Queered Science: LGBTQ Scientists and the Legend of the Unicorn

Quick, tell me the name of a scientist! Probably a man, huh? Maybe you picked Einstein, or maybe Newton – but odds are, you picked a man. Ok, now give me a female scientist. A little harder, right? Marie Curie, or Jane Goodall if you’re really creative. But now tell me the name of a queer scientist. Nothing? Yeah, I thought so. But it’s not your fault – I couldn’t think of any either. And this got me to thinking: where are all the queer scientists?


I’m a scientist, and I am always on the lookout for other lesbians in my profession, just for a sense of community and company. But I never find any. Actually, I found one once, I think, but that was when I was closeted and awkward and I was always too scared to talk to her, so I just stalked her in the hallways instead. (I would not suggest you try this, by the way). It’s sad, but it’s true; there are hardly any out lesbians (or queer people of any shades, for that matter) in the sciences. We are nowhere to be found.

So I investigated a little, to learn why lesbian scientists often seem like unicorns: legendary, awe-inspiring, luminous figments of the imagination but notoriously hard to come across in person. Partially, it is because women in general — and queer women to an even greater extent — truly are entering science careers less than men. Our society genders children’s tastes before they can even speak, and girls often grow up with internalized beliefs about sex segregation. But, statistically speaking, even math or science-oriented girls are often turned away from the science professions before they graduate. It’s called the “leaky pipeline theory”: along the long pipeline of education and entry-level jobs, women “leak out” at every step, often from feelings of isolation and unhappiness or because of prevalent societal assumptions that “women can’t do science.”

[Image: Baker via www.britannica.com. Caption: Here's a unicorn for you: Dr. S. Josephine Baker, physician and child health consultant, and in love with one Louise Pearce.]

Here’s a unicorn for you: Dr. S. Josephine Baker, physician and child health consultant, and in love with one Louise Pearce.
via www.britannica.com

This is magnified for women who also identify as queer. LGBTQ students encounter harassment at school much more often than straight-identifying children; this kind of harassment leads to worse performance in school, and lower high school and college graduation rates. There are also few role models for queer people in the sciences, and the culture can feel very chilly to anyone who is not a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered man. In this world, queer women hold a minimum of a double-minority status, and it’s no wonder we see relatively few queer women entering or acting in the sciences.

Within the workforce, queer scientists are often very quiet about their queerness, if they’re out at all. Many feel they have to stay in the closet to stay competitive in their careers. Today, thanks to organizations like NOGLSTP (the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals – quite a mouthful, I know!) and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, it is much easier to be out at work. More than 95% of Fortune 500 companies now include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, and for scientists employed by the government, the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA recently made it possible for federal benefits to be extended to same-sex partnerships as well.

But it hasn’t always been that way, and for many of the older generation, being out simply is not an option. Furthermore, much of the money in science is “soft money” – meaning that researchers have to renew their grants or apply for new ones every few years, from unknown third parties. You never know exactly who you’ll need money from, or who will be on your board of approval, and you never know who will be homophobic.

Also, there is a reluctance among scientists to talk about “social” or “political” issues; however much it might not be the case in real life, we like to see ourselves as the dispassionate investigators of objective truths. The sciences are meant to be neutral, and because of the rigor of the scientific process, they are thought to hold only essential facts. Sexuality is not considered among those essential facts, regardless of how essential it is to an identity, and therefore there’s no space to discuss it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But in a heteronormative world, a non-political or “neutral” stance automatically becomes heterosexist itself. And within this setting coming out often feels inappropriate.

Of course, this is problematic. Straight scientists are also “out” in their own way, but never have to overtly discuss it. But regardless of how unfair this double standard might be, it is prevalent. I felt it strongly when I started at my first full-time job after graduating college as a field hydrologist for a major department within the federal government. Even though I’m fully out to family and friends in the rest of my life, I spent a lot of time being weird and closeted and awkward about my social life at work. In our field, there’s a lot of driving and hiking time, and therefore a lot of talking time; we get to know each other far better than many co-workers do. Where my co-workers (all men) could mention their girlfriends and fiancés offhandedly, I had to think and re-think about what I should say and how much I should allow. I was constantly working around the question of which was better, to be quiet and look like I was a weirdo with no social life and no romantic life, or open the can of worms that begins with “my girlfriend and I…”

In my personal situation, I actually work in a very LGBTQ-friendly area of the world, and I did come out to my co-workers, over a period of a few months. It was catalyzed one weekend on a rock climbing trip with a co-worker that I had assumed was platonic. I quickly learned otherwise when he touched my hair and said he was excited to be taking such a “beautiful, sexy lady” out. I stammered back in surprise and indignation that I wasn’t into men and if he wanted this to be a date, this would be a good time to turn the car around.

