Queering science: what it means and why it matters

Publication date
Monday, 15 May 2023
A smiling woman leaning against a glass staircase
Emily Standen. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

Growing up queer in Townsville, Emily Standen knows about the importance of role models.

“It’s North Queensland, so in terms of inclusive environments and visible role models, both of those things at the time were limited. I don't think that I really thought queer people could be scientists.

“So from my own experience, I know that it's hard to be what you can't see. You can definitely do it - someone has to be the first - but it's not an easy thing to do.”

Now with a degree in biomedical sciences, a career in science communication and education, and a PhD project with the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU, Emily feels like she can help to make it easier.

“I think I’ve lived enough roles that I can actually speak to this now. I can say: we can do this better.”

A starting point, Emily says, is to understand what it means when we talking about ‘queering science’.

“When you boil it down,” she begins, “it’s about diversity of thought. The reason you want to queer science, and the reason you want to be inclusive and diverse, is so you get different thoughts, different experiences, and different perspectives in the room.

“So, for example, you might be in a lab and something breaks. I’m not saying you're going to fix it with a rainbow sticker, but if you’ve got three people with different life experiences, trying to solve that problem, you’ve got a much better chance of succeeding.

“That, to me, is what queering science is. And if science wants to continue to be at the forefront of finding answers, we can't keep thinking the same way. The broader we can think, the faster we can move.”

One barrier to promoting this idea, Emily says, is the fallacy that there’s no room for a personal perspective in what should be an objective discipline.

“We need to dispel this myth of scientific objectivity,” she explains. “Your research might be objective, but the context your research sits in, and all the wraparounds that enable your research to happen, are not.

“You might be a physicist making your objective observations, yes, but before that, who applied for the grant? Who made the decision about who got awarded the grant? There are a whole range of things that take place in and around the research that you're doing that are not separated from your personal life.

“So we’re not saying that you need to look at an electron or look at a flower and decide whether or not it’s queer. What we’re saying is, I want to spend my energy looking at the flower or the electron. I don't want to spend my energy writing ten times the number of grant applications as my straight male colleagues do.”

This is why visibility and representation matter, Emily explains: because they impact your ability to do your work.

The best way forward, she thinks, is to not shy away from hard conversations, and to not be scared of complexity.

“Making a simplified argument is the thing that has tripped up the queer community time and time and time again. We come up with simple messages which can be accepted by the majority, but in oversimplifying who we are, we exclude the diversity of experiences among our own community.

“You know, we're capable of having complex, mature conversations. They might take longer, and in some ways, it might be more painful, but in the long run, they're going to be better conversations.”

Find out more about inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA) at the ANU College of Science.

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