out for a penny...?

Oct 31 2011 Published by under academia, help, queer

I was recently invited to be a "table leader" at a big conference mentoring/career luncheon. I had been volunteered nominated by a colleague because I have just set up a lab, and one of the topics is "setting up your first lab". Today I was finally filling out the RSVP form, in which you are asked to select all appropriate tables that you could lead. One is "gay and lesbian issues in science". Now, of course this one is relevant to me. And I'm glad to see that the big conference is working in this area.

Here's the weird thing: I am hesitating to check that box. I don't know why, but I'm definitely feeling a little anxiety about volunteering for this one. Now, I'm fully out. Not just here, but IRL. So, why am I scared? I don't know. Maybe part of it is that I would be coming out on such a large scale. My name will be in a program book, and this will be a thing that becomes "searchable" in my professional world. In the future, grant reviewers and the like will run across it if they google me. It is always a little bit of a nervous charge when I come out to a new person. And this would be that x 10^4.

I think I am, deep-down, a little worried this will come back to haunt me. Also, what am I going to say? I don't really know if I have any good advice for other non-heterosexual folks out there that are in this business. In fact, it would be useful for me to talk to someone about this that is a few years ahead of me on the tenure-track. So maybe if I was just there, as an example that some of us queer folk are making it, that would be useful?

This is getting a little rambly (is that a word?). So I'll stop and ask for input. If I'm "out" for penny, should I just bite the bullet and be "out" for a pound*? Do you think I should check the box, or keep my "coming out" on a more person-to-person level? And if I bail, is that dishonest of me?


*ouch. that is rambly and mixing up the metaphors. sorry.

24 responses so far

  • @DrRubidium says:

    My only advice would be to do what is comfortable - which isn't very helpful, I know. I wonder if the folks at the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP; http://www.noglstp.org/) have any words of wisdom?

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    I think you gotta go with your gut. Just because you're out, doesn't mean that every opportunity there is to talk about what it means to be out AND be a scientist, you have to take it. Do you have a same reaction to talking about being a WOMAN in science? Maybe, maybe not. But I bet you don't have the same *guilt* about not checking that Women-In-Science box......Check the boxes for the sessions that you feel you can contribute the most to and leave it at that...

  • I remembr when I was debating quitting my PHd program versus switching supervisors, I felt this emmense weight on my shoulders. If I quit I was letting down all women of color because I couldnt make it. An amazing mentor said to me that I needed to remove that from the equation because by doing what was best for me was being a role model.

    My point is by being out, you're doing an immense service. You always have to be true to yourself and if you're not comfortable clicking the box, don't. I think it's fair for one to not want to defined by their sexuality anymore than one wants to be defined by their career or gender.

  • The tricky thing about being LGBT is that it is a more invisible minority. People can usually tell if you are female, or not white, or in a wheel chair. That fight is always in-your-face. But with certain types of disability, or with LGBT issues, it is easier to hide. And that is both the gift and the curse of the matter. I've chosen to draw the line at "will it be helpful to students?" so I probably wouldn't sit at a panel like this. On the other hand, I would try to attend, and definitely participate upon attending. But that's my line. Good luck with your decision.

    • gerty-z says:

      thanks--the ability to be invisible is part of the reason that I normally make an effort to be out and not invisible. Your point about finding the line is a good one, though.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Remember that you don't owe anyone anything. Do what you find most comfortable for you. If you want to talk to the students at that "table" you can always take note of who is there and chat with them later.

  • Namnezia says:

    I have the same reaction when asked about taking about being a minority in science. I mean, yea, I'm a minority and I do science, I have not much to say beyond that. What bothers me about these panels is that they imply that if you are somehow different then this difference permeates your every thought all the time, as if every time you walk into the lab you think "Oh I wonder which minority/gay/female/disabled issues I'll be facing today through my unique set of circumstances". I mean no, I'm thinking more along the lines of "I wonder what science will bring today". Or, "my kids were a pain in the ass this morning". Or "I have to pee". To me, being a minority is pretty much a non-issue during my everyday work. That is why I always feel uncomfortable as a spokesperson. I'm happy to discuss and give advice at a one to one level, but not as a group. So to me your hesitancy makes perfect sense.