To his credit, he took this news remarkably well, and we finished the climb – albeit in relative silence. Over the rest of the season, I eventually came out (in various degrees of social agility) to every member of my team, but it was surprisingly hard. I spent a significant amount of thought and energy on the process, and as I said, I worked in an accepting place, with accepting co-workers. I also didn’t have a lot to lose (my job, maybe, but not a reputation or lab or work of my own). But for many queer scientists, this is not the case. And so queerness is often minimized, avoided, or hidden altogether.

Dr. Josephine Baker's companion, Dr. Louise Pearce. Pathologist at the Rockefeller Institute. Via http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_248.html

Dr. Josephine Baker’s companion, Dr. Louise Pearce. Pathologist at the Rockefeller Institute.
Via nlm.nih.gov

Obviously, similar questions of visibility and individual expression come up in many other professions as well. But my point — and why I think this is important to be acknowledged — is  positions in the hard sciences are often signifiers of privilege and social status, much like being a lawyer, or a politician. Saying you’re a chemist, for instance, carries a certain gravitas; it’s as if you must not only be smart, but now, in this position of authority, you can tell other people things — and they will probably listen. The sciences are also seen as a particularly meritocratic institution, though that’s not always true. The belief is that if you’re there it’s because you deserve to be there. Conversely, if you’re not there, it’s because you don’t deserve to be there. Given the demographics of the sciences as a whole, this implies that only white, heterosexual cis-men deserve these positions of privilege and power.

What does the absence of queer people in such an authoritative job strata say about us? Young queer or questioning people see statistically fewer queer role models in positions of power than straight people. And it also raises questions of why there aren’t more queer people in the sciences. Is it because we’re not smart enough to get there? Is it because queer people are simply not cut out for the heavy intellectual lifting that the scientific method requires? Obviously not. But there’s some way in which all the stereotypes we ascribe to scientists – extremely intelligent, nerdy, rational, motivated, authoritative, intimidating – become disconnected from our socially constructed projections of homosexuality.

Never fear, queer scientists do exist. There’s Dr. Rochelle Diamond, the chair of NOGLSTP and a research biologist at Caltech. There’s Dr. Donna Riley, an openly bisexual researcher and professor of engineering at Smith; Dr. Ben Barres, an openly transgender professor of neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine; and Dr. Neena Schwarz, a retired neuroendocrinologist at Northwestern University and out lesbian. They exist, and they are awesome! And there are many more as well.

Another unicorn: Rochelle Diamond. via sciencecareers.sciencemag.org

Another unicorn: Rochelle Diamond.
via sciencecareers.sciencemag.org

So, for your ogling and reading pleasure, for the next few weeks I will be profiling scientists whose work or personal stories you should be aware of. First up: Dr. Erin Cech and her pioneering study on lesbian, gay, and bisexual students’ experiences in engineering school. Stay tuned!

More reading:

“Shattering the Glass Closet” by Jenny Kurzweiler.

“Closeted Discoverers: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Scientists” by Jacqueline Ruttimann Oberst

NOGLSTP’s popular list of Queer Scientists of Historical Note

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Vivian has written 15 articles for us.



    yeah, sometimes it feels like i’m the only one, but i feel like we’re making progress!

    if you weren’t aware of it, check out this super sweet project: http://www.queerstem.org/

    also, hit me up if you’re looking for more folks!

  2. Just wanted to thank you so much for this article. My partner is scientist and so far there really hasn’t been any issues. I am so proud she is out! thank you thank you thank you. I can’t wait to read more articles on this topic. great points!!

  3. Yeah, Donna Riley! She was utterly frustrating as an instructor but I have a lot of respect for her as a person, the research she’s done and the stances she’s taken with regards to minority representation in the sciences.

