Coming Out in the Sciences: Part II—Your stories, today

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

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Steve Silberman is gay. I'm bi. Together, we realized that we'd never seen a Coming Out Day feature dedicated to the experiences of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered persons in the sciences and engineering. Science journalist powers: Activate! We hope today's two-part celebration will add to the diversity of stories and help science-minded young queer folks everywhere know that it does, indeed, get better—both through the course of history, and the course of an individual's life.

In Part I, endocrinologist Neena Schwartz told Steve Silberman about the struggles she faced being a female, and closeted lesbian, scientist. Schwartz' career began in the 1940s, and we guessed that her experiences might be very different from those of modern GLBT scientists and engineers.

With the help of science blogger/Ph.D. student Jeremy Yoder and great organizations like the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, we put out a call for personal stories about what it's like to be queer and in the sciences today. We got some great responses from several amazing gay men, and you can read their stories in this post. But I know this doesn't begin to capture the full breadth of experience. That's why I'd like you to think of this comment thread as an open place to tell us about your life.

Are you a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered scientist or engineer? Are you a queer Happy Mutant who loves science? Add your story to the comments. I'll be checking, and adding direct links to this main page, over the course of the next couple days. I'd like to end up with a collection of stories from all over. Hopefully, it'll help young, science-minded GLBT kids feel less alone.

Who is Speaking Out?
•Eric Patridge, Ph.D., pharmacologist at Yale University School of Medicine and President of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
•Tomlinson Holman, Inventor of the THX Sound System
•Ron Buckmire, Ph.D., math professor at Occidental College
•Steven Jacquier, retired professor, University of Alaska
•Douglas Futuyma, professor of ecology and evolution, State University of New York
•James Nowick, professor of chemistry, University of California Irvine
•BasilGanglia, on being a lesbian, genderqueer neuroscience grad student
&bull:Anonymous, on being out ... outside academia
•michael, "your personal life is inconsequential"
•eek talks about transitioning in the world of information security. "I fear, that no matter how good you are at what you do, or your accomplishments as male or female (or even in between) are able to be disregarded just because of somebody's stupid and ignorant bias towards you."

Forced to Choose Between Science and Change
Eric Patridge, Ph.D., pharmacologist at Yale University School of Medicine and President of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

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Some time ago, I dedicated myself to exploring Change—both in my professional life and in my personal life as a scientist and as a gay male (or queer, in the academic vernacular).

Professional experience has taught me that exploring Change is the essence of Science. Yet, I also know that scientists must market themselves to the public and to funding sources as being altogether dedicated, insightful, and innovative. To this end, and perhaps along with the fear of losing funding or credibility, scientists strive to be impeccable—we strive to be elite.

I, too, endeavor to be a top academic researcher with innovative ideas—in the past, I have conducted research at Penn State, Skidmore College, the Idaho National Laboratories, and the Kemicentrum in Lund—and my current research at Yale University focuses on developing anticancer agents that have potential both to increase the success of chemotherapeutic treatments and to serve as fluorescent, diagnostic indicators that doctors can use to personalize chemotherapeutic regimens.

However—as I continue to develop as a scientist, I feel like my professional life is strikingly juxtaposed with my personal life as a community builder, despite both of them being remarkably complimentary. In my co-curricular life, I serve as President of a fledgling non-profit organization, called "Out in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics, Incorporated" or oSTEM. Established in 2005 and incorporated in 2009, oSTEM seeks to "broaden participation of underrepresented groups" in the STEM fields. I often see this goal incorporated into grant opportunities made available by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health—it is clear that the government is dedicated to enhancing diversity both in thought and in research practices. Unfortunately, grant opportunities that benefit underrepresented groups currently exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities—as delineated by the Congressionally mandated policies for the "Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering" with the National Science Foundation.

As a result of the lacking commitment to LGBT researchers, my personal efforts to enrich diversity in the STEM fields have begun to limit my professional opportunities as a scientist. Any effort put towards underrepresented groups intrinsically takes away from time I have to conduct research and furnish manuscripts, and ultimately detracts from my ability to appear as an elite, innovative researcher. And this is extraordinarily detrimental to my career—grant reviewers will criticize my resume, since publications and mentor lineages seem to be the sole indicators for scientists to appear elite and successful.

