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Robyn Leigh Tanguay Oral History Interview, February 28, 2020

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ANGELO URSINI: Today's date is February 28th, 2020. I'm Angelo Ursini. This is an oral history interview with Robyn Leigh Tanguay for the OSU History 368 Lesbian and Gay Movements in Modern America oral history project. We're glad to have you.


AU: First question, have you always had thoughts in the back of your head about your sexuality?

RLT: I would say I more thought about my gender identity since I was very young. Probably started having questions around five years of age and just didn't know what to make of it. It was very early in life, yes.

AU: What is your experience/relationship with the LGBTQ+ community?

RLT: When I was young, none actually because I was in a very small town in upper Michigan. So not very open-minded folks lived among-many cities, but-certainly 00:01:00the little town at the time. I was born in the mid-60s. There was no community. Any comments you would hear as a young person was all negative and derogatory, which is of course frightening. You wouldn't talk about things like that to anybody. There were no allies, no open-mindedness at all in my childhood. Certainly, there would be no role models then. Then it's quite different. You guys are all younger than I am. Getting information in the 60s and 70s, there was no internet. The library was quite small. I went to a Catholic school. You throw all that together-and no, I had no real connections to any community other than Catholic, white, poor. [Laughs] That was my community.


AU: So how did you find out about the LGBTQ+ community?

RLT: It was later in life; I went to college in the 80s. It was probably in high school. I did some of my high school studies in California. Certainly it's a more progressive state. And then certainly more reading, better libraries, better material. But even then, that's pre-internet. So it wasn't easy to connect to folks back then. I certainly had a better grasp of who I was, but not really able to do a darn thing about it seemingly. That's when I started to realize at least I'm not alone. But it still felt like I was. In my world, I may as well have been.

AU: When's the first time you told someone?

RLT: That's a great question. Phew, it's a very good question. Probably in 00:03:00graduate school. That would have been in the 90s. It was a faculty member who was out. We never really had a friendship or anything. I know I didn't have the courage to tell anybody at that time. Honestly, you kind of get programmed-you may or may not know this-by all the negativity. If you're driven to succeed in anything, you avoid the things that are negative and pushing you down. You gravitate through the ones that are positive reinforcement. Anytime I would hear negative comments around LGBTQ+ issues, you certainly make note of every single one of them and protect yourself by avoiding those people. So yeah, I became 00:04:00aware of folks, but I didn't think I could, quote, "join the community without jeopardizing my career." That was a very heavy decision that I made in my young 20's. I thought they were mutually exclusive. So, to be a successful scientist, I couldn't let other part of me be real.

AU: Has coming out affected your research grants?

RLT: Not yet. I'm well-funded-have been for decades. Honestly, I have not submitted a grant application since I openly transitioned. I don't anticipate challenges there. I really don't. All science is really competitive anyhow. I 00:05:00really believe that it's a highly competitive scientific discipline. At least I'd like to believe and hope I'm right that the competitiveness will not change when the reviewers review and see my name. I certainly got a lot of emails from people in the field since December when I openly transitioned. At least everyone I heard from has been very positive. These are world-renown scientists all around the world. So I'm encouraged by that, guess the jury's out. I doubt it'll affect it. It's decisions I make as a scientist which will jeopardize my success more than, now, coming to get used to Robyn I think. I hope I'm right.

AU: Has it affected your relationships?

RLT: Yeah it has. Boy, that's a loaded question, cuz there's lots of types of relationships, right? I think my relationship with my spouse-so we've been 00:06:00married almost 30 years-I'm sure it's been challenging for Sherry, but it's been great too. I think she sees how much happier I am. We always had a great relationship, but I think it's even better now, as odd as that may sound to folks. So my immediate family, I think, has been very positive, even better. We didn't have problems before. I was really good at taking that pain and discomfort and shoving it aside, and not letting it affect people around me, so pretty good at that.

I have a large group of scientists in my laboratory. Certainly I worried about that for a decade, how I was going to tell them-terrified me actually. It's been really positive. I can pretty much tell where, for the students and my staff who 00:07:00struggled with it at the beginning. But I think overall, for many there's a different level of, maybe respect for me? That I was able to be open to them and to be vulnerable to them because they don't usually see me that way. I'm kind of the boss-I don't have feelings almost right? I just have to be steady. So I think that's been positive with my colleagues in my department. So far, it's been pretty positive. Certainly, you get your radar up for more people. Not necessarily that they're discriminating, but they're just really don't what to do with the new me and the discomfort. So I'm still at that stage of working through some of those. But so far it's been pretty positive.