    And honestly, looking back, I think my frustration stemmed not from her being a bad professor but from her expecting so much of us as students. Prof. Riley’s class was mostly the soft stuff – ethics, social justice, etc., as opposed to the practical stuff. My classmates and I taught ourselves Thermodynamics. And really, despite how much I whined and wished she’d give an actual lecture for once, I think her class went the furthest towards making me a self-learning, socially-aware person. Without her class, I think I’d still be perfectly content to separate engineering from the rest of the world, as if the profession wasn’t totally laced with gender and class and race issues just like every other part of society.

    Also, Smith Engineering has Dr. Denise McKahn. I never had her as an instructor, but she was well-loved and respected and she and her partner (wife? err, I’m not sure, but it was MA, so it’s entirely possible, but I don’t want to assume) had the most adorable kid.

    Despite its recent issues with trans* students and applicants, the school does have some really fantastic, supportive faculty, and every year it turns out some brilliant engineers and scientists of every variety: female, trans*, queer, people of color, etc. Standing up with my fellow engineering graduates in front of our entire class, maybe 15-20 of us with yellow hoods in a sea of white ones as the recipients of the only B.S. on campus, is and will always be one of the proudest moments of my life. I can’t speak for my fellow classmates but I know there’s nowhere I’d rather have gotten my Engineering degree.

    • I’m so glad you have met Dr. Riley personally! She’s actually going to have a whole article to herself in a few weeks – she is incredibly articulate and thoughtful on these issues.

  4. I went to an LGBT networking session at a Society for Women Engineers (SWE) conference several years ago and it was so depressing. I had never been in a room with so many closeted people at once before. At that point, SWE had (has?) only ever had one openly lesbian president and she didn’t come out until way afterwards.

    Also, I saw Erin Cech present on that paper at an ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) conference when it first came out and she is a super awesome researcher. I was impressed.

  5. Here’s how I science! https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Rafael_Desert,_Goblin_Valley.jpg

    Sometimes geo is a little weird because most all the ladies are tomboys, but straight – even my softball-playing roommate and the one who does roller derby. (And then there’s me flouncing around the office in a skirt half the time. I dunno why we even bother with stereotypes anymore.) But the professor who first got me into the proper study of rocks was queer; her gf was in my photo lab (yay community college!). ROCKS: THE BEST SCIENCE? YES IT IS.

    (apropos of nothing: has the idea of a Friday Open Thread post ever been floated? sometimes I really just need to pose a question to you guys and also TALK to people, but…things.)

    • Geo undergrad degree holder here! The guys outnumbered the girls about 10-1 in our class. So true about geo being filled with straight tomboys.

      God, I used to hate field trips so much purely because the guys would label me ‘one of the guys’ and include me in all sorts of conversations I will never be able to unhear.

      • Oh, I hear you on the not being able to unhear certain things. Its kind of scary. Though in my case, guys talked about this stuff around me because they thought I was 100% guy due to being MAAB. Little did they (and me at the time) know.

      • I’ve been so lucky with the ratio – most of the programs I’ve been in/around have been roughly half and half, or slightly more female. This year’s new grad intakes are all male though, and it’s great motivation for getting my thesis done, I tell ya.

    • Normal means of 90°.

      Queer is a hýponým of slanted (see derivation of “quartz” as “queercleftearth”, which is hrombohedral instead of parallelepiped).

      So queer is the opposite of straiht whereas gay is the opposite of coy.

      Uranian is the opposite of lesbian. However in Platòn’s day, there were only two words [of gods], pandèmian (of Pandèmos) who loved both sexes and uranian (of Urania) who loved the male, and the latter love was more accepted. There wasn’t a word for the female, or a word for generic orientation.

      There is still a word for the next-person plural pronoun in English, and you should learn that.

  6. Come to UGA. We are awash with out and proud lesbian scientists (at least in the ecology and evolutionary biology fields). Sure, most of us are still grad students.. but we’re the future!

    Luckily, I feel totally comfortable being out to everyone at work and bringing my lady to department functions. But my department is wearing plaid shirts and tevas 90% of the time and all of our dept. functions revolve around beer so…

    basically ecologists rock, but may be outliers in the realm of “scientists”

  7. I think there are quite a few queer and even out queer scientists – you just don’t have to put your sexuality out there to write a kick-ass dissertation in theoretical physics. We should clearly all get better at networking.

