Pride month for those who are still closeted is a bittersweet time as you are left watching from the side lines. I know this feeling all too well as I spent the first portion of my life privately grappling with the fact that I was transgender. I’ve always been a firm LGBTQ+ ally but being unable to join in as myself was always hard. This year is my first pride out of the closet as who I really am, a trans woman.
I’ve worked in science in some capacity for several years now, but this pride month I found myself asking, why has it taken me so long to get here?
Coming out as trans always felt like a balance of risk. As people we always consider risk in the decisions we make. I balanced my own risk as “is being who I am worth sacrificing my friends, family and career?”. The key point here is that in my own interpretation of the risk, I’d included “career” as something I’d jeopardise if I came out as trans, which is the reality for many transgender people.
So why had it had taken me so long to get to get here and join in pride as myself? I loved working in science, felt at home within it and wanted to continue on that path for the rest of my working life. The fear that I could compromise that after working so hard was a huge reason for repressing who I was. Nobody should have to risk a fulfilling career to be who they are.
Around this time of weighing up risk I’d become a much more avid user of twitter. Here for the first time I saw other trans scientists. They weren’t closeted, discussed their research as well as the hardships they faced being trans and most importantly they were successful while being who they are. This is the power that pride has within the LGBTQ+ community.
As gender dysphoria grew this balance of risk was ever changing, and eventually the weight of staying closeted outweighed the fear of losing friends, family and my career. I knew I had to transition, and I’d try and hold onto the other things as much as I could.
I was one of the lucky ones as most of my friends and family are supportive. I was previously working within academia, an environment that is already challenging at the best of times. I recognised I didn’t have the capacity to endure it as well as transition, so I made the decision to leave. I’m still within science in an industry-based role. It’s fulfilling, my work colleagues are incredible allies, and the job helps to pay for my transition, as in the UK NHS waiting lists are years long, with my first appointment currently scheduled for April 2023.
The reality is that this isn’t the usual outcome, trans people often lose friends, family and careers to be who they are.
Pride’s entire ethos is fighting against the prejudice we face every day, we enjoy the rights and the freedoms we have today due to those who campaigned in prides before us. Our pride campaigns today will protect and extend those rights for those who come after us. To fully protect our freedom to be who we are, pride must also be in the workplace, STEM fields are no exception.
Trans people need assurance that coming out of the closet doesn’t come with career risk, acceptance of LGBTQ+ people within STEM fields isn’t enough. There needs to be proactive work, and engagement with LGBTQ+ people to ensure that those who need to come out have a safe, stable environment in which to do so.
Pride within STEM is critical in preventing other trans scientists going through the same risk management that myself and countless other LGBTQ+ scientists had to. Working in STEM subjects is challenging, but when we’re able to be who we are without prejudice we take on those challenges readily, it’s a win-win situation.
Transphobia is deeply rooted within the UK media and political systems, we are consistently questioned and debated every day by cis people. The environment that this has created over the past year has been nothing short of toxic. There is no explanation for how tiring and challenging it is to see yourself be debated like this so often and to constantly worry that our rights are under threat. We as a community understand the importance pride has in protecting ourselves. So throughout these times it’s important that we make sure to practice self-care and have things we find solace in. For me personally my work in science has offered respite, a place where I have been welcomed and supported without question. Amplifying pride within STEM beyond just acceptance is crucial to creating more areas of respite for our community.
Every workplace, especially those in STEM fields need to work with LGBTQ+ people to work out how to create that respite for those who work there.
If you are an ally reading this, think about how you can help create and grow that encouraging environment, for the benefit of your colleagues, a positive and safe environment will be of a huge benefit to those who are closeted.
If you are reading this while closeted, I hope my own experience gives you hope that coming out doesn’t necessarily mean risking your career. However, I understand that with how challenging things are right now the risks still remain. My advice is to try and connect with other LGBT+ people who work in STEM, I promise it helps. The STEM village is a great place to start.
I hope that in the future, other closeted trans scientists won’t have to make the same difficult judgements of risk that I had to.
Dani is a marine biologist, and is currently taking time away from her field to assist in the COVID-19 crisis. You can follow Dani on Twitter @SymbiontDani.