This is the nature of my current conflict as a scientist—while my heart is equally dedicated to scientific achievements and to improving research environments for LGBT communities, I feel increasingly forced to put aside any and all community building so that I can embody the elite nature that seems obligatory for funding. There is no forgiveness for any delay in producing manuscripts. This seems to be a major weakness for Science today—there is no value or incentive for a scientist to Change the research environment. Rather, efforts not supporting basic research are met with incredulity. Further, while verbiage to benefit non-LGBT underrepresented groups does occasionally appear in grant opportunities, the strict peer review and resume standards held by the impenetrable scientific community creates a perpetual cycle that seems to benefit the privileged—but my perception is that it discourages collaborations and eliminates diversity both in thought and in research practice.

In conclusion, there are substantial inequities for LGBT researchers, and efforts to improve the research environment for any undervalued community do not appear to be professionally supported by the scientific community. In my humble opinion, something must Change or Science could very well become a workforce of elite clones, where diversities of thought and research practices are not encouraged.

From the Closet, to the Stars
Tomlinson Holman, chief scientist at Audyssey Laboratories and professor at University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and Viterbi School of Engineering. Inventor of the THX Sound System.

In the late 1950's there was huge emphasis on "beating the Ruskies," who had, after all, put the first satellite in space—that was inconceivable before it happened and I was in Jr. High School. And not just in any school system but rather in the main bedroom suburb for Argonne National Laboratories, filled with atomic scientists. So anybody with any brains in my school was going to be a scientist. This was long before I could articulate that I was gay, even to myself.

The early 60's was a time of great repression for us: Thursday was Queer's Day in my high school, and beware wearing a yellow shirt then, as that was the telltale sign. I kept my head down and did my work. Great repression, though, has a way of producing great creativity: Witness Spain since Franco. Being gay and repressing it helps us understand the world in a way—in the closet, we were always acting a part. This gives us a quality of examining things in detail that others may miss. As Maurice the astronaut on Northern Exposure says of the gay B&B operators on the show, "You people are very fastidious." It is this fastidiousness I think that led me to make products like the Apt/Holman Preamplifier as a kind of summing up of the work that had gone before it, and which has stood the test of time.

In my career I lucked into a mentor in Henry Kloss, who changed the world and let me in on it. I found out that he supported an entire whole factory floor of gay people at KLH in Cambridge, MA, in the 1960's! While "gay" wasn't an issue with him, it was with his successors, and I left their employment to do my own thing. A few years later, the fact that I had come out to a professional friend, the first one to whom I had confided, changed my life again when he introduced me to Lucasfilm. As it turned out George Lucas had had an out gay college roommate long before that was fashionable and he made a safe place to be gay, and thrive. So when I came to participate in a new startup, I made sure it was as gay friendly as those workplaces had been to me.

"Coming out" for me did not happen in a single eureka moment, or even a short period of time, but was a process that occurred over a long time, first with gay friends, then straight friends, then straight colleagues, then with family. While the incremental steps get harder, they are nonetheless incrementally freeing. It helps do science when your life is stable and happy, and that may be harder for us to achieve, but it is possible—I just celebrated 30 years with my spouse. It really does get better.

Race, Sexual Orientation, Academia—Bringing It All Together
Ron Buckmire, Ph.D., activist, blogger, math professor at Occidental College

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Since lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth are targeted by bullies, Dan Savage created the It Gets Better YouTube project to spread the message that life does get better after high school. In the same spirit, I am writing this piece to let LGBT and other under-represented people in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields know that things are getting better.

I am a Black, gay, tenured associate professor of mathematics at a prestigious liberal arts college in Los Angeles where I get everyday real-world experience with intersectionality, analyzing society simultaneously using multiple overlapping frames of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, et cetera. My contributions to building a queer presence on the Internet as a Ph.D. student in the early 1990s led to such a level of notoriety in gay circles that, when the openly gay chairman of the Occidental College mathematics department knew I was graduating, he asked me to apply to his school. I entered a 12-person department which was uniformly white, although with three gay members. Over time, the racial diversity has markedly increased while sexual-orientation diversity has fluctuated, from three up to five and back down to two. When things get better for one group, there are sometimes ups and downs for others.

Many people say the risks of being openly gay in academia outweigh the benefits, but my experience has been positive. I don't think it's coincidental that soon after my arrival on campus, the college's first African-American president finally agreed to offer full benefits to same-sex domestic partners of employees. Despite concerned remarks from academic mentors about taking risks before tenure, I co-created and team-taught a freshman college writing seminar called Race, Gender and Justice in 1997 with two other faculty members outside of my field of expertise. The course fully integrated internet technology such as student web publishing and online discussion boards while teaching "sensitive" topics such as intersectionality and same-sex marriage, one of the first humanities courses in the country to do so, which led to publication opportunities and academic acclaim. Building upon my experience as a longtime LGBT activist and daily blogger at MadProfessah.com, I am currently teaching an updated version of the class called LGBT Rights in the Era of Obama and Google.

