Campus & community, People, Profiles

A biology prof on growing up gay in rural Minnesota

Noah Whiteman spent his teenage years exploring the bog of Sax-Zim, learning to fish and hunt with his naturalist dad and hiding that he was gay

Noah Whiteman, an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, has always known how to survive. He moved to Sax-Zim, a rural area in Minnesota, when he was 11 and spent the next seven years learning to fish and hunt with his naturalist dad and hiding that he was gay. When a boy he’d been friends with started to bully him at every chance he got, Noah knew it was time to get out.

Read the transcript. 

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Noah Whiteman

Noah Whiteman is an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Michael Wan)

Following is the full interview with Noah Whiteman. It’s been edited for clarity. 

Berkeley News: What was your childhood like?

Photo: Noah and his older brother looking at tadpoles on the north shore of lake superior

Noah (left) and his older brother, Seth, look at tadpoles on the north shore of Lake Superior. (Photo courtesy of Noah Whiteman)

Noah Whiteman: I was born in Fountain Valley, California, then moved to Duluth, Minnesota, when I was 3. At 11, I moved to the middle of nowhere to an area called Sax-Zim in northeastern Minnesota. My dad got a job working as a manager at a furniture store. It was kind of a destination furniture store between the Iron Range cities, where Bob Dylan is from, and Duluth. This was kind of in the middle, basically in a bog. A huge boggy area. It’s the southern extent of the Boreal Forest — you know, that big, expanse of black spruce and moss that goes from Labrador to the Ural mountains. So this was the southern tip of that. So it was kind of like that up there — wilderness, wolves, pitcher plants, not a lot of people, humid in the summer and brutally cold in the winter. There was a lot of alone time.

How did you feel about having that much alone time at that age?

I mostly liked it. And always have. I don’t know why, but it’s how I’ve always been. I’d be off exploring. My dad taught us how to be naturalists and how to be in the woods. He was very good at all of those things. He loved being out there. So when my parents were at work, rather than visit friends, I would go out and try to figure out what this plant was or make a new trail, so I think it was fine and I didn’t mind. I do think, and I still feel this way, that I’m actually pretty shy. Many people don’t perceive me that way, but I perceive myself that way. And I think, in part, it’s because of that — just not being around a lot of people a lot of the time.

Noah at age 12 with his dad fishing in Minnesota

Noah and his dad, William “Kurt” Whiteman, in 1988 right after the family moved to Sax-Zim, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Noah Whiteman)

What were some of the skills that your dad taught you?

He taught us everything you’d need to know to survive off the land for an extended period of time. We learned how to hunt grouse, fish, start a fire from nothing, create a little lean-to shelter, how to start a fire in the rain using birch bark and balsam fir needles. He taught us which berries to eat, which you couldn’t. He always told us to have a knife on you at all times. For Christmas, he bought us boot knives. What’s a boot knife, you say? Well, it’s a knife that has a little flange on the sheath so that you can put it over your boot inside your jeans in case you need to cut yourself free of something. He was a survivalist. He was trying to prepare us for being out there.

What was one really memorable moment of your time in the Sax-Zim wilderness?

When I was 14, my dad decided we had to learn archery. So he went and bought us bows, compound bows. And the goal was to learn to shoot accurately. But one day, he was like, “We’re going to try to hunt for deer.” White-tailed deer are everywhere up there. And I was nervous about that, but I thought, “Okay, I’ll give it a try.”

Noah standing in a field

Growing up in Sax-Zim, says Whiteman, where there were expanses of forest and bog, he had a lot of alone time. (Photo courtesy of Noah Whiteman)

Within 20 minutes of being dropped off, I heard this sound of vegetation and something running. There was an animal trail right in front of the blind. Sure enough, a deer comes running. There were three deer. None had antlers, and you’re allowed to shoot antlerless deer with an archery license in Minnesota.

One of them saw me and stopped. They were about 15 feet away from me, and they stopped and turned and I stood up, which was what I was supposed to do. I pointed my bow at it, pulled it back and let it go. And my heart is racing. It’s seared in my mind and always has been. So I let it go and they run off. And I don’t hear them anymore. I run to my dad, who just sat down in his blind and tell him I shot a deer. They found the trail of blood the deer had left, then about 100 feet away, was the deer. Dead.

It was this amazing experience of taking the life of an animal. And for people who eat meat and don’t ever experience that, even if it’s a fish, it totally changed the way I look at food from that moment. Every time I eat meat, when I do, and I don’t eat a lot, I think about what that animal’s life was like.

What was school like for you?

noah working as a naturalist

Noah got his first job as a naturalist at age 17 at a resort in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Noah Whiteman)

I think early on, I was seen as an outsider because I was from Duluth. I found the teachers dedicated, but there just weren’t very many courses to take. But I remember I wrote a paper on the nitrogen cycle in my fish tank and a teacher said, “This is amazing. You have the mind of a scientist.” And I was like, “Wow, no one has ever said that to me.” I felt like we had a cosmic connection. When I would look at her eyes when she was talking, every word that was coming out was like God talking to me. I was mesmerized by her. I thought she was from another planet — a planet that I wanted to live on.”