  8. I’ve been a lot more openly out over the past few years, and am discovering that queer scientists are not nearly as rare as I’d assumed. We are starting to talk about it more, and efforts like ones I know about, to publish “out lists” for physics (lgbtphysicists.org/outlist.html) and astronomy (web.physics.ucsb.edu/~blaes/lgbtastro) are helping.

  9. *sighs* Marie Curie always pops in my head when I have to name a scientist because she is a complete boss. I know, where I started college at, the earth science disciplines were full of queers.


    i just got back from a conference where maybe 10% of the attendees was female and as far as i could tell i was the only queer. it was all very much middle-aged straight cis white guy club

    i know a couple of gays in my field – i’m pretty visibly queer so other gays tend to find me
    – but nowhere near the number you would statistically expect. i’m always wondering where they are, do they just not exist or are they all closeted/hiding? :/

    one book i recommend on the topic of (the lack of) women in science, is virginia valian’s “why so slow”. it was a real eye-opener to me. she argues that (small, often unconscious, implicit) biases against women accumulate to advantage men and disadvantage women in their academic careers. it’s very well backed up with actual data.
    she doesn’t talk about it, but i’d say this mechanism could probably explain the lack of queer women in science as well.


  11. How did you know I just moved to a new city to start a biology PhD program? Thanks for all the inspiration, I will definitely need it!

  12. Wait what I was like %110 sure that Rachel Carson was queer.
    Guys that was like the one thing I got out of my high school prob stats class that was actually relevant to my life, and now I am seriously questioning it…to Wikipedia!

    but yeah, great article!

  13. Queer scientist here – trans woman (well, mostly) and lesbian leaning omni/pan and transitioning. I am mostly out, though that is in part because I am still in the same circles as before and anybody who is up close to me will read that I am trans or think I am just a really feminine guy.

    I am actually going to say something rather odd sounding, but I have so far seen a disproportionate number of trans women among students in my field, Physics, for the likely range prevalence among the general population. Still feel pretty alone. A lot of us are still closeted and well, sadly, I don’t have a whole lot of hope for our careers after we graduate for those who are out and/or have/are transitioned/ing. I just hope I am not forced out of the field once I finish.

      • I have never heard of her. Thank you. I will probably have to watch some of her talks. The electronics one sounded interesting.

    • Samantha, if you haven’t found us already, LGBT+ Physicists exists to support you. We do have a number of trans women, both in our general group and our organizing committee, myself included, and strive to include trans issues with those facing other queer physicists.




  15. I’m a baby queer scientist, as in I just finished my BS in biomedical engineering and working in the field, but I guess it also applies to my recent leap from the closet via an ever subtle fb post. It’s always a little frustrating to see a lack of out scientist and engineer elders, especially when half of my college rugby team is working on a hard science/engineering degree and are gay. At least there’s hope for the future and I’m excited about this series of articles!! YAY SCIENCE very strong feelings!

  16. Awesome! I just read an essay today in this book (http://www.amazon.com/Best-American-Science-Nature-Writing/dp/0547350635) which was talking about queer scientists, and the assumption people make that scientists are queer if they study queer issues or things seen as queer issues (like female-female albatross peers, in that particular example), and how it can be super problematic for funding or public perception of their work. Queer science is so important though! Also, I don´t really know anything about Rosalind Franklin´s sexuality, but she is one of the first scientists that comes to my mind, along with Marie Curie and Caroline Herschel.

  17. Turing was my first thought too, but also I’ve been reading a biography of Annie Montague Alexander, who was a philanthropist who started a couple of museums, but also an impressively hardcore field biologist. She was climbing mountains in snowstorms with her partner in her late 70s.

  18. Queer geneticist here, 1/4 of my senior class were queer as well! (that’s out of 18 people though…)

  19. Another queer geneticist (undergrad) here! There are only about 25 people on my course and in recent years, it has seen fairly equal numbers of men and women. But in my year, for some reason, there are only 4 men (and one of them is gay!) in my class. Also, the only person from my course I know in the year above me is also a gay guy. I’m supposedly the only queer woman in my year taking any medical science subject though :(

    • I just assumed there was something about genetics that attracted the queers. I bet there will be others out there unless your school is tiny

  20. I got by BS in Physics during the 90s at the University of Oklahoma. I was struggling to come out as a trans woman and lesbian during that time. I never pursued a graduate degree because I felt I couldn’t be myself and be taken seriously. So I chose transition. Years ago I emailed a few professors for letters of recommendation to go back and get a graduate degree and was pleasantly surprised that they were very supportive of name change and pronouns. I didn’t get into school but I wish I had chosen to transition and go to grad school when I was fresh out of my undergrad years.