Beyond my teaching, being Black and gay has also benefited my research. I was studying non-standard finite difference equations, when I discovered the world's leading expert in the field was Ronald Mickens, a Clark Atlanta University physics professor who had published almost 200 articles, an astounding number. I was delighted when I found out we not only shared a love of applied mathematics but also a similar racial identity; we have since collaborated on multiple papers together. Another research interest of mine has been the mathematical modeling of "cinematic box office dynamics," in other words how and why movies make money. What gay boy doesn't like watching movies? My academic interests have dovetailed with my identity-based interests, to the benefit of both.

Early Oppression Led to a Happy Life in the Sciences
Steven Jacquier, retired professor, University of Alaska. Trained teachers and science educators

Becoming a minister was my first career goal but the clash between being gay and the church killed that intention. At the same time—age 16—being gay also got me kicked out of my parent's house. In high school I had won science fair awards, prompting the military to persistently recruit me, so with the seminary door closed I decided to become an officer. Military college tuition and benefits were a tantalizing opportunity for a teenager on his own with no money ... but while actually filling out the induction papers at the recruiting station I discovered I had the option to either lie about being gay and be in, or be honest and be out. I chose to be out—in more ways than one. The remaining career path on my list? Science. I worked my way through university in part by serving food to military-funded students and washing their dirty dishes, yet am still glad I did not lie. A life in the sciences has worked out so much better!

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Internships and field studies with the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, Indonesian Institutes of Ecology and Parasitology, and in industry led to decades of work on a diverse range of fascinating and rewarding projects. Human ecology in Java, mariculture in Ecuador, agricultural research in New Jersey and California, health science education and disease prevention projects in Alaska and Nepal. At some junctures being gay in the sciences has meant hitting a glass ceiling, no doubt about it; for example, the same year I ultimately won a national award I was conspicuously passed over at the state level in Alaska. There has been definite progress over the years, though, thanks in large part to the efforts of NOGLSTP working with AAAS and other professional associations.

As with being LGBTIQ, being a scientist is as much—if not more—a privileged perspective and invaluable approach to perceiving and understanding the world than how one is defined by professional employment or simply by the nominal fact of for whom one feels affection. Whenever I work with students I have them draw a scientist; they usually draw a man in a lab coat pouring chemicals or peering through a microscope. Especially with LGBTIQ youth, I know I have been successful when at the end of the course I ask them again to draw a scientist and they draw a smiling self-portrait. Out and proud career role models for LGBTIQ youth have too long been restricted to hairdressers, dog groomers, and positions in the arts.

Our youngest recently graduated from high school and flew the nest for university; with her away my partner and I decided to retire. We moved from Alaska to Hawaii, where I am beginning work with some local efforts on rat lungworm, dengue fever, and other emergent and resurgent tropical diseases as well as with FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders). Overall, life as a gay man in the sciences these past decades has been good; thanks to folks like you being out and proud I expect the outlook for our children and students to be even better.

A Scientist Considers the Evolutionary Basis of Sexuality
Douglas J. Futuyma, professor of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York

Having gone through adolescence at a thoroughly homophobic time (1950's), and in the thoroughly homophobic Catholic Church, I was so traumatized that I didn't come to terms with my sexual orientation until much too late (after Stonewall). When I did, I decided that I would no longer live a lie, and since then have been out in my professional life and almost all other contexts. I don't usually go out of my way to advertise, but neither do I attempt to hide who I am.

For some years I was surprised that I seemed to suffer no negative repercussions of being out, in my professional context. I think I've been fortunate that many of the other faculty members in my department have been socially committed liberals, but as far as I can tell, there haven't been any negatives from the broader community of biologists with whom I interact. (Of course, I could be unaware of many things, such as potential graduate students' deciding not to study with a gay professor.) I have become rather well known in my field and I think my being gay is quite widely known, but throughout my career I have felt that what has mattered are my research and educational contributions to evolutionary biology, and my efforts to be fair, honest, and civil.

