Out and about

So let me tell you all of a story. Back in undergrad, there was someone who was in the closet as a chemist. There was no one else he could really look up to as there weren’t many out and about chemists,even though he went to a very liberal school. He tried to remain in the closet, but eventually came out to his friends and was accepted right away (as they pretty much had a feeling anyway). Now this person’s undergraduate research advisor was well, not that accepting and there was lots of drama. Too much drama really. Eventually fired from his position (for a really bullcrap reason) and after almost losing a summer fellowship due to comment by former advisor, he went back into the closet even though word had spread and had become a bit ostracized in the department.

Years later this undergrad would go to grad school. Again, he came out to a few folks when starting. But it didn’t last long as the department which was said to be quite friendly to the LGBT community seemed as such in the beginning. However, there would be more drama later on and decided to pursue other avenues instead of chemistry.

Alas, that is my story. Sure I’ve been writing here for a while, but there’s a reason why I decided to go an alternative career route instead of traditional chemistry. Considering I have had people try to change who I am, and the way I live, I have decided to leave academia for a bit. Might I return? Who knows, but alas, I am a jaded and cynical chemist now.

It surprises me that as liberal and as open minded many chemists are socially and even fiscally, the topic of LGBT scientists still causes some squickyness amongst their peers. There are far too many gay grad students and undergrads who are in fact scared. Sure there may be some places with out faculty (though my grad school only had them at lecturer positions), the heterohegemony still remains a strong force in academia. The program Safespace can only do so much, as even students who I knew were bi-curious/questioning/gay/lesbian/transgendered didn’t feel comfortable talking to various faculty members who had the stickers.

Then there’s also the GLBT scientists groups.  Sure, they exist,but there are no real open member directories. Why? How can young struggling scientists talk with someone who already went through what they are going through now? Where is the support structure? How can you find someone else who shares your struggles? In the end, some students just feel alienated and go through their struggle alone and sometimes even dropout of programs.

While younger chemists are more accepting, trying to get a career in industry or academia is very difficult. When applying for fellowships, I asked, should I come out? No one told me to come out.  In fact, everyone I spoke with said that the statement would detract from my application and would probably cost me a fellowship.

I followed their advice begrudgingly. I got a fellowship. But at what price? To not be true to myself in the lab setting and to constantly worry in the back of my mind wondering who might know or suspect and what would they do about this information?

So now I am out and about. I’m looking for new avenues to continue my career path. Hopefully one day, chemistry will be as open to the GLBT community as it is to other minorities.

That’s all.


  1. I am rather uncomfortable in hearing that sexual orientation is even a factor in something as straight forward as a fellowship. I could accept it as an obstacle in something complex such as career or interpersonal dynamics, but in the ideal world, we were always told we’d be judged on merit. Now we all know that’s not true, is it?

    I came from an extremely LGBT friendly high school and of course I took that accepting atmosphere for granted during my stay at Berkeley. It always takes me a bit more effort to actually realize how tough the (absolutely unjustifiable) discrimination must be everywhere else. I am sorry that this is what you have to deal with, and I am sorry that you felt you did what you had to do (leaving academia). I don’t really have any constructive suggestion to make other than I sincerely hope things work out for the best.

    As far as opening up to other minorities, I’d previously voiced my opinion on being another type of minority. Now that’s an issue for another day. Everyday I am reminded of how old world this field still is.

  2. I’m sorry you have had some bad experiences. I just don’t see how people could really be looking at you negatively because of this. I go to one of the most conservative public universities in the nation and I cannot see the faculty or students in the department giving someone a hard time for being gay.

    It is hard for me to relate to, of course, but I have a difficult time believing that chemists would make it harder for someone to be a success because they are gay.

    Is there a sexual orientation question when applying for fellowships? I just don’t understand where this could hurt you on your way to a phd and a job.

    It isn’t a matter of being LGBT friendly…it is more of a question of who gives a damn? You could have a harder time getting close to people for some reason because of it but it shouldn’t effect you professionally.

  3. This is sad.

    A senior faculty at our institute was spotted in Hillcrest on several occasions. I think we’re quite proud of it. 🙂

  4. I’m going through the same exact thing now… gay and in chemistry (but as an undergrad). I’m not out to anyone in my lab, and honestly I don’t think I ever will be. I’m completely out to all my friends, but I just separate my two lives like that. I feel dirty hiding who I am, but what am I to do? There’s too much riding on my position, getting recommendation letters, etc. Plus, I go to a conservative, Catholic school where the administration crushes any LGBT groups, and while the majority of people I know are tolerant, homophobia among the students is rampant. All this from a top-50 school in Massachusetts, possibly the most accepting of all states! It really grinds my gears… It’s just so sad that we can’t be ourselves, even to our brothers and sisters in science, those who are supposed to be rational thinkers, not irrational reactionaries… *sigh*

  5. It truly is sad. Thanks for the support Noel, but I sincerely hope that one day things will change. There is no fellowship question that relates to GLBT, but there is one that you may be aware of asking about how you have broader impacts. I thought being gay and out would be a broader impact, but I was very much told to not put it down, so I didn’t.

    Either way, I feel for you Steve. If you have any questions, feel free to email me and I will try to answer them as best as I can. G’luck and keepon truckin!

