Post provided by Gwen Antell
To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are posting a ‘Rainbow Research’ series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag. In this post, Gwen Antell describes the process of sewing a Progress Pride flag with science-themed fabric, while stitching together the identities of being an aromantic asexual palaeobiologist.
I cut my pride in half on Valentine’s Day.
I shear through the nylon of my rainbow Pride flag and stitch the raw edge onto the striped chevron that defines the Progress flag. I started the flag upgrade two months prior, over Christmas vacation, but was thwarted by lack of a pattern, thread, bulk fabric, or sewing machine. Regrettably I had jettisoned my sewing kit when I moved from the West Coast to England for my PhD program with only what I could carry in two checked bags.
As someone with a background in field ecology, however, what I lack in resources I can more than make up for in ingenuity. I’ve sampled insects by setting plastic kids’ bowls in the ground and filling them with soapy water like pitfall traps. I’ve snared lizards with a noose of floss at the end of a fishing pole. I’ve caught wild birds by propping up a wire box with a stick and pulling the stick out from afar with string. When I decided to revitalize my flag, I was undaunted by the near total lack of resources in my flat and the UK lockdown keeping shops shut.
Violet is for spirit
First, I crafted a sewing pattern. I rummaged through rusty memories of trigonometry to map out the angles and sizes of each trapezoid in the Progress flag design. Then I raided the building’s recycling station for newspaper to cut pattern piece templates. I borrowed embroidery floss from a friend, honed a pair of blunt crafting scissors with a knife sharpener, and gathered spare needles to use in place of pins. All that remained to find was fabric.
I needed a classic rainbow for the base of the design. Luckily, I already had a cheap nylon Pride flag; it had hung off my office window to mark Ace Week (formerly Asexual Awareness Week). My office mates—queer, questioning, and allies—had gently kindled my bravery to fly it there, and we had hoisted it together. The flag didn’t last two days before someone with master-key-level access entered our locked office and cut it down. I had spent the rest of that week cowering at home, too afraid to go in to work on my research without knowing who would do such a thing or what their motives were. I never did find answers. I folded the flag away after that, back in the closet.
Mending the pieces
Red is for life
In an all-too-common story, I couldn’t get anyone in leadership to act on my case with the flag. Where institutional accountability measures failed me, my peers stepped up to set me back on my feet. One friend in the department painted my favourite fossil, an ammonite, against a rainbow backdrop. ‘No one can ever ban artwork of your study organism in your office,’ she explained.
This particular ammonite belongs to the group called heteromorphs, an extinct clade of cephalopods whose shells coiled in open, irregular, asymmetric spirals. I joke that heteromorphs are the only good kind of heteronormativity. No one knows how they swam, hunted, or mated with such unusual anatomy—but they did, because heteromorphs thrived before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Perhaps my life also strikes people as anomalous. How can someone give and receive love as an aromantic asexual? But my life is filled with love; I too thrive.
Orange is for healing
The ammonite looks on from the wall as I unpack the old rainbow flag and prepare to mend the pieces into a new and improved version. The white, pink, blue, brown, and black fabrics for the Progress part of the flag are more gifts from my community. The white is a t-shirt with the equation describing species’ geographic range controls, which my PhD supervisor passed on to me from a workshop. The blue also comes from her. She once came across a fat quarter of fabric with blue ammonite print and got it for me, knowing I sew and love ammonites. The pink and brown stripes are more shirts: one from my drawer and one from a past housemate who wanted to contribute.
It’s the black stripe that amuses me most. The two black strips that form the V dividing the flag are the trailing shoulder epaulettes from an Oxford academic gown. Gowns have centuries of tradition at the university and must be worn at all ceremonies, formal dinners, and exams. Since such events are cancelled during the pandemic I repurposed the garment.
