Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Why your society should have an LBGT+ science event

I don't normally blog in direct response to twitter, but this thread from the wonderful Alex Bond invites a response from personal experience.
Please read this thread to learn what not to do when approached by LBGT+ scientists asking for greater representation in the societies they are members of. Specifically, I want to address this point with a personal story to illustrate how wrong headed an attitude this is. As I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I had only recently come out when I started graduate school. From the beginning, navigating outness in my career and navigating the world of science were intertwined. When I came to Johns Hopkins, the LBGT association at the school of medicine was more or less moribund (a good friend of mine who came along a few years later has since kickstarted it and then some). And my department, while I had an out colleague, did not really discuss these things. For my first year in graduate school, I was out to my fellow graduate students, and that was it.
So, when in the fall of my second year I went to my first meeting of my society, I associated being professional in science with being in the closet. But I was uncomfortable with this. Such feelings put a distance between you and fellow attendees, particularly at a conference where out of hours socialising is important (and enjoyable). Being professionally closeted involves eliding a lot of questions.
On the second night of the conference, I noticed a little sign on the noticeboard: "LBGT members dinner will be tomorrow evening at this location, at this time". And suddenly I knew I was not alone. I knew there were others like me in this place, in this society, and that they were welcome.
Ironically, I didn't go to the LBGT dinner that year. I wasn't ready for it. Wasn't ready to be identified as a gay scientist. But even without going, it mattered. And when I went pack two years later, I definitely went, and have gone every year since. Each time, a new grad student, or indeed someone more senior, turns up slightly sheepishly, and they are welcome, and they are made a little more comfortable.
But even then, the LBGT dinner (which has been running for years) has always been held at a distance. It was the initiative of one or two people, who have organised it for over a decade, and maintain the mailing list. Getting it listed on the website as an official society event has been a struggle. And every so often you hear someone grumble when they notice the sign "why do they need one?". Which is really the answer to that question.
There is, among a certain generation of scientists, a belief that things were better when we didn't discuss these things. And they'll often say: "well everyone knew X was gay, he (it is invariably a he) just didn't make a fuss about it". If you believe this, I urge to ask X how they felt. You will probably hear a different story, of getting invited to considerably fewer social events, and never with a partner. Of being passed up for promotions and committees, of advisors suddenly becoming frosty and distant. Not talking about it was not about decorum, it was about protection, and being resigned to lesser treatment.
Every time an LBGT person enters a new space, they look for clues as to how out they can be. The older and more establishment a crowd (so most scientific conferences), the more they will assume they have to be reserved. This is difficult, isolating, and honestly just damned unpleasant. And all it takes to start to make it better is a sign on a noticeboard. Is that really so much?*

*No, it isn't and you should do more, but start with that.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Let's talk about my science

Let's talk about our lab's science. We're wrapping up experiments for the summer. Long, tiring experiments that have gone pretty well I think. I'm just finishing up the last part of the data collection which may form the preliminary data for a grant proposal.
(Good thing I have that spousal green card. Shit that's up for renewal this year. Didn't the DOJ just come out with a thing about federal protection for LBGT persons? I need to check up on that. Better get that re application started)
... Sorry got side tracked. As I was saying preliminary data for a grant
(Wait, what are NIH paylines now? And isn't the federal budget going to be slashed?)
... Which is good because scientifically I'm feeling ready to spread my wings as I've mentioned before. I have a couple of papers in review, two more about to be submitted and will probably get at least one more out to review by fall. One of the ones in review is entirely my side project, and the one I aim to submit is my own devising even if it's out of my PIs project. So I'm ready to start looking for paths out of the postdoc.
(In the context of a university sector in financial crisis and a flooded job market).
Of course, it's a bit tricky because the husband got into a pre med masters program locally
(So that's six years of education. What is tuition these days? How much do residents make? I wonder what medicine as a profession will look like in six years).
So I need to stay local for a bit longer
(All the local universities are in crisis because of a massively reduced state subsidy, a new funding formula, tuition caps, and debts accrued from unsustainable growth policies).
But I would like to remain professionally competitive enough to have the possibility of being back home in the UK with my family one day.
(I wonder where the UK will be in six years? OH GOD NO DO NOT THINK ABOUT THAT)
But yeah, I would really like to talk about my science.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Reflections on outness 2: a game of you