I strongly believe that progress on LGBT rights has stemmed largely from individuals' being out and visible. Certainly some of my students have discerned that I'm gay, if only because I have often discussed variation in sexual orientation in my classes on evolution. I've also included the topic in some editions of my textbook on evolution. I would like to think, and in a few cases I know, that I've affected some individuals' attitudes and that my visibility has helped some gay students to come out.

Variation in sexual orientation is interesting in an evolutionary context because if it is based even partly on genetic differences, we want to explain how genes that incline individuals toward a non-reproductive life could persist and attain fairly highly abundance in a population. For them to do so seems exactly opposite to natural selection. But the question then is, does this variation have a genetic basis—and you don't have to be a biologist to consider that an interesting and important question.

When I was younger and considerably more leftist than I am now, I had a very negative view of "genetic determinism" of human behavior, as I believed the sociobiologists advocated, and I coauthored a paper critical (and rightly so) of the existing evidence for a genetic component in sexual orientation (Futuyma and Risch, Journal of Homosexuality 9:157-168; 1984). Interestingly, when evidence for such a genetic basis was published in 1993 (since questioned), it was enthusiastically received by much of the LGBT community. I now think that any proposed "cause" of same-sex orientation, whether based on genes, experience ("environment"), or both, can potentially be used as a weapon in the wrong hands (Freudian theories didn't prevent electroshock "therapy, and "gay genes" raise the specter of preemptive abortion).

In any case, our emotional and social predilections shouldn't affect our efforts at scientific objectivity. (See massive public rejection of evolution and human-induced climate change, both based on solid science.) I think that some recent research rather strongly supports a role for genetic variation in sexual orientation, but I also think that the causes of such variation should not bear on the issue of equal rights and dignity.

Science and Activism Led to Romance
James Nowick, professor of chemistry, University of California, Irvine

Twenty-five years ago when I was a graduate student at MIT, I was disappointed that the MIT GLBT student group, GAMIT, focused primarily on the needs and interests of undergraduates. The students there were younger and at a different point in their professional lives, and I figured I would never meet anybody to whom I could relate. I obtained funds from the graduate student council to start a graduate student GLBT group, which I am proud to say continues to run to this day, albeit under a different name.

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As I attended the last meeting of GAMIT that that I went to before starting the graduate student group, I met John, who is now my partner of almost 25 years. Six years ago, we returned to Massachusetts to marry, less than a mile from where we met.

For more personal insights from GLBT people in the sciences, check out
Closeted Discoverers, a story by Jacqueline Ruttimann Oberst in Science Careers magazine.

Navigating the Heteronormativity of Engineering: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students, a research paper, forthcoming in the journal Engineering Studies, by Erin Cech and Tom Waidzunas

Thumbnail image: Some rights reserved by hiddedevries

Published 9:02 am Mon, Oct 11, 2010

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

11 Responses to “Coming Out in the Sciences: Part II—Your stories, today”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Noting that most of the stories represent the experience of scientists in academia, I want to share my experience as a scientist in an industrial research lab.

    While many companies in the US have made a point of including the queer spectrum explicitly in their diversity programs, I work for a company that is intensively, repressively conservative. At the same time, even while our religiously focused, anti-gay middle management has been intensely unsupportive of queer employees, the leadership of and my peers in my group of scientists and engineers has been equally awesome and supportive, to the point where I have felt comfortable coming out to a few select colleagues. It is especially of note that this is the case particularly for a group of scientists.

    I fully expect that the open attitude amongst the r&d staff will drive changes in the general attitude of the company at large.

  2. Anonymous says:

    what about jon/jane roughgarden? there’s a messy and interesting story.

  3. Yoder says:

    Joan Roughgarden’s book Evolution’s Rainbow is a great (and personal) example of how science can benefit from diversity of perspectives. I don’t agree with all her evolutionary explanations (I’m not so fond of adaptive hypotheses), but it’s the best survey I know of sexual behavior in the animal kingdom, and it has some really cool insights.

  4. brillow says:

    I was once told a story by a colleague who was a student or post-doc (I forget which) on a faculty hiring committee at a very major institution in the 70’s. He recalls Doug Futuyma’s name coming up as a potential candidate and told me that he was dismissed out of hand for being gay. How far we’ve come!

  5. Yoder says:

    I think my experience was a lot like Dr. Futuyma’s and Dr. Jacquier’s—I was raised religious, without much leeway to talk openly about sex at all, much less being (gasp) gay. Only as I got into science—first an internship, then grad school, which is now almost over—did I finally meet people who didn’t treat homosexuality as an unspeakable burden, and who turned out to be fantastic friends when I came out.