One of my really close friends… in tenth grade, he started to be really mean to me. And started bullying me. And you know, calling me “fag” on a regular basis.  Swastikas were carved into my locker. The word “fag” written on it. I remember my classmates defending me and screaming at him to knock it off. It was thousands of times probably. At basketball games. I remember thinking, “He’s going to do it. I know he is.” I never responded to it.

Why didn’t you ever respond?

I think because I was taught that if someone is doing that to you, what you don’t do is give them ammunition and you don’t let them take your integrity and dignity away by getting angry and yelling back. So I was taught to turn the other cheek and that’s what I did, literally. I would just turn away.

I can imagine that if you think of yourself as shy, just having attention on you in any way when you don’t want it is kind of horrible.

Yes. I haven’t thought about that in a long time, but I think that’s exactly how I felt. I didn’t want to be in the spotlight at all. First of all, I’m trying to hide, hello, my sexuality. And this person is screaming it at the top of their lungs, basically, in front of everyone. They’re of course telling the truth, they might not know that, but I do.

When did you first know you were gay?

When I was 12, around puberty. I remember wishing I wasn’t. Deep, deep wishing. Deep desire to not be. And I didn’t really know exactly what it meant and I thought, “Well, maybe it will change.” But I didn’t really date anyone and I certainly didn’t tell anyone I was gay. And I had to prepare myself that I didn’t know my family’s reaction would be.

When did you come out?

I came out when I was 23 and had met my first boyfriend, who is now my ex-boyfriend. I met him and I decided that was a good time to come out. And I remember being very afraid, but I thought that I had him as a support system in case it didn’t go well with my family.

Shane Downing kissing Noah Whiteman on the cheek

Whiteman (right) and his boyfriend, Shane Downing (Photo courtesy of Noah Whiteman)

But it went totally well. My dad, I remember saying, “Hmm, well, I knew you were going to come home and say you’d met a woman or a man and I didn’t know which and I didn’t care.” What a wonderful thing for someone of his generation and education level to say. It shows what people are capable of at all levels of our society. He was the most fine with it out of anyone. My alcoholic father was probably the most loving, warm person I ever knew.

My mom at first cried, then the next day she goes, “I’m over it. It’s totally fine.” I think she had to go through this process where she had these stereotypical ideas in her head, “Oh, I’m never going to be a grandma to his children,” that sort of thing. And she is my biggest supporter.

Noah holding a hawk

As part of his dissertation research, Whiteman spent two months on an island in the Galápagos banding Galápagos hawks. (Photo by Jennifer Bollmer)

Do you ever still feel like an outsider?

I feel like an outsider a lot. Part of it might be my family of origin. My parents didn’t go to college. Most of the faculty I know had parents who were professionals.

I think being a white guy has allowed me to skate by and be accepted into the fold in circumstances where if I were a person of color or a woman or a trans person would be much harder given my circumstances. I also see that. I believe that’s real. And that adds to the feeling of, “Oh, I’m fooling them again. They don’t really know who I am.”

You know you have to look at the reality — nobody would say I don’t deserve to be where I am. So that’s the thing I have to keep telling myself when I think, “When are they going to change the locks on the door and realize that I’m an imposter.” So I think I’ve struggled with that my entire life and I think it’s also been a great motivator for me to master things and to try to be bold in my research. So I see all of these things as having another side, which is kind of an inspirational side.

three men relaxing on the summer of Isla Pinta

Whiteman (right) on the summit of Isla Pinta in the Galápagos Islands in 2003 with other researchers. (Photo by Jennifer Bollmer)

What has it been like for you as a gay man working in biology?

I’ve only been supported, as far as I can tell. As a grad student, I always worried about, “Should I tell this person whom I trust, who is senior to me, that I have a boyfriend? Should I let that out? Will that change their perception of me?” But I’m also aware that you can change people’s minds. That you can address those biases. Part of me thought that the way I should address it is by being better than I need to be. And by pushing myself so far, maybe too far, in the direction of working hard to be seen as someone who is valued as a scientist. And I think that took over and came at a cost to my personal life. I think I have a lot of empathy for similar circumstances people find themselves in.

I try to provide an environment for students where they know they are valued and that who they are on a personal level is ok and that they’re going to be ok. I tell all of my students that on a routine basis. Even though we run a pretty tight ship in terms of intellectual scrutiny, I also believe that they feel that diversity is something I value along every human axis.

Noah and his lab members

Whiteman (far back) with his lab members in 2017 (Photo courtesy of Noah Whiteman)

What do you study in your lab?

The main goal of the lab is to understand how interactions between species drive adaptation and new traits to evolve.

We study interactions between hosts and parasites mostly. And we use plants as model hosts and the reason we use plants is because they’re very easy to work with. They have robust immune systems. And we study mainly toxins that plants produce to deter animals from eating the plants. So we study this kind of cornucopia of toxins that plants make that prevent animals from eating them.

What we study is actually how many insects can overcome them. So, 90 percent of insects that eat plants are very specialized as species, so each species will feed on a very restricted number of host plants that tend to be closely related to each other, evolutionarily and chemically. We use genetic engineering like CRISPR to modify genes to see if that can give an ability of an insect that doesn’t feed on a toxic plant, if we just change a few things, can they eat the toxic plants. The answer is, it depends, sometimes yes.

Learn more about the Whiteman Lab.