Coming Out in the Sciences: Part I—After 50 Years in the Lab, a Reproduction Expert Leaves the Closet


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.

Story and interview by Steve Silberman

Neena Schwartz is a legend in reproductive biology. A trailblazing endocrinologist, she helped map the pathways of communication between the brain and the reproductive organs, uncovering the crucial role of a hormone called inhibin in regulating ovulation. She has also been one of the most outspoken advocates for women at the lab bench, co-founding the Association of Women in Science in 1971, fighting for equality in the face of pervasive old boys' networks, and mentoring generations of scientists at Northwestern University.

Throughout this distinguished career, however, Schwartz has borne the burden of a secret—she's gay. After leading a strictly compartmentalized life for more than half a century, the award-winning endocrinologist has gracefully exited the closet with the publication of her frank autobiography, A Lab of My Own. In the first candid memoir by a lesbian scientist, she describes the insidious costs of doing groundbreaking research while having to keep one's true nature hidden from view—including the pain of being unable to reach out to her colleagues for support when a former lover died of cancer.

Now retired, Schwartz explains in the book that she is coming out with the hope that her story will "provide young gay scientists or other professionals with a lesson of possibilities for success and happiness without such splits in their lives." She lives in Evanston, Illinois with her partner of more than two decades, Claire Wadeson.


Silberman: How did it feel waking up to the fact that you were a lesbian in the 1940s?

Schwartz: Sexuality itself was taboo. Look at the movies from those days—even married couples were always seen in twin beds. But the wrong kind of sexuality was much, much worse. There was a whole genre of lurid paperbacks I read in the drugstore: "The gripping story of Hilda, whose twisted desires led her to the brink of degradation ... One twist of fate—must it keep a woman forever chained to forbidden deviation?"

That was all I could find on the subject of being a lesbian until a woman I met gave me a copy of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. We never even spoke about it. The first time I went to a gay bar in Chicago, I didn't carry an ID, because if the cops suddenly decided to raid the bar, you went to jail and your name would be printed in the papers the next day. Luckily, the neighborhood around my medical school was a gay area then, and still is. That was obvious to me the first time I took a walk there. So I made friends in the neighborhood.

In science, you work in unusually close quarters with other people, and you don't talk much about your personal life. But if nobody asks you, and you never tell, your sexuality becomes like this elephant in the room.

Silberman: Did you face prejudice in science simply for being female?

Schwartz: I was the only woman getting my PhD in the department of physiology at Northwestern. At my first job at the University of Illinois, the chairman of the department asked me to pour the tea. "Sure," I said, "but maybe someone else can pour it next time." Nobody ever asked me again.

In the days before calculators and computers, scientists would carry around slide rules. One day this jerk gets into the elevator and says, "What's a little girl like you doing with that great big slide rule?" First of all, I wasn't a little girl—I was more like a big girl. But I didn't say anything. What could I say? I was a student.

Silberman: What inspired you to become a feminist in the '70s?

Schwartz: My parents were politically active, so I grew up with a strong sense that everyone should be treated fairly. It made me angry to realize that a lot of women who were good scientists were not able to get tenured positions and run their own labs. So I decided to get into the fight. I still have my Bella Abzug t-shirt.

Silberman: A lot of gay people have embraced the notion that sexual orientation is genetically determined, in part to counter the nonsense about homosexuality being a "lifestyle choice." As a reproductive scientist, do you believe that we'll someday find the so-called gay genes?

Schwartz: It's not that simple. I can see why people say it: "I can't help it, my genes told me to do this!" That argument might sway some religious folks. But now we know that whether a gene is expressed or not depends a lot on experiences you have. While there may be genetic components to sexual orientation, I think we may discover environmental factors at work, too.

Silberman: Are you in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage?

Schwartz: Of course. The arguments against it are ridiculous.

Silberman: What convinced you to come out?

Schwartz: Writing A Lab of My Own. I started working on the book 10 years ago because no one had documented the feminist movement in science. Eventually I realized that if I was going to talk about my life, I had to really talk about it.

Silberman: Were you nervous before it was published?

Schwartz: Oh yes—I had fantasies of people standing up at book signings and throwing things. But instead, I've gotten these wonderfully touching letters from former students. It's astounding to me, frankly. But you know how it is—my partner laughs and says, "Everyone's known about you for years, you know."

Read Part II of Coming Out in the Sciences

Steve Silberman is a longtime writer for Wired magazine. His blog NeuroTribes is at the Public Library of Science, and he can be followed on Twitter.

Flag image: Some rights reserved by bensonkua


  1. In my experience, scientists are more likely than the average person to be receptive to the evidence that shows that sexual orientation is set during prenatal brain development. That takes it out of the “choice” or “lifestyle” realm where social conservatives tend to place it. That makes for greater tolerance.

  2. “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.”