  21. Also, Lynn Conway is a prominent trans woman scientist/engineer whose website was very helpful to me during my early transition

  22. Oh my god, I have been feeling SO ALONE in my grad program after coming from superqueerundergradland. I do have friends here and I am very vocally out (possibly because I came out to my whole incoming class VERY LOUDLY during a misunderstanding in a bar. Anyway.) and no one has, as of yet, been outright douchey.

    The one concerning thing is how I’m going to tell my advisor that I’m gonna need some time off to go to FemmeCon. Awkward conversations ahoy.


    • I definitely did the same very loud coming out thing to my old lab in a bar while very drunk! It was an interesting experience, to say the least.



    (Also Alan Turing obvs, but other people have gotten to him in the comments already.)

    (Also, re: Kinsey, a significant number of psychologists who did research into homosexuality appear to have been gay themselves, if I am to believe the “LGBT Scientists” category on Wikipedia.)

  24. Great post, and I wanted to say that we’re working hard to turn this invisibility around in astronomy right now. Someone already mentioned the Astronomy LGBT Outlist, but we’ve recently established a Working Group for LGBT Equality (WGLE) as part of the American Astronomical Society, in order to better serve our community and help AAS members to be effective allies, both at AAS meetings and at their own institutions. Astronomy also has an LGBTQ Astronomers and Allies Facebook page.

    WGLE organises Safe Zone training at AAS meetings, plus receptions, and workshops on how to be a better advisor to LGBTQ students. In addition, we’ve been asking those who have been through the training to wear safe zone stickers at AAS meetings and in their own offices to make it clear that they’re friendly to LGBT students and colleagues.

    As for my own institution, Caltech, the Center for Diversity has been doing a kick-ass job of Safe Zone training, although I very much wish more faculty would attend. I’m 100% out at work in one of the more progressive departments there (IPAC), and am happy to say it’s an incredibly supportive environment, and I regularly persuade/cajole/drag members of my dept to the various training offered on campus. The rest of campus is definitely trailing a little due to the institutional insistence that the only thing that matters about people is their ability as a scientist, therefore discouraging open dialogue about many aspects of personal life. I fundamentally disagree with this stance, but it is what it is.

    Honestly, the best thing that all of us can do as scientists is to be out to everyone around us. In some cases that’s not possible, but for those of us who are not likely to lose jobs or promotions (i.e. if you live somewhere relatively liberal without a psychopath running your dept) then please strongly consider coming out. You have no idea how much of a difference it could make to the people around you. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have come to my office for a quiet word about their own identities, or concerns about family and friends.

    On the same lines, if there are any astronomers reading this who need to talk about coming out or their work/science climate, you can always call/email me (you can google me – Carolyn Brinkworth) or get in touch with your preferred WGLE representative (see the AAS website or google WGLE for members). Anything you say to me or WGLE will (of course) be held in strict confidence.

  25. Queer mathematician over here. Just finished my MSc and intending to begin a doctorate as soon as I have funding. I am not out to anyone in the field though; I reckon I should do something about that, but I kind of feel like everyone will say, “Dude, why are you telling us about your personal life,” and then there will be a really long, awkward silence.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned the awkwardness that surrounds any discussion of queerness or personal life! The next article addresses that issue exactly – a brief teaser for you: “…[in the sciences,] There is no space for subjects that could be classified as social – like talking about gay rights, or women’s rights, or social justice and inequalities. Of course, this is a false differentiation, because there is really no way to entirely separate the two, and anyone who’s worked on a team project knows that even in engineering, social dynamics are just as important as technical abilities. The devaluing of “social” topics really just serves to silence important conversations about inequalities.

      This is a hard question, because you could also argue that it’s preferable to keep personal and professional lives separate. But, when it comes to the erasure and silencing of core pillars of our personal identities, the dualism must break … There is no social protocol, because coming out feels inappropriate in a science setting. We don’t create accepted social scaffolding around taboo interactions, and therefore we have no structure with which to discuss homosexuality.”

      Keep reading!