  6. 2/3 of the CBC bloggers are GLBT. As teh ghey who wrote the Lady Gaga post which sparked the (in my opinion) hilarious comments which ensued your obvious wrath, I feel inclined to give my thoughts on your supposed woes, which I can fairly sum up with the following:

    Lighten. the fuck. up.

    First, if you’re not out already, the science community is a horrible place to do it. The supposed conservativism, or “heterohegemony” as you so disingenuously call it, of chemistry faculty is not the reason why. Science is Asperger’s central, full of people who are indifferent to emotion and unable to deal with irrational changes. Science draws these people. Coming out is a rather emotionally taxing process, and the people who make up the scientific establishment generally lack the empathy needed to help you through the process. It is much easier to be a GLBT chemist if they already are able to deal with one’s own sexuality before starting their post-bac career. Go find a support group- most Unis have the necessary resources. You don’t do that shit at work. It doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist or not. In my experience, it’s better to talk to people who aren’t scientists about these things anyway.

    Second, you’re projecting. You do not speak for me. Now I’m sorry if you had a shitty experience with a conservative advisor and “drama,” but given the egregious lack of detail in your story, I can only imagine what happened. Now, I’ve had to deal with gay-related bullshit every so often. This happens when you’ve spent your entire collegiate life in conservative public institutions. My approach to it is simply “fuck you.” It’s amazing what happens when you simply confront people about their raging intolerance. It’s pretty clear you’re too passive for this approach. Too bad. It would have helped. Chemists need things spelled out for them.

    Third, I DID mention my gay-ness in my NSF-GFRP application, how it allowed me to understand what it was like to be a minority in science, and how I wanted to act as a mentor for other GLBT students in science so they knew how best to approach this in the scientific community, as I believe I have with success. The responses I got for the section made it clear that the NSF had no interest in promoting GLBT scientists.

    Honestly, this is the first time I have ever heard of someone GLBT being discriminated against in a chemistry lab by their advisor. Do not think you are in the majority, though… nor the minority. There are people out there who want to know, who give a shit about things like this. That it forced you out of science is very unfortunate. If you want to talk, you have my email. Don’t hesitate. Ψ*Ψ is writing a post about this now. There will be dialogue. Your voice will be heard, but it will also be challenged.

    But leave my commenters alone. Their intentions are good. And everyone should get a good laugh out of a backside attack joke now and then.

    • Wah. I spoke with Jes about it. My face is red. Sorry. Yes, I may be projecting, but I just think me seeing that came at a bad time and I raged at the heterohegemony. But you don’t know me. You don’t know what happened, so please do not tell me to lighten the fuck up.

  7. As none of us are poor black-hispanic single mothers I doubt we will ever know what it means to truly be a minority. I can see how Excimer’s post and the adjoining commenters seem crass and insensitive, but only if you don’t give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Good luck with your future endeavors away from Chemistry. I’m considering a similar path but for different reasons…


  8. @Steve: Make GLBT-friendly friends within chemistry. There are departments and research groups where you can be accepted for who you are–I’m in one. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Carbon-Based Curiosities » Blog Archive » come out, come out, wherever you are

  10. William Penrose says:

    Network in the small business community. Universities, large research institutes, and large companies tend to converge on a type. Small companies tend to be more flexible and iconoclastic, and it’s amazing how many little companies are flourishing in this crappy economy. I’m retired now, but I spent 17 years working for small companies, and they were the most productive of my life. My last job before retiring was back in academia, and I found it had become a barren and unrewarding wasteland.

    I’ve known several successful gay scientists, but in all cases, they never made a big deal of their orientation, neither denying it or rubbing it in others’ faces. Come to think of it, none were in academia. All were in business or in government.

  11. Hi all, I just found this post and hope some will find it encourageing to hear that I knew openly an openly gay graduate student who, to the best of my knowledge did not feel as if he was discriminated against. I know it took him a while to feel comfortable telling people, we all suspected before he told us. Maybe the fact that this happened in good old liberal Mass. helped. I hope this helps.

  12. “But at what price? To not be true to myself in the lab setting and to constantly worry in the back of my mind wondering who might know or suspect and what would they do about this information?”

    Did you honestly think anyone in your lab (or your fellow peers) would care enough to out you to a fellowship committee? In fact, do you think the committee would even care if you were gay, especially if they already awarded you based on your scientific and academic merits?

    Your attempt to “re-closet” yourself after arriving at graduate school was a life poor decision, and the dishonesty eventually cost you not only your position here, but it tainted your reputation amongst your former peers.

    I earnestly hope you make better decisions in the future, especially when being honest with your friends, coworkers, and yourself.

  13. I was talking to an lgbt lab mate of mine (I am queer as well) about the presence (or lack thereof) of gay people in chemistry the other day. He seemed to think there were very few, but I responded I knew og several, including several very renowned chemists.

    I will however agree with the initial author’s sentiment that there is a certain degree of invisibility for lgbt people. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. I have wondered about the propriety of mentioned my sexual orientation with regard to grant and fellowship applications (@Excimer). I don’t think as a white male that a minority status would be taken seriously (except of course by a lgbt advocacy group like the Point Foundation). Those fellowships/scholarships that are available seemed geared towards people involved more with activism and political movements than the natural sciences. As such, I wonder I am part of their intended demographic when I have considered applying.

    In any case, I think the natural sciences are for the most part lgbt friendly based on my personal experience. Sexual orientation should in theory be a non-issue, right?

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