Queer in the field: The unique challenges of LGBTQIA+ scientists conducting international research

LGBTQIA+ scientists can face nuanced challenges when travelling abroad to conduct research. Bethan Cracknell Daniels, Research Postgraduate in the School of Public Health, reflects on her time in Ghana supporting infectious disease control, and how the  LGBTQIA+  International Support Group are advocating for a more inclusive global scientific community.

While applying for my PhD in Infectious Disease Modelling at Imperial in 2019, I wanted to gain hands-on experience in infectious disease control. At the time, I was an undergraduate student studying Immunology at the University of Manchester. I applied for an internship with a laboratory on the edge of Accra, Ghana, providing infectious disease diagnosis to a local hospital. I was excited to be accepted and immediately went about booking flights and organising my visa.

It was only a week before my flight that I learned Ghana criminalises homosexuality, with physical homophobic attacks against LGBTQIA+ individuals being common. As a queer woman with a same-sex partner, I was nervous. Living in Manchester, with its famous gay village, I was very open about my sexuality and thought nothing of walking down the street holding hands with my girlfriend. Unsure of how to navigate being gay in Ghana, I eventually decided to tell people I didn’t have a partner, effectively returning myself to the closet.

The loudest voices don’t always represent the majority

My time in Ghana was an educational and enjoyable experience, providing valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of infectious disease control in a resource-limited setting. However, being frequently asked about having a boyfriend or husband back home, and not being my authentic self with my lab colleagues, took its toll on me. Under difficult circumstances, I ended up coming out to one colleague. Although they reacted with indifference, I felt vulnerable and spent the rest of the trip worrying that they might tell others. I now know that in a 2016 survey on global attitudes to LGBTQIA+ individuals, nearly half of all Ghanaians said they would have no concerns if their neighbour was gay or lesbian. This highlighted to me that those who are the loudest may not be representative of many individual beliefs and I was reassured by others capacity to empathise with those they know, even if they don’t agree with them.

Nevertheless, LGBTQIA+ scientists continue to face unique challenges when working internationally. This was underscored by research conducted by Christina Atchison, a member of my current department at Imperial, Infectious Disease Epidemiology. Christina undertook an EDI seed-funded project, ‘Out in the Field’. The survey of Imperial LGBTQIA+ staff and postgraduate students revealed that 61% felt uncomfortable, unsafe or in danger when travelling for work. Like me, these individuals may therefore choose to self-censor their identity abroad, resulting in a cognitive burden and negative mental health impact.

Forming the LGBTQ+ International Travel Group

Following Christina’s survey, a group of us in my department formed the LGBTQIA+ International Support Group, aiming to provide support for LGBTQIA+ Imperial staff and students. Since our inception in 2022 we have created a safe space to discuss issues, raised awareness, set up a website highlighting resources andFAQs relating to international working, and provided mental health training in partnership with MindOut on LGBTQIA+ international travel, with further trainings planned for 2024. Additionally, we are currently working with Imperial to include LGBTQIA+ specific guidance in the travel risk assessment. During the mental health training, we spent time discussing queer communities around the world. While they may be less visible in some settings than Manchester’s gay village, they are present in every corner of the globe. Knowledge of the queer communities in Ghana, not just the significant barriers and challenges faced by LGBTQIA+ individuals, would certainty have made me feel less isolated.

My experience in Ghana highlighted to me the nuanced challenges of being a queer scientist conducting international research. Deciding whether to travel and whether to come out whilst abroad is a personal choice, with potential negative and positive impacts. Hopefully, the efforts of the LGBTQIA+ International Support Group and others working in this area, through awareness, training, and resources, will empower fellow scientists to navigate these choices with greater confidence and advocate for a more inclusive and understanding global scientific community.

If you would like to join the conversation with the LGBTQIA+ International Support Group, please get in contact at lgbqtia-support@imperial.ac.uk.

Bethan Cracknell Daniels is a final year PhD student in the School of Public Health’s Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology. Bethan’s research uses statistical and mathematical models to evaluate interventions against dengue and COVID-19.