Faggot. Sissy. Gay. Behind my smile and confident disposition, these old voices still echo in my ears. Growing up as a closeted gay boy to immigrant Asian parents and having attended Catholic schools until I moved away for university at 19, I never learned about what it meant to be gay. Instead, I would have religion class everyday, a constant reminder that there was something wrong with me. I remember carrying my bible to school, attending regular mass in the gymnasium, and vividly recall being terrified of “burning in eternal fire” because I liked boys and not girls, a part of me that I was aware of since Grade 1 when I had a crush on a boy in my class named Claudio. I might not have been able to put a name to what I was feeling at the time, but I knew even at that age that it was something I had to keep a secret if I didn’t want to be bullied or rejected by my family, and something that I actively had to “repent” against if I didn’t want to go to Hell. After school, I returned to a household that was just as homophobic. The grimace on my dad’s face and look of disgust whenever we’d come across the rare gay couple during visits to downtown Toronto or the appearance of the stereotypical gay caricatures shown on TV, and the constant berating from my mom to be more “manly” and act less like a girl were overwhelming.
I kept myself hidden at school and at home, and had nobody to turn to – there was no escape. Queerness had virtually no representation in the TV shows, books, movies, and radio that I consumed growing up. In Canada, homosexuality was decriminalized in the Criminal Code in 1968, and same sex marriage only legalized by the Civil Marriage Act in 2005. A survey conducted in 2019 found that support for gay marriage is just 64%, and a federal law banning conversion therapy is still pending. Today, the latest census from Statistics Canada reports that of Canadians aged 18-59, just 1.7% consider themselves gay or lesbian and 1.3% identify as bisexual, and same-sex couples represent just 0.9% of all couples in Canada – comprising an extremely small minority of people. The Government of Canada continues to ignore the LGBTQ+ community, as data on transgender and non-binary folks are still not collected, though an amendment is pending.
It wasn’t until I moved away for undergrad at the University of Toronto that I finally felt a small taste of freedom – I moved from my sheltered little town to the big city, away from my childhood schools, my parents, and the shackles that I’d felt chained to for as long as I could remember. On my own for the first time, it felt like I was learning to walk again, or like a caged animal that had only known its cage its whole life and was recently set free into the wild – like I was experiencing a second adolescence. It would take another few years before I could finally admit to myself at 22 that I was gay. Although I’m out to many of my friends today, I still come across undertones of homophobia in my daily life, whether by microaggressions or unconscious bias, and sometimes, blatant attacks. In the workplace, and within the department and university, I feel safer and more accepted, but still feel the need to stay hidden to protect myself. Why do I feel this way? Are these fears unfounded?
In a recent study published in January 2021, sociologists Dr. Erin Cech at the University of Michigan and Dr. Tom Waidzunas at Temple University in Pennsylvania analyzed data collected from over 25,000 STEM researchers across 21 scientific institutions in the US. Their findings reveal that scientists who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ+; queer being an umbrella term including non-binary, gender fluid, intersex, asexual, pansexual folks, and others) are more likely to experience workplace harassment and career obstacles compared to their non-LGBTQ+ colleagues. Specifically, they were 30% more likely to experience workplace harassment in the past year and 20% more likely to experience professional devaluation, such as being treated as less skilled than their colleagues. LGBTQ+ scientists were also 44% more likely to suffer from insomnia and 30% more likely to experience depressive symptoms. This culminated in 22% of LGBTQ+ scientists reporting an intention to leave their profession, compared to 15% of their non-LGBTQ+ peers. No field or sector in STEM was spared of these problems – LGBTQ+ status disadvantaged researchers across disciplines and employment sectors. In the words of Alfredo Carpineti, science journalist and co-founder of the UK-based organization Pride in STEM, “The idea that ‘scientists only care about science’ is nothing but a fairy tale we tell each other to avoid confronting the dark realities of academia.”
This phenomenon is not exclusive to the US. A survey conducted in the UK and published in June 2019 found that 18% of LGBTQ+ STEM researchers experienced harassment, bullying, or exclusionary behaviour in the workplace, and 32% for transgender and non-binary people specifically. Indeed, transgender scientists often face the most hardship – in another report from the American Physical Society from March 2016, transgender physicists and physics students were found to be in the most hostile working environments, with almost half of those surveyed having experienced exclusionary treatment or harassment in the past year, including colleagues that failed to respect their gender identity by deliberately misgendering them, refusing to use their chosen name, or a lack of toilet facilities that they felt comfortable and safe using.
One explanation of why scientists may face more work-related challenges could be due to the international and multidisciplinary nature of collaboration, and careers that may require people to travel, such as student exchanges, attending conferences, and taking up post-docs and faculty positions in other countries. Thus, LGBTQ+ scientists may feel they need to hide their identity for the sake of smooth collaboration or “professionalism”. Many governments around the world still refuse to acknowledge the LGBTQ+ community and many of those that do, criminalize us – just 5% of UN member states have constitutions barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, and being gay is a capital offence in several countries, even leading to execution. For example, in Brunei, a country in Southeast Asia, “homosexual activity” carries a death penalty by stoning to death. Even in the US, more than one-third of states lack legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people from being fired or denied promotion due to sexual orientation or gender identity. The results of these studies highlight the oppressive effects of homophobic and transphobic STEM work environments. Unfortunately, there is still a prevailing assumption that having an open and out LGBTQ+ identity is “unprofessional”, and could “compromise objectivity”. These studies prove that these attitudes are harmful and have real consequences to the general well being of LGBTQ+ scientists. This may be why 40% of STEM researchers are not out to their colleagues and of those who are, 69% report feeling uncomfortable in their department.
If equity is to be achieved, STEM-related workplaces, university programs, and funding agencies must address anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes and behaviours. For change to occur, we must first acknowledge that there is a problem. For example, the US National Science Foundation, which collects data used by funding agencies and universities, does not track LGBTQ+ identity – in other words, the data that can inform policy is not being collected.
I should not feel like I have to make a choice between staying in the closet and “professionalism”. I often think to myself: is it safe for me to talk about someone I’m dating? Is displaying a rainbow flag on my desk or a pride symbol in my presentations acceptable? Will I be seen as too “political”? I’ve developed a habit of keeping my identity a secret because I don’t want my sexual orientation to be my defining characteristic. I don’t want differential treatment, for better or for worse. I don’t want my sexuality to be a disadvantage or an advantage. I simply want to be treated the same as everyone else.
If you want to make a change as an ally – start by doing what you can to create a more open, inclusive, and accepting environment within your lab and among your colleagues. If you have an openly queer lab mate, check in on them. Normalize sharing your pronouns in your email signatures or at conferences, even as a cisgendered person, as it fosters a safe environment for transgender and non-binary people to disclose theirs. Change the culture of your department by challenging the idea of what it means to be “professional”. Does speaking or dressing a certain way take away from one’s competence or scientific merit? LGBTQ+ scientists should not have to worry about making a career-ending mistake because of homophobia or transphobia.
Although I’ve now escaped from the cage that I was trapped in as a child, I realize that I’ve just set foot in a larger enclosure. True freedom is still an ideal that is far away for many LGBTQ+ folks, and STEM is not spared from this oppression. Science is not divorced from its scientists. But LGBTQ+ scientists may continue to choose to divorce themselves from it unless we make a change.
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