When I wrote the first Pride month post, I had vaguely planned on writing a series of them. But life got in the way and to be honest, I couldn't really come up with anything around which to crystallize another post. Then yesterday the following picture popped up on facebook:
It is the cross-stitch sampler my aunt made as a wedding gift for my husband and mine's wedding. And, with my aunt's recent passing, and Pride month, I was once again struck by its singular power as a cultural artefact.
For that cross-stitch sampler is undeniably, unequivocally from one place: Alsace, the region of France my mother comes from. The motifs, the use of red thread on white cloth, the costumes worn by the two figures are found on hundreds of such similar wedding gifts made throughout Alsace over the centuries. My brother and sister each have one. My aunt herself had one. And she would have learnt how to do this from her mother and aunts, who would have learnt it from their mother and aunts.
My aunt always claimed she had no creativity: she just researched and reproduced Alsatian motifs from books and museum exhibits. And yet in this, she must have created. For as much as this object is undeniably, clearly Alsatian, yet in another I am almost certain there are no two like it. In the simple, radical gesture of putting two male figures in the center, my aunt changed the pattern. In doing so, she did two things: reaffirmed my identity as an Alsatian man, and expanded the iconography, and indeed to some entire scope of Alsatian identity. She argued, through this, that traditions could be expanded, that identities were compatible.
A similar thing happened at the London wedding we held a few months after our wedding in West Virginia for those friends and family who couldn't make it to America. That wedding was held in my old church. The church my siblings and I were all confirmed in. The church on whose council my mother sits. It is an old church, with a complex history: founded by French protestants (Huguenots) fleeing persecution under Louis the XIVth four hundred and fifty years ago, it has survived in London's Soho, serving a complex community of recent French expats, and old Huguenots families tied together primarily by a shared history. It is not exactly the most active, or radical of churches.
After a debate, the church agreed to celebrate our marriage. It was a full wedding ceremony. And, suddenly, our gay marriage was also, well, the marriage in my family's church, with all the trappings and politics that entails. As I joked, I am the only one my mother's three children to have had a good French protestant wedding. And it was true. Even as it was also an expansion of what a good French protestant wedding can be.
There is a lot of discussion at every Pride about identity, and assimilation, and passing. Much of it is important, and sad. And some of it reflects false dichotomies. There is no a priori reason that traditional identities of culture, religion, and family cannot be expanded to include new identities of gender, and sexuality. Yet that requires a transformation, an expansion of the old culture. And that comes through the willingness of individuals to expand their definitions, to invent new iconographies and languages and symbols, to say "You are gay, and you belong, and you are welcome".
Identities are complex things. We all have many, and they exist in tension. But, as I have known since someone first asked me "which are you more, French or English?" those tensions derive primarily from the boundary policing of identity by others. My aunt's cross stitch sampler is a reminder we always have the power to go another way: not to police the borders of identity and community, but to open them with gifts of welcome.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Reflections on outness 1: ten years

As I sit down to write a post on this pride month, the realisation suddenly strikes me: I've been out for ten years. The coincidence seems too unlikely, too easy, so I reach for my diary. Volume III. Tuesday March 26 2007. The day I told her.

I told my mother first. It is not a path I recommend if it can be avoided. But coming out narratives are personal, and shaped by factor beyond the sexuality of the individuals involved. My own family history had made secrets a dangerous, toxic, poisonous thing. If I wanted to be able to rebuild from this, I could not keep this a secret from her. Not once I'd decided to act on it. And meeting a boy will suddenly make the insurmountable seem inevitable.

It was not an easy conversation... and it did not end for many many years. It was mostly, other than on a few fateful occasions, had in things unsaid. Silences on the phone. Requests made in passing. Awkwardly formal lunches. It was not, by any outside standards, a difficult coming out. But it required finding a language to speak about things we had never spoken about. And it coincided, I think, with an emancipation of mine. I could not put my life on hold forever, on so many fronts. Eventually, sooner perhaps than either of us expected, she caught up with me. And, as is her wont, has more than kept pace. She has broken down doors for me and my husband now. How little I thought, in that awkward, tense, angry conversation ten years ago, when so much was not said, that might be the case.

