Rainbow Research: Life

To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journals have launched ‘Rainbow Research’ – a blog series which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers form the LGBTQ+ community by connecting each post to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag.

In this post, Lewis Bartlett uses ‘Life’ as inspiration to write about being a queer ecologist in academia.

This afternoon, I sat with my drag sisters as they made new dresses for the Pride shows we’re doing this weekend. I rifled through my drag mothers’ things and scavenged most of what I would need for numbers that I don’t already own myself. We noted that we’ll probably need new makeup and likely a new wig for me before Friday. No doubt I’ll have to go after work one day in a ‘University Honey Bee Lab’ tee shirt, smelling of pine smoke and sweat from the field. A bald man with chipped, short, dirtied nails smelling of farm work and ethanol when walking into a wig store.

Such is life as a queer academic, or rather for this post, academic queer.

Two photos from my summer field work season, Athens GA, 2016: Major events included concluding my first big PhD experiment (R) & the ‘birth’ of my drag character, Polly Nation (L)

I’ve previously penned some thoughts on being queer in academic ecology for the BES but for this post’s theme of Life, which documents some of my path from a Zoology bachelors in the UK to my current position as a postdoctoral fellow in infectious disease ecology and evolution and honey bee biology, currently at the University of Georgia (USA). In this post though, I’m choosing to speak about the even more centre stage (as I’ll be in a few days) thoughts I have when it circles around to Pride: my life in the queer community, with the dash of academic scientist that I carry around everywhere.

Enough about being queer in science. How about being a scientist in queerdom?

Whilst my drag sisters were sewing and sizing up dresses, I had to take time on Sunday to start getting ready for the week. I knocked back a gin with them in the afternoon whilst I also attended to some emails, wrote a lecture, and spun up a quick R script for my undergrad’s preliminary data. All the while, kiki-ing with the Southern drag queens of this North-Georgia, USA town. They are all my senior, and have a collective wealth of wisdom to impart on lessons in queer life and the vibrancy of this once-counterculture college town.

But, that wisdom doesn’t stop them sending me baffled glances when my typing approaches a particularly furious speed, or when a complicated graph takes to the screen, or I’m swearing under my breath at my code throwing foolish errors.

‘You hacking Grindr or something there girl?’ one of them asks me, wryly. I don’t think the director of our troupe even owns a computer. She drives busses during the day, and otherwise he is a staunch figurehead of drag in a corner of the world where being queer isn’t at all easy. I have much to thank him for; she made me exceptionally welcome from the first time I turned up to a show, here on fieldwork over half a decade ago.

I was a terrified little thing, worried about what queer life I would find to sustain myself on my first trip into bee research in the Deep South. I needn’t have feared. These big old queens, they had done the work for me decades prior. Carved out spaces, confronted prejudice or worse, and become such icons and targets as to make room in their shadow for those of who needed it.

Most of them don’t know what I do in my work life. They get there’s some science, some teaching, something to do with bugs. They know they can ask me to write posts, biographies, and public statements for the facets of queer Athens GA that they head. We can sit down and type out the oral histories of queer life here that they can reel off; flawless recollections of gay history of this place, stories that care not for measures of literacy.

The vibrant chaos of an Athens Showgirls Cabaret open-drag night; this evening from February 2020. Seven hours after this photo, I had put Polly back in her box, and was on my way to the Appalachian mountains to teach an 8am Saturday morning extension class on honey bee health to community beekeepers

I give back to this community whenever I can. Sometimes, that means late nights when work is early the next day. Sometimes, it means stepping between something ugly and someone smaller than you trying to be beautiful. It means students spotting you in the bars and on the stages when higher-ups might think such things uncouth. It means lending any help I might be able to give, overcoming the cultural capital so many queers here are deprived of.

Lots of the young gays I meet here fled right wing, religious homes, and rather than face abusive bloodlines, rely on the chosen families of their queer lives to help them navigate the complexities of the world. Many are from destitute, country towns where knowledge of going to college is even more non-existent than it was for me – a first-generation working class man from Yorkshire.

It does not escape me that the ‘Dr’ in front of my name, my ability to reckon with any bureaucracy, my articulation and advocacy honed by the privilege of elite Universities across both sides of the Atlantic, is something that is sorely lacking in the beating heart and the bloody front battlelines of fighting for queer life in places like this.

And so I, and others like me, help where we can. Make sure that the skills we’ve been given at least return to the community. Help the young gays with applications. Coach the queers through healthcare hellscapes. Countersign forms, make sure the emancipated twinks know how classes work, make sure the fiery queens get up-to-date safe-sex knowledge at every show. The stuff of education that as an academic ecologist I can bring to bear, when out in the real-life world of the queer folk who made me welcome here.

Being queer in academic life is one thing.
Being in queer community life is quite another.

Life is more than being an ecologist, even a queer one. We can gift academic ecology the insights, brightness, wit, fight and often literal sparkle of queer vibrancy, but it remains only one part of life. What gifts – as the well-connected, travelled, respected scientists and educators we are – can we bring to our queer community outside campus? If that’s a new question to you, think on it.

While my drag ego Polly Nation might grace a BES stage yet again this winter, she’ll be out on the bar stages of queer Georgia many times before then, where she is – I am – needed more. Belonging to a community, especially queer community, takes work. A price, blood, sweat and tears – sacrifice, no less – on behalf of those who want to wear the queer label in academia has to be paid strengthening queer life beyond ivory tower walls.

Discover more stories like this on our Rainbow Research page.

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