do to pave the path for new LGBT scientists and the issues that I’ve discussed are only a small part of what LGBT scientists face every day, but I can see things getting better over time and that gives me so much hope for young LGBT investigators.