On being a queer primatologist

24 Jul 2019 - 08:30

Biological anthropologist Dr Christopher Schmitt, from Boston University in the US, says LGBTQ+ researchers face the threat of harassment and prejudice at every stage of their academic career, but that fieldwork presents particular difficulties.

Speaking at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Faculty of Science Special Seminar on 17 July, biological anthropologist Dr Christopher Schmitt from Boston University in the United States (US) described the myriad challenges facing LGBTQ+ researchers working in the field.

His talk may have been characterised by humour and illustrated with personal anecdotes but the research Schmitt quoted was sobering: LGBTQ+ students are 8 to 10% less likely than their straight peers to be retained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; 75% of researchers who participated in a survey of fieldwork conditions have witnessed sexual harassment; and 64% of researchers in fieldwork settings have experienced sexual harassment.

Schmitt, who identifies as queer, has lived and worked in many different kinds of places over the course of his career, from large urban academic institutions to remote rural field research sites.

During the seminar he explained how LGBTQ+ researchers face the threat of harassment and prejudice at every stage of their academic career, but that fieldwork presents particular difficulties for them.

 

“While teaching methods rely more and more heavily on active learning and group work, the pressure that this puts on queer students is not always understood.”

LGBTQ+ students in STEM 

In the broader context of academia, LGBTQ+ students and young academics face many challenges that their straight counterparts do not.

Research conducted in 2016 by Bryce Hughes, assistant professor in the Department of Education at Montana State University in the US, showed that LGBTQ+ students are more likely to drop out of STEM subjects. In addition, the gender disparity in STEM fields is inverted, with more women LGBTQ+ students continuing in the field than their male counterparts.

“It is likely that this is due to the fact that the culture in STEM often rewards the performance of masculinity,” said Schmitt.

“While teaching methods rely more and more heavily on active learning and group work, the pressure that this puts on queer students is not always understood. Often students in these settings withdraw from courses where they face being outed.”

Once LGBTQ+ STEM students graduate, they also face specific challenges in the working environment.

“At best they may experience a lack of awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and a great deal of heteronormativity, but they may even feel they are required to stay closeted for fear of prejudice. 

LGBTQ+ researchers in the field

As a young graduate Schmitt travelled to Costa Rica to study vervet monkeys.

“At the time I needed a letter of recommendation from the leader of the research site to get into graduate school but the person in question took me aside and told me that I had to keep my queerness a secret, because if I didn’t I risked jeopardising the research study.”

 

“The person in question took me aside and told me that I had to keep my queerness a secret, because if I didn’t I risked jeopardising the research study.”

According to Schmitt, this is just one example of the ways in which fieldwork often brings specific challenges for LGBTQ+ scientists.

“Researchers must travel to unknown settings which are often isolated and in which same-sex relationships may even be illegal,” he explained.

“Sure, you can try and do research to discover whether the place you’re going is friendly for queer folk, but it’s not always as easy as googling a country’s laws as they pertain to same-sex relationships because often the experience of a queer person in a large metropolitan area is very different when compared to what you can expect in a more remote area, even within the same country.

“In addition, researchers often have to deal with social isolation, cabin fever and no means to communicate with friends or family back home, combined with intense pressure to complete a successful research trip or season.

“In these settings LGBTQ+ researchers face the threat of ostracisation, harassment, violence and even incarceration.”

Changing the climate

In 2014 the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) surveyed 666 fieldwork scientists in a bid to discover “the climate of the scientific fieldwork setting as it relates to gendered experiences, sexual harassment, and sexual assault”.

The survey showed that while codes of conduct in the field were rare, the experience of gender-based harassment was very common – with 64% of those surveyed having experienced sexual harassment in the field.

The survey also showed that women were targeted more than men, and that while women experienced harassment from their seniors, men were more likely to experience harassment from their peers.

 

“The survey showed that while codes of conduct in the field were rare, the experience of gender-based harassment was very common.”

Schmitt drew a parallel between fieldwork environments in the US and South Africa.

“Both countries provide political protection but social risks,” he said.

“Likewise, in both settings violence is employed as a means of social control and masculinity is performed and policed.”

He recommended the following ways of making academic and fieldwork settings more inclusive to LGBTQ+ researchers and academics:

Story:  Ambre Nicolson

Photo:  Brenton Geach

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