      • Maths being maths, the lecturers in my department (I’m an outgoing MSc student—I handed in my dissertation last week) are predominantly male (there are no female professors—senior academic staff in UK usage—in the department at all), middle-aged and married. They don’t talk about their home lives a lot, but they do come up in conversation occasionally, so I feel like there’s a double standard going on wrt personal–professional separation—not that I have much of a personal life to be open about just now, with being a postgrad student and all.

  26. Thanks Vivian – I needed to read this today! I’m more in social science (anthropology/geography grad student more or less) and some of this applies, but with an added twist: my home base is a university in a city that’s pretty queer friendly, but I’m (currently) doing fieldwork in a context that is not – different cultural setting entirely, different gender roles, etc.

    I recognize all of this going in, and love almost everything else about this place and community based research, but find it stressful to know if I get outted, it would affect my ability to work here. This makes the stakes of coming out to coworkers/lab-mates/supervisors higher. Funding and opportunities mentioned in the article aside, supervisors can very much be gatekeepers for community based research, and I worry that if I come out they might view my sexuality as a liability (the one I’m in the field with right now is, if not openly homophobic, far from an ally). I also don’t know what to do when I hear someone local is gay, and is struggling with this. It’s not my place to be a gay rights cheerleader here and try to change cultural norms (I wouldn’t be accepted to do work here if I was), but it also feels cowardly and selfish not to extend something and to remain closeted (although I know that’s nothing to what someone might experience who lived here, I also know it’s unlikely I can do anything to actually help their situation). I also wonder about my ability to do this work long term – I think to properly do applied research means having deep and longstanding commitments to the people you work with at a community level, and I don’t know if it feels okay to keep that part of my identity entirely closeted or if that’s going to feel increasingly shitty until I out myself and fracture the trust and relationships I have here, or give up and do something else entirely.

    In my former department (MA) there were a whole bunch of queer girls and we all knew each other, and were out to varying degrees amongst classmates, but no one ever was out to supervisors or profs (that just seemed like crossing a line and needlessly sharing personal info… and they were mostly all old white presumably-straight men). But at least we had some comraderie, and I’m finding independent research or PhD work can be much more isolating. I think finding out if your prospective supervisor or field team members are supportive in advance helps (I did ask a friend within the group), but sometimes in the end you end up going into the field with others anyway, or don’t want to have that conversation right at the start, and it just sucks.

    Would be interested if anyone else has shared this situation…? Any queer anthropologists or geographers or development studies folks out there (The only ones I know/have heard of personally all work with queer populations, and I don’t want to feel limited to only that just because I’m gay). How do you deal?

    Ok, sorry, that was a rant! Thanks if you read it. I’m glad I have internet out here.

    • I was hoping a social scientist would post on here! I’m an anthropologist (archaeologist) too, and I have had similar experience.

      I did field work over the summer in South America and asked by PI before we left about the whole ‘out while about’ sitch (just came up with that, kinda proud), and while he said I could do what I thought was best there was still an underlying “maybe not the best idea” theme. So I spent 2 months answering the specific question of “do you have a boyfriend” with an honest “no,” and the “who are you talking to all night when we’re home?” with a very dishonest “my friend.”

      It was rough, especially because I was trying to foster a new relationship with someone I really like and could only talk to the other student from my department who was on the dig with me. The rest of the crew and the community we lived in only got to know part of who I am, and that was really hard.

  27. Cool post.

    I’m a geologist. I got my undergrad at a large public university in the mid-Atlantic in the early Aughts. The program was about 75% male, with no one (that I knew of) self-identifying as queer; our dept. chair was a woman. I went to grad school (the first time) at UMCP, and the ratio was almost 50/50. My officemate was an out lesbian, but that was it. My second run at grad school was in the ultra-red state of South Dakota. Interestingly, the program was about 60% female, and our department chair was a woman.

    After being out in the wide world for a while, I get the impression that the relatively female-heavy programs I expierienced were not the norm.

    I have a feeling that I may work for the same agency as the author. I’ve personally worked with many female geologists in my function as gov’t employee. All of my former supervisors have been women. However, I’ve noticed through my interactions with industry in my job and at meetings, geological societies, etc., that in the geology the private sector is still dominated by old white males. Even in my relativly progressive agency, the power at top the GS levels and in the SES is also held by OWMs. Consequently, a conservative anti-women, anti-minority, anti-queer bias is subtle but palpable, and a rough-and-tumble good ol’boy culture persists.

