Tossing academic masks aside

Growing up we all undergo many phases of coming out. Whether you are LGBTQ+ or not. As we grow, learn, and understand ourselves and the world better, there are things we want people to know about us. Despite this, many people may still want to hide parts of themselves, for whatever their own reason may be.

I knew at a young age that I was “different.” I knew in 5th grade and came out in middle school. Since then, I have learned to traverse many obstacles. From family, losing friends, teachers that were homophobic, and more. None of these things are unique to me.

Music and books quickly became my best friends after that. I learned how to use music and books to internally express my happiness, sorrows, and fears. Then, when the book closed, I put on “my mask” and went out into the world. I was frustrated by the things I couldn’t change, and this lit a match inside me.

In high school, I got into honors and AP courses for math and science. I loved them. All the while making sure to wear my mask. Being out still wasn’t fully supported in my area, and I didn’t want to lose my connection to science because I was LGBTQ+. I also kept myself at a distance from my peers, knowing I could never share my whole self with them. Sure, I was “social.” I was in clubs, on sports teams, and went out with groups of my peers, but I always had the mask on.

In college, I went to PFLAG meetings and started an Allies club where I got the chance to listen to many life lessons. I took every opportunity I could to learn from them: their regrets, achievements, desires, and things that made their lives genuine and happy.

When you listen to people’s life stories, it’s not like a story in a book. There are real consequences and emotions attached. They teach you how to protect yourself as well. The most common thing used is, as I call it, the “invisible mask.” You can don a different one for any occasion. To pass in school with friends, to play sports without being bullied in the locker room, or to succeed in a career. Each occasion might use a different mask. However, wearing this mask takes effort, like trying to swim laps while having a conversation. Slowly, as LGBTQ+ individuals come out and find their community they get to reduce the size and number of their masks. New friends are like masquerade masks that only cover your eyes and close friends or family is like finally removing it completely.

It was in college that I finally found enough people like me that I began to feel I had allies. The seniors I met as a freshman, and those in the community changed my life. They gave me support, courage, and I had my largest personal growth as a freshman in college from these people. I will never forget any of that time.

Academia is a place where many LGBTQ+ people constantly don their masks. Coming out may interfere with fieldwork, as I learned. I was told on more than one occasion that I couldn’t be hired for a fieldwork position because others already on the “team” felt too uncomfortable sharing a cabin or small spaces with me. Other constraints can make it difficult to collaborate, get into a healthy lab space, and even gain a job or internship opportunities. One time, I had been emailing and setting up a collaboration for nearly three months. When we finally met in person, they suddenly stopped emailing and talking to me afterward. When I inquired to my supervisor, I learned about a month later through the grapevine that the person was homophobic and just wrote me off after our first in-person meeting. My own experiences taught me that academic meetings, lab spaces, and fieldwork opportunities aren’t the most welcome or safe spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals. Additionally, I learned quickly that to succeed in academia would take luck and hard work as an out nonbinary LGBTQ+ scientist.

During my senior year of undergrad, I went to a conference to present a summer research project on stingrays. Despite having two supportive professors at that conference with us, extremely negative interactions with other students and PIs still occurred. This gave me a window into how academia felt about nonbinary individuals: To put it mildly, it wasn’t a welcome with open arms. Luckily, my prior experiences trained me for this. My backbone developed at a young age, and my athletic competitiveness means I don’t back down easily. So, despite their intentions, it lit a fire under me after that. Telling me so fiercely that I didn’t belong just made me want to prove them wrong. They didn’t know it, but they made me stronger that day.

As a result of my freshman year experience and overall community outreach, I became, by my senior year, the person that people questioning their own identities or those who just wanted to understand the LGBTQ+ community better came to. I had a lot of evening walks and quiet talks with people who knew I was out and needed someone to talk to. That is when I decided that I wanted to always be active in LGBTQ+ outreach and that I wanted to support others in the community going forward. A couple of years later, I became active on social media. Through Twitter I found others, worldwide, that were out and successful: While our numbers in STEM are still low, we are opening doors and succeeding.

I quickly learned that there is a real lack of diversity in marine biology, and have come to realize that a lot of my problems during fieldwork came from this. However, it’s not just LGBTQ+ scientists that are underrepresented. Marine biology as a whole is very straight and white, and mostly male. So, I can’t even imagine how people that are both LGBTQ+ and people of color (POC) must feel in this field. I, as a white person, find these spaces difficult to navigate, but how many more barriers are in place for POC? Despite this, there are those making changes. Some PIs are becoming more open and helping to make those changes, and then in my generation, diversity is helping to increase numbers and create a more welcoming field of research for future generations!

Thankfully, moving forward in my own career, for my master’s I found a space where I am now succeeding. My current PI and lab mates welcomed me wholly. When I came out and told them my preferred pronouns, no one blinked an eye. They treat me as a friend and colleague. We all share lab space and do fieldwork without any awkward feelings. Due to this, I can tell that I am flourishing now more than ever.

This past year I was a TA for a biochemistry lab. I was always open, I wear clothing that is more male-associated, and have piercings and tattoos. I definitely connected with my students, but I can’t say if it was because I was open or because I am a science nerd.

Between social media and my current university, I am more inspired than before. For me, I still wear my mask some days, but they are fewer now. My goal is to succeed in academia, but not just for myself. My goal is to have a lab that welcomes everyone. Where people don’t need to wear masks and they can use that energy for research and activities that make them happy. I want LGBTQ+ people to feel an open work-life balance without needing to put on a façade.

We spend a lot of time and energy putting on and carting around all these masks. All so we can create a more even playing field and opportunity for our futures. We could accomplish so much more if we could cast aside these masks.

I truly hope that the next cohort gets to dispose of their masks sooner and that we eventually reach a point where those growing up don’t even make masks at all. The goal is to create environments for all people to be themselves, LGBTQ+, and more.

Representation Matters

After being dismissed from field research, turned down from jobs, being in uncomfortable situations at academic meetings, and receiving so much hate, it feels so freeing to be able to be myself in science! Even now, with all this freedom, I still tend to shy away from things that put me in the spotlight. I am still fully aware of the dangers that exist, and I approach new people with some level of caution. But I will never waiver when it comes to representing LGBTQ+ people in academia or research. Allies are helpful in making changes, but without people actively opening doors and breaking down barriers, the allies don’t have people to rally behind.

About the Author:

Chris O’Mara Spear is a master’s student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where they study Marine Biology. Their thesis focuses on autophagy and physiological changes in black sea bass, and they try to help with outreach for LGBTQ+ people in STEM whenever possible. You can find them on Twitter @ElasmoFan5.