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