Distance, and living as your authentic self — a journey to the UK

 

Okay, so first I would like to start with the usual disclaimer that this is a blog post about my experiences. Everyone’s experiences may vary greatly even if they have a similar background or situation going on, but I can only really talk about my own personal experiences. Therefore, this is what I will do in this blog.

I grew up in a rather rural, small place in Austria where everyone knows each other. Like literally. And if you don’t know someone personally, you know their family or someone in their family etc. This upbringing was full of “traditional” and “conservative” views on gender, sexuality, and general behaviour of what is “right” and “proper”. There were no openly LGBTQ+ people, and I remember instances when people would talk in hushed tones about how “being gay is something that can only really exist in degenerative city folk but not in our community”. Together with the interconnectedness of life these beliefs meant, that even though I was acutely aware of my own homosexuality, I did not dare come out to anyone for a long time. Not just for my own sake, but also for my family’s sake. I was too afraid of them experiencing discrimination on my behalf.

When I moved to Vienna to study there, I managed to relax a little bit in my vigilance against being too openly out. As at least anything I did was not immediately observed, reported, and rumoured about in my family’s community. But the worry about anything reaching back home was still ever present and always holding me back from living as my authentic self.

Coming to the UK during my Master’s changed things for me again. I was so far away from home, that I was no longer worried about any rumours, gossip or stories reaching home by coincidence or the great grapevine. But I was still kind of stuck in a slightly more “scared” mindset. I still evaluated every situation and person with great care. Especially when I first arrived in the UK, I still did a lot of ‘testing the waters’ before either coming out or just allowing myself to live authentically. Even when I started my PhD with a supportive research group and supervisor, I still tested the waters cautiously and carefully. A precaution which has thankfully proven itself unnecessary for me in this scenario.

I find that when an ally is not outspoken about their allyship, especially in my first years in the UK, I often operated under the assumption that they were not an ally until confirmed otherwise. And that sometimes took a while. This is one of the reasons why I would like to encourage allies to be visible and outspoken. Because there are lot of these moments when one is assessing their own safety and comfort before coming out and weighing all those possible outcomes against each other. Therefore, already knowing that it is not going to be a problem for the other person helps greatly in reducing the fear of repercussions for living as one’s authentic self.

I have experienced plant sciences as a rather open and welcoming discipline. I count myself very lucky that I have never experienced homophobia within this sector or in academia in general. However, I must stress that this is my own experience. I am at the end of the day a cis white man. I have also experienced the community at my research institute in Norwich to be generally very welcoming and generally rather open spirited, particularly for the younger generation of people on site.

I still don’t come out to every person I meet within the first few sentences, but the fear within extended friendship circles, and within the academic community has subsided greatly. Thereby allowing me, to just be me — without too much worry or constant panic about what I do or say. This has enabled me to actually grow a lot as a person and to gain a lot more self-confidence when it comes to public speaking, networking or taking responsibilities.

Coming to the UK enabled this personal growth for me and I am very grateful for that. However, realistically I could have probably experienced a similar situation by moving to other countries as well. The UK is in no way perfect when it comes to taking care of its LGBTQ+ community. But it thankfully has still been good enough for me so far.

 

By Sebastian Samwald (@samwalds)

Hi! I am Basti and I study the perception of pathogens by plants. In particular, I focus on the protein-protein interactions at the plant cell membrane necessary to achieve this and I have a particular passion for all types of confocal microscopy techniques. I recently handed in my PhD thesis and started a post-doc. In my free time I love to take care of my allotment and bake a lot.

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