Kelsey Byers: Life & Healing

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, Kelsey Byers discusses life and healing:

Hiya! 👋 my name is Kelsey Byers (any/all pronouns ok) and I’m a multiply-queer multiply-disabled evolutionary chemical ecologist working at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My lab studies the role that floral scent plays in attracting pollinators to flowering plants and how this affects the diversity of plant species we see on the planet today.

This blog post is on the theme of Life – the red colour in the standard Pride flag – and how changes in my life and my acceptance of my queerness have led to Healing – the orange colour of the Pride flag.

I first wanted to study the natural world when I was very young. Growing up in the countryside in the US really reinforced my love of nature. My mum and stepfather were both academic scientists and my dad was a corporate scientist as well, so I grew up in a very STEM-focused family (privilege alert!). My parents all encouraged my love of the natural world – my dad even bought me a book called The Complete Amateur Naturalist which was based in the UK – and as a result I felt supported in my dreams to study nature. I went to a technical college in the USA where I focused on biotechnology, then studied biology at university. After that I was a laboratory research assistant for a year, decided I didn’t want to do molecular biology for the rest of my life, and then undertook a PhD in evolutionary genetics of floral scent and pollination in Mimulus monkeyflowers at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA. Following my PhD I did two postdocs, one a fellowship at the University of Zurich, Switzerland studying alpine orchid floral traits, and a second at the University of Cambridge where I worked on tropical butterfly pheromones. I started my lab at the John Innes Centre in August of 2020 right at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Orchids in the Alps. Credit: Kelsey Byers

These days my lab has several main study systems and questions. We are looking at the evolution of floral scent in Mimulus monkeyflowers (more than just the two species I studied in my PhD), a project spearheaded by a postdoc in the lab. Together with a Year in Industry undergraduate student and the lab’s research assistant, we are looking at floral trait integration in the same alpine orchids I studied during my first postdoc. Finally, we are starting to look at the role that floral and vegetative scents play in affecting the yield of important UK crops. We have a few more projects on the side, but they’re very much on the back burner right now as the lab grows!

Like my love of science, my exposure to LGBTQIA+ identities started very young – not typical for a child born in the 1980s. One of my parents’ close friends was an early trans activist, so I learned at a very young age that your gender could something different from the identity you were assigned at birth. I went through a period of questioning my own gender in my early teenage years – which my mum supported – but back then the idea of non-binary genders was still mostly not mentioned. I knew I wasn’t a boy, so therefore I had to be a girl, even though that didn’t feel quite right either. It wasn’t until my 20s that I met my first non-binary person, and it wasn’t until my mid-30s that I realized that I myself was non-binary. Today I identify as agender – without a gender, or (maybe more closely for me) where my gender is not relevant to my lived experience – which feels the closest to my own experiences and feelings. Most people still read me as female – I have long hair, sometimes dress femme, and have a curvy body – and this does bother me a little. More about this later.

I later (in late primary school/early middle school, before secondary school) learned about sexual orientations that differed from the assumed-normal heterosexual orientation, but assumed I was straight even though I was uncomfortable with the notion that I would be in a sexual relationship and wasn’t physically attracted to anyone really. I joined my secondary school’s Gay-Straight Alliance as an ally, even! Right after I turned 18, while in university, I took an online quiz that suggested I was asexual (‘ace’ for short), but as I was in a relationship with a straight cis man I assumed that was probably wrong. It took me until my early 30s, while living in a gender-diverse and sexuality-diverse household, to realize that I was, in fact, asexual, and to embrace this as a key part of my identity rather than a source of shame or frustration. This led to a real flowering of my queerness as I finally accepted who I was in a more complete fashion and healed from older wounds where I felt somehow like I didn’t fit or that something – something unknown – was wrong in how I felt myself in the world.

Ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) can sometimes feel like a strange home for me as a result of my gender and sexual orientation, especially the former. Colleagues and strangers read me as female at least 95% of the time (no, I have no stats to back this up!). I am pronoun-agnostic and use any/all pronouns, but most people still use she/her with me because I “look” female to them. I don’t intentionally present femme or female, but because of my body shape, hairstyle, and the clothes I wear it’s just how it goes. Much of the time it doesn’t come up, but any time I’m at a meeting with no men present and someone refers to the room being ‘all women’ it makes me silently uncomfortable. I often get invitations to women-only events (sometimes they acknowledge that gender minorities are welcome too), or to do outreach as a ‘woman in science’, and I am always uncertain how to respond.

Because of my disabilities (including majority-time wheelchair use) I usually use an ungendered accessible toilet here in the UK, and it always makes me twitch a little inside when I have to use the ladies’ toilet for some reason. This is a much bigger problem in the US where accessible stalls are typically in a gendered set of cubicles rather than on their own. Oddly this is less of a problem during fieldwork, when one just goes behind a tree! (which is not to say that LGBTQIA+ folks don’t face significant barriers and safety issues during fieldwork, by the way – and I do escape most of these by having a cis male partner and “looking” female)

My sexual orientation is sometimes read incorrectly alongside my gender – because I ‘look female’ and my partner is a straight man, people assume that I myself am straight, which I am not in the slightest. It’s the usual problem many ‘invisible’ minority folks face – you are assumed to be of the dominant group unless you are obviously otherwise, and we as scientists are not any more innocent of this than society in general. So when I see someone with pink and white and blue or rainbow shoelaces, or wearing a black ring on their middle finger (an asexual symbol and one I wear proudly), or wearing a pin or jewelry with obvious-to-me LGBTQIA+ symbology, I perk up just a little bit because I have found My People. I also appreciate the fact that in many EEB queer spaces, people don’t judge me or assume that I am a straight woman – nor pressure me to ‘prove’ that I belong in that space. At last year’s (2021) BES conference, I hung out with fellow queer folks and went to the conference dinner with them and felt… safe? known? in a wonderful place.

Such subtle signaling at conferences goes a long way towards increasing my comfort levels in EEB. I find myself drawn to queer socials and queer spaces at meetings because I feel comfortable there – nobody is going to assume my gender or sexuality in that space (or, if they are, they are not likely to assume I am straight for example), and somehow the spaces just feel safer. We need more safe queer spaces for both early career and established researchers to feel comfortable being themselves in professional environments, and we need them now. Even a simple step, like degendering a set of toilets at a conference or providing period supplies in every toilet (not just the ladies’), can go a long way towards signaling a safe environment for some of us. Putting on my multiply-disabled hat, we also need these spaces to be accessible to disabled folks, which unfortunately many queer-friendly setups at meetings (e.g. going out to a local bar – often physically inaccessible and noisy as all so cause problems with my hearing issues) are not.

My workplace is very accepting, but as with all workplaces could do more. We have an active LGBTQ+ staff and student network and a Stonewall Champion, and hold events throughout the year, not just during Pride month. I feel like colleagues care and it’s not just lip service in June to make allies feel like they are doing something. We even have an option to specify non-binary status when giving our gender for e.g. interview panel purposes, which is great. Our network even has generous funding from our institution and has held well-attended seminar series about queer identities – which says a lot!

Obviously there’s more to do but it is so very nice to feel safe and accepted for who I am in the workplace and overall in EEB. I hope that future folks entering the field – and folks who are in the field but have been nervous about coming out – find EEB and the BES to be a welcoming place. We need to do more to tear down barriers affecting queer folks, but we’re on our way to a lively red and healthy orange future, and there’s a lot to be said for that!

Read more from the Rainbow Research series here.

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