    • Yeah, the Old White Dude contingency is part of why I don’t bother coming out in my MS program etc – I’m starting to apply for industry jobs, and I dare anyone to say ‘oh no GSA/AAPG/SEG, they’re TOTES ALLIES’ with a straight* face. It’s hard enough being female, let’s just closet the queer thing for now. (Plus, I don’t feel it’s anyone’s business, really. I don’t get hit on by the guys at work, so there isn’t that to counter, and I don’t see where my sexuality actually matters to my work itself. My department would be ok with it though, so there’s that.)


  28. Interesting article! And I’m excited for more science articles.

    I worked as a technician in biotech and the pharmaceutical industry for years and am now in pharmacy school. I was out, in the sense that I sometimes mentioned my girlfriend and my coworkers and boss knew she existed. Most of the places I worked had non-discrimination policies, except for one small start-up, and the atmosphere everywhere I worked seemed pretty accepting. That said, I didn’t see many other out queer people, and I don’t know if people other than those I worked closely with knew about me. Also, I wasn’t on any kind of advancement track, so the questions of promotions or mentoring weren’t really an issue.

    I’m more visibly queer now in school, meaning that I have made an effort to mention it to pretty much everyone I know. Pharmacy can be pretty conservative, and it’s a small world where everyone seems to know everyone, so I wonder sometimes if being out could cost me job opportunities in the future.

  29. I’m so excited for this series! I, an ecologist too, I just started an MS in ecology. Ecosystem ecology/biogeochemistry. Ecology is difficult to be queer in only in the sense that all of the women “look gay.” On the plus side, we’re all super laid back and I don’t worry much about referring to my girlfriend or bringing her to dinners, etc.

    Also, Joan Roughgarden is a transwoman and a professor at Stanford. She studies evolutionary biology, and she has published a book challenging Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and how modern scientists engage in sexual selection research because they often come from heteronormative points of view. It’s called Evolution’s Rainbow.

  30. Its awesome to see someone in science talking about their experiences. I really appreciate autostraddle talking about a wide variety of things! It also makes me appreciate that this website takes its time with articles – I read this after I saw yet an another scientific study completely misinterpreted by the internet in the drive for page clicks.

    Anyway, kinesiology represent :)

  31. How about Joan Roughgarden, a trans* evolutionary biologist who wrote some amazing work disputing the bias in her field against homosexual and transgender identities. :)

    • That’s what I said! Obvs two autostraddlers autostraddling about it must mean something. (autostraddling is a verb now)

  32. Here’s Sonya Kovalesky was a Russian lesbian mathematician who proved a fundamental theorem on the existence of solutions for partial differential equations (PDEs). PDEs are the fundamental equations governing the physical world. All of physics and engineering is based on them. For this reason Sonya Kovalesky is considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time and one of the three greatest female mathematicians. They are Hypatia, Sonya Kovalesy, and Emmy Noether, who taught Einstein math and who’s theorem on conservation laws has a greater impact on the future of physics than any other scientist who ever lived.

    All my love to the women in science. You may not be many, but so many of you are the BEST.

  33. This was a great read. As an engineer, I was 1 of 6 women in my undergraduate year for my department. So yeah, I was the only lesbian.

    I’m just starting the job search…..ugh. Not looking forward to being the only female in the room again.

  34. Oh hello, my fellow science queers!! Im a phd student and I am shocked that more LGBTQ people aren’t out in this field. I know a couple guys who are out, but I have yet to meet a gay lady scientist here. Surprising because there is a casual informal feel to most interactions with people, so even though we have to be professional it’s relatively easy to express my individuality and my identity.

    Science is considered traditionally a more masculine profession relative to say, liberal arts, and the lower you get on the abstract-ness spectrum (math, physics, chem, bio, psych) the more women you find. My specific field marries math with biology, so I’m all over that spectrum, but when I work with mathematicians they are more often male and when I work with biologists they are more often female. It’s frustrating that the distribution is so skewed. Fortunately despite my parents being old school w/r/t sexual orientation, they were incredibly progressive about science and gender and treated me the same as my brothers, encouraging us to explore what we were good at and what we were passionate about.

    Being a scientist made it harder for me to come out to myself, in a way, because I felt like my biological purpose in life was to make and raise a child with a man, like evolution intended, to spread my genes. Finally I realized how long I had been using biology as an excuse to lie to myself; that aspect of it (not being able to justify my sexuality rationally) was the hardest for me to overcome.

