My Queer Impostor Syndrome by Andrea Welsh

I am bisexual. This means that I am attracted to my own gender and other genders. I also describe myself as queer. Lately, I have been learning more and considering using the term polyamorous as well. The last one is still pretty scary for me and I am still trying to navigate what that means for me and how I interact in my social and work spaces. However, even being bisexual comes with its own issues. There is an invisibility that comes with it. I grew up being told by my mother that “Bi people didn’t exist” and where “gay” was used in a negative way. If I tried to put out my feelers by saying someone I knew was bisexual, she would reply “They are just saying that for attention.” I hated attention, and felt that if this was true, then I couldn’t be myself. I needed to be invisible. This, obviously, had a heavy impact on my mental health. I didn’t date anyone for a while, so hiding my sexuality was an easy thing to do.

However, ignoring this part of my identity never felt quite right and led to lots of questioning and confusion and hiding. And isolation. It wasn’t until college when I met others who were queer that I felt remotely comfortable. Yet, I still didn’t know that many people who were bisexual. This made me feel like an outlier, even within a safe space to divulge, so instead of claiming my identity, I continued to ignore it and threw myself into supporting my friends.

Becoming More Visible

At college I slowly started increasing my visibility. I started posting pro-LGBTQ articles on my social media and then making my own posts during events like “Bi-visibility” day so who ever saw it, saw it, including some of my closest friends.  I never said I was Bi, but it was heavily implied. I started wearing things to mark myself for those “in the know” such as bracelets with pink, purple, and blue colors and pins on my backpack. But the average person may not know what that means or notice those colors. Many saw me as a fierce ally to the LGBTQIA community but not a member of it, which served as a safer space for me to occupy for a while.                                                                                                                                             There was a distinct turning point for me, when my graduate advisor submitted a statement for an award that I won which was read out in front of a big room where it said, “Andrea is an ally to LGBTQ people”. It stung and felt like a lie – I wasn’t an ally, I was a member of the LGBTQIA community. Despite having been involved with events through our campus LGBTQIA Resource Center, I had mainly kept my identity to myself and to semi-anonymous online communities. I never really had a “coming out” moment. In this moment, I felt like an impostor. That I wasn’t being true to myself. This was further fueled by the fact that I have only dated one person, whom I eventually married, and this person is a cisgender man. To the outside would, to the untrained eye, I was passing as a straight person, despite my sexual orientation. I finally decided that it was time to no longer be invisible.                          

After the award ceremony I approached my advisor, saying, “I’m not just an ally” which then prompted him to ask what I meant. In my frustration, I said if he went through the university’s Safe Space Training through the LGBTQIA resource center, he could probably figure it out. What I did not realize was that my comment stuck with him and when he eventually did go to the training, he came back asking me, “Okay, I went. So, what do you identify as?” Then he proceeded to go through the letters he remembered still somehow leaving out the “B”. To me, it was a tiring moment. Even with all the pieces laid out in front of him the connection was not being made. The support I wanted versus what I received was very different. We never discussed it again.

The LGBTQIA Landscape in Academia and Beyond

While same-sex marriage became legal in the United States in 2015, there are still many other issues that queer people face in society and the workplace.  There are also some people who feel like we have already achieved equality when there is still much work to be done. Only this month did the US Supreme Court decide that employers cannot fire someone over their LGBTQIA identity. However, that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen and that employers won’t find other excuses or legal reasons to fire a LGBTQIA person, such as “their work was slipping” or “they weren’t a team player.” And even if a person can prove definitely that their employer did fire them because of their LGBTQIA identity, the battle is often expensive and very stressful, so many people decide it is not worth it. Only this year, Georgia passed a hate crime bill that will enhance penalties for people acting on targeted behavior against a person based on their identity.

There are still no policies in place that protect us. But unfortunately, a lot of people won’t support policy change without acknowledging a problem. And many people won’t acknowledge that there is a problem without data.

In 2016, the American Physical Society, a national organization I am involved in, had an Ad-Hoc Committee of LGBT Issues which conducted and released results from a climate survey for LGBTQIA people in physics. It was exciting—mainly because we had no such results before, and we hoped that the survey results would ultimately help raise awareness of the common issues we face. But in other ways it was troubling just to see how bad the field is for LGBTQIA physicists. LGBT women experienced exclusionary behavior three times as much as LGBT men—and one of my own experiences was reported in the survey, which ultimately made me anxious to see. Other results included how transgender physicists were 5.5 more likely to describe their environment as exclusionary than cisgender physicists, with 40 percent saying that their coworkers were still not using proper pronouns and almost half saying that their health insurance didn’t cover trans-related needs. Over a third of LGBT physicists had considered leaving their workplace in the year leading up to the survey, which was highly correlated with an unsupportive workplace environment. While this survey did not touch specifically on mental health of LGBT physicists, other recent research on mental health in academia reveals concerning findings.  For example, Evans et al. found that 57% of transgender and gender non-conforming graduate students surveyed scored as having moderate to severe depression while 55% scored as having moderate to severe anxiety (compared to 41 and 43 respectively for women and 35 and 34 respectively for men). This is higher than the general public scores of 5.4% moderate to severe depression for women and 5.9% moderate to severe depression for men. 

One of the stories mentioned in the APS LGBT Climate in Physics survey was the usefulness of identifiers such as the Safe Space stickers in identifying those LGBTQIA people may be able to reach out to when in need of help or to discuss an issue relating to homophobia. However, I have personally seen that while people may be keen to be identified as allies, their behaviour doesn’t always align.

For example, on one occasion I was present during a presentation on nonlinear dynamics among several other students. The term “homoclinic orbit” came up along with a discussion of what that meant. In that moment people I’d held in high regard prior to this incident began snickering to each other muttering the words, “it’s a clinic for homos.” My stomach dropped as my thoughts rushed to terrible stories from peers about gay conversion therapy and their experiences. Normally, I try to speak up. But at this moment I just mentally left my body, not wanting to start an argument and derail the conversation more, or be told I am overreacting, or that it was “just a joke.” I later found out that the person that made this poor attempt at a “joke” has attended university Safe Space Training.  So even as someone who suggests these trainings and who is a facilitator of these trainings, I worry about how these little placards give false security to queer academics of who to trust. While it can help me determine some people to avoid—e.g., the professor who pointed to mine on my office door and called it “PC crap” to me—I worry that those taking this training do it and feel like they they’ve ticked that box and are now done with educating themselves, without room for further improvement or checking their own behaviour.

Odd One Out

On the flip side, I still worry about being in queer spaces. I started to attend LGBTQIA events on campus, but my spouse was also on campus. So, there was a chance of queer friends running into me and my spouse together and then it may be obvious I was “not queer enough.” In queer spaces, I felt, and even now sometimes still feel, somewhat awkward that he is a cisgender man and worry about the judgement I can face for appearing straight, despite that our relationship doesn’t changing my bisexuality. I remember running into someone I met at an LGBTQIA event while waiting in line with my spouse. The friend and I continued to talk for a long time, and I felt uncomfortable with my spouse there. I don’t think I even introduced them because I didn’t want my friend to know that I was with a man. This feeling of not belonging continued throughout grad school even when I was vice president of our Graduate Pride organization. After organizing a dinner and another bisexual woman brought her male-presenting partner, I felt guilt and shame for not even asking my own spouse if he wanted to attend.

I’d like to point out that I have not knowingly experienced any sort of prejudice or discrimination from the LGBTQIA community I know in academia as of yet. But I have had friends who identify under the asexual umbrella—meaning that they have a lack of sexual attraction to other people and there are multiple identities that fall under this category depending on the details—that felt excluded from campus LGBTQIA communities. I still see online LGBTQIA communities that made statements like people in “straight-passing” relationships or people who are asexual do not belong at events like Pride. There are statements that bisexual people are transphobic because “bi means two” even if that is not how the bisexual community choses to identify. I personally use “bisexual” because it was the label that I first related to and because I am attracted to people of any gender, including people who identify as transgender, at different degrees.  It is because of these voices and the experience of some of my friends that I worry about my existence in queer spaces and if I am just an impostor.  