AU: The small town where you grew up, how did they take it?

RLT: That's a very good question. My mother still lives in my hometown, so does one of my brothers and my older sister. I went there to visit them about a month ago, and it went really well. Shockingly well, I might say. My mom is 82 years old and she had said things in the past over my childhood, certainly not about anyone in her family, because that's not possible, right? Again, all those things have been registered and hard-wired in my memory. But she's been great. She's been saying it's gonna be hard to get used to me because I'm kind of like their rock in the family. But she's been very open and trying really hard with 00:09:00the names, the pronouns. My older sister has been phenomenal, honestly and helped me a lot with that announcement to my mom. I couldn't be happier about how my siblings and my mother responded.

AU: Do you have any idea about where your future research is going?

RLT: Yeah. I have a huge research program. We have a lot of grants that are funded now for another four or five years. We're going to be focusing on really at the core, trying to understand the chemicals that we're exposed to in our environment, in our food and air, pharmaceuticals for example, which one of those chemicals can be harmful to humans and to the lesser extent, to the environment. We've built systems to efficiently ask those questions. And then we 00:10:00are hopefully building towards a time where we can predict, just by looking at a molecule, whether it's dangerous or not. We really can't do that yet. It's not like, every chemical is equally evaluated. Like, water would be just as toxic as cyanide, right, cuz you wouldn't know unless you tested it. We want to be able to look at cyanide and say "yeah, that's going to be toxic, this compound's not, this one's the problem," to really help people make better decisions about what chemicals we should be using in our world around us. So that's a huge scientific question that we're going try to tackle in the next however many more years I have left working. It's really predictive toxicology, predictive chemical activity-is what I want to do.

AU: And what advice would you give towards any person that has questions about 00:11:00transitioning/questions about his or her own sexuality?

RLT: It's really hard to tell anyone else what to do, because you don't understand their life history and their life contacts now. Any advice I have, it would just be more general. I guess I would say, it can be scary for some people to come out-the first thing, in the path I did, I found allies. I found faculty here who had transitioned decades earlier and who became good friends. That was instrumental in me at least starting to finally believe that it was possible, that I could be a successful scientist and mentor, and also transition. I would say ten years ago I didn't think it was possible. I thought it was just going to 00:12:00be something I'm just going to have to take to the grave with me. And then listening more, reading more, meeting more people, then I started to think-then you start imagining it. Then that kicks in another problem that you'd imagine the worst, right? Which I did. Which actually probably made it more miserable for me.

I think finding allies who could listen to your fears and concerns, and at least provide their prospective, is a good first step. The other thing is that certainly gender identity and sexuality, it's important but it's not the only part of you, right? You want people to accept who you are but there's other expectations on you in this world, right, in how to behave towards others and 00:13:00not to lose that. Sometimes the treatment that you get is because of the way you act rather than you're always being attacked. Sometimes you have a responsibility. I think finding allies who can listen to you, give advice on how it can be done and also some of the really positive outcomes. If you can, kind of merge your life and be authentic and-All I can say, openly it's only been a few months for me, but it's had a huge impact on my mental health, I would say. I'm always busy, and it's shocking that I think I actually have, maybe, yet another level of efficiency that I have released, by not having to deal with this other part of me in a separate part of my brain. I think, find allies, 00:14:00understand that if there's other things in your life this won't necessarily solve all of those. [Laughs] But it won't go away if you just try to suppress it and that hurts a lot.

AU: Do you see people any differently after transitioning?

RLT: I don't think so. I don't know if it's my scientific thinking or the way I was trained. I have a lot of empathy, probably more than I should, so I really try to understand people's perspective as much as I possibly can, walk in their shoes kind of thing. I'm very perceptive to how people might be thinking or how they might perceive things, probably because I'm so paranoid about what they're 00:15:00thinking of me, right. [Laughs] I think I've been a very fair, balanced person with the people I work with. I think folks who work with me would probably tell you that. I think what's changed is that-many people, and they're telling me this-I'm noticeably happier. If anything, they've noticed changes in me which are probably going to be reflected back on them as a positive thing too.

