I didn’t feel the need to come out at work. I wanted to be seen and addressed on my expertise and the quality of my research. My private life didn’t matter, I thought. It wasn’t a secret, quite the contrary, but I rarely brought it up. And certainly not towards students. I had to experience painfully that it did matter.
In the years following my PhD, I wrote one grant application after another, but to no avail. Everything was rejected. Success also failed to materialize after I switched to a new and promising topic: how predictive is DNA? For understandable reasons: I had original ideas, but no relevant publications showing that I was versed in the subject. Things had to change.
I had to write a series of articles that would increase my chances of getting a grant and decided to work for six months with one of the leading researchers in the field of genetics and public health, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). , in Atlanta. That turned out to be a golden move. We wrote five articles, including an editorial in the British Medical Journal. Shortly after my return, I received my first grant, which marked the start of a rapid climb up the academic ladder. But I paid a price.
Atlanta is located in Georgia, just above Florida, in the ultra-conservative southern United States. I had asked here and there whether I could talk freely about my private life at work and was always advised to exercise restraint. I hesitated, but I thought the purpose of my journey was more important: I decided to remain silent. I had been out of the closet in the Netherlands for fifteen years, but dived back into it in Atlanta.
The advice was well-intentioned, but disastrous. I had expected that I would be able to separate work and private life, but that went wrong. The silence affected everything. I kept contacts superficial, avoided personal conversations, and withdrew more often. With every opportunity that I missed to share something of my private life, the threshold for bringing it up became higher. I became less and less myself. Afterwards I knew one thing for sure: never again.
Openness makes a difference
How different it was when I was asked five years later for a professorship at Emory University, the CDC’s neighbors, the same Atlanta. Emory turned out to be an oasis in the desert of Georgia. The university had worked on its diversity policy, had an actual Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life, and actually a Who’s Out @ Emory photo gallery on the internet. I saw some future colleagues on this and felt welcome even before I set foot in the door.
I don’t have to come out for myself, I want to come out for myself. Because it makes me a more complete person, more accessible and more empathetic. And that makes me a nicer colleague, a better mentor and more inspiring as a teacher. Openness makes a difference beyond the personal.
Traditionally and naturally, science revolves around expertise and credentials, but there is also a growing call for more openness and a more inclusive university. Two new rectors immediately set the tone with their recent appointments. Since this autumn, Professor Annelien Bredenoord has been the first female rector of Erasmus University and, at 42 years old, one of the youngest ever. She is a medical ethicist, was head of the Medical Humanities department at UMC Utrecht, and is a D66 senator and leader of the Senate. And later this year she will move to Katendrecht with her wife and three-year-old son. And the new rector of the VU, professor Jeroen Geurts, is a neuroscientist, head of department at the Amsterdam UMC, and until next month chairman of the board of ZonMw, the financier of health research, and board member at NWO. Geurts shares co-parenting of their son with his husband and two mothers.
An open climate
Openness allows you to be who you are. In all your versatility. It allows you to be authentic, connect, and be credible. That you can argue for a new system for recognizing and valuing academic staff, which both rectors aspire to, because you promote diversity and inclusion yourself. And you can argue for open science and more transparent science, because you really believe in openness yourself.
If you give space to yourself, you give space to others. An open climate in which people can be themselves, feel at home and dare to speak up is enriching. And for whom is that message more important than for young people who are working on their future. Who wonder what their place in the world might be. Knowing that you are allowed to be who you are.
That too is academic freedom.
Cecile Janssens is Professor of Translational Epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta.