The importance of visibility
I am a first-year Ph.D. student at the University of Liverpool, starting his research on supernova neutrinos detection in water Cherenkov detectors such as Super-Kamiokandia. I share some personal stories about being open in physics and why it is important to be visible.
I could start this with a long spiel about how I have always been fascinated by the universe and wanted to understand it from an early stage, sounding like an undergraduate trying to get into uni for the first time. It would, however, be very true, and would spend hours annoying my parents with an endless stream of questions. While most boys were busy playing sports, I would keep to myself in my own little world trying to figure out how it all worked.
The biggest hurdle for me growing up into the STEM world was the fact that I have severe dyslexia and dyspraxia. Which made the very exam heavy academic journey from school till today a struggle. Now studying for my Ph.D., where exams are a distant memory, my dyspraxia makes me forget the all-important keyword in a presentation or spelling a variable in some code 5 different ways. When these things happen I apologise, I openly explain my learning difficulties, not as an excuse but to provide understanding and common ground. I can’t help who I am or how my brain functions, yet somehow for many of us it can be a lot harder to be open about our sexuality and gender identity. I love wearing a pair of heels and putting my make-up on, but they aren’t very practical in a lab so why bother talking about our sexual and gender identity in STEM at all.
An exciting aspect of working in particle physics is working on large international experiments. I have so far worked at CERN and spent a summer placement at DESY in Germany, where I meet 100 other graduate particle physicists from around the world. This means working with a huge mix of cultures and nationalities, this comes with some anxiety about how my sexuality and gender will be seen. I personally have never encountered any issues working in physics and being queer, but while at DESY I had the opportunities to speak to people from countries and cultures where being LGBTQ+ isn’t accepted or legal. Being able to have deep meaningful conversion in the wider context of science has helped me grow, and hopefully, I’ve been able to be a good ambassador showing that being LGBTQ+ is okay and helping the visibility of our community in cultures where they're none. As my research continues to grow, so do my opportunities to travel. As part of my PhD, I will travel to Japan and work for a year with the Super-Kamiokandia detector in Japan, which is a super exciting opportunity and I can’t wait to go out there. It does, however, come with some anxiety as I am all too aware that being gay in Japan is not easy, let alone if I want to express my gender identity. I want to caveat here that I am sure I will be fine and will have a great time and feel accepted out in Japan. Yet, it is an anxiety that a lot of non-LGBT+ scientists might not think about and shows that being LGBTQ+ can affect the way we conduct research because at the end of the day science is conducted by humans who have real human fears and hopes.
Closer to home, I always feel it is important for people to feel like they belong so during my undergraduate I set up an LGBTQ+ in STEM group that meet once or twice a year to provide a safe space for discussion and conversation about our lived experience in/and science. Often in STEM we get so specialised that we often forget that their many other topics, so it's nice to have a space where people of different research interests have a space to discuss topics they wouldn’t normally have the time to look into. We might have all been there because we were LGBTQ+ or an ally but science was center stage. The group had a bigger impact than just forging friendship. My first meeting was a bit of a shot in the dark I had no clue if anyone would be there or if anyone cared. The Royal Holloway Physics department supported me and provide me with a room and some drinks and snacks for the evening and I reached out to the other departments. Luckily, it was a big success, and more people than I thought turned up. Geology volunteered to host the next event in a few months' time. When I went I was shocked to find out they had been inspired by the event and thought about how they can be a more inclusive space to the LGBTQ+ community and had already turned two toilets into gender-neutral loos. When I started the group, I didn’t know what would happen, but it was so nice to hear that positive change was happening I had done my part and started the conversation.
During my master’s I had the honor to demonstrate in first-year labs. It was great to teach first years and engage with them. It was clear how even in the last 5 years since I started how things have changed. Where I was only one of two openly out first years, in contrast, there was a diverse range of members of the LGBTQ community supporting each other. Unfortunately, this does not mean everyone was understanding and in one session one student was struggling with their lab partner who was asking one-to-many questions about their gender, making them feel uncomfortable. Luckily, other first-year students were around and one of them stepped in and removed them from the situation. They came and found me as I was part of the lab team. It was important to me that I made sure they were comfortable and safe; I was pleased also that I was there to provide empathy and they felt able to discuss the situation. This is not to say none of the other demonstrators couldn’t empathize or help, but I know how difficult it is to describe sometimes why you are struggling with issues like this.
If there is one thing I hope you take away from this post is the importance of visibility. If we are not seen, how can understanding begin? If we are not seen, how can we support and encourage each other? It is not always about being super loud about being LGBTQ+, setting up societies and meetings, but the simple act of being open can have just as an important impact on the students, research, and public we often interact within STEM.