Nuclear Engineers Need to Talk About LGBT+ Issues

An LGBT+ Perspective

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As an LGBT+ student, I find myself apprehensive about the academic atmosphere as well as the workplace. I’m not worried about success or fitting in, for the most part; I feel conflicted with my own identity and how to embrace it while at school or in the workplace. I feel as if I’m forced to choose in every new situation: do I hide it or put it on display? I’m not ashamed of my identity but sometimes I feel out of place and alone, especially in my classes which never address the social aspects of nuclear energy or industry in general. That loneliness is exacerbated by the fact that I have no idea where my peers stand on LGBT+ issues in addition to acceptance. It’s an easy topic to avoid because they’d rather not discuss it – what a frightening attitude to have when faced with LGBT+ and other social issues.

I had the realization that before I met Sam Brinton – one of the founders of Nuclear Pride – that I knew one explicitly LGBT+ engineering student. A student who doesn’t even attend my university. I had an LGBT+ community outside of my engineering pursuits but I had no support in my own classes, no context. The number of times I’ve argued with a peer about why it’s offensive and harmful to say “that’s gay” and faced complete indifference to the LGBT+ community is discouragingly high. Using “gay” as a synonym for “stupid” is harmful to the LGBT+ community because it minimizes the issues we face by turning us and our issues into a joke. My sexuality isn’t a punchline and when it’s used as such, it contributes to the erasure of LGBT+ issues.

Sometimes, I find it easier to fly under the gaydar. Not coming out can be safer in a world with so much visible hate against the LGBT+ community, however, it shouldn’t pervade my entire academic and professional life. I now know enough LGBT+ engineering students and engineers to count on two hands – a vast improvement. This has helped me see where I can play a role in nuclear engineering without abandoning my pride. Before, I could never visualize how I would present in further academic settings or the workplace and I was scared to address that.

Representation is critical to how everyone sees themselves and how their path is shaped. It enables you to learn about identities other than the dominant identity (white straight male) and to embrace your own identity. Seeing other LGBT+ people has taught me about the multitude of nuanced identities in the community and enabled me to learn about pansexuality, which I found best to describe my identity. It also facilitates learning by example: seeing LGBT+ individuals owning their identities in the workplace has been a powerful example to me. Having a community of peers is valuable, but seeing LGBT+ professionals has a huge impact on how your path is guided. Some employers are not accepting of LGBT+ employees and hiding might be safest choice; this can even lead to the fear that it’s completely unsafe to be out in a certain field and could affect career trajectory. This is a huge factor in why LGBT+ identifying people continue to earn less than our straight counterparts – our careers don’t advance because we don’t feel safe enough to take those risks that take you new and exciting places [1]. Sticking out can be detrimental even if it’s good for our careers.

As a field dominated by straight white men for much of its existence, the field of nuclear science and engineering has perpetuated this fear for me. Joining the American Nuclear Society provided me the opportunity to meet other LGBT+ students through the grapevine of allies. I count myself as lucky to have joined ANS when Nuclear Pride already existed which created a context to build my own community of LGBT+ engineers. ANS facilitated that spread of awareness for me and that is a great service. Professional communities should explicitly support minority communities by creating frameworks to uphold and spread that support. Nuclear Pride was not only a signal that it was safe me to come out to my colleagues but also a sign I could embrace my identity in my engineering community.

There are some who say that this business does not belong in a professional setting, however, it’s commonplace to ask about everyone’s significant others when it’s male-female couplings. That isn’t to say all of those couples are straight; if I were in a relationship with a man, it would not make me any less pansexual. I still hesitate to answer questions about relationships when in a professional setting and that isn’t due to any reluctance to share a private or intimate relationship – I am hesitant because I don’t know what the reaction will be. ANS embracing Nuclear Pride exemplifies an administrative decision to explicitly support a minority group within a larger context. With this support, I can feel safe about claiming my identity.

With the discussion of LGBT+ issues, it’s likely that more people will be enabled to better understand members of the LGBT+ community. It also provides opportunities for people to claim their identities in a safe space, as well as opportunities for self-actualization for those who are questioning. When you know that you have the support of your community, it is easier to find your place in the world. When you’re fighting for every shred of respect in life, you can’t afford to be vulnerable by coming out or even questioning your identity. By creating more safe spaces in ANS with Nuclear Pride and connecting everyone with more resources, we are providing more opportunities for folks to self-actualize and embrace their own identities.

[1] National LGBTQ TaskForce. Equal Pay is an LGBT Issue. Web. September 20, 2015 http://www.thetaskforce.org/equal-pay-is-an-lgbt-issue.

About the Author:

Suzanna Hinkle is an Undergraduate Student in Nuclear Engineering at The University of Pittsburgh

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