I have appreciated organizations like oSTEM—Out in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics that bring both the science part of my identity and the queer part of my identity together, as well as providing a safe space for me to be visible. At their annual conferences, they have even had groups specifically for those identifying as bisexual which has made me feel like I belong. I feel like I can speak the same language as my peers: jokes about the bisexual haircut, or using the “Both is good” meme to comment on movies with attractive actors of two genders—references I may make in my office but would go over my officemate’s heads. With the polyamory indemnity, oSTEM was the first time I even saw that representation with a panel of scientists talking about how they navigate polyamory in their workspaces.

Questions that I have had to worry about recently and are still on my mind are: how “out” should I be when interviewing and on my new job?

In the past, in the positions that required diversity statements, I stated I was bisexual and discussed my LGBTQIA community involvement and some plans I would like to continue. However, I always worried, “Did I say too much?” While I had the opinion, “If they don’t want me for being queer, then I don’t want to be there” that sort of mantra became quieter and quieter when I was not getting many interviews. While originally I only applied to locations where I knew LGBTQIA people are safer with better policies and protections, I began to open up my search more. But then even if I had not stated my identity clearly in my applications anymore, I worry what my list of activities on my CV could imply.

As someone who wants to stay in academia and be a professor, I already know how few jobs there are in the field and that disparity is growing as proportion of people completing a doctorate has doubled while the number of jobs stay the same. I wonder if I can choose to be picky about where I end up. While I would prefer to avoid universities where a queer student in crisis, like Scout Shultz, was killed by campus police on campus or where anti-LGBTQIA groups are allowed to protest near my work with signs saying I am going to hell each year, I don’t know if I will be able to do this. If there is an attack on people in my community like the Pulse Shooting in 2016, will people check in on me and my peers, or will there be resonating silence like I have experienced? 

Creating a Safer Space

At the moment, there are still many issues surrounding my mental health and being queer in academia. Based on my experiences, I have listed below some recommendations for universities to create safe environments for the queer community to work in.  A few ways to do this are as follows: 

  • Procedures for infractions against the code of conduct need to be transparent, with who to talk to and information about what is in place to protect the identity of LGBTQIA people, ensuring they aren’t ‘outed’. Clear procedures also affect other marginalized groups, who are often afraid of bringing up concerns. This is especially the case when a complaint or concern involves identifying information (such as a racist remark against the only Black member or a sexist remark against the only woman of the group), further outlining the need for protection. 
  • Departments should plan networking and mentoring events specifically for LGBTQIA members, allowing the community to connect with others and feel less alone. 
  • Departments should incorporate diversity and inclusion into daily events such as colloquia on LGBTQIA climate studies and having spaces to discuss these sorts of topics. This includes adding scholarship and conference opportunities for LGBTQIA people along with other advertisements that are sent to all students and faculty.
  • The use of pronouns in emails and place for pronouns in the roster should be normalized. 
  • Departments should develop opportunities to support LGBTQIA students, staff and faculty, such as creating a scholarship for attending oSTEM which may be hard to attend without funding or without outing themselves to their peers or advisor.
  • Institutions can make sure policies such as health care access, name changes processes, housing choice, or accessible bathrooms are inclusive for LGBTQIA members. 
  • Departments should collaborate with the campus Diversity Center and LGBTQIA Resource Center for adaptations and programs that can be incorporated into daily campus life. Inclusion and equity for LGBTQIA people is a lot more than being not homophobic and not transphobic and together we can make spaces safer and less toxic to help maintain our mental health.

As policies change nationally, as people learn more, as I can start feeling more comfortable with myself in my work environment, I hope to see change. A lot more work needs to be done and institutions needs to take an active role, from the highest leadership in faculty positions down to the peers of queer students. Only then will we truly have a safe space.

Andrea Welsh

Dr. Andrea Welsh is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Mathematics where she is working on dynamics in neuroscience. She also has interests in active matter research and diversity and equity advocacy. In 2019, she received her Ph.D. in physics at Georgia Institute of Technology for her dissertation titled “Coming Together: Individuals at Different Length Scales Working for A Common Goal.” She has created and moderates a virtual support group called “Mental Health in Physics.” When not working, she and her spouse try to prevent their cats from knocking over the dice during Dungeons and Dragons.