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I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Fair warning: this feels like a kind of rambling post. I have not written about this before, and I'm afraid it is a little awkward. Consider yourself warned, if this sort of thing bothers you.

A while ago, when I was wondering exactly how I was able to so efficiently ruin so many families, I mentioned that I would write about what it was like to be a lesbian on the academic job market. Since National Coming Out Day was last week, I figured that now was a reasonable time to tell my story.

Before I start, I would like to stress that I have had it really, really easy. I do not worry about my safety, or that I will be assaulted because of my sexual orientation. I was not ostracized by my family or friends. I was not prevented from having a job that I love. I have a super partner, and we are raising an incredible child together. I have put off writing this post for a while, because I do not really feel qualified to be a token lesbian assistant professor. I am not convinced that my experience is "normal". But I really believe that it is important for me to be out. Maybe I can be a role model for other folks coming up through the ranks. And that would be great. But I think it has bigger effects than just in academia. I am sure that some people I know are more tolerant now because they know me. It is much harder to generically hate a group of people when you know individuals that belong to this group.

So, there is the disclaimer. Now, where to start. Well, I would never have gone on the market as a lesbian unless I was out as a postdoc, which leads to how I ended up being out as a postdoc. This was sort of an accident, really. I wasn't out when I started grad school. In fact, that is where I finally figured out the whole thing for myself*. Then I started dating a classmate. It wasn't long before our fellow grad student friends figured out what was going on. But, no one ever really had a problem. So coming out wasn't all that hard. I'm sure that the faculty in the Dept. that knew me also figured this out, but it was not a normal topic of discussion. I brought my girlfriend to lab functions and everyone no one acted like it was anything out of the normal. When I took a postdoc across the country, it was not surprising to most that she moved with me. There were exceptions. People that were confused about why another female student in the program just "happened" to be moving across the country to the same place I was going. Generally this was followed by awkward questions. When I started my postdoc, the it was more of the same. When you move to a new city to start a postdoc, the first people that you meet are inevitably in your new lab. And I got along with all those folks. Of course everyone knew about my partner. This trend continued throughout my postdoc. I would go to meetings, you talk with people. I didn't bring up my "situation", but I never lied about it. If people asked me about my husband, I would just say "actually, I'm married to a woman". And there you go. I'm out in my postdoc, out to many of the scientists in my community. But I did not ever have a "strategy" or plan for how this should go. It just happened. And this doesn't seem to have been detrimental to my career, as far as I can tell.

The time had come for me to start sending out job applications. And send I did. I applied to almost every job that was even remotely related to what I do. The only exception was that I did not apply to schools in places that I did not think would be good environments for my family. Places where my parental rights as a same-sex couple would be in jeapordy, for instance. When I started getting interviews was when I had a choice to make. Even though it is illegal to ask many personal questions on a job interview, over the course of a two-day academic interview these questions always come up. Generally over dinner, as folks are trying to get to know you or when someone you are talking to wants to tell you something great about the environment related to the schools, child care, etc. I knew that answering these questions honestly could cost me a job, depending on who I was talking to. I know a couple of folks that are gay academics. The general situation, that I saw, was that these folks were out to some of the people they worked with. But not all. And I heard some horror stories about being on the tenure track. These people didn't feel like they had the option to be out in their Dept. This made their lives harder. I can't imagine having to not talk about my wife or daughter with colleagues. And I didn't need anything extra stress when starting out. So, I decided that if someone was going to cancel me out for being gay, I was going to make them do it at the interview. I would not give them 5 years (or so) to mess with my family and my sanity. When I was asked about my family on the interview I was honest. No one reacted poorly, at least not in my presence. For all I know, the folks that interviewed me already knew. It is entirely possible that any place that would have had an issue with me never interviewed me in the first place. Did I narrow the number of interviews/offers that I got? Perhaps. There is no way to know. In the end, it worked out well for me.

So, I'm out on the tenure track. I am sure that this is the right choice for me and my family. But, like I said before-I am one of the lucky ones. Being out is something I can do to try to make life easier for those that are not so lucky as I have been. But there is clearly much more that needs to be done. The recent series of teenagers that are (or are perceived to be) gay and are bullied to the point that they commit suicide makes it clear that there are too many young folks, in particular, that need our help (I'm not going to link to any names, because I have been told that glorifying the suicides of some can actually increase the liklihood of others). If you are heartbroken** by these events and want to do something, here is a non-exhuastive list of some ideas (please feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments):

1. If you are considering suicide, please don't. Talk to someone. If you don't have someone to talk to try The Trevor Project online or call 866-488-7386.

2. If you are a parent, watch this video. Learn to recognize if your child is being bullied, or being a bully.

3. If you would like to hear the success stories of other non-heterosexual folks (many that had a much harder time than me), check out the It Gets Better Project.

