Does my sexuality really matter to my research, in the grand scale of things? And how is academia supporting my human rights as a gay man?
On the 5th March 2014 I attended a University of Liverpool flagship event asking the question ‘Where are all the LGBT scientists?’ by Dave Smith who is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of York. This very question has fascinated me for years ever since I was an undergraduate student. I still want to know today as a PhD researcher where all the pioneering LGBT men and women in academia are. And whether this deficit in LGBT visibility generally affects my human rights?
I’ve been told many times by many people that it simply doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is in academia. As its 2014 we all have equal rights, right? In an ideal world they would be equal men and women in academic research positions, and equal ratio of gays to straight people also. But let’s face it that ideal world doesn’t exist regardless of academic institution. If you think about your own department after reading this blog for instance, how many LGB&T people have you met? Work with? Do you know any? I suspect not many, if any.
My argument to this is complex, controversial although incredibly sincere. Firstly let me tell you what I do here at Liverpool University. As part of my PhD I interview gay bereaved men about their life experiences with their partners before, during and after the death. It’s fair to say my research can be a tough emotional topic involving heartfelt discussions about HIV/AIDS, suicide and harsh societal, institutional and organisational prejudice that exists today.
The majority of my interviewees want to know whether I’m gay or straight. During my recruitment process I felt like walking into many an interview with a big pink flashing LED badge on stating the fact! But should whom I have in my bed be reflected on the quality of research data I receive? Would it make a difference if I was a straight man undertaking the same research? On the surface, I’m not effeminate or your stereotypical gay man. I’m rather shy until you get to know me, and rarely talk about ‘gay stuff’ unless around other gay men or women. If I’d gone in to each interview outrageously camp, or even unbelievably straight would I have got the same brilliant responses from these inspirational men?
My interview usually last around an hour and longest has been over 3 hours. During this time it’s my job to get him to tell me, his deepest most private thoughts and be comfortable doing it. Remember we didn’t know each other up until this point, and it was only I who knew we were both gay. Would it have been odd if a straight man turned up armed with a Dictaphone and was researching gay bereavement? Or does it really matter in the grand scale of things? How open would he have spoken to me if I’d been instead married with 3 kids living with ‘the wife’ in a smart double glazed bungalow in Cheshire?
In trying to find an answer to this I want to introduce you to someone. In research you are not supposed to have favourites – but he was one of mine. ‘Michael’ had lost his partner to AIDS and he himself was struggling with the virus from a medication perspective. I realised I was having trouble in him opening up to me but I couldn’t understand why? It must have taken me a good 30 minutes for him to talk freely only after I mentioned my previous same sex relationships. He told me at the end of the interview he thought I was straight, and he had ‘enough problems from the straight world already’. Michael was my turning point. He made me think about the harsh realities and indeed the practicalities of combining academic research with something as individual as our sexualities. It’s not all so black and white you know.
It’s not unfair to say LGBT research generally needs more attention. We appear to have highs and lows of research entering the LGBT arena, depending on whom are brave enough to step outside the box. But with so few gay men or women knowing where to find that box in the first place, usually in the face of fierce adversity, this is a cause for concern. We know little about the experiences of older or younger bereaved gay men or women – it’s just hasn’t been a priority in research – gay men and women appear invisible almost everywhere.
How does the lack of gay and lesbian representatives in some academic institutions reflect an outside world that in the majority is positively changing? This question worries me a lot. Returning to the talk that Professor Dave undertook he spoke about how the majority of lead LGBT scientists were in fact today dead, and that few gay men or lesbian women were entering science as a discipline generally.
All my friends are gay, and are all creative types (without fulfilling the stereotype here!) so Counsellors, Teachers, Designers and I put Professor Dave’s question to them all – ‘Where are all the LGB&T scientists?’ The response I got was mixed from the ludicrous such as ‘All too busy to be seen probably inventing something fabulous together’ to the most honest ‘maybe academia just isn’t set up for them at the moment?’ The truth is nobody knows where these inspirational men and women are, who have rich life experiences, and could contribute so much to research.
Why aren’t Universities and research councils responding to this worrying deficit? More should be doing rather than just hoping the odd gay man or woman may possibly come along at the right time in the future. I’m not talking about pinpointing out prospective applications with a toothcomb depending on sexual preference. I think we need to expand on what is currently offered in academia. We need to inspire creative LGBT minds to come forward, stay with us and be able to support them knowledgably and effectively.
So when all has been said and done as a gay man I feel this does affect my human rights to learn with other LGB&T academics in my own specific area. But I knew this was a straight world when I signed up for it. But that is still no excuse. The battle for recognition for LGBT equality in research and indeed academia will certainly go on.
Steven Piatczanyn is a 2nd year PhD student here at the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society. Steven is researching the effects of gay partner bereavement. He is being supervised by Dr Kate Bennett. Steven is currently working with several HIV charities and palliative care organisations to improve the support for gay bereaved men in Britain today. firstname.lastname@example.org
A contribution Steven Piatczanyn, UoL, for PsychLiverpool.