I hand-stitch each coloured diagonal to the next, hunched under a desk light against the dark English winter. During hours of repetition pulling needle through cloth, I meditate on the many people who are part of my patchwork pride. I reflect on peers who gave me the validation, advice, and encouragement to come out again and again to myself and to the world; I think back on scientific mentors who gave me the validation, advice, and encouragement to pursue and publish my ideas. My flag and my career may showcase my unique interests, but these tapestries are threaded with contributions from many people in my life.
Otherness in science and sexuality
Blue is for harmony
My orientation places me on the periphery of every community. The A follows the acronym, after all: LGBTQI-A. I am the queer in straight spaces, the asexual in queer spaces, the aromantic in asexual spaces. Life on the outskirts can be lonely at times but also gifts me a vantage point of objectivity. People on the aromantic spectrum often find ourselves the go-to friend whom others seek out for relationship advice: we can be trusted to make unbiased assessments of romantic situations.
I find the position of maverick a gift in scientific communities, too. I am the biologist in Earth science spaces and the Earth scientist in biology spaces. I can both critique spatial ecology models and measure a stratigraphic rock section. Being exposed to such disparate ideas expands my academic toolbox—but also keeps me humble about the limits of my own knowledge. Straddling two disciplines reigns in my ego in each of them; this nonbinary position gives me another kind of objective vantage point.
Although I see my positions in both LGBTQIA and STEM communities as positive and related, there are many systemic factors that shunt queer and trans folks out of science. I count myself lucky to have received support personally and professionally; many LGBTQIA people endure hostility, harassment, and devaluation in STEM careers. We need more role models, we need more allies, we need more rest from the work of educating those in majority positions.
Light the way
Yellow is for sunlight
The aromantic (aro) and asexual (ace) communities have made tremendous progress in the last decade in educating the world about our existence. As visibility increases, more people are discovering terms from these communities that elevate individual quirks to collective experiences. There are multiple awareness dates throughout the year to draw attention to the aro and ace spectra. This is how I found myself rushing to finish my Progress flag on Valentine’s Day: Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week begins the following Sunday. Valentine’s Day can feel particularly alienating for those who experience romance in non-normative ways, and sharing pride is a powerful antidote to isolation.
International Asexuality Day followed six weeks later (6 April), bringing another chance for visibility. I was elated to join other ace people in STEM in a mega thread of 72 profiles on Twitter, coordinated by Sarah Cosgriff. The anonymous responses to the thread highlight both the invisibility of current a-spectrum scientists and the impact our being out has on future scientists:
“As an aro-ace in high school, hoping to go into STEM one day…it’s quite rare for me to find anyone else like me, and can get lonely not having someone to look up to. The feeling of not being the ‘only one’ isn’t one I get very often, I’m afraid! Seeing all of these lovely people, able to share their stories with people like me, makes me feel as if I really can do it too.”
“As an ace person thinking of applying for STEM subjects at uni, this thread has been really nice to see these two worlds collide and make me realise how many of us are out there!”
I hope this blog brings more light to the experiences of scientists on the aro and ace spectra. To every reader on these axes or questioning, I’d share that you aren’t alone or destined to end up that way. You are lovely, and loving, and loved. I tell you this as an aro-ace person who renews this truth every day. And as a biologist as well, I would tell you that whatever your sexuality, it’s as natural and ordinary as anything in nature—that is, extraordinary.
Definitions and places to learn more about a-spec orientations
Green is for nature
Aromantic identities fall under the umbrella of LGBTQIA and are one of the most invisible orientations. Aro people feel romantic attraction rarely, never, or only under certain circumstances, or hold otherwise unconventional attitudes towards romance. Aromanticism is a spectrum that includes many types of experiences and parallels the asexuality spectrum. Asexual or ace people feel sexual attraction rarely, never, or only under certain circumstances. Most people in the world don’t think to distinguish between romantic and sexual attraction because they feel these and other attractions simultaneously and towards the same types of people (e.g. simultaneous romantic and sexual attraction to men). However, some people experience only one form of attraction or different forms for different types of people. Sexuality is complicated!
To find out more about Gwen’s research, visit ResearchGate here
For additional resources on asexuality, visit the guide here