3. Realize that your words matter. Don't make antigay disparaging remarks, and don't sit silently when others do. You may think that these "jokes" are funny or harmless. But they aren't, they are part of a culture that uses homophobia as a tool for bullying.

4. Don't vote for homophobes (one example: Carl Paladino).





*I was a little late to the party. I suspect that this was influenced in part by growing up in a big, red conservative state. I don't really think I knew what being gay was until I was in college. All I knew growing up is that that when someone called you "gay" or "fag" that it was a bad thing.

**If you aren't, there is something wrong with you.

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UC Davis
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Wouldn't it be nice to think that you weren't the exception and that you were the norm in having it really easy?  Clearly, many peoples experiences and recent tragic events tell us that that is not the case, but maybe some day it will be, maybe Prop 8 and the gradual acceptance of gay marriage in many parts of the world will be the catalyst that helps to make that transition, and now the changing rules on homosexuals in the military (let's just hope attitudes are changed with it).  Certainly, people like yourself, who are open about it, willing to stand up for others and don't take any crap, will be a vital part of the process.  I'm impressed that you were wiling to potentially put your career on the line by being open about it with employers, but sad that this is something that might still be considered a deal breaker by many people.  I just don't get it and probably never will.

Great post, thanks for sharing!

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Nice post Gerty. Makes sense to just be upfront about it and let people show their true colors. 

Despite being from a conservative state, I think you "figured it out" pretty early. Good for you!


Jason Goldman
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Nice post. I agree, if your identity is going to be problematic at a specific institution, that's probably not an institution you want to affiliate with in the first place.

Thomas Joseph
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I commend you for being proactive in your stance during your search for a position. It could have been an incredibly risky move, but I'm glad it worked out as well as it did for you and your family. I know when I was looking for jobs myself, I was always very cautious about what I would reveal ... so much so that in my interviews in the Bible Belt, I was afraid to even mention I was divorced for fear of warping peoples views of me as a capable scientist. You have more guts than I do.

Dub C Med School
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Thank you for a brilliant post.  Putting yourself out on the line like that, to protect yourself and your family is amazing.  It's unfortunate that not everyone can be out, but those who are out make it easier for those in the closet to come out, by changing people's opinions on interactions.  It really is harder to hate against a stereotyped group when you actually know people in that group.


Great post, Gerty. I admire you for being Out while on the job market - that definitely takes guts!It still bothers me to hear people ask women these kinds of personal things at professional job interviews, but congrats on sticking to what's important to you above all else. Sounds like it paid off for you in the end!

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But but but. They're not supposed to ask at a job interview! And dammit, they always do!

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I really appreciate out bloggers (and academics!)- it's good to see. I struggle a lot with how much of my authentic self to be at work, and this is an arena that intellectually is an obvious good, but actually implementing can be... challenging.

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Thanks for the comments and wading through that whole thing! I want to be hopeful that in the near future my story will be the rule rather than the exception. By being out, I hope to contribute to this goal in my own small way. Being out was the right choice for me-I would have had a hard time on job interviews if I had been contantly concerned about saying the wrong thing. I still don't really know if my approach was "guts" or just hubris. And I absolutely do not think any less of folks that aren't able to make this choice. It may be cavalier to write "I decided that if someone was going to cancel me out for being gay, I was going to make them do it at the interview." But this was a really hard choice, and incredibly difficult in practice. I felt like I was actively taking myself out of a career as an academic scientist. It was terrifying.

@FCS and CoR: I know that these questions are off-limits, and I agree with why they should not be asked. But I also see how it is incredibly difficult, in the academic job interview over 2 days, not to ask these questions. No one asked me these questions with bad intentions. Most often, folks were hoping to tell me some information that they thought would be useful to me or that would make me more likely to accept an offer from their department. I have been thinking about this a lot recently, as we are gearing up to interview folks this year.

Dr. Girlfriend

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It is sad but true that the first time I heard the word "lesbian" (or lesbo) I did not know what it meant, only that it was being used a a derogatory term to describe me. I still do not really understand it, only that people of all ages will latch onto any trait that is "different" and use it as a focus of bullying. How this kind of early childhood bullying would have affected me if I was indeed a lesbian, I can only imagine. As it turns out it only made me curious to discover what a lesbian was and why being one was so bad (according that particular group of kids) - my curiosity illuminated some truths about society and bigots in general.

I like to believe that people in general are accepting. However, most people are sheep and it only takes one or two ringleaders to turn a school against a kid. I think individuals need to be more assertive when it comes to safe-guarding against a bigot in a position of power or influence because even good people have a tendency to blindly follow the leader.

Candid Engineer
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Thanks so much for sharing your story- you may not want to be a token lesbian professor, and you may think you "had it easy"- but these things do not matter so much. What matters is that you are you, and you are letting people know about it. It makes it seem so much more possible.

