As straight as a circle – my journey navigating STEM as a black queer male

by Craig Poku

In the last year, I have found myself saying yes to opportunities that push me outside my comfort zone. However, when I was invited to write this article, I initially planned to say no. I don’t feel the need to highlight the struggles of growing up black in Britain, especially when movements such as “Black Lives Matter” have recently done so. But when you combine being both black and queer, the struggle can be entangled with trying to figure yourself out in an intersection that both have competing ideas working against each other. This struggle led me being drawn to STEM, as at the time I saw it as an area that would judge you by your work and not your character. Progression in my career has shown me this assumption may not be as true as I initially thought. In this piece, I hope to address the conflicts I’ve had as a black queer scientist. Although I am talking about this topic from my viewpoint, I hope that this insight can help others who are facing similar experiences.

I grew up and lived in South London for most of my life, which made me never question my blackness from a young age. I was fortunate that both my parents taught me about my heritage. Combined with me attending a primary school that focused on celebrating being black, I felt quite secure about my identify for a kid. However, despite all this positivity surrounding my blackness, black people being anything but “straight” was an idea that never occurred to me. You may initially read the previous statement and think “sure that’s a silly thought to have?”. The thought becomes less silly when talking about LGBTQ+ topics, especially concerning black people, was a taboo subject. Getting a haircut as a kid, I remember conversations about how they saw being gay was a white person thing. The music that I listened to growing up would discuss the LGBTQ+ community as lesser than. Popular media in the late 1990s had very little representation of black queer people. In school, kids would make statements that they would physically hurt or even kill gay people. I could continue, but what all these memories had in common when thinking about it is that it’s no surprise where my initial thought on black LGBTQ+ people stemmed from.

I didn’t choose to come out until I went to university. In my mind, the environment was somewhere that I could freely express myself. Looking back to almost 10 years ago, I was restricted with this expression given that I was still living at home. Nonetheless, I felt this didn’t matter because the LGBTQ+ community would be welcoming to everyone. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the case as I discovered that a lot of LGBTQ+ spaces were very … white. Initially, I thought that this confirmed all the thoughts I had growing up. As time went on and I began exploring these spaces more, the racism I faced growing up was just as strong, if not stronger, from those who considered themselves both white and a minority. Comments I’ve personally received range from someone telling me that them not dating black people is just a preference, to others claiming black people’s homophobia stems from their lack of technology in certain parts of the world. After speaking to my friends who are queer people of colour (POC), these comments are not uncommon. It showed me that for some people in the LGBTQ+ community, they felt they could get away with saying ignorant comments just because they were gay.

So far, you may think that these incidences all occurred before my PhD. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although it’s slowly changing, the opinions in academia are dominated by the white middle-class male. Some of these opinions will come from those who identify as LGBTQ+, with a few going onto diversity roles within their departments. Sadly, these people in these roles don’t necessarily listen to the experiences of POC, queer or not. There will be little to no progress to encourage better POC representation in STEM subjects, due to internalised biases and in some cases, the racism they may not personally address. More than ever we require a more representative voice in STEM. Subject areas such as climate change have been shown that more personalised communication is required for localised action. This can only be tackled effectively when the first step of active listening is taken.

There should also be more support for queer scientists who want to work in research areas that may involve travelling to countries that could risk their safety. I have been hesitant in saying yes to travel opportunities where for a given country it’s illegal to be gay. However, the worry stems from how most departments may handle the safety of LGBTQ+ staff members, rather than persecutions in these countries that I cannot personally challenge. For example, only recently did Imperial College London stop its Oman field trip for their geosciences course. Yet several science departments in the UK state that they are inclusive of all staff but haven’t put in similar provisions.

My blackness will always be the first visible trait anyone will see of me, but my queerness is just as important in terms of my identity. Last year, I wrote a piece about my experiences of being the only black British PhD student in my department. Work has begun to address the issues discussed in the article, which hopefully will lead to a more representative voice. In a few years, this may lead to the first UK black queer professor. That said, providing the platform for queer POC scientists to share their experiences, therefore giving those with privilege opportunity to engage and learn, is the first step to let this become a reality.

4 thoughts on “As straight as a circle – my journey navigating STEM as a black queer male

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  1. Great article. As a gay Mathematician in NYC in the early 90s I can tell you it was horrible. I eventually had to abandon my carrier in mathematics and move into finance, so much of my work still unpublished… If I told you what I endured you would not believe me. Endless jokes behind my back; Russians making fun of gays in my face, and at another time being told in public that only women can be sexually involved with men… The same guy who told me that, put his tongue in my ear while drunk at a party… One day I said enough is enough. If something that crazy was happening in NYC there was little hope it would be different in other places.. And then there was the non stop discrimination in the job market… Other mathematicians in the department ganged up and tried to publish some of my work behind my back… Even after solving a problem that had been open for decades I could not land a job. So I was forced to leave my field, an area I loved, and find other ways of making a living.

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