As we look forward to LGBT+ History Month, a number of our staff, curators, and Fellows share their experiences of being LGBT+ in science
Published on 10th January 2022
This year the Linnean Society is honoured to be a co-sponsor of the seventh annual LGBTQ+ STEMinar, an annual conference to celebrate the achievements of LGBT+ people in science.
The Society is proud to recognise the important and enduring contribution of LGBT+ people in biology and natural history, both now and in the past. We value diversity, in our profession and the wider community, and seek to include those groups currently under-represented in the study of natural history, including LGBT+ people. This commitment is enshrined in our vision and mission.
In this little article we bring together a number of testimonials from among our staff, volunteers, and Fellowship. We asked them to give us a taste of their experiences of being an LGBT+ person in biology, science education, and related fields, and how this has changed over time. We’d like to thank them for coming forward to share their experiences with us. We hope their observations will offer cause for reflection ahead of the STEMinar event, and during LGBT+ History Month later this February.
233 years ago, the Linnean Society was founded to study the ways of nature “in all its branches”. We’re proud to see that diversity reflected among our staff, members, and volunteers, and take pleasure in celebrating them, and their achievements, both today, and in the future.
Alex Milne (Archivist)
I don’t think I have noticed a huge change in my work life when it comes to my experience. In general I have the benefit of being quite under the radar as being bisexual doesn’t really come across in my career or my work relationships much. On the one hand I suppose that does mean that people still make generalised assumptions about me and then can sometimes act quite surprised which, while seemingly minor, gets old very quickly when you have experience of being excluded from both communities. I don’t think that has changed. I also think that in some institutions there can still be a lot more talking than action sometimes.
I think the most notable thing that has changed is the willingness to represent gender or sexuality in day to day stuff like emails and in collections descriptions. Where once people spoke about someone like James Barry as being a woman who pretended to be a man or even a man who was born a woman, now we have conversations about whether we can make either assumption and the use of “they” is much more common. I find the conversations and actual actions around that to be heartening.
"...share your opinions and experiences ... sometimes it just needs one person to question it for people to think in a new way, and an entire narrative to change"
I think the thing I would give as advice is to share your opinions and experiences, because cataloguing and curation have been so static in form for so long but sometimes it just needs one person to question it for people to think in a new way and an entire narrative to change. And likewise I would say that for leadership it’s important to listen to the input of everyone and to have forms of input that are private for people who want to speak up but maybe don’t feel comfortable speaking about certain things in team settings.
Glenn Benson (Honorary Curator of Artefacts)
Though the Society's legacy might be one of white, privileged, straight (as far as we know) males, our current incarnation is very different, I would argue. The Society listens irrespective of gender, race, or sexual orientation; it is interested only in how what you have to say adds to our knowledge of the Society, the natural world, and how we can protect it. In 20+ years of being a Fellow I can honestly say my sexuality, or partnership status, has never come up.
If we have work to do on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) then we need to promote that the Society as a safe space for all. We have to increase the visibility of its diversity, and promote an “all are welcome” attitude.
Joe Burton (Education Manager)
I grew up in a family, and attended schools and a church, where queerness really wasn’t a topic of conversation. I wasn’t particularly exposed to anti-queerness in an outright way, but the awkward silencing of certain conversations made it so that I couldn’t read the temperature in any room about what would happen if I was anything but straight and conforming. I existed in a sea of kind, smiling faces, who all blushed and changed the subject if gay people were mentioned. In turn, I found myself repeating these actions to others.
"I existed in a sea of kind, smiling faces, who all blushed and changed the subject if gay people were mentioned."
When I entered the workplace I expected much of the same thing, but instead I was inundated with enthusiastically queer-friendly people who really changed the game for me. My experience of the science engagement sector has largely been a positive one, thanks to the individual efforts of those people who actively display their acceptance (and encouragement!) of LGBTQ+ lives and, in doing so, create spaces for them to feel comfortable and, ultimately, thrive.
It is dangerous for an LGBTQ+ person to 'judge a book by its cover' because many friendly-looking people hold discriminatory views that could threaten their safety and their careers. And so, my piece of advice for leaders, managers and colleagues is to clearly signal to everyone around you that every identity, relationship, and form of self-expression, is welcome in the spaces that you hold power over.