For many reasons, I am thankful that most of the scientists I have known in my career politically veer left or far left of center. Which makes me wonder if science might be a relatively accepting environment compared to other occupations. Interesting.

I am glad for you!


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Thanks for sharing your experience. In fact, a decade ago, I was not aware of the reality of orientations other than being straight. I was simply not exposed to it. Over the years, I have met a few who have lifestyles different from mine (mostly at work - and the web). I am glad that a large fraction of the people are mature and accepting. Still, I see some people make 'jokes' and such stuff without realizing the negative effect that can propogate/amplify. No one should have to pretend to be someone else. Kudos to everyone who are simply themselves.

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You rock.


@FCS and CoR: I know that these questions are off-limits, and I agree with why they should not be asked. But I also see how it is incredibly difficult, in the academic job interview over 2 days, not to ask these questions. No one asked me these questions with bad intentions. Most often, folks were hoping to tell me some information that they thought would be useful to me or that would make me more likely to accept an offer from their department. I have been thinking about this a lot recently, as we are gearing up to interview folks this year.

I do understand it's human nature to want to know about people's personal lives, and I also understand that the underlying motivation is to share information about the location in order to sell its attributes. I can't speak for other people, but I know for me I'd much rather have that conversation later, such as on the telephone after I've been offered a job. I'm not going to pick Job A over Job B because Job A happens to have a great daycare center or gym or group of sprocket basketweaving enthusiasts. I'm going to pick Job A because it has the best people and resources who are going to help facilitate my research.

If employers want to offer information to people in order to sell a location, I think they can easily put that information on their website or give it as a paper packet of information about the area to candidates who come to interview. There's no need for employers to put candidates in an awkward position during an interview by requiring them to disclose information about their personal lives.

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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Great post Gerty. Being homosexual is a persons choice. Why some one else should have problem with that? I guess,things are changing. Each and everyone will soon start respecting that culture.

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Gerty-Z, thanks for the post! I am so happy everything worked out for you! Tell me, did spousal hiring come up during your interviews? Did the university help with your partner's job?

Prabodh, I think you may get some flack for calling homosexuality a personal choice, although I am absulutely sure that you didn't mean anything bad by your comment. However, I think a lot of religious bigotted hatered comes from the same idea -- that homosexuals choose homosexuality because they think it's an awesome idea/lifestyle, and if they only wanted to they could easily be straight. From this same "choice" idea stems the fear that otherwise straight kids would "catch" the gay -- be introduced to this lifestyle and then like it and choose it, and that you can somehow prevent kids from "turning" gay by villifying homosexuals and pressuring children into the straight mold. This is terribly cruel. In reality (this is my understanding) a gay person no more chooses to be gay than a straight person chooses to be straight -- this is just how a person is born and everyone should be free to express their natural sexuality. What happened to those poor kids is so  unbelievably sad...


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all I can say, is that more than once I've realized how hard it can be gay and have to hide it or be open about it.  One of my best friends is gay and at a university reunion, I realized how the simpliest questions such as "are you married, do you have kids" that people innocently ask as a way to catch up are not so simple to answer.   How being "in" or "out" of the closet and living everyday with the so call consequences must not be an easy task.   Those of us who openly talk about our families, husbands, wives, childern don't think twice about mentioning those people who are important in our lives.

I have a problem with people calling being gay a "choice".  did I have a "choice" NOT to be gay?  Perhaps you have a choice as to whether or not you let someone know you're gay, but being what you are isn't a choice.   I agree with GMP- the problem with calling it a choice becomes that something that can be catched or even that there's a good choice or bad choice about the situation.

interesting read...

Dr. O
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Great post Gerty!!!

It is much harder to generically hate a group of people when you know individuals that belong to this group.

Growing up in a large red state myself, this was a huge deal for me when I headed off to [a liberal] university. Making friends with lots of people different than myself, with regards to sexual orientation, nationality, religion, etc, opened my eyes to how alike I was to people who had previously seemed so different. I really want my kids to grow up in this kind of "open" environment.

On the topic of personal questions during interviews, I'm starting to wonder how off limits they really should or need to be. I've worried about what people will think of me being pregnant/having kids - that it could be considered a negative in academia. Like GZ, though, I've decided that getting ruled out of a search early because of it is preferable to taking a torturous job because I kept it hidden. Additionally, I've heard many stories about some of these "personal" questions helping out when trying to relocate two careers.

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Thanks, Odyssey!

FCS: I see your point, and I mostly agree with it. I do think that these questions can end up being awkward to answer, even if the person asking is just trying to be friendly. If you never have to think twice about how to answer these questions, it is hard to understand why they might be inappropriate (good point, AGM). Though I have chosen to be open about my family, it is always a little exhuasting getting to know a new group of people and repeatedly having to "come out". Because really, I don't know how folks are going to react. On the other hand, when you are interviewing someone for a (tt academic) job, one thing that you are trying to get a feel for is how well you interact with this person. Both scientifically and personally, because if things work out you might be interacting with them for a long time. I think it is unrealistic over the course of two days (and meals) that you will only talk about science. Also, when you run a job search you REALLY want someone to take the job. So you want to be highlighting all the "perks" of your location and department as much as possible. I guess I don't really know what the right answer is.

