Working Life

Working my way out

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Science  05 Aug 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6299, pp. 618
DOI: 10.1126/science.353.6299.618

Less than 24 hours after the mass murders that took place at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June, I posted an emotionally raw message on social media. I usually avoid posting about potentially divisive issues, but I made an exception because, as a gay man, I wanted to reach out to the LGBTQ community to provide comfort, and to encourage us to come together in this time of pain. I was acutely aware that all of my “friends” would be able to see my post, including a few new co-workers whose positions on LGBTQ issues I was not certain about. But, after years of being hesitant to tell other scientists that I was gay, I no longer cared. Something changed for me that day. I decided that it was no longer useful for me to worry about how others judge me based on my sexual orientation.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I feel no reason to hide or be ashamed of being gay while doing science.”

The next day, I was taken aback when a white male faculty member in the department where I work as a postdoc went out of his way to stop me in the hall to thank me for sharing my thoughts and to offer his support. Later, my boss—another white male—checked on me. All day, I felt support from my colleagues that was only possible because I was out as gay at work.

I've been out for more than a decade, having first come out as a sophomore in high school—a liberating but grim experience, which brought death threats from students and had my parents worrying that I'd be killed in a dark alley or contract HIV. But professionally, I came out much later. As an undergrad biology major, I was hesitant to come out to people in positions of authority, especially white male faculty members. And there seemed to be good reason to worry. Early on, for example, a faculty member implied that female scientists' work was less important than that done by men. In my head, I extended this judgment to LGBTQ individuals, including myself, and I thought that other scientists would not take me or my work seriously if they knew that I was gay. “Am I good enough?” I frequently asked myself. I also avoided seeking out professors when I needed help, which made it harder to do well in my classes and hindered my development of networking skills.

Graduate school was the first time that I felt I could come out professionally, but it still wasn't easy. I knew that my adviser would be supportive—I had chosen to work with her partly because I felt that I would be safe under her supervision—but every time I had an opportunity to tell her, I couldn't find the words. My heart would leap into my throat, my face would flush, and I'd panic. It took a few years before I succeeded. And I never officially came out to any other faculty members while I was a student, mostly because of nagging fears that it would negatively affect their views of my research.

Coming out as a postdoc was easier because I had already met my current boss and become friends with him via social media, where I'm open about my sexual orientation. These days, I'm out to most of my professional colleagues, which has greatly improved my mental health and helped me develop strong professional relationships. For instance, I'm out to many members of an incredibly inclusive professional botanical organization. They have helped me understand that my research stands on its own, independent of my sexuality.

But now, at a pivotal point in my career when I'm searching for a permanent position as a tenure-track faculty member, I find myself again worrying about how and when to come out. What should I do if, during the interview process, I'm asked whether I have a wife? Will being gay hurt my chances of getting the job? How will I settle in with new colleagues as an openly gay scientist?

Despite my concerns, after the tragedy in Orlando I resolved to stop this unhealthy worrying. Life is too precious for that. I feel no reason to hide or be ashamed of being gay while doing science. I'm still thinking about how to manage coming out as I move forward in my career, but I am confident that my science speaks for itself.

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