Elaine Charwat (Fellow and former Deputy Librarian)
As a very shy and non-obvious non-binary person, I have always felt that the natural sciences allowed me to just be someone who is curious, loves exploring the natural world, and is keen on learning, discovering and sharing knowledge. Until the gendering and the stereotyping applied to (and often by!) scientists and academics kicked in, which is probably why I've always felt more comfortable in collections management and research support, and in the endless possibilities of observing the natural world and anonymously contributing to citizen science. I sometimes wonder if this might have been different if I hadn't been told in secondary school that I did not have "the brain" for science. I am still wondering what kind of brain that is, in a similar way perhaps that I am still puzzling over "male" and "female" brains.
"Working [at the Linnean Society] I realised science is what people make it, and gradually made peace with ... my funny, queer kind of brain."
When I worked at the Linnean Society, it was brilliant to be exposed to a diversity of people who are naturalists and scientists, much more so than in academia (at least as I knew it) - from "beardy old men" to brilliant headstrong women, from queer botanists to gender-fluid hip young science communicators. Working there, I realised that science is what people make it, and gradually made peace with my regrets with regard to not becoming a scientist, and with my funny, queer kind of brain.
Rich Boden (Trustee)
I am Associate Professor of Microbial Physiology and Taxonomy at the University of Plymouth, Trustee and Council Member of the Linnean Society of London and Editor-in-Chief of FEMS Microbiology Letters for the Federation of European Microbiological Societies. I am also a heavily disabled gay man – albeit a cis-gendered, white man, and I’m very aware the latter two groups afford me privileges and ease that often overcome the former groups.
Aside the occasional comment made to me about a third party by someone not realising I was gay myself (which is always responded to by me in a such a way that they won’t do it again, shall we say!), I honestly don’t feel I’ve ever experienced true discrimination in the workplace on account of being gay. For being disabled, yes: over and over, every time I go to a conference, but not for being gay.
"... we still very, very much have issues to deal with in the sciences in the UK. I can only hope this changes in the next five years."
That said, homophobia and transphobia are still endemic in academia – take for instance the myriad examples of UK universities that have set up campuses in countries in which being gay or trans is illegal, and punishable by gaol or worse, and who then expect their UK-employed LGBTQIA+ staff to attend and work at those campuses. Take for example the conferences organised in those countries. Take for example the number of international field courses in life and earth science degrees that take place in those countries, and that LGBTQIA+ staff and students are required to attend.
That this is still happening in 2021, and that complaints are either ignored or dismissed by straight, cis-gendered academics and university administrators, demonstrates we still very, very much have issues to deal with in the sciences in the UK. I can only hope this changes in the next five years.
Will Beharrell (Librarian)
The landscape for LGBT+ people has changed beyond recognition in my lifetime. Not just the well-publicised victories along the road to legal equality in the age of consent, civil partnerships, adoption, and most recently marriage, but also the widespread acceptance among the general public that LGBT+ people deserve equal treatment and respect (a 2019 poll suggested nearly 86% of Britons believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, about as unanimous a figure as you can hope to achieve on any topic in a free country).
The change, even from my childhood, could not be more profound. My secondary school environment was virulently homophobic. Sexuality and gender-based bullying was de rigueur, and the existence of Section 28—a de facto moratorium on all discussions of LGBT+ relationships in the classroom—hobbled teachers’ ability to properly support their LGBT+ students. Many people seem surprised when told this piece of legislation—far from being a relic of the 1980s and 90s—remained on the statute books until 2003 in England. I was 15 when it was finally consigned to the dustbin of history, its damage already done.
It wasn’t until university that I felt free to tell the truth about my sexuality; I came out at the comparatively late age of 19. I still maintain that coming out was one of the three unambiguously good and sensible decisions I ever made in my life (the other two being giving up smoking and marrying my husband!). The day I came out was one of the happiest of my life. My hope is that every LGBT+ person gets to experience that happiness, at least once.
"I still maintain that coming out was one of the three unambiguously good and sensible decisions I ever made in my life (the other two being giving up smoking and marrying my husband!)."