GMP: I did not have a two-person issue, so spousal hiring was not an issue. My partner left academia and works in business now. Many of the folks offered to help her with connetions, but she actually had good leads from other people in her field.

Pradobh, I don't want to flame you in the comments since GMP and AGM have already brought it up. But you can't really think that being gay is a choice?! You may have not had bad intentions, but it is important to realize how devastating this language can be. This midset is part of what makes some people feel that they can be dismissive and hateful toward gays. And if you are not heterosexual (not just gay or lesbian, but transgender, bisexual, et al.) this attitude can breed self-hate, and lead to a person feeling like an utter failure. That is (part) of the reason that this mindset is a BIG part of the problem with the culture.

27 and a PhD
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Loving this! Congrats on your new job :-)

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Dr. O: I missed your comment earlier, because we were apparently writing at about the same time! I can ony hope that the cumulative effects of more "red-staters" (not all of whom live in red states, of course!) starting to personally know more diverse set of people will erode the hatred that is a result of just not knowing better. There will probably always be hateful, ignorant people (alas!) but I want to believe that we can outnumber them and make them irrelevant, for the most part.

I really do find the job interview thing hard.  I have caught myself asking these sorts of questions, only to back-track with a quick "you don't have to answer that!" And I consider myself fairly attuned to these sorts of things! And I do agree that there are some situations where earlier disclosure of these "personal" issued will actually help to be able to help with a 2-person relocation. The hard part is knowing when it will help and when it will hurt. There is no way to know when you are the one being interviewed.

28&PhD: thanks!

@CE: I forgot to mention this earlier, but I also wonder if academia is more socially liberal and, therefore, an easier place to be. I agree that it seems that many folks I work with are more left of center. But there are other situations that it seems this "leftness" doesn't seem to be so obvious. So I feel a little torn about whether it is easier or not. Also, I have no way of comparing. Interesting to think about, though!

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Excellent post GZ. Stephen Fry put it once, "It's not fear or disgust over sexual practices because many perfectly heterosexual people fantasize and take part in acts they decry publicly. No, what scares them, and what makes them hate is the thought of two people of the same gender genuinely being love."

Dr. Glitterbear
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I've been a wonderin' when you were gonna post about your experience with the homo issue. My experience has not been as "easy" as yours yet I have arrived at a similar academic position. At each of the three graduate institution I attended over the years, I have experienced discrimination and even harassment. I have had a big name scientist in my former field tell me that "people like me don't belong in science". This person even tried to interfere with my completion of a masters. And this was at a liberal West Coast State U. Lovely.

I switched fields for my post-doc and have had tremendous success without the blatant bigotry and discrimination. I  limited my search to the few states (10) that recognize same-sex relationships, which in this economic climate made the experience even more fraught with uncertainty. Yet, I am this <> close to signing a contract with a Tier 1 East Coast U. My future colleages were probably aware of my sexuality from the moment everyone first saw me. My customary interview attire included pink cashere, wide-toed blue leather shoes and body glitter. Hey, I am what I am and like you, I did not want to deal with homophobes at any TT position.

I did not actually mention my sexuality in any manner until the second day of my interview when I met an Associate Dean who was "family" and our collective gayday beeped. I am very excited about the position for many reason but one of the big pluses is that the East Coast U is making accommodations for Mr. Glitterbear as they would any hetero spouse. It is rather lovely that I have found a place with an institutional level of equality for LGBT.

Thanks for sharing.

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Dr. Glitterbear: I'm glad that you were able to get past the fuckwads that you had to deal with pre-postdoc. I am very happy that I was so lucky that my postdoc Inst was very "family" friendly. They even gave paid time off for domestic parters if you adopt a child! My tt MRU also has very good instututional equality (I heart my blue oasis!), and I can't think of any situation that the wife or little one were treated any differently than if one of us had a Y chromosome. Except, of course, for federal rules that require paying for domestic partner benefits after tax :-(

fingers crossed on your position with East Coast U! It sounds like a great place to get started. good luck!

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Great post Gerty


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Good post. I totally feel you on wondering if your experiences are "normal". I've talked to plenty of people in similar positions to me. A few have shared some real horror stories. I often wonder why that doesn't happen to me. Am I lucky? Is it where I am or something I'm doing to ward things off? Maybe I'm just naive enough to not nottice things. Feeling like I've had things very easy makes me a little hesitant to talk about my situation. But then again I agree that being visible is overall a good thing.

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