Queer Exceptionalism in Science

Written during the 2020 LGBTQ History Month Remembrance that takes place during February each year in the UK.

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Today’s queer scientist is exceptional. Exceptional as in extraordinary and remarkable; exceptional as in unusual and strange. This is a state of ambiguity that isn’t surprising, since each year, especially during LGBTQ History Month, we ask: ‘Where are the queer scientists?’, ‘Why is it that 1 in 3 queer scientists consider leaving work because of their workplace climate?’, and ‘Why do 1 in 4 queer scientists in the UK still feel uncomfortable being out at work?1. These are indicators of our collective failure as a scientific community, and the sign of a Science incomplete. Each day, we proceed on our mission to advance knowledge, but do so in selective ways; we continue to celebrate excellence, yet the productive force of queerness remains unrecognised. So, my wish during this month of LGBTQ remembrance, is for us all to take one simple action that imagines anew the exceptional role of queer scientists in intellectual and social life.

Role of the Queer Scientist

For queer people to hold a recognised role in scientific life requires an acknowledgement that to be queer has consequences. What we want is something that is unique amongst people: the right to live fully in our  identities without homophobia and transphobia conspiring against us; to have the sex we want without being punished for it. The queer scientist is driven by an impulse to reveal a secret truth of what it is to be human in the world, through our desires. In so doing, we reveal to Science the wealth of truth and truth-seeking it has in itself.

Such a state of queer recognition can powerfully reshape the world. Imagine a world in which Darwin’s study The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex were counterbalanced by scientists who questioned its neglect of same-sex behaviour in the animal kingdom, who resisted its becoming a manifesto of heteronormativity and gender hierarchy, and that saw, using a queer truth-seeking imperative, that science is never wholly objective nor apoliticial, but shaped by the unquestioned cultural assumptions that are embedded in it2. The Science that sees itself in multiplicities is very different to the one we currently have. It is a more complete science, and one that could truly achieve its aim of unlocking knowledge that serves everyone.

Challenges Facing Queer Scientists

For the queer scientist, every encounter involves a conscious act of deliberation, risk assessment, and effort, well before any effort of research is begun. For us, the most mundane of events can become a significant moral dilemma. For example, when the rest of the lab is excited to travel to a new country for a project meeting, the queer scientist is found debating and computing the tradeoffs between travelling to countries without legal protections for LGBT people, their own personal safety, their bonds of solidarity to scientists in those regions, and of their commitment to communicating their science3.

Many queer scientists face an ever-evolving struggle of confidence-building, many are  overcoming deep-seated struggles against internalised self-hate, so many are rejected by their families, we are often negotiating feelings of loneliness and of being outside political and scientific community. These struggles form the background to an unending coming out process. For queer scientists, every new encounter—with a colleague, supervisor, possible letter-writer, examiner, moderator, student, interviewer, acquaintance, or future-friend—sets up a stressful coming-out scene. Should I say something, and if so when, and to whom? Do they guess or already know? Will I be the butt of jokes or bullied? Will I be taken seriously in research? Will I be included, or always be an arm-apart? And these challenges are compounded by the confines of racialisation, class and creed we also find ourselves in.

It’s not surprising that these are all challenges shared by non-queer scientists as well. These challenges become intensified in working spaces that never take the time to talk about well-being and identity, want to exclusively ‘focus on the science’, pay little attention to healthy working practices and hours, where language is not carefully considered, and where people feel alone and without support in the place where a significant part of their every day is spent. Wherever we identify challenges like these, we find one more place for interventions that support greater equity.

Creating the Exceptional 

The queer exceptionals in our sciences bring with them a gift of sight, illuminating the possible and unforseen forms of connection between Science, scientists and the society we serve, and revealing the paths of truth-seeking that Science already has in itself.

To be queer in science is to ask to belong and to be safe. During this month of LGBTQ remembrance, our principal task is to create safer workplaces and communities, knowing that safety for the queer scientist leads to safety for us all. When we are safe, joy fills the space that fear once occupied. As always, when Science and Joy meet, that is when we truly—and completely—create the exceptional.

Some References

  1. Elizabeth Gibney (2019). Discrimination drives LGBT+ scientists to think about quitting, Nature 571.
  2. Phillipa Hardman (2011). What can Darwin teach us about sexuality?
  3. Shakir Mohamed (2019). A New Consciousness of Inclusion in Machine Learning.

You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses & liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. -Toni Morrison

--I'm also remembering.

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