To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are hosting a ‘Rainbow Research’ series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag. In this post, Lea Nightingale explores the meaning of healing.
You might recognise the opening lines to a classic childhood joke. As a child I loved jokes, reading, the outdoors, and was absolutely fascinated with science. I remember watching ‘Free Willy’ and ‘Fern Gully’ and wanting to do everything I could to conserve our beautiful planet. Up until the age of around thirteen I was all set to head out and save the world.
Then something happened. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was growing up under ‘Section 28’, a piece of legislation that meant that the feelings I was developing as a teenager were ‘unacceptable’. I was beginning to realise I was attracted to both boys and girls.
‘Promoting homosexuality’ wasn’t permitted under Section 28, so the environment in which I was raised was inherently ‘homophobic’, and I thought I was alone. I thought there was something ‘wrong’ with me and I felt isolated from my peers. I pushed down all these feelings and carried on with my very heteronormative life.
To ‘fit in’, I felt I needed to get married and have children, and ‘being normal’ suddenly became something that defined both me and my aspirations for the future. I ended my education at A-Level, and within five years was married with two children. I absolutely love being a mother, but at twenty-three I felt like I’d ‘completed’ the goals that had been set out for me by society, and I became severely depressed.
Why have I just told you, a stranger, all this about me?
Aside from now knowing that I am an avid over-sharer(!), I hope you can see the impact Section 28 had on ‘societal norms’. I felt like I didn’t fit – or, rather, couldn’t make myself fit – and I didn’t like the person I was. I was repressing my true self and felt trapped by a life that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. Over the last fifteen years, I have processed a lot of that damage and finally came out at the ripe old age of thirty-five.
What a relief it was to finally be honest, to finally be myself! The biggest thing that helped me heal from the past was finding myself again through my work. I focused on what it was that I wanted to do before ‘societal norms’ drove me down a different path: I wanted to, you know, ‘save the world’. Or at least try my hardest to. I remember going to my boss at the time in floods of tears because I thought I was going to have to leave the amazing company I worked for, but he was so understanding and supportive, and encouraged me to take up my degree in Environmental Science through the Open University. I now work as an Assistant Environmental Analyst, CEEQUAL Assessor, and am an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Champion.
We have come a long way as a society since Section 28 was repealed in 2003 (2001 Scotland) – I have too! This year Pride is particularly significant as July 1st marks fifty years since hundreds of LGBTQ+ people and their allies arrived in London to march for LGBTQ+ rights. Since then, a lot has changed, and we celebrate Pride month each year to acknowledge how far we have come, to remember where we came from, and to remind ourselves of how far we have yet to go. We no longer accept that ‘heterosexual marriage and family relationships’ are the ‘only firm foundations for society’ as promoted under Section 28. However, social justice doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are still so many issues that we face as a society – issues that I believe we can overcome if we work together to build stable and resilient communities.
Recently, I have been exploring the role social value has within sustainability by actively promoting the ‘three Es’ of Sustainable Development (Ecology, Economy, and Equity) in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to help build a more resilient society. I truly believe that by addressing equity holistically in the work we do within the STEM sector, we can help shape that society. We will need to focus on ‘equity’, which involves trying to understand and give people what they need, rather than ‘equality’, which ensures that everyone receives the same things.
We need to be passionate about promoting STEM to under-represented communities: I currently undertake outreach work with a local LGBTQ+ charity and am planning a scheme where we take groups of LGBTQ+ teenagers on ecology walks during the summer holidays. There is such a power when people are connected to the natural environment; it helps them foster a better understanding of the world around them.
To me, that is why Pride month holds such a special place in the EDI calendar: it provides an opportunity to highlight understanding of one another and the world around us. I believe that through the education and understanding that celebrations like Pride bring, we can become closer and foster deeper empathy.
I have seen first-hand the benefit that can be derived through diverse and inclusive communities. Through my work, I feel more than the sum of my parts: I bring my whole self to work because I am respected, included, and supported because of the person I am, not despite it. I will forever use this privilege to champion those who do not feel like they ‘fit in’. It is our duty to help build a society where everyone feels accepted; a society healed from the wounds of the past.
All this to say that with a little work it is never too late to change; healing takes time, but it really can get better!