It is a difficult balance, working with people who you love who are coming to terms with something they have never really bothered to think about. You come, the son, the brother, the friend, that they think they know so well, and you tell them that you are not what they have assumed. And yet, on the other hand, you remind them, over and over and over, that you are who they know. To comfort them yes, but also because it is true. I was the classic good gay boy: I built a defence from my goodness. My good grades, my kindness, the fact I didn't get in trouble. But those things pre dated my emergent sexual anxiety. They were there to be used as weapons and defences and bargaining chips once the revelation of my differentness came, but those were exapted functions.

To me, coming out was not a clean break with my previous self. Psychologically, it was a long and complex process, rooted in a complex relationship with men, women, and masculinity. You cannot be raised with two very different concepts of masculinity and femininity (the French and the British) and not interrogate those concepts and what they mean, how they function, how they affect you as a person. And my father's abandonment of us in my early teens did not simplify matters. And so to this day, that brief version of me who existed from 2001 to 2006, who called himself "straight, but took a while to get there", I consider authentic and valid. He was doing the best he could with a psychology that was complex, in an environment that demanded simplicity. An environment that reduced attraction to sex.

A few months after I came out, I moved to America. To this day I do not know if the two events are linked. Was my burgeoning awareness of my differentness a hidden motive behind my resolve to leave? Did the realisation I was leaving precipitate an awakening, a coming to terms? All I know is that I have never felt so lost and rootless as a person as I did my first year in America, despite the intellectual satisfaction of grad school. I remember writing that I felt like a mist, less and less certain of what I was or who I was. In the end, I rooted myself again not through a new found identity, but through a project of going through all my papers and scraps of life since high school and scrapbooking my own life. Rebuilding the continuity I felt I had broken by being different, and by leaving.

I am fortunate now. That break is barely visible. All the friends and family I knew before I came out are fully woven into the new life, mingling with the new ones. My out self, my closeted self, my not gay self, almost seamlessly woven together again. If there is perhaps a slight unevenness in the tapestry, where things had to be woven together after the fact to hide a tear, well, no one notices.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A mes compatriotes alsaciens qui votent FN

Je connais une petite fille qui, à cinq ans, a été obligé par sa maitresse de classe maternelles à se tenir dans la cour d'école devant tout le monde. Cette même maîtresse lui a ensuite dis, à elle et ses camarades comme elle, qu'ils étaient responsables d'un massacre commis quelques années auparavant.*
Je connais une petite fille à laquelle on a interdit de parler la langue de sa grand mère et de ses parents avec ses camarades dans la cour d'école. Elle s'en est tiré, mais beaucoup des enfants de sa génération n'en ont jamais pu parler à leurs grands-parents, faute de maîtrise de cette langue.
Je connais une jeune fille qui a appris à effacer le gros accent de son pays, car il lui faisait tord dans sa carrière.
Je connais une jeune femme qui, lorsqu'elle appelait le rectorat à Paris, entendait toujours​ malmener son nom. Jamais d'excuse par ailleurs, car "ce n'était pas français, un nom comme ça".
Je connais une femme qui a été soupçonnée toute sa vie, et toute sa carrière au service de l'état, de ne pas être assez française. À cause d'où elle venait, mais surtout, parce qu'elle refusait de ne pas en venir.
Cette fillette, cette fille, cette femme, c'est mère, née dans le bas Rhin en 1944. Ma mère, qui parle le dialecte, dont le nom de jeune fille est inévitablement germanique, qui aime la musique allemande autant que la littérature française.
L'histoire de ma mère, c'est l'histoire de tout Alsaciens né entre 1918 et 1950. C'est l'histoire de tout une génération qu'on a soupçonné à cause de leur accent, de leur nom, de leur dialecte, de leur religion (trop protestant, trop fier du régime concordataire) de ne pas être assez français. Ça vous dit quelque chose?
Les gens, comme Marine Le Pen et son parti, qui prétendent pouvoir définir ce que sont la France et les Français, ne serons jamais les amis de l'Alsace, avec son gros accent, sa cuisine bizarre, ses noms imprononçable comme Breuschwickersheim ou Hammerschwir. Et j'ose suggéré même que les Alsaciens devraient être solidaire avec tous les Français ou pas encore français que l'on réprouve parce qu'ils​ ne ressemblent pas assez à ceux représentés dans une histoire de France de 1950. Les Français d'origine turques, les Français d'origine algérienne, les Français d'origine malienne, ainsi que les Français gay, lesbiennes, et transgenres, luttent pour ce pour quoi ma mère a luttée, et ce pour quoi moi, franco-alsaco-britannique homosexuel je lutte aussi: le droit d'être reconnu Français à part entière sans abandonner qui je suis, le droit d'être français et de parler "wie der Schnawwel-ne gewochsn isch".
Je pourrais rappeler d'autre faits: qu'un tiers des Alsaciens travaillent outre Rhin. Ou que le petit village où ont habité mon arrière grand mère, ma grand mère et ma tante fut entièrement rasé en 1918 lors de la bataille du col de la Schlucht, et que la génération de mes grands parents se sont toujours attendu à ce que cela se répète. Si ça n'a pas eu lieu, si l'Alsace a cessé être terre de convoitise identitaire, si, enfin, le monde lui a foutu la paix, c'est à cause de l'Europe, que rejette maintenant Marine Le Pen.
La définition étroite de ce que c'est qu'être français a toujours fait tord à l'Alsace, et à la France. Défiez là en renonçant au front national, et en embrassant l'ouverture et l'espoir de quelques chose de nouveau.

*Le massacre, c'est Oradour sur Glane.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Independence and maturity

I didn't get the job.

It wasn't quite the Dream Job, but it had many attributes of it. I thought I did well in the interview. In fact, based on feedback, I'm pretty sure I did do well in the interview. But someone else did better, or had funding, or was a better fit. I'm a postdoc for another year.

I was disappointed not to get the job, but not crushed. Even getting a drink to drown my sorrows felt perfunctory, unnecessary. I was OK. And I realised, that, more and more, when it comes to my career, that equanimity about where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going has come to dominate.

When I finished my PhD, then spent a year unemployed, and then started my postdoc, I was all Sturm und Drang about my career. I oscillated between being terrified I'd never make it, angry I hadn't published more, frustrated at people's failure to recognise my amazing capabilities, irritated at advice that seemed cruel, glib and out of touch. And while I still think there are problems for graduate students and postdocs, that internalization of the problems is gone. The clear, tangible work I have done over the past three and a half years in the wonderful lab I've had the good fortune to do my postdoc in has eliminated much of the bad feelings from the end of my PhD. What has replaced them is a certain degree of confidence I didn't have before, one that is rooted in a certain equanimity about my career and my future. I'm good at what I do, and I've had a blast doing it. I hope I'll get to do it for longer, but if I don't... Well it was a good innings.

Associated with this disappearance of the violent emotions with which I started this postdoc has been a quiet maturation of other skills. We recently had a change of staff in the lab which means I am now the second most senior person here. And, somewhat to my surprise, I found I've stepped up to the plate of managing people with more confidence and willingness then I thought I would. I don't have to remind myself to check in with the new trainees and discuss plans for data collection, I'm just ... doing it.

With my PI, we've reached a stage that is intellectually exciting. She's no longer primarily in the business of training me, we're now collaborators, bouncing ideas off each other about new analyses and projects. The projects are in some ways more collaborative, and yet in others I am more independent then ever: if we decide a certain paper is mine, then she trusts me to carry the project. I'm currently in charge of helping our graduate student write his first paper for publication. It's been a great learning experience, in part because I've discovered how much I now know about the arcana of publication and manuscript preparation.Of course, the independence isn't there in my own grants yet (but maybe, NIH gods permitting, by years end?), but I can feel a shift in how I approach my work, and in how other people in the lab and the university respond to me.  The trick here, one that she and I both acknowledge, is to recognize this dangerously fun dynamic is a sign I should plan to leave, not that I should stay.

Perhaps the word that best describes my mindset about what I do and why I do it now is maturity (yes, you can laugh. I'm 33, i have a lot more maturing to do I'm sure). Part of that is also the recognition that unlike my 20s, I cannot make my career the entire center of my being quite like I did in graduate school (even as I take on more responsibility). I have a husband who is making his own major career decisions. I have a mother who will not be young forever. I will not be young forever.

There will always be choices, there will always be jobs I do not get. But wherever I go from here, there are almost no regrets to be had about what I've done on the way here, either professionally, or personally. And that knowledge is I think the source of my current mindset. And it is a good place to be.

And with that, I am signing off for two weeks. My husband and I are taking our long delayed honeymoon to Spain. Some things should not be put off forever.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Hosting the Moirai

A few weeks ago, my aunt died. She was my mother's elder sister and, owing to my family's complicated history, one of the few members of the extended family to which we were all genuinely close. Like my mother, she was a proud, force of nature of a women. Based, in part, on the fact that like my mother, she was more or less on her own from a young age.
My mother's mother was born in 1900. She died six months after my birth. My mother was the youngest of all her cousins (on her father's side, she had six aunts and uncles, so there were many cousins). And I, born 83 years after my grandmother, am the youngest of her grandchildren. My eldest cousin is more than 20 years older than me. My mother's cousins (those she was still close with) were grandparent aged to me. I saw them once a year, and though our relationship was pleasant, it was never close. They were part of the holidays. And besides, when they got together with their youngest cousin, they talked of family mostly long dead, and memories long past. I learnt a lot from them about how the world had changed, and about my history, but mostly through listening to the stories they told each other.
My aunt was different. She never missed a birthday or Christmas to call us. None of us would consider going to Paris without visiting her. My mother and she did not have the easiest relationship, but they have never waivered in the affection they have shown each other's children. Perhaps sometimes, that was easier than speaking directly.
I miss my aunt dearly. And beyond her, with her passing I have lost the closest thing I ever had to a physical home in France, her holiday house in the Alsatian Vosges mountains, to which my mother always had a key. Now that I will no longer take the train to her little Paris suburb for dinner or lunch when I visit that city, it will become a little less friendly to me. I am thankful my husband got to meet her twice. I am thankful she adored him (despite the language barrier). I am thankful for the beautiful cross stitch sample she made for us, despite cancer and chemo and caring for her husband as dementia and ill health weakened him. She survived him by less than six months.

But as hard as loosing my aunt is for me, for my mother the sense of loneliness is vast. In the past years so many of her old friends have become weak and frail, have started one by one to take their leave of us. When they started weakening, my mother, who has the energy and physical fitness of a woman twenty years younger then she is, was irritated at them for not going on walks with her anymore, for no longer staying up until 2am to talk. Now she understands; she is resigned; and talks with her old friends, though more important, no longer bring levity and joy to her. She returns from trips to France drained, and needs time with her younger friends, her children and grandchildren to regain her energy.
With the loss of my aunt, only one person, a friend from Kindergarten, is left who remembers my mother's childhood. And the first five years (which for my mother were defining to her life story) are now remembered only by her. She has entered a period where, increasingly, more and more of her life can be confirmed by no one. And, as my brother points out, there is now almost no one left with whom she can speak the dialect her own grandmother (born in 1870) taught her. Strands are being cut, and my mother feels it.
Of late, she has begun to speak more of her own passing. Not in a morbid way, but in a pragmatic way. She is counting down. She knows she can no longer count on an endless bounty of more time. She senses both the urgency of doing what can still be done, and the knowledge that less is possible. In part, this is because of what is happening around her. In part, and I know my mother enough to know this, it is because of what she has read. She is preparing herself, training herself for a new phase of life. I know this because the same thought that is animating her has returned to me: the French philosopher Montaigne's famous aphorism:
"que philosopher, c'est apprendre a mourir"
"Doing philosophy, is learning to die"
To which I would add, it is also learning that others die.
With my aunt's passing, and my mother's words and stories, a new presence enters my life: the Moirai, the three sisters of Greek mythology. In the past, they have visited suddenly, and departed. But now I see they are here to stay. They are in my house, and it does not do to deny the Gods. Clotho is spinning thread more slowly, and Lachesis casts a more judicious eye on how much she draws out. And Atropos, having just used her scissors, has put them down. But they hang from her belt, always within hand's reach.

The Moirai are here, and their presence is a warning, but also a gift, in the manner of Greek gods. They are here to tell me I can no longer ignore them, and I must act accordingly in what I do.