It probably helps to give you all some backstory on me. In terms of my own identity, I like to identify in ways that are purposefully ambiguous, because whilst I know my LGBTQIA+ identity shouldn’t matter, for a lot of people it does and I find myself uncomfortable with that. That’s why I call myself queer (a word I use very positively but recognise that it also has extensive history as a slur and will still be considered as such by some people) and refer to my partner as my partner. If you know me, you’ll probably know more specific answers to how I identify, and if you don’t? Well maybe that doesn’t really matter. Also, I’m working as a postdoc now, in a group where I feel valued and respected for everything that I am, but that has not always been the case.
I am aware that to some people, there might be questions – Why does this relate to science? How does this relate to science? Do we even really need to discuss this? This has mattered for every day of my scientific career, from my day-to-day treatment to the use of my diversity as a selling point for grant applications. Sometimes, I have been a hinderance. Others, I have been hugely advantageous to my colleagues. At times, it has sometimes felt like walking along a knife edge.
Whilst this is a topic I could talk about at great lengths, I wanted to share some of my key takeaways regarding my experience as a queer postgraduate student.
- The day-to-day PhD experience as someone who is ‘out’ and queer can be really variable.
Don’t get me wrong, in the grand scheme of circumstances I have been in in my life, academia is one of the more accepting. In the right lab or group, science can be one of the best spaces to be LGBTQIA+. The vast majority of my colleagues have been supportive and kind, however the experiences around those who were not will always be carried with me. I think it is also critically important to not underestimate the mental, emotional and physical burdens of basic existence for many LGBTQIA+ people in a heteronormative world, which can’t always be left outside of the lab, much as we may want it to be.
During my PhD I was regularly exposed to homophobia in the city where I studied. The homophobia I experienced from a few individuals in the institution itself was far quieter, but still there. I remember one year during Pride, a good friend of mine had a quiet word with me about how my tiny Pride flag on my desk (literally so small the flagpole was a cocktail stick) was upsetting to a colleague of mine due to their religious beliefs. Both of us are supposed to be protected under the The Equality Act 2010, and yet I was seen as being in the wrong, not just according to that colleague, but to everyone who had discussed it before speaking with me and concluded amongst themselves that I should just remove it to avoid the situation escalating. There’s no satisfying way to round this example off, no comeuppance for the injustice I felt, or a solution that worked for us both, and that was frustratingly often the way with such events.
- It can feel very solitary.
I always longed for a role model professor who identified in exactly the same way I did. I knew plenty of allies and advocates, but I still haven’t found someone senior to me in academia who identifies as I do. I recognise this is a big ask – coming out is such a personal thing, and it’s not something anyone should ever feel forced into doing. Nevertheless, for me this is the single biggest external factor that would contribute to me leaving academia, à la the so-called ‘leaky pipeline.’ When you have an abundance of representation – for example as a white man in my PhD field of magnetic resonance imaging – it can be hard to recognise how your academic experience might feel without this.
These are the reasons I am a huge advocate for the use of LGBTQIA+ lanyards or badges and the use of pronouns in email signatures, even if as an ally and not a member of the LGBTQIA+ community yourself – it is amazing to know which of your colleagues are vocally standing alongside you in that way. As someone who, at 30 years old, is currently experimenting with the use of she/they as my pronouns, there’s always a definite physical feeling of comfort for me when I see that someone uses their pronouns in their online academic spaces, including when these are more standard pronouns, for example he/him, or she/her. If you take one thing from this blog post, I would hope that it would be how useful these can be for your non-cisgender colleagues and consider whether this is something you feel you could adopt, if you don’t already.
- There will be opportunities for involvement in extra-curricular experiences that will enrich your CV.
Lived experience as a person who doesn’t fit the cisgender, heterosexual societal norm can be hugely valuable, and there may be opportunities during your postgraduate studies to formalise this experience for both the betterment of your academic environment, and your own growth, personally and academically.
I have had some amazing opportunities which resulted from being an openly queer person, as an LGBTQIA+ representative on various national and international committees, which has opened further doors to paid consultancy opportunities.
- There is legislation to protect you.
LGBTQIA+ identities are one of the characteristics protected by The Equality Act 2010 in the UK (where I live and work), which acts as legal framework to protect against unfair treatment on the basis of such characteristics and provide reasonable adjustments for those who need them. Universities and other institutions are required to adhere to this, and there should be contacts within academic institutions who you can turn to if you feel as though your rights are being infringed.
Like the example I provided earlier, the practicalities of addressing the rights of two people with conflicting views who are both protected in different ways under the Act can be challenging. However, that is not your responsibility, and there are people in universities who have the responsibility to navigate this.
- It is ok to occupy the scientific space in this way.
Even now, I always second-guess myself before I write about my queerness. This blog post was no exception. But it is so important to remind ourselves that not only are we ‘allowed’ to take up this space (although I hate that wording – why do we need permission??), but that we deserve to feel comfortable and valued in the space that we occupy.
Dr Jodi Watt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Glasgow. Jodi’s academic interests are in both healthy ageing and neurodegenerative diseases of older age, and they are currently working on drug repurposing for dementia. Previously they worked on understanding structural, metabolic and physiological brain changes with age, as measured using magnetic resonance imaging. As a queer and neurodiverse person, Jodi is also incredibly interested in improving diversity and inclusion practices both within and outside of the academic context.