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Q&A: Why discuss sexuality and gender in the geosciences?

Invisibility is a major issue for individuals of sexual or gender minorities who may have to choose to come out in workplace settings over and over.

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Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, six Stanford Earth community members talk about the role that their sexual and gender identities have in the workplace.

When Jef Caers, professor of geological sciences, joined the Stanford Earth faculty in 1998, he had to navigate many challenges that his straight colleagues didn’t. “I entered a department with only older straight men and at faculty functions, I remember being asked about whether I had a wife or kids. Early on, I would lie to fit in, then I stopped going to events, and because I felt like an outsider, I didn’t really integrate myself socially into the school for the first decade of being here. It took 22 years to meet another same-sex couple on the faculty.”

Centering LGBTQIA+

People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and beyond (denoted LGBTQIA+) still experience harassment and discrimination, and feel unwelcome in many workplaces today. Identifying as LGBTQIA+ means tackling a lifelong series of decisions that heterosexual and/or cisgender (those whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth) people don’t have to consider in a culture that centers their identities.

For example, while most people think of “coming out” as a single event, it’s actually a continual process throughout one’s life. Identity includes both visible and invisible aspects, and sexual/gender identities can fall under the invisible side in some cases. People belonging to sexual and/or gender minorities may have to choose every day whether to reveal themselves to others.

Invisible identities

And very often, they choose not to. A 2013 survey suggested that more than 40% of LGBTQIA+ workers in STEM were not out to their colleagues, and found that most respondents couldn’t name a single LGBTQIA+ faculty member at the universities where they got their own degrees. Invisibility is a major issue for individuals of sexual or gender minorities. 

There’s a host of reasons why individuals of LGBTQIA+ identities might choose not to disclose that element of themselves in the workplace due to concerns about discrimination and homophobia, harassment and assault, misgendering, a lack of health services and infrastructure, and more. Until June 15, 2020, it was legal to be fired based on sexual orientation in more than half of the United States. In many countries, homosexuality is criminalized.

One area where LGBTQIA+ geoscientists may experience unique challenges is participation in field research, which is often central to a geoscience education. A 2019 study found that more than 50% of respondents said they’d done fieldwork in places where they did not feel safe because of their LGBTQIA+ identity, expression or presentation. A third of respondents to the same study had refused to do fieldwork because of concerns for their personal safety.

These difficulties aren’t unique to science. LGBTQIA+ people face significant disadvantages in most fields, and these difficulties disproportionately affect LGBTQIA+ people of color or those who intersect other minority identities. 

Research has shown that diverse perspectives improve the quality of teamwork; however, personal details are often considered secondary to the scientific endeavor. It can be seen as unprofessional to be open about one’s sexual or gender identity, but if one doesn’t see themselves reflected and welcomed in a space, they’re less likely to feel comfortable contributing to the space, and over time, less likely to bring themselves to the space at all. A survey of more than 1,000 physical scientists found that 30% of LGBTQIA+ scientists and half of transgender scientists said they’d considered leaving their workplace because of an unfriendly or hostile environment.

Leakage in the pipeline

While emerging evidence suggests that scientists identifying as LGBTQIA+ are leaking out of the pipeline before achieving a PhD – as are women and those from minority racial/ethnic groups -- there are limited initiatives to foster LGBTQIA+ representation in STEM. Diversity initiatives depend on data to indicate evidence of under-representation and while STEM institutions track gender and race/ethnicity amongst other identity factors, they don’t usually track sexual or gender identity.

Collecting data on sexuality and gender can be complicated, since these factors may be deliberately concealed. However, one consequence is that LGBTQIA+ individuals are not always supported by diversity initiatives and are not always officially counted among the diverse populations at their institutions. Developing academic spaces where people are comfortable disclosing their sexuality and gender identities is crucial to improving inclusivity and retaining LGBTQIA+ scientists.   

Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, six Stanford Earth community members talk about the role that their sexual and gender identities have in the workplace. Professor of Geological Sciences Jef Caers; Senior Web Developer Kassie Sharp; and graduate students Aaron SteelquistSami ChenColette Kelly, and Hanon McShea discuss their hopes for the future of diversity in the geosciences.

Last updated: June 4, 2021

What intersection of identities do you identify with?

Sami Chen
Sami Chen is a PhD student in ESS, working with Dr. Pam Matson and Dr. Kate Maher to study soil nutrient retention and loss following traditional Cherokee harvest of ramps (Allium tricoccum).

CHEN: I identify as bisexual/pansexual/queer/panoramic demisexual interchangeably and am of mixed Chinese, Scots-Irish, Welsh and Cherokee descent.  Basically, gender is not a factor in my romantic attraction (or lack thereof) to other people.

