Reflections on Growing Up Gay and the Solace of Science
Wyatt Vreeland, Chemical Engineer, National Institute of Standards and Technology
I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the mid-’70s into a blue-collar family. My father was a carpenter and my mother was a homemaker. My family was of modest means, but we always had enough food to eat and always had a roof over our heads.
On the occasional summer weekend, my parents would scrape enough money together for us to go on a road trip to a neighboring lake town, memories I cherish to this day. My early childhood years were mostly those of a typical happy-go-lucky boy. I was usually in good spirits and I had everything that I needed. Despite that, I didn’t really fit in with my “peer” group of pre-teen boys. I didn’t like sports, I didn’t particularly care for outdoor activities, and most of my friends were girls. The few male friends I did have as a child, I would learn later in life were also gay (more on that later).
Throughout my childhood, this lack of fitting in persisted. I just didn’t want to do what other boys wanted to do. And I didn’t have this peculiar attraction to girls that other boys had. I recognized that it is was only peculiar to me. I understood what the attraction was, and I looked for it within myself. I looked a lot, but couldn’t find it.
The only place I found peace and solace was in studying, so that is what I did and did it pretty intensely. I used those pursuits to distract myself from all the pain associated with not fitting into the pre-made social machinery around me. I didn’t have to go to the weekend school dance, because I was too busy studying for the chemistry exam on the following Monday. This paid other dividends with my peers at school. Since I worked so hard to fully understand the materials, it became easy for me to explain them to other students who needed help. I had found a way to be accepted by my peers; I could be the best nerd in the class!
In high school, I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to the University of Tulsa that covered most of my tuition costs and ultimately resulted in a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. During my undergraduate days, I reunited with some of my elementary school friends and they introduced me to the local gay scene. There were a handful of gay bars that we would frequent, and for the first time in my life, I found a community where I was accepted and not judged. I was finally ready to come out to the world in general, and I didn’t care anymore who knew I was gay. (Before this time, I held this secret very tightly — only my closest friends knew and they were sworn to secrecy.)
After earning my degree, I was not ready to get a “real” job, since the only options that seemed available to me were entry-level corporate engineering jobs in the petrochemical industry. Sure the pay was good, but the work was not that interesting. So, I ended up applying to graduate programs across the country, ultimately deciding to attend Northwestern University. I earned a Ph.D. in the early 2000s, and that led to a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and ultimately a staff position, where I now have an amazing career and work life.
Throughout my grade-school, undergraduate and graduate education, I would hear the occasional off-color “gay” comment from peers and I had more or less grown to accept it as an unfortunate fact of life. Now, as I approach the 20th year of my career at NIST, I cannot imagine my sexuality being any part of how my peers evaluate me or my abilities; to them it is only as important as the color of the (very little) hair on my head or the color of the pigments in the irises of my eyes. That is to say, it is something that is a part of me, but it is not what defines my abilities.
It is a true asset to NIST that everybody is appreciated and acknowledged for the skills and integrity they bring to their work, while the other qualities that describe them as a person only serve to enhance their contribution to the community. We still have a long way to go in completely accepting everybody. But that little boy born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 44 years ago, would never have imagined that our society would have progressed so much toward fully accepting the beautiful diversity that makes up our world.
This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on June 28, 2019.
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About the Author
Wyatt Vreeland graduated magna cum laude from the University of Tulsa in May of 1997. In 1997 he began his doctoral studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. During his time at Northwestern, his research focused on developing new methodologies for high-resolution electrophoretic analysis of polymeric macromolecules in capillaries and microfluidic “lab-on-a-chip” devices. These techniques were primarily geared toward DNA analysis for genetic applications. He joined NIST in 2004. His recent research has focused on using the precise and reproducible laminar flow conditions available in microfluidic systems to facilitate the self-assembly of amphiphilic molecules into liposomes and other nanoparticles.