Carrying the PRIDE message to the Polar Regions

22 June, 2020 Diversity in UK Polar Science

Huw Griffiths is a polar research scientist with British Antarctic Survey. During June PRIDE month he shares his personal experience of research as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the challenges and realities of being gay in unique and international working environments and the importance of networks in creating positive change.

Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a polar scientist has always felt like a rare thing. In my career ‘out’ role models have been non-existent and for years I thought I was probably the only one.

As far as I know, being gay has never held me back or been a barrier to my career (although the recent survey from the learned societies shows that many others feel differently about their own situation). I have had some amazing opportunities to travel the world for fieldwork and conferences including visiting both poles and every continent.

Dr Huw Griffiths is a marine biogeographer at British Antarctic Survey

But, unlike my straight colleagues, my work travel can take me to countries where my sexuality is illegal or puts me at risk. Given the perceived macho culture that comes with remote scientific fieldwork and the need to travel to LGBTQ+ unfriendly destinations, I can fully understand why many of my colleagues would choose not to be open about their sexuality at work.

Coming ‘out’ is not something you do once in your life. We have to come out nearly every day and in nearly every new situation, which can be exhausting and stressful. This is particularly true when you are going to spend months in a remote location, sharing a cabin or tent with, trusting your safety to a colleague that you might be meeting for the first time.  You have to make split-second decision about if and when you are going to open up to someone when you have no idea of how they will react.

In my personal experience the main prejudices I have encountered have been my own. I first travelled to Antarctica almost 14 years ago and I was very worried about how the bearded, tattooed crew of the ship would react if they knew (ironic considering that these days there are more beards, muscles and tattoos in your average gay bar). Thankfully, I was quickly proven wrong and the amazing crew have been nothing but supportive, even nagging that they still haven’t met my partner!

However, my positive experiences as a white, British, gay man are definitely not representative of those of colleagues around the world and a recent conversation with an early career researcher, prior to a major international conference, made me realise that more needed to be done to help people who weren’t in my privileged position.

Having out and visible role models and colleagues at the start of my career would have given me more confidence and with the advances in networking and social media it is now possible to reach people all around the world. I hope that having a network like this will mean that existing and future polar scientists will see that being yourself and being different are no barrier to working in the most extreme environments on Earth, and can be a real asset as a scientist.

We aim to make people feel like they aren’t the only one and to raise awareness of issues which hold back LGBTQ+ polar researchers, and therefore polar science as a whole. This can only be achieved with the support of the entire Polar science community.

A close up of a painted wall
The Progress pride flag made from images of Antarctic animals


This blog was originally published on the UKRI website for #LGBTSTEM day in July 2019.