Wildlife Vocalizations: Kelly VanBeek

Wildlife Vocalizations is a collection of short personal perspectives from people in the field of wildlife sciences.

I’ve always joked that I wish I could wear a label as my way of announcing to the world that I am gay. That would remove the repeated awkwardness that comes with coming out over and over again as I move through life. A big, boisterous coming out was never my style and still isn’t. I just want the ease of not having to declare my sexuality every time I meet someone new, which is the default experience for straight people in our heteronormative society. Given that coming out is not a single event in our culture, it is inevitable that some of those instances would be more painful and awkward than others, and for me they certainly were. One such example that many LGBTQ+ people share is working up the courage to come out to a family member or friend, only to find out that someone else has already outed you to this person. At the same time, not telling people, especially people who have known me from a young age, sometimes felt like a burden, and people making seemingly benign suggestions about my lack of a male companion felt like microaggressions. The more comfortable I got with my sexuality, the more I wanted to speak out about this inner conflict, perhaps not for myself but for all the others that surely felt the same way.​​​​​​​

VanBeek holds an Eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus) while conducting field research in northern Wisconsin. Credit: Mike Ward

You may have seen the article by Travis Booms about being an out, gay biologist, and I’m so grateful that Travis was brave enough to share his thoughts with The Wildlife Society. The TWS annual meeting has always felt like a safe space for me because it felt like a relatively clean canvas — a place where I wasn’t hiding in the shadow of what I thought I needed to be in order to fit in at work. With the knowledge that straight allies were indeed present, I always felt a bit more comfortable being out at the conference. I’m lucky to feel that way, and I know that not everyone has had that experience.

A photo of VanBeek.
Credit: Courtesy of Kelly VanBeek

A TWS meeting in Raleigh occurred when all of these varied emotions — my inner conflict about living out versus the irritation I felt to keep coming out, combined with my relative comfort with being exactly who I wanted to be at the conference — finally went from a simmer to a boil. I was sitting in a presentation about, coincidentally, microaggressions and folks were being asked to share some examples. I whispered my example about people assuming I partnered with men to a great friend sitting next to me and how if gender is removed when people ask if I have a partner, I immediately feel at ease. She encouraged me to share, so I raised my hand for the mic and essentially outed myself in a room full of over a hundred people. For the first time in my life, I felt a rush of relief for sharing my story.

Several strangers came up to me throughout the rest of the conference and shared how important they thought it was to share an insight into what it means to assume someone’s orientation or gender in casual conversation. I remember every word they said and the look on their faces as they spoke. Their validation and acknowledgment meant more to me than they will ever know. In those moments, I realized how much power there was in speaking my truth. Our truth. There’s been no looking back, and for that I am proud.

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Header Image: VanBeek after a successful turkey hunt on her family's farm. Credit: Courtesy of Kelly VanBeek