Elise Wantling worried that coming out as queer in high school might ruin their life, but it turned out to be liberating. As they went to study biology at the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence the following year, “I was really excited to be able to start fresh and establish my identity right away,” says Wantling, now in their second year. “Instead of people seeing me as who I used to be—this very religious and quiet girl who from one day to the next turned into a really loud queer person—people would finally just see me as who I am, which is I’m Elise and I’m queer and I really like science.”
Meeting other LGBTQ scientists at the 2016 national Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM) conference during Wantling’s first semester of college was another life-changing moment. Up until then, “the only life experience I had ever seen with my two eyes was people struggling and the fear of other people finding out [you were queer] and treating you poorly,” Wantling says. At the oSTEM conference, on the other hand, Wantling found “a lot of joy. [There were] queer people who were successful, and queer people who were happy, and queer people who had partners and who had lives and who had families,” says Wantling, who began doing fly genetics research this past summer. “It proved to me that things were going to be OK.”
Now that this year’s conference has drawn to an end, Science Careers talks with Wantling—who this time attended as the vice president of the KU oSTEM chapter and recipient of the oSTEM Global STEM Service Award—about what it is like to be queer on campus and their advocacy efforts to make academia more inclusive. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How did you get involved in oSTEM?
A: St. Louis, Missouri, where I’m from, was a good place to grow up queer, but we didn’t have a club or a way to intentionally meet other queer people, and I really wanted to have that in college. So, during my first week at KU, I went to all the activity fairs and joined the two LGBTQ chapters that I found: Spectrum, which is a more general advocacy and social group, and oSTEM. I really liked oSTEM’s mission, which is that we can be out with the queer people and still be in STEM. We can be respected for both at the same time, and I don’t have to compartmentalize part of my identity so that I can either be a successful advocate or have a successful career.
Soon, with encouragement from my chapter’s officers, I started to imagine a future for myself within the oSTEM leadership and decided to run for the KU elections. Now, as vice president of the KU chapter, one of my main priorities for this year is to provide support to our students and build a strong sense of community, because being queer in Kansas is hard.
Q: What kinds of difficulties can LGBTQ students be confronted with?
A: There are all sorts of groups in Kansas that come and protest queer events on campus or our graduation days. You’re just trying to go to class, and they are standing there reminding you that there are people in this world who want to hurt you or kill you just because of who you love or the way that you present your gender. It can make the campus environment extremely toxic. Beyond campus life, a lot of KU students don’t have supportive families, so if they go home, they have to either pretend they’re not queer or put up with a lot of bullying there too. In my work with oSTEM, I want to provide a strong sense of community so that our students know that, although life out there may be hard, at least as long as they are inside the doors of our meeting room, they are safe and they are cared about, and they have people that they can rely on.
Q: What is it like to be an LGBTQ student in STEM?
A: STEM can be very competitive, especially if you are a pre-med or pre-professional student, and people may try to use your queer identity as evidence that you’re not as good or as professional as they are. Still, I cling to the hope that STEM should be a little more accepting than other fields, because hopefully we can acknowledge and respect one another based on what kind of knowledge we contribute, and we can leave personal things like people’s sexuality or gender outside of that. I haven’t been in it for very long, and I may have just gotten lucky to not run into the wrong people yet, but so far, I have been met with almost nothing but love and kindness. I am optimistic that I could make it until the end of my undergraduate degree without facing any sort of discrimination for my sexuality or gender identity.
But while I may be safe within my lab or within my school, that doesn’t mean that another student is safe within their lab or within their school. There is always room for improvement, and within STEM—like anywhere else—we need to constantly work to be more accepting. And so regardless of where my career takes me, I will continue to advocate for myself and others. There could well be some repercussions for me down the road, but I’m willing to face whatever backlash I have to face so that, hopefully, I can help create a better and a safer world for other queer students growing up.
Q: What advice do you have for students who haven’t been able to come out?
A: Part of the beauty of being out is that I can talk about when I feel unsafe so that I can better protect myself or get affirmation from my friends, my family, and my partner when I need it. People who aren’t out don’t get that same kind of validation and often feel more insecure in their identity. But coming out is also a privilege. I feel very privileged that I can live as an outwardly queer person. Although I was a bit concerned about my parents not approving or kicking me out, I also knew that, had they done that, I had people I could rely on who would help take care of me. And I knew that I could still go to college, because I could still take out student loans and support myself. But not everybody has that same privilege, and you also end up opening yourself up to a lot more dangers when you are out than when you are not out.
Some of our students in KU’s oSTEM chapter can’t be out because they would lose their parental and financial support. One of our students hails from a country where it’s illegal to be gay. If their family were to find out, they would face severe punishment when their visa expires and they have to go home. And some of our students just aren’t comfortable being out yet because they don’t quite know how they identify, and it’s OK to just let yourself figure out who you are before you try to tell the world.
So, my first piece of advice is that, yes, it’s great to be out, but it’s also OK to be closeted, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for it. Try to find a close friend you can come out to and rely on for support or join a confidential LGBTQ club like oSTEM. When this is not an option, online communities can also be a great source of information and support.
If you are out and you are struggling with it, that same advice applies: Find someone you can rely on. And even though you must always be a bit cautious, don’t be afraid to stand up, and get help if you are being harassed. Talk about what is going on, contact local advocacy groups, contact administration, or post it on social media, because the more people know that these aggressions are happening, the more support you will get, and the more things will change. Don’t let the aggressors make you feel like you are insignificant, or like the things that they are doing to you aren’t important enough to warrant you getting help.
Q: What message would you like to give to other peers and colleagues so that they are more inclusive and supportive?
A: You don’t know the lives of people around you, and you can’t necessarily tell who is gay or what people are struggling with on the inside, so be very conscious about what you say and how you act. Don’t make or laugh at homophobic or transphobic jokes—they are very hurtful. Try to stand up if you see someone being harassed or if you hear somebody making a backhanded comment, even if you just happen to be in the breakroom. Having said that, I don’t need people to walk up to me and say, “I know you’re gay and I accept you.” Just be conscious of the space that you take up. Don’t speak over us, but at the same time give us support. It’s a delicate line to walk and a delicate balance to achieve. But if you care, you’ll learn how.
Ultimately, everyone in STEM and beyond has a lot to gain if we have the door wide open. By being inclusive, we are going to have more diverse perspectives, more varied opinions, and different ways of thinking, and we will achieve more as a broader community. Somebody’s voice should not be discounted just because they’re queer.