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The Power of Seeing

My name is Qining Wang. I was born and raised in China. Growing up, I was always conscious about my gender as female. That changed after I moved to the US for college: I was surrounded by people of different races and ethnicity, and the fact that I am Asian suddenly stood out to me and to everyone who sees me. My race is not so much of an issue when I am at work, as a chemist in the lab, as my advisors and lab mates mostly see me as their colleague. What rarely stands out to people who may or may not know me is that I am also a lesbian, and this didn't bother me at first. I thought as long as all my different identities can coexist, there is no need for people to see all of them. I even justified downplaying my sexual orientation in my head to “uphold the objectivity of the science” I do. I never found it necessary to be seen as a lesbian scientist.

Looking back, it was more than understandable. Chinese officials have long stigmatized and censored the LGBTQ+ community. These days, on WeChat, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, adding the pride or trans flag emoji to one's username is still against the platforms user terms. Growing up in a place filled with hostility toward LGBTQ+ people, I had very little freedom to explore my sexuality. The compulsive heterosexuality was ingrained in me so deeply that despite having crushes on girls since high school, I thought I just liked them as friends. I finally came to terms with my sexual orientation in the summer of 2018, right before I started my Ph.D. in chemistry.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad that I did not realize my sexuality earlier on. Unlike some of my gay peers being called “sissies” or “perverts,” I didn’t have to confront any homophobia directed toward me. Yet it also means that as I start exploring my sexuality, I had a lot of catching up to do. That catching up isn’t merely binging all episodes of Orange Is the New Black and listening to Girl in Red on repeat (guilty of both, of course). It means that now I need to find a place for this part of me that I just discovered among my many other identities.

And it wasn't easy. Even though my parents, my lab mates, and other people around me are all very accepting of LGBTQ+ scientists, I still rarely bring up my experience as a lesbian scientist in conversations. At times it felt like being a lesbian is irrelevant to being a scientist, and it would be shoving-it-in-peoples-faces too much to talk about it. I’ve never felt insecure about my identities, but neither did I have any experience fitting my sexuality snuggly with my other identities.

What’s more complicated is that there aren’t many people I can share my experiences with around me. Being an Asian female scientist in the US stands out more than any other part of me, which somewhat dims the light on the rest of my identity. Many people, including scientists, still consider scientists to be heterosexual and cisgender by default. Lesbians portrayed in movies and TV shows are still predominately white and able-bodied. As someone with so many intertwined identities, I have very few references to hand to find out how my different identities play out with one another. It is also hard to grasp how my identities collectively shape my experience of the world. Looking at myself through the lens of intersectionality feels like a research project in and of itself. Just like scientific research unveiling the unknown, I can only hypothesize, experiment, and gradually approach a conclusion that I can make peace with.

And that conclusion is: Every part of me matters, even if people can’t see all of them. Just like a benzene ring needs all its six sp2-hybridized carbons to be recognized as a benzene molecule, I need to embrace my race, my gender and sexuality, my profession, and all my unique experiences to be my authentic self. No matter how seemingly irrelevant being a lesbian is to me being a scientist, I would not be who I am today if I failed to acknowledge my sexuality as a constituent of me and everything I do. My identities are the sources of my courage, creativity, and inspiration. I need to see every facet of myself as equally important, no matter if one can perceive that facet with naked eyes or can only see it with an embracing and acceptive heart.

I still remember the instance that empowers me when I felt seen. It was toward the end of my first year at Northwestern. I was chatting with my colleagues one day about finding partners. When I mentioned I was single, one colleague responded: "Don't worry. Someday you will find a guy you truly like.” As I was about to brush it off and pretend like it was no big deal, another colleague quickly reminded them that they shouldn’t have assumed my sexuality. I felt very validated at that moment. Even though I never explicitly came out to my colleagues, I felt like a sensible and considerate ally was there, standing by my side.

Now that I am much better at juggling my intersecting identities, I want to be seen as my authentic self more than ever. I want the younger Asian lesbians to see me. I want them to know that they too could become scientists one day. I also want more scientists, more LGBTQ+ people, and more allies to see me. I want them to see and appreciate the diversity within both the STEM and the LGBTQ+ communities.

I also want to see more with my eyes and my heart. I want to see more scientists embracing every part of themselves. I want to be there for all the LGBTQ+ scientists whenever they share the human and vulnerable pieces of themselves with the world. I want to see more allies do the same by humanizing LGBTQ+ scientists, giving space, and listening to us when we speak up.

Lastly, I want to let you, my dear reader, know that no matter if you’ve already come out or not, every part of you is valid, precious, and loved. We shall remember our predecessors, especially the Black transgender women, who fought with their lives for our rights and freedom during the Stonewall riots. We shall cherish their legacies by living as who we are and taking up spaces, loud and proud.

I see you. I love you. Happy Pride!

You can follow Qining on Twitter @qnwang_.

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