Managing minions: rainbow edition
Growing up, my parents – like many people’s parents – wanted me to be a medical doctor – maybe a neurosurgeon. Having a child become a doctor was an accomplishment, a mark of good parenting and a point of parental pride. To them, a medical career is a well-compensated, well-respected position with high job security. My parents were pleased that I chose to major in the sciences in college, and only as I approached graduation, became concerned that I had not yet taken the MCAT.
The thing was, I had volunteered as a candy striper at a local hospital one summer while I was in high school. Agnostic at the start of that summer, I was quite sure that a medical career was not for me by summer’s end.
My parents tried very hard to get me to even just take the MCAT, culminating in offering me an amount of cash that equaled a month’s rent to just go and take the exam, completely unprepared. I knew if I relented in that, the pressure would only intensify; what’s the harm in just applying, just going on the interview, just trying it out for a year… Up until a few years ago they would mention it wasn’t too late to go to med school; you have such steady hands, you’d make a great surgeon! To this day, there is residual disappointment that I am not a “real” doctor.
But not going to med school didn’t make me a sinner.
It feels awesome when you can meet someone you respect’s high expectations, or even better if you can surprise that person by exceeding them. On the long drives back to college with my parents, I would daydream about just giving in and going to med school, and then becoming a brain surgeon and basking in parental approval for ever and ever. And perhaps then, if I came out to them, the two things would sort of balance out and they would still be proud of me and of themselves.
Even at the time, I knew it wouldn’t work.
But maybe I wasn’t really gay? Maybe I just hadn’t met the right boy or maybe my expectations of how relationships are supposed to work was unrealistic or <insert all sorts of ridiculous bullshit here>. For me, (among other things) being gay effectively meant never meeting, let alone exceeding, my parent’s expectations again.
In the throws of my questioning phase, much of my mental efforts were caught up trying to reconcile the person I am with the person I was supposed to be, and doing the mental gymnastics to reconcile the fact that I wanted to be a good person with the fact that, according to my upbringing, I technically wasn’t a good person anymore. This crisis overshadowed much of the fall of my third year of university and set me up for an absolute disaster of a semester academically. However, unlike a student with a terminally ill family member or a personal medical issue, there was nothing obviously wrong. Gay? Not gay? Who cares? It mattered little to anyone, except me, at my nice liberal university whether or not I was queer. Luckily, that semester I happened to have the same professor for two of my upper level (non-science) major classes who was gay and very out. I’m not sure how much I confided in him – at that time, I probably couldn’t/didn’t come out – or if any tears were involved, but he recognized and validated my internal struggle for what it was and, without further questions, made the academic arrangements that I needed to finish out that semester on a kinder timescale. That little bit of mercy kept me in the game.
I’ve mentored some really interesting and fantastic people. They have it together. They know where they are going. They know who they are. And I have to say that their easy self-knowledge continues to blow my mind. These kids are not disappointments to their families. Sure, there is pressure from their families for particular career tracks, usually to become medical doctors. There can sometimes be a little tenseness when the person they take home is of a different race or if they become vegan or change political parties. However, these things usually don’t change them into evil sinners in the eyes of society, their families of origin or in their own eyes.
For the minions I’ve mentored that fall somewhere on the rainbow spectrum, the texture of their identity shaping process resonates with my own. When I was an undergrad, Ellen came out on a sitcom, there were a ton of newspaper headlines about it and a season later the show was canceled. Things have changed a lot since then. However despite all of the recent exciting social justice victories, identity questioning and coming out remains, on a personal level, even in supportive environments, even with loving families, tremendously difficult.
When thinking about how best to mentor all your minions, but in particular the LGBTQ ones, I’ll offer up two gifts my academic parents gave to me. One was knowing that there was one (although there were rumors of one other person in a different department) very out faculty member. This person helped me through an acute crisis by being a someone I felt like I could approach to even consider asking for help; in the space of half an office hour, he validated my poorly-articulated struggle (and possibly doesn’t even recall doing anything in particular). The other was that as a UROP, I was able to meet, and sometimes exceed, the expectations set out for me in my undergraduate lab – and those expectations were focused uniquely on my project. Given my strained relationship with my family at the time, sharing that excitement with my (straight white male) mentor – someone I respected – was really important. By valuing my work, my mentor taught me that I could do work that had value and forced me to recognize that I had value as a person and as a scientist.