I first sat down to write this post on June 15, 2020, a sweaty face mask dangling around my neck as I relaxed in my laboratory back-room. I flipped through my Smartphone and saw it: the U.S. supreme court had ruled that I and millions of fellow LGBTQIA+ individuals cannot be discriminated in the workplace on the basis of our sexual identity or orientation. I felt like I could breathe a little easier, see my surroundings a little clearer, inhabit my space a little safer. Similar life moments flashed before my eyes:
September 9, 2013 – I was 24 and newly out, scared, and starting the third year of my PhD. As my labmates and I drove across Arkansas to the national meeting of the American Fisheries Society, I anxiously waited for the moment to tell them I was gay.
June 26, 2015 – I was in Peterborough, Ontario for the Conference on Biological Stoichiometry when the U.S. supreme court decision on same-sex marriage equality was announced. I took five minutes to cry in my little dorm room, composed myself, and set out for the final night of networking.
January 22, 2017 – The first year of my postdoc in south Mississippi. My postdoctoral advisor and I sat in a flat-bottom boat, assessing tornado damage to our mesocosm experiment. As we discussed weekend work, I wrung my hands and resolved I needed first to come out, and secondly tell him about my long-distance boyfriend.
These snapshots from my life show the intertwined nature of my scientific career and my sexuality – an inseparable link defined by often-messy moments of vulnerability. I can seamlessly tell my story as “rites of passage”: coming to terms with my sexuality, coming into my career in ecology.
I am an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Central Arkansas. I study how freshwater ecosystems function and respond to environmental change, and much of my research has focused on ecological stoichiometry in detrital-based ecosystems like headwater streams. I am broadly fascinated by the mechanistic underpinning of ecological processes. More specifically, I have investigated topics including the fates and significance of animal feces in aquatic ecosystems, the influence of periphytic algae on leaf litter decomposition, and stream detritivore responses to gradients of detrital quantity and quality. Through this vein of work, I hope to have contributed to the scientific understanding of freshwater ecosystems.
Alongside my professional identity, I am also a cisgender gay man. I have built my scientific career in the American South, which (culturally and politically) is among the most difficult places for sexual minorities to live in the United States. I have lived in places where I could be refused service because of my sexual orientation, where I could not legally marry the person I love, where I could lose my job because of my sexual orientation, and where I still must weigh the risk of publicly holding my partner’s hand. And yet, I love the South as my adoptive home: a place where LGBTQIA+ people do lead vibrant lives; a place where, as someone openly gay, I can make a difference.
As I have come into my own as a person and as a scientist, I have wondered what unique or diverse perspective I bring to the table from my sexual orientation. After all, I am a cisgender white man in a field historically dominated by the same…and as a new faculty member, I now wield influence. I know that race, gender, and so many other parts of my identity have shaped my experiences, and they partly frame why I can live happily and openly gay in the South when others may not. I remind myself that I’ve had a relatively “smooth” ride – affirming colleagues, family, and friends who have unquestioningly supported me.
Yet amid this support, I have faced innate challenges which are common to many scientists who identify as sexual minorities, particularly those who are early career. Some of the challenges I have faced include: finding local support networks which positively affirm my sexual orientation amid the transience of graduate education and the scientific job market; engaging in long-distance online dating due to difficulty finding a partner in a small college town; and wrestling with decisions to come out, especially to supervisors and peers at work, and especially during job interviews. In overcoming these challenges, I have grown as a professional…I am more comfortable networking at conferences, because I mastered first-date jitters as a newly-out adult. I have learned how the vulnerability of living openly helps me connect more deeply and personally with students and colleagues. I have learned courage to find my own voice and speak difficult truths to others.
At the core, all LGBTQIA+ people claim a simple perspective: live your life authentically. We bring this authenticity into our work, because the truth is, we “come out” every day – whenever our personal lives intersect with our professional ones, our truth speaks. We carry our unique stories into the laboratory, into the field, because our sexual orientation and identity are inseparable from our professional selves. In living openly and out, we transform the scientific workplace and affirm the right for all people to claim their voice. As national courts define our basic human rights, and as we define ourselves as persons first and scientists second, LGBTQIA+ individuals are changing the culture and practice of science…one bout of wringing hands, nervous throat-clearing, and self-declaration at a time.