For LGBT History Month 2018 we asked Austin Elliott, a Post Doctoral Research Assistant, to reflect on his work, and his experience of being LGBT in Earth Sciences.
Q: What do you research here at Oxford?
I am a postdoc, researching the record of past earthquakes in the landscape via field work, satellite mapping, and the analysis of deformation from contemporary earthquakes. I use these observations to understand how individual fault ruptures accommodate and relate to longer term deformation, and conversely how established tectonic structures impact the propagation of individual earthquake ruptures.
In fun terms, I make 3D elevation models from drone and satellite images, and I map out the scarps formed by major earthquakes in the continents.
Q: What inspired you to get into Earth Sciences?
I’ve always been awed by forces of nature, and when I felt my first earthquake in Los Angeles at age 13 I realized instantly that I needed to study this phenomenon. I still haven’t lost that awe and bewilderment after 19 years of studying them!
Q: Which letters (L, G, B, T, Q, etc) apply to you?
I’m a cisgender gay man, so primarily the G. Of course, Queer is the proudly reclaimed term that basically represents anyone with a less common and historically shunned identity when it comes to binary gender and sexuality. However I think it’s important not to co-opt Queerdom from communities that continue to exist outside of restrictive social norms, especially as gays and lesbians obtain the rights to assimilate into conventional society while the B, T, Q and many others continue to face a deep struggle for recognition, let alone acceptance across society.
Q: What is it like being LGBTQ in the earth sciences in general?
I owe much of my own personal LGBTQ community to professional science, including many of my greatest friends and colleagues.
Many of my dearest friends I have made through LGBTQ-specific events at scientific conferences and professional society meetings around the world. Most large meetings have these (for example the American Geophysical Union’s “gAyGU”!), and if you’re interested, you should look them up!
I’ve also found a wonderful supportive community on Twitter, where I’m quite active raving about earthquakes and issues that are important to me. Social media provides a great way to expand your community of like-minded friends and colleagues no matter what ties you together.
Being in science has brought mainly wonderful positive things to my LGBTQ life. Negatives are hard to think up, but a rare instance in which being LGBTQ has posed a challenge for me in earth sciences is during field work in foreign countries, where social attitudes are farther behind and/or unfamiliar. Long field expeditions are challenging for many reasons, many of them social. One can be pushed uncomfortably back into the closet under the necessity of maintaining smooth relationships with your foreign colleagues and coworkers in a highly dependent situation. But on the whole these situations are rare, and a cadre of supportive colleagues makes all the difference.
Q: What is it like being LGBTQ in the Earth Sciences Department at Oxford?
Recognising that I have the privileged perspective of a cisgender male, I’ve found my sexual orientation more or less a non-issue in my professional life. Of course, as with any realm of life as LGBTQ, there’s a continual process of coming out as people assume heterosexuality. But I’ve never had to explain myself twice, nor received the cold reception that I sometimes got even just 10 years ago in college, before broader social opinion had turned in favour of LGBTQ identity, which – let’s remember – has only occurred finally in the past few years, and only in a minority of countries on the planet. But in academia I find myself surrounded by open-minded critical thinkers, a social realm that’s generally ahead of the curve on acceptance of gays.
The LGBTQ community within the department is small and not always overtly visible, but we’re here.
Q: How do you find LGBTQ life in Oxford?
For a city its size, Oxford has about the most vibrant cultural ambiance you could ask for. There are organised LGBTQ activities, meetings, groups, societies, and events all over the place. These include talks, panels, discussions and such academic seminars formally organized by proactive members of the university and its colleges, and there are also a host of LGBTQ social groups – for students, for staff, for members of the academic community, of the non-academic community. Plus there’s the old-fashioned social network: a gay pub and a gay nightclub. On top of that, the queer haven of London is just down the road.
Q: What advice would you give to other LGBTQ people considering working here as a student or researcher?
Have at it! The department is a comfortable place and Oxford is a fantastic town. You may have to be proactive to find other members of the LGBTQ community, via email listservs, facebook groups, Twitter, etc., but we’re here! And the straight people are great too. 😉