Coming Out in the Sciences: A Graduate Student's Perspective

My life has changed dramatically over the past few weeks. I have not only begun a journey toward a Ph.D. in the biological sciences, but I have also transplanted myself from my home in the Midwest to the Deep South.

This transition has been especially awkward for me as a gay man. As an undergraduate, I came to accept my sexual orientation as a fundamental part of who I am. For many, accepting their sexual orientation is a very difficult issue. I was fortunate to have a network of friends who were supportive. As an undergraduate I actively participated in my university's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) organization and in an Internet-based gay-youth support group. Graduate school, however, is significantly different. Here, I am expected to focus solely on my research interests, leaving little time for dabbling in other fields or being involved in organizations. Graduate students are supposed to be young professionals in training.

This leads me to an issue that could significantly affect my graduate school experience. Should I come out to my thesis advisor?

This may seem like an odd question to some people, so I think some explanation is necessary. First, I believe that honesty and integrity are very important traits for anyone who is in the sciences. Second, given the option, I do not like going out of my way to hide my orientation. I will do it if I believe it is necessary, but I do not enjoy treating it like a dark, dirty secret. It is a part of me. I believe that many GLBT graduate students feel this way.

To help me with my concerns as a gay man in the sciences, I joined the e-mail list of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). NOGLSTP, an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, represents the interests and concerns of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered scientists within the scientific community. I recently posed several questions to the members of NOGLSTP. First, I asked them if it was a good idea for graduate students to come out to their thesis advisors. Second, I asked of those who had done so, if coming out had hurt their academic progress.

The responses I received were diverse, but I was pleasantly surprised to read of no negative experiences with advisors. The most difficult problems seemed to be with other students in the lab, and the advisors usually played a role in keeping such disruptions under control. However, I also heard that co-workers tend to be more comfortable if the gay person is comfortable with his sexual identity. If they are able to discuss his orientation freely and jokingly, the lab will be much more welcoming than if the individual is still struggling to accept himself.

Those who did come out usually did so in a casual, nonconfrontational manner by using key terms like "my partner." Others chose a more daring approach, like one woman who wore a T-shirt to her lab that said, "Nobody Knows I'm a Lesbian." In some cases, people have had to come out under extraordinary circumstances. One response was from a man who had been gone from the lab for months due to severe depression as he was struggling with his orientation. When he was finally well enough to return to the lab, he felt it was necessary to be completely honest with his advisor about why he had been gone. Fortunately, he had an understanding advisor.

One common theme was the idea of the "straight test." If you find yourself in a situation where you would mention something about your love life if you were heterosexual, then you should go ahead and say it. It is not an attempt to be dramatic or political, but just talking socially with other members of the lab as you normally would.

Although some of the people who responded to my inquiry said that they had come out, many chose not to. Some believed that personal lives are not a matter for discussion in the lab. Others were uncomfortable and felt it was not necessary to tell anyone. Many advisors are simply not concerned about their students' personal lives, and irritated by having something they see as inconsequential brought to their attention. While nobody mentioned it, my guess is that this includes people who suspected or had reason to believe that their advisor or fellow students might be homophobic.

For myself, I have decided to be cautious. I will wait to see which laboratory I decide to enter, and what the social dynamics are between the advisor and the other members. If I do decide to be open about my orientation, I do not intend to make a dramatic announcement, but I will bring it up casually when it would feel appropriate. If anyone has questions, I will do my best to be open and honest in my answers. However, if I feel that coming out could seriously jeopardize my situation, I will keep my personal life outside of the lab.

I urge other GLBT graduate students to be cautious. While there have been tremendous advances in GLBT support and representation in the scientific community, homophobia is still present, and your laboratory members and advisor have tremendous influence over your daily life. It is also important to realize that people in some regions of the country are more tolerant than those in other regions. I'm certainly not recommending that someone should stay in the closet, but it is important to consider the negative impact if you have reason to believe that your advisor is homophobic.

For others, if a member of your lab comes out to you, listen to them. They are telling you because they trust you. Most of us do not seek special attention, but we do want to be recognized for who we are. We are a part of the next generation of scientists, and we want to be judged by our scientific ability, not our sexual orientation.

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