AU: We talked about it a little bit, but how was your coming out experience like?

RLT: Terrifying, absolutely terrifying. And it's not done. It's not done at all. As I tell folks in my group that every day's a new new. My large group, that's been accomplished for a couple months, my department has been for a couple months. When I have meetings with senior leadership on the campus, that's been 00:16:00about a month ago I had to go into the room for the first time. That's another coming out, honestly. Or if I go and give a public seminar, which I did last week actually, that was another form of coming out. I'm on several federal advisory panels and I had to go to the East Coast three weeks ago. Entering that room was absolutely terrifying, because these are people who respect me for my science and my opinions. And now I'm asking them to get used to this big change, and they don't have to, to be honest. I hope they did, but they didn't have to. I didn't know how that was going to go. That was another coming out.

I have another large scientific meeting that I'm going to in two weeks with several thousand people, most of whom know me. That's going to be a whole bunch of coming-out moments for me. I'm giving a talk in front of a thousand people. So that's going to be another coming out. So yeah, they're work in progress. So 00:17:00far, again, the folks who have talked to me have been positive. I'm sure there's a lot of uncomfortable people in the room and hopefully, they'll get over it. Maybe they'll grow, evolve from this process. I hope that can be the case. I think it's going to be some time before I've entered all of the parts of the world that I work in to see how that's really going to go in all those sectors and beyond. But so far ok. [Laughs]

INTERVIEWER 2: In a little bit of the research that I did, it said that you'd moved from Michigan to California. What was one of the biggest cultural shifts you experienced after moving from the Midwest to the west coast?

RLT: There were many. As an example, first of all, everyone is white where I'm from-I mean, everyone. I was in sports too. I ran track and field. I remember 00:18:00the day in 10th grade, the first time I saw a non-white person-crazy, right-running in the lane next to me. That was a shock, just the fact that there were different types of people.

[audio cut off, 18:32]

INTERVIEWER 2: Would you say that that was one of the most different shocking moments that you had?

RLT: I'd say certainly the diversity, the different types of cultures, was the biggest shock. But it was a positive shock. It was shocking but it was also fantastic to see different perspectives. I certainly was massively influenced by that and it really fed my interest of understanding, appreciating, and cherishing different people's perspectives. That's kind of what I do now every 00:19:00day in my professional life.

The other things that were memorable about that time was we were still very poor. We had no money. There was an awful time of my life, honestly, financially for a family. But food, there's actually good food in southern California. There's none in upper Michigan-I'll tell you that right now. So that was a shock, but a good shock!

I really think the diversity of people was the biggest, and the size of the school. That would have been in my high school. In Michigan, it was four grades, it was about 400 students. And then my high school in California, it was only three grades and it was almost 4000. That was like, my city was my high school class. So, that was pretty different.

INTERVIEWER 2: And then has your background in more technical skills, such as shop classes, welding, or electronics, influenced or affected your approach in 00:20:00your scientific research?

RLT: Yeah. And again, the reason I have those skills is because of where I was born and raised, right. The Midwest is-and particularly, where I'm from-very scrappy. And technical training is common. But also, more than that, it's valued. There's a lot of respect given to people who have those technical skills. I would say the inverse relationship in urban centers. There's actually disrespect for people who have the skills you just mentioned. It's more of the white-collar-money is what gets you respect rather than what you know how to do. I think just the fabric of that society is that technical training is a good thing. So how did I channel that?

I did okay as an academician, as in college and graduate student. So I had to 00:21:00learn those other things, obviously. But I have all the other technical skills. Most of my colleagues aren't from these types of background. They don't have any of those skills, which translated to me being able to build things. Even if I don't physically build them anymore, I have staff that I can communicate what we need built. I can talk, equally verse-talking, to someone who won a Nobel Prize in medicine as I can to a welder or an electronics person. I have absolutely no problem seamlessly doing that. Merging that kind of miserable town that I lived in, experience in those skills, with the skills that I acquired later in life in college actually is an advantage. I've taken advantage of that. We use it every day. Every day, we're building things and using those types of skills to do so.


INTERVIEWER 2: I think that's all I have.

AU: That's all we have for you. Thank you.

RLT: Okay.

AU: Alright.

RLT: Thank you.