Gravity's Rainbow

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So where are all the queer ecologists? Gay lunch at ESA


Every year at ESA, there’s a GLBT brown bag lunch. It’s a great place to to meet some cool people and to talk about career issues related to being queer. The two times I’ve attended, about 20 other people showed up. Most queer ecologists don’t go to the brown bag. Maybe they’re busy, maybe they’re not out in a professional context, maybe being queer has had no impact on their professional life, maybe they don’t know about the brown bag. If you’re reading this and you’re a queer ecologist, you should make time to come to the GLBT brown bag. It’s fun and it could help someone (maybe even you!).

One thing we discussed last year at the ESA brown bag was the age breakdown of the room. Most people were very young – graduate students and post-docs in their 20s. Maybe this is to be expected since older ecologists are both busier and less likely to be out. But I’d like to see more older queer ecologists at the brown bag. Quite frankly, young queer scientists could really use some mentors. It can be pretty hard to find someone to ask about same sex spousal hires or teaching evaluations influenced by homophobia or what the culture of science is like wrt queers.

I attended a Being Queer in Academia panel a few weeks ago, and I was struck by how the scientists on the panel didn’t volunteer their sexuality in a professional context nearly as much as the panelists representing the humanities, especially when it came to the classroom. While many of the representatives from the humanities spoke about feeling a responsibility to their students (especially their queer students) to come out to their classes (at least casually) many of the scientists said that since it had nothing to do with the subject they taught, they didn’t bring it up. For a long time as an undergraduate, I felt like there were no queer scientists anywhere, and I was so relieved and excited to find out that a scientist I admired was queer. Established ecologists who teach: if you come out to your classes – even if it’s just by having a rainbow sticker on your laptop – you’re doing something awesome.

One more thing about the age breakdown at the GLBT brown bag: We don’t know much about the careers of queers in ecology. ESA keeps track of the demographics of its membership, but I don’t think it ever asks about sexuality in its surveys. What if there were only young people at the brown bag because queer people get pushed out of academia and/or ecology? This may seem silly since most universities are relatively queer friendly places, but I think it’s very plausible that queers could get pushed out of academia even if universities were paragons of equality. Consider the fact that academics have to follow the jobs and how many of those jobs are in places like Laramie. By and large, most queers will be reluctant to move back to the homophobic small towns we ran from when we went to college ourselves. Since academic jobs are few and far between, this could mean queer people leave academia because the only jobs available are in places that would be very unpleasant and potentially dangerous for them to live in. That’s all speculation, though. I’d be curious to see any data or research on the careers of queer academics or scientists that could be used to figure out if that’s occurring or other ways homophobia could be affecting queer careers. And it would be awesome if scientific societies, like ESA, started including sexuality on its membership surveys.

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  1. I’d never seen that study of students’ evaluation of a straight vs. a gay instructor (for which, PDF here, by the way)—thanks for pointing to it.

    Given what we know from broader polling on acceptance of GLBT folks by young adults, “more than 70% of participants indicated that they would react unfavorably to a gay educator” is surprising, though. And it’s not in keeping with my own experience. But then I didn’t explicitly come out when I TA’d, and I have no way of knowing how many of my students sussed me out. (I’d’ve thought the rainbow bracelet and “Legalize Gay” t-shirt would be a clue, but straight people can be astonishingly dense.) And I have no way to know how many felt differently about my teaching as a result.

  2. Here’s some published research for you — and yes, we do leak out of the pipeline.  Take a look at the articles listed on  (scroll down to articles, and keep scrolling to get to the pdf’s).  I haven’t seen anything on ecology or related fields.  My impression (as a fellow ecologist — I’ll see you at ESA this year!) is that we do a slightly better job than most of attending to the human side of doing science, so it feels like we’re got ready potential to become a more actively queer-supportive field. 

    I wonder if the GLBT science faculty realize what message they send when they don’t show up, speak up, stand up — when we don’t know they exist.  I don’t think they realize how many of us younger scientists are looking around, not finding any queer role models, and thinking that we should probably find a different field.

    •  For every openly queer faculty member I know in STEM (I think that number might be two), I know n>1 who aren’t openly queer. Some are out to other faculty or the members of their research group. Some aren’t explicitly out to their groups but have same-sex partners who are always at group parties (seriously?). And many give the reason that it’s not professionally relevant. Your last sentence is key: “I don’t think they realize how many of us younger scientists are looking
      around, not finding any queer role models, and thinking that we should
      probably find a different field.”

  3. Where is it this year? I couldn’t find the time/place for the the brown bag anywhere on the ESA website, and googling for it just brought me here (I attended several years ago, and so vaguely remembered to look for it). Is there some way to make the meeting info easier to find?

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