    Happy day to you, but aren’t you worried that you’re leaving out the experiences of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered persons *of Inuit heritage with reading disabilities* in the sciences and engineering?

      1. I thought you were joking about people in the sciences and engineering feeling under-recognized or under-appreciated as a subset of the LGBT community. So I joked about another subset that might feel under-appreciated. Guess you had to be there.

        1. It’s not about recognition or appreciation and I didn’t see anything in the post to indicate it was… it’s about having a multitude of perspectives and view points. I for one very much enjoyed reading this woman’s story as it offered me a perspective on being gay that I had not heard before and because I am a woman in the sciences. Maybe you could just read her story, accept the challenges she’s faced becuase of her sexuality, gender and occupation and that she’s an amazing woman of many accomplishments and not nead to diminish that with some snarky comment.

  3. Thanks for this post, Maggie. I grew up in a strict, religious home and then was one of only three women studying archaeology at my uni, back in the day. A lot of stuff that went on which today would land the faculty in court. I’m glad it’s behind me, but those stifling experiences set me back about 15 years in coming to terms with my sexuality.

    Schwartz is a smart lady. “…whether a gene is expressed or not depends a lot on experiences you have. While there may be genetic components to sexual orientation, I think we may discover environmental factors at work, too.”

  4. I privileged to be at a reunion of some WWII vintage WRENs a while back. One of them was the first woman Naval Engineer in the Commonwealth. Most ship-to-ship missile guidance systems are still based on her work. She said she eventually came across the dodge that women SF writers used back then: only use the initial of your first name. That way your work won’t be immediately rejected because they know you’re a woman.

    She almost mentioned that she’d only ever corresponded with one other woman naval scientist back then. A woman from the States. “Grace”- something.

    Hopper?” I suggested.

    “Yes! That was it!”

  5. The gripping story of Hilda, whose twisted desires led her to the brink of degradation!.

    Ah, lovely (and collectable!) lesboa paperbacks. For some reason Toronto has always been a hotbed of trashy novel publishing: such as Harlequin Romances. The fabulous National Film Board of Canada film Forbidden Love has a great sequence on this genre. Lesbians who left their hell-hole rural environments in the 50s to try and find such “Forbidden” love in the city were often left wondering what sort of social structure to set up in the absence of a heterosexual, nuclear family. They often built on the basis of those novels because what else was there?

    Cut to chain-smoking, obese housewife. “Ah, I just made all that stuff up! I needed something to do besides having the kids drive me crazy and it brought in a few bucks.”

    1. Thanks! Loved your post too. Especially Maggie’s Wonder Twins reference! ;-)

      Yes, the reunion was totally amazing. My favourite quote was “The original idea of the WRENs was to have a woman do some non-combat, military job in order to free up a man to go to the front lines. In practice it turned out to be more like ‘free up three men’.”

      Some of them even personally knew Anna May Waters – one of two Canadian Nurse who followed the Canadian contingent into the Japanese concentration camp after the fall of Hong Kong. They confirmed the story of how one day the commandant came in for an
      inspection but she didn’t pay any attention at all to him as she was busy making some soup in a steel helmet and draining the fluid out of some wretch’s lungs. He was outraged at this lack of respect and whacked her on the side of the head, knocking her to the ground. She still ignored him and just got back up to adjust the tubes on her patient. Now he was really mad and started to pull out his sword but his aides convinced him not to kill her as her devotion to duty seemed rather admirable to them – almost Japanese.

      She was later part of the fight to get women admitted to the Royal Canadian Military Institute wherein it was pointed out that she was a good deal tougher than any of the male veterans opposing the rule change and did they really want to go up against her? Her portrait is out by the dining room which is behind the case containing the Red Baron’s last cockpit.

      I hope someone gets their stories on tape before they’re lost to us. There’s one documentary coming out in November but you couldn’t cover the half of it in ten films.

  6. Great stuff, and awesome courage. Thank you.

    Also, the middle road for nature/nurture that she takes here has always struck me as reasonable. Almost every high-level cognitive trait is subject to such interplay.

    Peace out.

  7. I’m not a member of it, but at a Coming Out Day event last night I found out my school has a Student Alliance of GLBT Engineers (SAGE: Link is to the Facebook page. Thought that was pretty cool.

  8. Thank you for a very interesting article. Neena Schwartz is an inspiration.

    I am of the opinion that there should be more stories like this out there. Stories of inspiring women (and men) who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and trasngendered in the sciences, engineering, health and technological profession should be promoted to young queer people wondering what career paths to choose. After all if they can see someone who has persued such a career and suceeded in it, then this may encourage them to persue their own careers in science.

    I am an Australian scientist and a lesbian and I too am interested in the personal stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scientists in Australia.

    Keep up the good work in encouraging a higher profile of queer people in the sciences

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