In the last few decades there has been a societal shift towards greater legal protection and acceptance of LGBT+ people in the UK, though a small minority continues to make concerted efforts to reverse that progress. But as scientists and engineers, have we seen that same progress reflected within STEM or is it being left behind?
Certainly we are taught that science is impartial and that the quality of one's work is the only thing that matters, but in reality there is increasing evidence that who you are is a significant factor 1. The opinions of a small number of people with whom we work and study can be extremely important to our professional wellbeing and success. It is easy to just fall into the pattern of heteronormative society, for a long time I sincerely believed my identity and any relationships I had were a private matter that was simply not relevant to my work as a scientist. Now I realise that my attitude was one of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell2" rather than true acceptance or encouragement.
LGBT people are an invisible minority whether we are out or not, and coming out becomes a regular occurrence repeated whenever we meet new people. The risk of a negative reaction and fear of potential discrimination are enough to keep many LGBT people from feeling comfortable enough to come out to their colleagues at all. And when we do declare ourselves, the reaction can often be quite negative, repeating the assertion that it shouldn’t matter who we are and to stand out is to seek attention. So why should we come out at all?
At the most personal level, it’s surprising just how much energy it takes to avoid accidentally outing oneself. The strain of checking everything you say and do, like policing your use of pronouns when talking about a partner, inevitably has a toll on mental wellbeing. Being out to co-workers tends to make LGBT people happier and more productive, so perhaps the question should be "How can someone be a good scientist when they can’t be themselves?"
Looking at the bigger picture, the acceptance and encouragement of LGBT people as scientists depends largely on us making it the norm. The growing success of LGBT role models in sports shows just how a few highly visible representatives can shift the attitudes of society, while the work of Athena SWAN3 has been a driving force for the promotion of gender diversity in academia. By being openly LGBT in STEM, we demonstrate to everyone that it’s a perfectly viable combination. Those out academics who are already leading the way regularly mention the heartfelt messages they receive from students thanking them for showing that it’s possible to contribute to scientific endeavour no matter who you are.
This point was driven home to me last month at the LGBT STEMinar 4 in Sheffield, where 80+ LGBT people came together from across the UK and beyond to demonstrate their work and talk about their experiences. Seeing just how many of us there are, and how fantastic we can all be in our fields of expertise, gave me my first true sense of community as a bisexual scientist.
Although I have never personally experienced any real discrimination in my time as an out scientist, even in an accepting environment there are little aggrievances and false assumptions that tend to discourage. It's up to us to challenge those assumptions, act as role models and convince the world that LGBT and STEM are completely compatible.
It’s important to remember that coming out at your place of study/work is a big step for anyone and must always be a personal choice. But for those of us who feel safe enough to come out, by celebrating our hidden diversity we are in turn making it more acceptable and encouraging others to join us, and in the long run that can only be a good thing. To quote Professor David Smith from the University of York at the LGBT STEMinar event: "diverse scientists will have diverse ideas."