Dr. Huw Griffiths (He/him/his) is a marine biogeographer with an interest in the polar regions.
Ed note: Our conversation with Huw has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How did the Pride in Polar group get started?
We had a joint meeting with the people from the Arctic in 2018 that was called Polar 2018 (a combination of Antarctic and Arctic researchers, and even some people from sort of mountain regions—anything cold) in Davos, Switzerland. We have several LGBTQI+ researchers within Antarctic science, but one of those individuals was having a particularly tough time in the run-up to that meeting at their home institute and was really feeling quite alone and isolated.
It was largely to do with their personal situation regarding not being straight, and they were reaching out through social media saying, "If anyone else is attending this meeting in Switzerland, would you be willing to wear a Pride pin? I've got a bag of 50—would anybody else be willing to wear one, just so I don't feel like the only one at this meeting and completely alone?" So that was the very small start of what happened.
There was quite a good reaction online, lots of people saying, "Oh yes, sure." And this individual was also not in a very well-paid position, so everyone was also like, "Yes, and I'll pay you back for it, don't worry because these things aren't cheap," and really trying to take the burden off the individual. This was one person who was being very brave by reaching out and saying, "I'm not doing very well with this, can you all help," and from that, once we were at the meeting, people were going and finding this individual and saying, "Can I have a pin?"
This individual was actually someone who had a conference meeting-room booked for another session that had to be cancelled. So we had this spare slot of time and a room to meet in. It wasn't officially on the calendar of the conference, but through social media and a few other things, a few of us just spread the word saying, “Look, if you're interested in having a discussion about equality and diversity regarding queer issues within polar science in general, we would really like to hear from you.” And what was amazing was that we filled a room with people—over 30 people turned up for that first meeting. And we didn't ask anyone what their background was in terms of whether they were straight, whether they were allies, whether they were queer, whether they were transgender. It wasn't about, “How many gay people do we have in polar science?” It was about who wants to promote a more open and equal and supportive environment. That's how we started, and how we've meant to go on.
That turned into an hour or so discussion of people signing up to make a mailing list and all of the usual things, but then we all went for dinner together as well. And by the time we finished dinner, we'd started a Twitter account. A friend of mine had made these little logos of a penguin and a cow when he married his wife (because he worked in Antarctic science, and she really likes cows), so he kept the penguin but made its white belly into a rainbow flag, and removed the horns from the cow, changed the shape of the ears, and changed the legs a bit, and we had a polar bear, and then gave that a rainbow belly as well.
Within less time than it took for somebody to give a plenary talk at that conference, we had a logo that suddenly gave us an identity. It covered both poles, and it really was gender neutral. It's very difficult to sex a penguin anyway. And because they're quite cartoonish, it instantly grabbed imagination. Once we put that on our Twitter profile and everything, people knew what they were coming to. They saw the Arctic and Antarctic and the whole rainbow spectrum of gender identity and everything else all on there, so it wasn't a difficult sell after that. Basically, it became something within that week of the conference. By the last day of the conference, the president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research mentioned us in his closing speech and wore a rainbow pin. This is a straight, leading scientist, senior-professor-type guy, the ones we're normally trying to bash down doors to get to, who changed his speech and pinned on a pin 30 seconds before he got on the stage and said, "Yeah, I'm going to mention you." So it was clear that the Antarctic and the Arctic communities were open to having a group like us.
That was 2018. So we've only been going really for a couple of years, and we also have two sister organizations: One is Women in Polar Science (which had started a couple years earlier) and one is called Minorities in Polar Science, covering ethnic minorities. And between the three groups, we support each other and have a very intersectional membership. So when we organize a session, it's not just one of us doing it—we come together as representing the whole diversity within Polar Research, which is really cool. We're still trying to find people who are willing to lead the disability championing within polar research, and that's something that's growing more now that polar research isn't just about going to the polar regions on expeditions. Now people are doing desk-based analysis from satellite data and things like that, and there's a much wider diversity in ability as well. So, disability is something that we're trying to bring into the fold as well.
And we're definitely not thinking of ourselves as a little island within polar research. If you want to be part of us but haven't even thought about doing polar research yet, that's even better. We might be bringing in scientists who've always felt like that wasn't for them. If we can show that polar research isn't just white men with beards who go and die in the snow somewhere, then mission accomplished.
We even got an email today from someone saying, "I'm a bisexual woman. I've never felt that excluded, but walking into polar research and seeing that you guys already existed and seeing your pins on super influential people and seeing people who I really respect retweeting your tweets, makes me realize that I'm safe where I am, that these professors and people do accept me." And it was just amazing for me to get feedback like that from something that started as one person complaining about feeling left out. That our group can make somebody else feel included, that's special.
It doesn't mean we don't have problems, though. There are early-career research conferences that are organized to be in countries where it's illegal to be LGBT, for example. An element of the work we want to do is to advise conference organizers on best practices. We don't want to stop events happening in places like that, but we're trying to encourage the organizers to work in ways that are safe for LGBT people as well.
Are there other things you're organizing?
