Queer in STEM: A Lot More Acceptance Than You Think

I could feel my hands shaking as I sat in Dean David Hansen’s office in November 2012. This was the first step in ‘coming out’ as a transgender woman to the 7C community. On January 1st of that year, California had added “gender identity and expression” to the list of categories protected by the anti-discrimination law in our state.

At the time, I didn’t know a single trans scientist, and knew of only one ‘out’ queer person: a gay man who worked in my field, organometallic chemistry. Fortunately for me, this man was beloved by fellow chemists and known to be a brilliant mind, a real mensch. He was exemplary—a good guy in a field that wasn’t known for being particularly sensitive to diversity issues.

After I finished coming out to Dean Hansen, he looked me in the eye and said, “I have your back.” Those four words opened the door to transition. Over the next nine months, I came out to the 60 faculty and staff at Keck Science in one-on-one conversations, all while leading a double life: a man around family and at work, and as a woman everywhere else.

To my shock and delight, absolutely everyone has been supportive.

In the early days of my transition, I can recall several instances of harassment, but all have been out-and-about in the world outside of science. I have never experienced negative treatment at the hands of a fellow scientist before my transition, or in the year since.

This is wonderful, of course, but I have learned something else since coming out: There are a lot more queer people in STEM than I imagined. Because I am open about being a trans lesbian, many scientists at conferences will come out to me as gay, lesbian or bisexual. These people are, by and large, not ‘out’ in their professional communities.

The question of whether to be ‘out’ is vexed. Those in favor of being out and visible often quote the gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk, who exhorted gay and lesbian people to come out to their friends, family and co-workers, but forget to mention that Milk was assassinated. Scientists today don’t fear death, but potential discrimination is real. Every individual must be free to decide whether to come out and to whom. People who are LGBTQ+ do not have some sort of special obligation to repair the world, and they have a hard enough time negotiating their lives as it is without having another burden placed upon them.

I think the culture in STEM today maintains a bit of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ attitude to queerness. This is partly for admirable reasons: Science has a strong ethic that, in theory, the value of an idea is exclusive from the identity of the person proposing it; science is a meritocracy of ideas. So it shouldn’t matter if you’re LGBT. But this can manifest as an attitude of, “I don’t care if you are queer, but I’d rather not know it,” which can encourage people to stay in the closet.

I can’t blame them, and yet I choose to be fully out for a couple of reasons. First, during my own education, I never knew a single out LGBTQ+ faculty member and I don’t want any of my students to have that same experience. I want them to know the possibilities that exist for out queer people.

Second, I strongly believe that out-ness breeds empathy. It’s a cliché that anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice decreases “once you know somebody.” This is just as true for trans people, but while 87% of Pew Research Poll respondents in 2013 said that they personally knew a lesbian, gay or bisexual person, only 8% of respondents said that they knew someone who is trans. According to the UCLA-based Williams Institute, approximately one in 30 Americans is lesbian, gay or bisexual, while only one in about 300 are trans.

Few queer scientists are out, but we are experiencing a sea change. I’ve known a much larger percentage of scientists who are out in the generation after me. The current wave of acceptance hasn’t left science behind. Students at the Claremont Colleges will see a scientific community much richer in out LGBTQ+ scientists.

To students interested in the sciences who are LGBTQQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Questioning, Intersex or Asexual), there is a lot more acceptance in STEM than you know, and a lot more other queer people out there than you can imagine. We’re not all out at the moment, but that’s changing with a new generation, and I assure you, you have a future in this field.

Nancy Williams is an Associate Professor of Chemistry in the W.M. Keck Science Department.

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