  • Vicki says:

    I don't think it would be dishonest not to check that box: all else aside, the question is "do you think you could usefully lead this table/discussion?" not just "Are you LGBT?"

    If you think the answer to that is yes, then you get to think about whether it's worth it to you, in terms of what you and other people would gain, and whatever it might cost (stress is a real cost, though one that may well be affordable).

    • drugmonkey says:

      To expand slightly on Vicki's point, which discussions do you want to lead? Where is your greatest interest? Does it matter? Point being that you may feel like you would rather lead a different table discussion right now. That's great. No worries. Or you may not care so much....in which case I'll agree with those asking about your comfort level. There is no obligation to participate in such things if you don't wish to. Remember your newfound ability to say no?

  • geeka says:

    I always feel that I should be respected for what I do scientifically, not necessarily because I'm a scientist and (whatever appropriate descriptor).

    If you don't feel comfortable, don't do it. Besides, if you are 'out' at work, chances are that anyone that needs you as a mentor will be able to find you.

  • Katiesci says:

    If you're hesitating then I don't think you should volunteer. I agree that you can definitely attend the session and provide input without your name being on the brochure and searchable. If you're interested in doing it later on in life I'm sure the opportunity will ever come up again. You may be more comfortable, more established, and have more to say on the subject when you're a few more years along the TT.

  • gerty-z says:

    Thanks, everyone. It was kinda weird for me to notice that had the hesitation, and what that might be a result of. I appreciate the general consensus to not do anything that makes me uncomfortable. But that makes it really easy for me to NOT be so out...which is maybe not always the BEST option for various reasons. IDK, I guess I'm still going back and forth on this one. But leaning toward skipping this year.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    In 2006, colleague came out as a lesbian in her presidential address to my major professional society. I haven't heard anyone comment on it.

  • ... maybe it would be fun? (just sayin')

  • I'm out - personally and professionally - but not electronically with my real name and I don't want to change that - at least not until I feel really secure - like Nobel prize secure - about my job and scientific reputation. I'm not fancy enough to be asked (yet! yet! I bide my time...), but I would not want to link my name to that session either. The way I see it, there is no professional benefit and a small potential for professional (or other) harm. BUT! In the absence of google, of course I would totally do it. I feel very hypocritical about this. My cowardly rationale?

    IRL, you meet someone, you come out face to face, they don't care (or maybe they do) but at that point you're a person and probably not really all that scary to talk to. That person then possibly tells someone else but presents living proof that they survived the encounter and they maybe even indicate that you had something interesting to say. No big deal.

    You make it googleable? It's not like being gay is a protected class (at least in most places). Being LGBT doesn't put you in the "under-represented minority" bucket of people that are especially encouraged to apply. It just makes you a little scary to people that don't already know you. And if they *must* talk to a scary person, they'll pick the one that they can get the extra-credit for.

    Also, all of my professional contact information is online (with a helpful map and directions from the airport!). Again, I'm not fancy enough (yet!) to attract the attention of any sort of crazy, but it's out there and it can be violent. I don't need to put up a sign and draw a map.

    That someone even thought to put such a session on a list is awesome. And my (theoretical) hesitation to participate speaks to an un-met need. Maybe I'm unnecessarily cautious and pessimistic. I'd love for someone to prove me wrong.

    • gerty-z says:

      I think I have some of the same sort of trepidations that you describe. For some reason, coming out to everyone at the giant meeting would be fine...if I could talk to each one of them. It is the not doing it face-to-face that makes me feel...weird. And I hope that we are both unnecessarily cautious. Maybe this session could help a lot of people, and that would be great. But I'm not sure that I'm the right person, right now, to be the one leading that discussion. I wish I didn't have to care about this. I don't think that anyone that volunteered to lead the "Issues for Women" table thought about it so much.

      • Juniper Shoemaker says:

        I am deeply sorry that you have to suffer this sort of trepidation because too many people don't recognize bigotry for what it is. And I agree with everyone who says that there is no shame in your refraining from leading this talk if you fear participating in that capacity. I think you don't owe anyone anything just because the LGBT dimension of your identity is invisible-- especially for the reasons zwitterionique lists.

  • [...] any sort of role where they are expected to be, overtly, a member of that class. I'll let Namnezia explain: I mean, yea, I'm a minority and I do science, I have not much to say beyond that. What bothers me [...]

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