  6. Anonymous says:

    What an awesome post. We need more representation in the sciences!

    There’s a resource I’ve been working on for LGBTIQQAP+ Physicists at http://lgbtphysicists.x10hosting.com

    Love,
    Physics Grad Student who fits multiple letters on the LGBTIQQAP+ spectrum

  7. Anonymous says:

    Gay physics undergrad at Oxy (same school as Prof. Buckmire above) woo!

  8. BasilGanglia says:

    I’m a Neuroscience grad student at Northwestern, and I’m out as a lesbian in lab. I’ve never experienced any problems due to this, for which I’m grateful (But I do have to add that, since I grew up in San Francisco, it has never really occurred to me to expect any problems!). I know this is a privileged position, and I am truly grateful to people like Dr. Schwartz for making it possible for me to live in a world where my sexuality is effectively a non-issue (as long as I stick to big cities anyway). I have still experienced some sex discrimination however, mostly in the form of overly paternalistic bosses and other mentors. But again, without the work of Dr. Schwartz and others, I could be experiencing much worse discrimination. As it is I can realistically aspire to someday being a principal investigator with my own lab. This will still be more difficult for me than for a straight white male, but the fact that the possibility of being a PI is realistically on the table for an out lesbian is amazing progress!

    However, I am also genderqueer, and this has caused some problems. Mostly these issues don’t show up in the form of discrimination, but in the form of invisibility and misunderstanding of gender variant people. While I am female, my gender identity is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. My gender variance is different than transsexuality (which is itself becoming more acceptable). We still live in a society in which the mainstream culture has only two gender choices. Transsexual people are born with a missmatch of gender identity and physical sex, but they still fit into the discrete categories of male/female masculine/feminine. Since neither of the available gender categories fit me, I spend a lot of time having my gender misunderstood as that of a woman. I have the privilege as a female to be butch, but I am still forced into the woman box. So, needless to say, I am not out as genderqueer in any professional setting, as this would cause a lot of confusion and general societal censure.

    So, even though the fight for the mainstream acceptance of alternative sexualities has progressed quite a lot, we’re still in the dark days of the closet for anyone who is gender variant. While I can find many resources for LGBT people in the sciences, I have been completely unable to find any resources for genderqueer people.

  9. michael says:

    My story is quite a recent one with regards to coming out in science. I did my undergraduate degree, coming out not long before my graduation. I have since got married (I’m in the UK), and I am starting my PhD in a genetics/developmental biology lab.
    I’ve found everyone is perfectly accepting. I introduce my husband, and that’s that. I haven’t felt disadvantaged at all.
    I don’t know, I feel that most people I’ve met in the sciences are quite forward-thinking and liberal. Or, if they’re not so accepting, they don’t really care that much about your private life – they just care about science. Your personal life is… inconsequential. Not really a positive attitude in itself, but it means that LGBT-people aren’t discriminated against.

  10. eek says:

    What’s striking here is the actual number or GLB folks but no (or very little) T… just an observation.

    I just recently came out (well, not at work yet, but to my spouse, father and a few close friends) and am in a techie profession, Information Security, where, at least, i find that the culture of folks it attracts is generally that of a more accepting type of person… however that cuts both ways, as you can view the DefCon-type going folks on the more liberal and accepting side of things, while those floating in the great circle of the beltway surrounding D.C. probably trending towards the more conservative and fearful end of the spectrum. So, in my case, it’s once again, a matter of trying to find where you’re comfortable and accepted… and if you’re not a Fed, you’re pretty well screwed when it comes to anti-discrimination laws as it applies to people in my case.

    I wear my geekiness on my sleeve, and my love of tech, engineering and science has no bounds… but not having people accept you for who you are because they are disturbed, or off-put due to a sexual orientation or gender difference is something that even I feel that is increasingly needing to be directly addressed. I fear, that no matter how good you are at what you do, or your accomplishments as male or female (or even in between) are able to be disregarded just because of somebody’s stupid and ignorant bias towards you.

    I’m in fear of how I will be perceived over time just because of my gender transition that will overshadow my skills and abilities to perform my job. Nobody should have to fear that, regardless of the career community they are in…. that’s where real change needs to occur.

    • Hey eek, we approached several T scientists for the curated collection of stories, but none of them were available to write something. Most unfortunately. A big part of why I added “tell us your story, now” format to this post was in hopes that we’d get some more diversity and, in particular, some stories from people who are transgendered. Just FYI.

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