Travel risk assessments should account for the prejudice faced by Queer scientists
By Connor Butler, he/him/his
Note: In this article the word ‘Queer’ is being used as an umbrella term for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
When organising a work trip or a holiday abroad, there is a long list of things to consider. Flights, visas, vaccinations, accommodation, car rental – but most of us don’t give much thought to whether we can freely be ourselves. This played on my mind as I walked into a busy café in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I had travelled overseas for a statistics workshop and on the first day, I went out for lunch to meet the other 15 participants. We were sat in a busy café getting to know each other, when someone turns to me and asks, ‘do you have a girlfriend?’. I freeze. For many people, this is a trivial question. But I am gay and I’m in a country where homosexuality is illegal and where cultural views can be hostile towards the Queer community. If you were in my situation, in a crowd of strangers you’ve just met, how would you respond?
The culture of Queer people ‘coming out’ is always described as if it’s a singular event. But in reality, we are in a life-long continuum of coming out. With every new interaction we have with someone, we have opportunities to convey our gender and sexuality. But the prejudice that Queer people face means we often have to navigate conversations carefully to avoid divulging our sexualities, relationships or gender identities – and that can be stressful.
It often surprises people to learn that there are still over 70 countries that criminalise same-sex behaviour, with 11 that still offer the death penalty as a possible punishment. And let’s not forget that harassment and hate crime is still frequent in the UK. Even the simple act of going to the bathroom may be dangerous, or even illegal, for people who are nonbinary or transgender. So if we are sending LGBTQ+ staff or students to countries that persecute Queer people, that should be in the travel risk assessment. In fact, by making this a mandatory box on all travel risk assessments, it may make it easier to facilitate a conversation between Queer students or staff and their supervisors. This also ensures that anyone who chooses not to divulge their gender or sexuality to their supervisors is covered under the risk assessment.
So, when I was writing my own risk assessment to travel for that workshop, to a country where homosexuality is illegal, did I include those risks? I’m ashamed to say that I did not. There is a working culture to ‘suck it up for the science’. And this doesn’t just apply to the Queer community, but to all types of workplace inequality. Individuals who might face discrimination are expected to simply deal with it – and that culture needs to change.
I’m not saying that Queer scientists shouldn’t have the opportunity to travel to countries that criminalise them, because working in another country is a fantastic experience and there are Queer scientists in those countries who we should support. But it’s important for the scientific community to be aware that these challenges exist and to help Queer colleagues in navigating these barriers. So, if you require your students or staff to work in a country that criminalises Queer people, consider if you are deterring brilliant Queer scientists from wanting to work with you. And give thought to how you could support those Queer students or staff travelling overseas.
So back to that question in the café: ‘Do I have a girlfriend?’ Queer people are regularly confronted with such questions where we have to decide whether or not to come out to someone. In a matter of microseconds, we have to perform a mental risk assessment, calculating and weighing up questions such as: What will their reaction be? Will this have professional consequences? Am I reliant on this person for transport or accommodation? What will I do if they react badly?
All this just to decide whether to answer ‘no’ – technically true – or ‘no, but…’. It’s often easier to just say ‘no’. But the end result is that it can be much harder to develop relationships with others because we cannot be our authentic selves.
I can happily say that even when working in countries that criminalise Queer people, I’ve had nothing but support and friendliness from the scientists I’ve met and the friends I’ve made. Even so, I am always cautious of what I say and how I act. I do science because I love it, but many young Queer people do not get a chance to develop this love because of a lack of support and representation. To solve our planet’s problems we need diverse solutions from diverse people. We all have a part to play in making science more accessible, because no one should have to suck it up for the science.
This article was produced for