In STEM, there’s a push to remain objective and it’s taboo to mention your personal life. The problem is, a scientist’s work is influenced by who they are. Their identities, their lived experiences, their resources. This includes who they love.
I remember wandering around campus, feeling like I might explode, if I had to continue hiding part of my identity indefinitely. It still took me over a year before I felt safe enough to share that I was bisexual with anyone.
I still remember the awkward phone call when a man I was dating, who I met through STEM, found out I was bisexual. A couple weeks before, he had mentioned not trusting a bisexual girl in high school after she came out. That’s why I came out publicly in a Facebook post before telling him — I was scared of what he might say that would make me want to continue hiding. In the end, he asked if I was trying to break things off with him. It took a while to explain to him that my attraction to women had nothing to do with how I felt about him. However, the fact that he was my strongest connection to the engineering community on campus made me turn away from STEM outside of class. I was terrified that my identity would impact my academic life or my relationships with my classmates.
A male boss can tell as many stories about his wife as he’d like. A female supervisor can joke about her husband. But the first time someone mentions a same-sex partner, people feel like they’ve shared too much about their personal life. The comfort I have being able to talk about my boyfriend with my coworkers is refreshing after years of hiding my relationships with women, to the point that I’ve physically hid while on a date to avoid running into an advisor.
“I don’t care either way, it’s just so aggressive,” my coworker said. We had just seen an anti-LGTBQ bumper sticker on a truck drive past us. It was my first week and made me grateful that I hadn’t shared that I was bisexual.
Being unsure how your coworkers and supervisors feel about your sexuality puts you in a dangerous place. You feel the need to hide as much of your personal life as you can, in case you slip up on anything. A passive peer can be unsettling but there’s real potential harm if you come across someone who feels adamant that your identity is wrong. I’ve been threatened. I’ve been afraid. Even now, as an advocate for other LGBTQ people, I still would not say that I’m truly “out.” It takes time to feel comfortable and safe enough to share this part of myself with others.
I remember a college outing with a group of engineering friends. I was in a group with another bisexual girl and our male friend. He mentioned that he had never met a bisexual person. The two of us shared a comical sapphic laugh while our friend was left confused. Often, it isn’t that you’ve never met an LGBTQ person. It’s more likely they just didn’t feel comfortable sharing this part of their life.
Making a Change
Having leaders in the lab and in industry normalizes preferred-gender pronouns, acceptance of others, and respecting all identities. This is a start: when people in power make a shift, it influences those they’re responsible for.
Holding peers accountable for unacceptable comments, actions, or micro-aggressions should come at all levels. Educating others and not reinforcing these beliefs is essential to creating a safe environment in the workplace and classroom.
To check out more organizations and LGBTQ+ people in STEM, check out the pride tab!