CAERS: I am a gay man.

SHARP: I identify now as a transgender woman, but it took me a long time to get to this point. I’ve had a lifetime of internalized transphobia to overcome.

KELLY: I identify as a white/Caucasian cisgender queer woman.

MCSHEA: I am a trans person of Jewish and native Scottish ancestry. I grew up in the Piedmont region of North Carolina on unceded Catawba and Eno land.

STEELQUIST: I’m a white cisgender queer man.

Share a formative experience related to your gender or sexual identity. 

Jef Caers
Jef Caers (he/him) works on the exploration, evaluation and development of Earth's resources, whether energy, water or minerals. He wrote an expanded version of his experiences in 2021. (Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

CAERS: Unfortunately, I was deprived and also deprived myself of formative experiences, as I remained “in the closet” until I was 27. I grew up in a conservative, small town in Belgium, going to Catholic mass, and didn’t observe a gay community until I came to the States. I grew up thinking there was something wrong with me – in Belgium in the 70s and 80s, they referred to gay men as “Hij is een verkeerde” (Dutch) which means “He is the wrong kind.”

CHEN: In the months leading up to Prop. 8 being overturned in California, I revealed to my friends and family that I was bi- with mixed results. But, I hadn't told my 10-year-old sister out of deep fears of rejection. When I finally did following the 2016 presidential election, she met me with silence that seemed to confirm my fears, before saying she loved me. A month later, my little sister looked at me and asked, "Jiji, is it ok if I am [bi] too?" It never occurred to me that in all the years I hadn’t told her, that we could both be queer. Being able to navigate our sexual and gender identities together has been a healing process for both of us.

KELLY: When I moved to California, I was definitely out, but when people first met me, they assumed otherwise because I didn't present super queer. We crossed the equator on one of my oceanographic cruises and I shaved all my hair off. There was a moment coming back from the cruise when I went to a restaurant with my then-girlfriend and we were treated as if we were a couple without any explanation. We didn't have to do any performative queerness.

Kassie Sharp
Kassie Sharp (she/her) is the Senior Web Developer for Stanford Earth Web Services

SHARP: The process of coming out and beginning my transition here at Stanford was kind of terrifying. When I first talked to Human Resources, I had no idea what to expect, but Sue Crutcher was wonderful about letting me go at the pace I needed to. When we learned that the university had no guidance policy for transgender staff, Stanford Earth’s HR set about having one written for the school, which helped pave the way to the campus-wide policy now in place.

MCSHEA: One memory from several years ago is burned into my mind. I was at a conference having a conversation with a famous scientist in my field. One of my lab mates referred to me using a pronoun that must have not matched the scientist's perception of who I was, and he instantly turned away from me, revealing his disgust with either trans people or women. It was really upsetting at the time. Now, I feel that my field will either take me - research, trans status, and all - or leave me, and I'm interested to see which it will be.

STEELQUIST: I've been out as long as I've been at Stanford, but I very much pass for straight in most situations and I also happen to be a white, cisgender male. I've found a beautiful queer community at Stanford, and I know some of my peers have identities that interact in much more complex ways than mine does. So it’s important to me, as someone who ‘looks’ like they belong in the geosciences, to bring up the issues faced by our queer community, because unfortunately based on how the system works, I know I’m less likely to face significant blowback, or be labeled as difficult, or dismissed out of hand.  

Rooted in community

“My ethnic identity and gender identity are intertwined. I couldn’t be māhū without first identifying as Hawaiian, and claiming the identity of māhū comes with the responsibility of inhabiting masculine and feminine spaces in a responsible way.” Read more

Keoni Rodriguez (they/them)
MA '23, Earth System Science

Out in academia 

Matt Lees

“A challenge I’ve encountered is doing field work in parts of the world where LGBTQIA+ attitudes are less tolerant than in the U.S. It requires some care (and self-care!) when working in such places – and knowing that your institution values and protects your identity is so integral to doing good work.” Read more

Matt Lees (he/him)
PhD student, Geophysics

Do you feel like you see representations of people like yourself in your field? 

Collette Kelly
Colette Kelly (she/they) is a PhD student in the Casciotti lab and uses the site-specific stable isotopes of the nitrous oxide molecule to quantify its cycling in oxygen-deficient zones in the ocean. (Photo credit: Laramie Jensen)

KELLY: There's this idea that anybody can become a scientist, except that isn't exactly true. Until we see scientists who look and are like ourselves, it’s hard to imagine ourselves in those positions. Representation of queer scientists is important because it allows me to see myself in a community. It also means I’ll be able to use less time and energy policing my own behavior. There is a weathering that comes along with having to constantly self-police in order to fit in, and that is going to drain the energy I have available to do my science.