The 18th of November is LGBT people in STEM day, so now we celebrate STEM in general, but specifically show your polar pride. So there's a hashtag #polarpride, and for anyone working Arctic, Antarctic, or working from home but studying bits of the polar regions, that's your opportunity to bake a cake or take a photo and put it on Twitter.
It's a visibility raising exercise. So it goes back to that first event we ever did. It was showing that we exist, and that there are more than one of us, that we do contribute, and that we are proud of what we do. And then to show other people who aren't currently doing polar research that actually none of the stereotypes are true anymore. That the person helping you create your field camp will be a woman that the person cooking your dinner back on base will be a man. None of these stereotypes have a place anymore in polar research. And that is still always part of our mission, to show the positives of polar research with diverse people.
It can feel a bit superficial just having lots of pretty tweets telling everybody, "Happy International Lesbian Day," or whatever, but actually that's important. Because one person might see that tweet, who might go,"Oh, there's somebody I can talk to. There's a group."
Or if we send out all these pin badges - I think we've sent 2000 pin badges out around the world now - so it means somebody, somewhere will be wearing one in Antarctica or wearing one in the Arctic or wearing one in their lab, or have one stuck to their computer screen. That enables their grad student or their undergraduates, when they walk into that office, even if that person's completely straight, they're still showing that they don't have these stereotypes in mind, that they are open to working with anybody from any background, which is a really important message to send out. That's why we deliberately sent some of the pins out to senior people from around the world.
It keeps coming back to visibility, but also there has to be a message behind it. We have to back it up with bringing together groups at conferences to discuss where we go next and what we need to do, and including the community because actually we're a bit of a ragtag bunch. There's no one leader. We all do what we can, where we can, around the world. We don't have a budget. But we're able to reach all over the world because there is this momentum of enthusiasm that this is the right thing to do.
Have you learned anything in particular from doing this work? Have there been any surprises?
Firstly, how many people within polar research do identify as being some sort of LGBTQIA+ minority. Because you don't ask those questions, in general. You could be on a research ship with them and then maybe when you're living or working with them, you might eventually find out about those personal things, but the original purpose was, "Is there anybody else out there?" And what surprised me is how many people are, and how many people are willing, now that they've seen people being open and honest, to be open and honest themselves and add the little rainbow flag to their biography or add their pronouns, because we're showing that that's a useful thing to do. Even if it doesn't benefit them directly, it benefits other members of the community. Those kinds of things have been really well accepted, much better than expected.
The willingness of people to help has been quite surprising. We first stood in that room thinking it would just be the two of us. Now, having close to 3,000 followers on Twitter is just insane, especially given that there can't be that many people studying polar research if you think of individual scientists. So we've just gotten a lot more community support than we expected.
[For example,] there's a woman called Lorraine Kelly in the UK who presents one of the highest-rated shows in the UK for breakfast TV. She's obsessed with Antarctica, and she's a huge LGBT ally. She was even on RuPaul's Drag Race UK as one of the guest judges—she's that level of queer icon in the UK. She followed us within weeks of starting, and retweets our stuff to an audience of half a million people. That really shocked me, that we could put something out and somebody you see on your TV every day could go, "Yeah, I want to support this group." More than just, “I'll like it and leave it like that," she'll retweet our stuff, she'll put comments about how amazing it all is and how she wishes she could be back in Antarctica and how what we're doing is amazing. You just don't realize how many people care until you start something like this.
We've also always been really keen to include the word "allies" in everything we do. We don't want to exclude anybody, because you don't ask someone why they're in that room. They may not be ready to talk about who they really are, or they might really be a cis straight white male who genuinely wants to work their ass off. There are a couple of those within our steering committee—straight people who have done more work than some of the queer people for this group—and that's also a really nice feeling, to know that there are people who will, above and beyond any call of duty, really help us.
Is there anything in particular you'd like queer scientists to know about the group?
Just that we're really open. We're there for anybody who has an interest. I'm a biologist, there's lots of physicists, or you could be a social scientist. Polar research, more than any other type of research, is dependent on the people who support us. So we have engineers, we have generator mechanics, we have chefs, we have everything. You can't stay alive in the Antarctic or the Arctic without field guides and station leaders and all these people who do all this amazing logistics and electronics and communications and everything else. So we're not just science, we're everything that comes with science—we're the whole community, in terms of living and working in the polar regions.
That's why we didn't have "science" at the end [of our name] and kept "research"—because we didn't want to exclude any part. So research is the whole package, as far as we're concerned. I think that's something that science needs to be careful of. Do we offend a lab technician if we talk about scientists? And do we offend the person who delivers our mail, who feels an equal part of our institute, but suddenly if they're queer, they're not welcome at this table? So I think one of the real messages is we want to be as inclusive as we can.
We've got to do a lot better on some things, like everything goes out in English at the moment. But there's no membership card to fill in, there's no anything else. If you want to be part of us, you're part of us. If you want to follow us, follow us. If you get bored of us, mute us. But we're here, and if anyone's interested in finding out more about polar research, it's a really good, friendly way to do it.