    I have a lot of thoughts on this subject.

    • Good comment. I was really struck by your comment on reconciling your ideas about biology and sexuality. I am a scientist (biologist with a research masters in microbiology) and a lesbian. I too struggled with reconciling the two concepts of the evolutionary basis of reproduction and coupling with my sexuality and identity. Perhaps if I could have reconciled this when I was younger I may have come out as a teenager (the whole ‘unatural’ idea seemed to play heavily in repressing my sexuality) and not in my late twenties. I reconciled the two ideas, simply that there may be a biological and evolutionary aspect to our lives and our sexuality, but there are many other things that influence this and if you feel it so much how can you deny it. Sometimes it does play on my mind though and I query it from an evolutionary perspective. Although in the last two or three years I have thought a lot more about the psychological aspects of attraction and sexuality and also societal pressures and influences. I think that there is a biological and evolutionary basis for attraction, but there is also the psychological aspects. We as humans are extremely complex, especially with our highly developed brains, and our sexuality and identities can’t solely be defined by our biology and our basic biological or evolutionary role. Another concept I subscribe to if our bodies were made for sexual pleasure, not simply sex for procreation, then how can sexual desire and pleasure for and from the same sex, both sexes or inanimate things be wrong?

  35. Vivian! Had a very similar coming out story, but i eventually got drunk enough to speak to her (totally having plans to meet friends shortly after and drown my feelings getting drunk(er)),and as it turned out, the outcome was way better than planned (dot dot dot), even though i was terrified (and drunk) throughout the whole thing.

    Congrats on this write up- something that needs to be addressed. in the science community: the double no-no of being a woman and queer. Had this same discussion with a (straight) friend -also a woman scientist- recently. she was saying that she knew of a lot of queer woman, in more or less power positions in science, and that she didn’t agree with my choice to actively be on a “need to know” basis at work about my personal life. She didnt find it necessary. Which in my eyes is nice, but naive. My reading of the situation is that there are maybe a handful that are out and she is just fortunate enough to work with more than zero of them.

    In science , i think bc there is SO MUCH relying on interpersonal interactions and networking to be able to have a job at all (bc you rely on grants), a lot of issues are personal more so than they are merit-based. This is counter-intuitive, but all of us in science know it’s true. And you feel it even more deeply if you’re a woman. I know these women are out there -I am one and I date one- but they are def not open about it. There is not a denial or confirmation, and so the assumption is that they’re not queer.
    I have to say i know a lot of male queer scientists- from students to professors- out and well. I think bc part of the problem is that, with women, this fuses with the gender discrimination issues that pre-date sexual orientation discrimination issues, in the hard sciences at least.
    I think things will change, yes, but bc science (at least the hard sciences) is such a conservative white male-dominated bubble
    it might take a little bit more to get actual breakthroughs in this category. Mostly bc, like you pointed out, you never know wich one of these white males will be reading you grant/paper, and science is, and as always been, very much a people business.

    This being said i didn’t know about the organizations you pointed out- good to know!- and maybe they’ll catalyze this matter in a way that i wouldn’t anticipate.
    Until then, we have our friends, partners, families and Autostraddle to do some queered nerding out.

  36. Ahh, the joys of physical anthropology – 90% women, and hella queer (and queer-friendly). I just started my PhD program, and within 5 minutes of meeting my supervisor and my new graduate siblings, outed myself. Not a single eye batted. Also nice to see a smattering of rainbow stickers around the anthropology offices.

  37. I also don’t think anyone else has mentioned this, but Isaac Newton swore off women but was extremely close to a few other men, particularly mathematician Nicholas Fatio de Duillier. Finding gay people that far back in history is tricky at best, but there are at least a few indications that he might have been.

  38. Girl! I am here! We are here! I have a bachelors in Physics and Astronomy and a masters in Geology and I work in the oil industry in Houston! We are here! I am out to pretty much everyone at work who pays attention (the under 45 set and all the other ~6 ladies that work at my 1500+ person company) and if the over 45 set bothered to pay attention I bet you close to zero of the geos would care. I am usually the only lady in the room, and I only know of 2 other queer ladies at my company. Apparently they all work at Chevron (as they should). Anyway we are here! Hurrah Queer Science Ladies!

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