CAERS: Earlier in my career, I was a professor of petroleum engineering and would regularly attend conferences in Texas and the Middle East. Being that those are more conservative communities, I was not at all comfortable sharing my sexuality. There is now a growing, and out, representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in the geosciences. I was on the Committee on Gay and Lesbian Concerns in Statistics at the American Statistical Association, making sure that our community is counted, which is statistically challenging.

MCSHEA: I do not know any professors in STEM who received tenure while out as trans. However, I do know some who are pre-tenure, some who came out after tenure, and some who were denied tenure due to discrimination. In the geosciences specifically, I know of a single trans faculty member although they are not in my sub-field.

How does your identity intersect with your research, your workplace, your field?

Drawing of evolutionary creature
Hanon Mcshea is an evolutionary biologist and a PhD student working on the evolutionary history and geological record of triterpenoid cyclase enzymes. 

MCSHEA: Being trans, along with other aspects of my upbringing and experience, has made me more attuned to the many dimensions of discrimination and structural inequality within academia and outside of it. When you do not have power or protection in the political economy, you develop very sharp analytical skills which can be directly applied to scientific hypothesis testing.

CHEN: Although sometimes my queerness is not visible at work, I cannot hide that I am a woman of color or that I am dyslexic.  My intersectional identities often shape my experiences both inside and outside of Stanford Earth. On campus, as a part of the Stanford Native community, I feel that everyone has been very supportive of LGBTQ2S+ folx. Likewise, I feel that the LGBTQ2S+ community has been really supportive of me as a woman of color and simply as a person at Stanford. The diversity initiatives and community groups at Stanford have felt quite intersectional, as they should be.  One day, hopefully the SE3 student body and faculty will be too.  I've been incredibly lucky that my field research has allowed me to live part-time with my adopted unctie Tyson Sampson in Cherokee, North Carolina. Tyson is two-spirit and full of love and celebration. When I'm not learning about plants and soil processes, we've been able to explore gender fluidity and talk about queerness and Indigeneity. 

STEELQUIST: My straight colleagues often bring their partners to do field work with them, and I don’t know if I would ever feel comfortable doing that because I wouldn’t want to put myself and my partner at risk in a less tolerant community. But on the beneficial side, the friction of not fitting in your whole life makes you more willing to push up against boundaries, and that works so well in science where we're trying to push up against the boundaries of human knowledge. This framing was introduced to me by an LGBTQ colleague here at Stanford and it really changed my entire outlook on queerness in the sciences.

CAERS: Our experiences are fundamental to who we are as people and how we exist in the world. My life has been quite unusual and extremely challenging – as someone who is HIV+, bipolar, and in recovery from methamphetamine addiction (7 years sober). Despite the impact of living with these comorbid physical and mental health challenges, I’ve kept a successful career. But stigma is and remains an incredible challenge, and my students and colleagues don’t know that I had to navigate and am still navigating these challenges. Coming out over and over (as someone who is gay but also someone who is HIV+) has been as much about overcoming my own fear as it is about the judgment of the world outside.

Why do we need to make space to discuss sexual or gender identity in the workplace?

Aaron Steelquist
Aaron Steelquist (he/him) is a geomorphologist and PhD candidate in Geological Sciences focused on understanding the evolution of river systems in arid environments. (Photo credit: Elaine Li)

STEELQUIST: I think queer stories need to be told because we are whole people striving toward the goal of understanding our planet better. And nothing disseminates those stories faster than an article sharing our experiences as queer geoscientists. I’d be happy if ten people at my own institution read this because that’s ten conversations that my queer peers and I wouldn’t have to use educating our colleagues on where we are coming from. When we know more about the people around us, we learn how to be more effective colleagues and communicators and scientists.

SHARP: There are people who might argue that our identities have no bearing on our work and should remain private, but trying to compartmentalize one’s identity is isolating. When we have these discussions, we help to normalize our experiences, allowing people to fully engage with others and their work.

KELLY: I am not able to contribute to the scientific community if I'm in a space of self-loathing. Nobody is. In order for me to be able to bring my all to my research, I have to wake up that morning feeling like I deserve to be recognized for who I am. I’ve been the secret girlfriend before and had to hold my partner’s shame because they weren’t comfortable being out in their scientific setting. If we don't make space to talk about these different axes of identity in the workplace, then we're essentially forcing people to carry our collective shame about those axes of identity.

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This story is part of the #StanfordEarthCelebrates series hosted by Stanford Earth Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Continue to read the rest of the collection here. 

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