I’m happy to say that my subsequent career—in libraries, special collections, and most recently at the Linnean Society—has been characterised by near universal acceptance and support. I have never—touch wood!—encountered homophobia or discrimination in my professional life, and I’ve always felt supported and valued by the organisations I’ve worked for.
But we can’t afford to be complacent. I don’t think I’m alone in detecting a pushback against the progress made by LGBT+ campaigners in last 10-15 years. I’m particularly concerned by the recent vilification of Stonewall—an organisation I volunteered with for several years in my twenties—as part of a broader move to undermine LGBT+ rights and representation under the guise of “preserving impartiality” and “academic freedom”. Stonewall is not a perfect organisation, but we should view the attacks on it with alarm. LGBT+ people have long been the canaries in the coal mine; where LGBT+ support is weakened, other commitments to equality and diversity—Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter —could follow. As the old saw goes, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
I remain eternally grateful that I was born in the UK in the 20th century. How many LGBT+ people around the world enjoy the freedoms I enjoy? That number, I fear, remains shamefully small. Still, we shouldn't be cowed by the scale of the "work yet done". LGBT+ History Month is a great time to be thankful for the progress we’ve made, and to reflect on what can be achieved when we work together in solidarity and mutual respect.
Lukas Becker (Former Volunteer)
I suppose the main thing that strikes me is that when I started out at university, there was very little visibility of "queer" scientists/lecturers or students. It was easy to imagine that they didn’t exist at all.
This was around 20 years ago. In the intervening time, I have become much more happy openly identifying as LGBTQ+ (mainly the BTQ in my case!). Whilst I feel that there are still challenges, particularly around the notion of gender as binary where many of us feel under pressure to make a choice between, and conform to, the “f” or the “m”, I’m sure that on the whole we have come a long way in embracing differences and actively encouraging LGBTQ+ voices in the sciences.
"... when I started out at university, there was very little visibility of "queer" scientists/lecturers or students. It was easy to imagine that they didn’t exist at all."
I cannot claim to be a scientist myself since my career went a slightly different way after I completed my PhD. However, I feel that I have gained a great deal of insight as part of my "support" roles (in research administration) into the broader picture of diversity in academia and in research institutions. There is, I think, still a lot of work to do around awareness and visibility: Not all disciplines in the sciences are embracing the idea of promoting LGBTQ+ voices to the same degree.
During my brief time as volunteer at the Linnean Society London I appreciated the importance of a diverse staff base – particularly for a small learned society often seen as steeped in tradition, “the Linneans” have a wonderfully open and inclusive approach.
Zia Forrai (Education Assistant)
Over the course of my lifetime, I've seen incredible changes in terms of public LGBTQ+ acceptance and acknowledgment in broader society as well as within the sciences.
When I was 14, the law around "promoting homosexuality" in schools or public institutions was repealed. Prior to that point, it had been illegal to discuss queerness as something positive, and there was still a huge amount of shame and confusion around the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues compared to today. Finding role models and peers felt impossible at the time, and there was a real sense that the sciences, in particular, weren't for queer people.
"... the world is so much bigger, and queerer, than we might initially imagine."
Though things are far from perfect now, and representation, participation, and acceptance could be improved, the fact that I have so many queer colleagues, and that I know of so many openly queer scientists, is a real state change. The sciences themselves have changed along with culture; whereas LGBTQ+ behaviours were taught or understood as a real aberration within humans when I was younger, somehow against the natural order of things, there's a growing scientific consensus that same-sex sexual behaviour and behaviours that might defy rigid notions of sex or gender are more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought, leading some thinkers to the interesting terrain of queer ecology as a way of understanding how strange it is to apply very culturally specific notions of what it is to be human to the rest of nature.
Learning more about nature, as well as other peoples' experiences of the world through social and scientific disciplines, to me has been an effusive experience, in that the world is so much bigger, and queerer, than we might initially imagine.
Banner image adapted from plate 5 of James Sowerby's A New Elucidation of Colours (1809), from our collections. Banner image and portraits of Alex Milne, Joe Burton and Zia Forrai © the Linnean Society of London.
Other images and text reproduced courtesy of the contributors.
Views expressed in the individual testimonials are the contributors' own.