“It isn’t about coming out once,” Sophia Roosth told a packed Dudley House Common Room. “It’s about coming out in different moments and different contexts.”

Roosth, the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of the History of Science was speaking to the graduate students and staff who attended “Out in Academia: Navigating the job market, grad school, and early career as an LGBTQ academic,” a panel discussion organized by a GSAS student during September.

Co-sponsored by the GSAS Office of Student Affairs, the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the Office of Career Services, the event included faculty members from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Panelists gave nuanced and personal advice on how graduate students can navigate being out in a professional context.

Cassandra Extavour, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and cellular biology, discussed the challenges she faced in the academic world not only as a queer woman, but also as a black woman. “It’s hard enough for people to remember I am a scientist,” she said, referring to instances where she was assumed to be “delivering coffee” and not presenting at a conference. Extavour’s focus on the way race intersects with queer identities was a refreshing moment of visibility for those who are in the minority in academia and are too often on the outside of these conversations.

During the Q&A session, a student asked how to handle being forced to remain in the closet for the purposes of their research, an issue the panel agreed was more common than expected, given the advancements LGBTQ groups have made in recent years. “Any compartmentalization involves a huge amount of stress,” Extavour said. “Ask yourself: ‘How do I survive this?” FAS Assistant Dean for Faculty Affairs Sindhu Revuluri agreed, and spoke about the importance of finding “a strong community of allies,” who can help alleviate the pressure of having to hide parts of yourself. Revuluri urged students to consider what it means to be publicly out versus quietly out and shared how she became more comfortable being out as laws and protections around the country changed.

“Being out is an asset, a thing you can do for your students,” Steph Burt, a professor in English said, touching on the importance of representation. Roosth added that the act of being in front of a room and being queer sends an important message to students. Yet all the panelists agreed that the risks of providing that representation are not always worth it, and they urged graduate students to think first about their own wellbeing.

The frank discussion went on longer than expected, an indicator that graduate students are eager to see this kind of programming featured at GSAS, something that Director of Student Services Jackie Yun supports. “I believe that it is our responsibility in GSAS to create spaces for student engagement and learning,” she says. “This event was born out of a number of conversations with students, they asked us to support them by building programs that help them meet others…and create a sense of community and belonging.” The graduate student who organized the event agrees. “This sends a clear signal that the administration cares about the needs of the community and is willing to support it.”

The breadth of the GSAS community can make it challenging to organize effective events for queer students, the organizer explains. “While bar nights are nice, they depend on someone being able to organize, get the word out, and make the time to host, and they don’t appeal to everyone.” Queer graduate students need to be able to find professional programming that speaks to their specific set of needs and recognizes the intersections of their various identities. “My hope is that this event will be the start of a larger conversation—one where we make an effort to figure out who queer graduate students are, determine what they need, and develop ways to support them.” 

Out in Academia