Letter to a young queer ornithologist
When I was asked to write this piece, I tried to start several times. Each time I bared my soul and pain, laying out an argument for cis and straight readers on how to support queer ornithologists. And each time I deleted what I wrote. It wasn’t what I needed to say, I could feel that — but I also couldn’t put my finger on what it was that I did want to say.
But now, thanks to the Covid pandemic, we’re only days away from the start of one of the strangest semesters of our lives, and in the deluge of articles for new students, grad and undergrad alike, I finally realised that it was really YOU I wanted to write to — you, the fledgling leaving the nest, standing on the edge of where you were and where you want to be. Maybe you’re like I was when I started my grad program only a few forever years ago, uncertain of your identity and scared that finding out would mean losing anything. Maybe you’ve known for years, but still have that pit-of-the-stomach fear: will they accept me? Maybe your family supports you, or maybe they don’t, or maybe they try but stumble. Maybe you’re Black or Indigenous or disabled or some combination of all of the above and know that standing in the overlap of identities that is you can be a lonely place. Regardless, it’s often a moment of fear that catches your breath and makes you second-guess your decision. Will it be alright? Will I be alright?
I wish more than anything I could promise you that everything will be fine: that you won’t face hate, or dismissal, or disbelief, from the people that should be your community and colleagues. I wish I could promise that you won’t have to fight like hell for your place. I wish I could promise that you won’t have to do the calculation of whether an opportunity — a job, a conference, field work — will be safe. I wish I could promise all of this. But you and I have both seen the brokenness of the world, and how its cracks so often run through the lives of queer people.
But this I can tell you: there will be moments when it all seems like more than you can bear, where it seems like the only option is to walk away. But even in those most unbearably lonely of moments, where everything seems so broken that you can do nothing but despair, know this: it’s not your sole responsibility to fix the world. It’s a work far larger than any one of us can do—and even in those moments where all you can think in your pain is I am alone, know that you are NOT.
This I have learned as I’ve made my own often lonely way as a queer ornithologist: you are not the only one. Even if wherever you are it may seem that way — and lemme tell you, it sure feels like that sometimes when you live someplace like Oklahoma — there are others, and once you connect with them, either in-person or virtually (it should probably be virtually right now though), your world will shift.
I remember going to my first LGBTQ+ social at an ornithology conference — the milling group on a patio in a brilliant Arizona evening, the initial awkwardness of “but I can’t possibly just go talk to any of these people”. Then getting swooped up by a group and having the strange feeling of letting my guard down while finally being able to talk about the challenges and joys of being queer and studying birds. I had been tentative in coming out before then but seeing that there were ornithologists who were boldly being themselves made it easier to do that myself. I could be myself.
It isn’t easy. I’ve faced harassment, including from those who claimed to be allies. But there are many people who will fight for you, queer or not. It may take time to find them, but they are there. And one day, almost certainly sooner than you expect, I can guarantee that you will be approached by a student. They’ll probably be a bit nervous, probably try to catch you in private. And even if you feel like you’re still flailing around trying to figure things out yourself, they’re going to tell you that seeing you out and proud and absolutely killing it is one of the most important things they’ve ever seen during their time in academia, because now they know that they too can do the same. They can be themselves.
I can’t promise there won’t be battles. But they won’t be battles you fight alone, and they won’t just be battles for yourself, even if they seem like it. Every time you push your way to the table, you make it a little easy both for yourself and for the next person. It’s a burden to have to bear, to be sure, and I wish this world was one were simply being didn’t come with it. This is how we build that world though, bit by bit, sharing the work so that even when one of us must stop to breathe, the work itself never stops.
You’re standing on the edge of what will be at times painful but will also be full of moments of beauty and wonder and kindness beyond what you can imagine. Even when it’s lonely, you won’t be alone. And I know that whatever your path is, you will be amazing, and we’ll be all the better for having you fly with us.
About the author
Jess McLaughlin (she/they) is ace, bi, nonbinary, and a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma. Her research interests are the genomic mechanisms of speciation in tropical birds, with a focus on using museum collections to investigate speciation in Panama.
Follow Jess’s work and efforts to make ornithology more inclusive on Twitter @jfmclaughlin92.
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