A place for Pride: Welcome to the House of STEM

29 Jun 2018

Dr Shaun O’Boyle speaking at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

As Dublin prepares for a colourful weekend bursting with Pride, read all about the story behind House of STEM, as told by Dr Shaun O’Boyle at Inspirefest 2018.

“Stick to the science, idiots!”

If you had succumbed to the 3pm slump on day one of Inspirefest, Dr Shaun O’Boyle’s opening line surely snapped you out of the lull.

Introducing the first ever international day for LGBTQ people in STEM (LGBTSTEM Day), which is set to take place on 5 July this year, science communicator O’Boyle explained that the announcement of this initiative was met with some disdain, leading to unlikes, unfollows and such statements as: “Fuck my life, why are we bringing sexuality into science?”

He affirmed with a smile: “Sometimes, it’s your harshest critics that give you the most effective evidence for why such a day was necessary in the first place.”

shaun o boyle cartoon

An illustration of Dr Shaun O’Boyle on stage at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Liza Donnelly

While he was speaking from the Inspirefest 2018 stage, last year O’Boyle was behind the scenes as one half of Bureau, the production partnership that made Inspirefest: The Podcast a reality. It was then he had the opportunity to meet Arlan Hamilton and was galvanised into action, imbued with her spirit of tenacity and her refusal to let the word ‘no’ get in her way.

He immediately set to work seeking out people who might be interested in a national conversation about the experiences of LGBTQ scientists in Ireland.

“Why does anyone feel that they can’t be out in their workplace to begin with? It’s awful. I know from experience you spend every minute of every day monitoring, policing, editing your behaviour, your words, to make sure you don’t ‘get found out’.”

O’Boyle posed other questions that need to be answered:

  • Why are LGBTQ students more likely to drop out of STEM degrees?
  • What happens if you have to do your fieldwork in a country where it’s dangerous or illegal to be an LGBTQ individual?
  • What about homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in the workplace?

To offer a potential solution, O’Boyle founded House of STEM, which is a network of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians that aims to support and increase the visibility of the LGBTQ community in Ireland.

As it turns out, House of STEM is another branch to an entire orchard of like-minded individuals. “It allowed us to join this incredible international community – actually, it’s more like a family – of groups and organisations who are doing the same thing.”

O’Boyle paid tribute to one of those family members, Pride in STEM, which organises such events as Out Thinkers whereby LGBTQ researchers can speak about their scientific work. “They meant so much because when I was doing my PhD … there was no Pride in STEM, there was certainly no House of STEM, there were no initiatives like there are now … or hashtags like #LGBTScience or #QueerInSTEM, and so I had no role models, I had nobody more senior to me that I could speak to about being out and being LGBT in science.”

Indeed, he described this act of openness as a lifelong process: “You never stop coming out to people.”

march for science poster

March for Science poster. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

So, how can you get involved in LGBTSTEM Day? Luckily, the initiative has rounded up some simple (and quite delightful-sounding) activities:

  • Share your stories on social media with #LGBTSTEMDay
  • Join the online coffee morning on Twitter from 11am to noon on 5 July using the hashtag #HouseofSTEMcuppa
  • Head west and check out NUI Galway for a raft of events taking place on the day
  • Take part in the crowdsourced #LGBTSTEMDay audio documentary by sending a short clip – ‘My name is’, ‘I am LGBT+ in STEM’ and your personal experiences – to lgbtstemday@gmail.com
  • Get some merch on Redbubble, featuring the logo designed by the popular TwistedDoodles

To remind a rapt audience why these campaigns centred on positivity and inclusion are so vital, O’Boyle read out a quote from a member of the LGBTQ community: “I was walking down the street on Tuesday when I was assaulted for looking queer. Basically, this has happened to me hundreds of times since I was born, including my STEM workplace. I actually just want to exist – is that a controversial idea?”

In a new Ireland, buoyed by recent transformations in politics and an increasingly liberal culture, O’Boyle is helping to carve out a special place for people who may have faced adversity in the past and are ready to celebrate their identity with their STEM peers.

Positively brimming with exuberance in anticipation for 5 July, he ended with another quote: “I’m so excited for LGBTSTEM Day, I almost can’t handle it!”

Mark the date in your calendar, get involved and spread the word!

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Shelly Madden was sub-editor of Silicon Republic