Podcast transcript: A biology prof on growing up gay in rural Minnesota

[Music: “The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: You’re listening to Fiat Vox, a podcast that gives you an inside look at why people around the world are talking about UC Berkeley. I’m Anne Brice, a reporter for the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

Today’s story is about Noah Whiteman, an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley. As a gay teenager, Whiteman learned to forge his own path through the forests of rural Minnesota.

[Music: “Lanky” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Since he was a kid, Noah Whiteman has known how to survive. At 11, he and his family moved to a rural part of northeastern Minnesota called Sax-Zim, between the Iron Range cities, where Bob Dylan is from, and Duluth.

NW: They’re a couple miles from each other and this was kind of in the middle, basically in a bog. 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.

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

NW: I mostly liked it. And always have. My dad taught us to be naturalists and how to be in the woods and how to fish and hunt. He was very good at all those things and he loved being out there. We learned how to hunt grouse, fish, start a fire from nothing, which berries you could eat, which berries you couldn’t eat. He always taught us to have a knife on you at all times.

Every morning, he’d take a 45-minute bus ride to Toivola-Meadowlands School, a K-12 school with about 120 students. He was one of only 15 students in his graduating class.

There weren’t a lot of classes for him to choose from, but there a was a teacher who saw his gift for science.

NW: I remember I wrote a paper on the nitrogen cycle in my fish tank for a ninth grade project. This was pre-Internet, so I was looking in books and things. And she wrote on the paper, and I still remember this, and this is why I think teachers can have such an impact on children. She said, “This is amazing. You have the mind of a scientist.” And I was like, “Wow. No one has ever said that to me before.” I loved her class. I felt like she and I 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’m sure she felt that coming back. (laughs)

[Music: “Tessalit” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Noah always kind of felt like an outsider. Even though he had a lot of friends, was voted homecoming king, excelled in school, ran track… he just felt different. And part of that feeling was because he was gay.  

In 10th grade, a boy at school he had been friends with started to bully him.

NW: You know, calling me fag on a daily basis. It was, like, thousands of times probably. At basketball games. I remember just thinking, “He’s going to do it. I know he is.” And I’d just have to pretend that I couldn’t hear it or smile and look away. So I never responded really to it.

His classmates would defend him, screaming for the bully to stop. He remembers wishing really hard that he wasn’t gay.

NW: I didn’t really know exactly what that all meant. And I thought, “Well, maybe that will change.” But I didn’t really date anyone. And I certainly didn’t tell anyone I was gay.

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

NW: 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, I’m trying to hide 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.

So he started to focus on getting out.

NW: Every single opportunity I could take to get out of there, I felt like was deliverance. I was being delivered from these circumstances that I didn’t want to be in at that point. And I think at that point, too, being up there in the north had lost its glamor, or its appeal. I was over it.

And at 18, he left Sax-Zim for good.

[Music: “Silent Flock” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Three decades later, in 2016, Whiteman became an associate professor at UC Berkeley in the Department of Integrative Biology.

He and students in his lab study how plants produce toxins to prevent animals from eating them. And how these animals have actually evolved to overcome these toxins. Trying to find the best way to keep living as who they are in the world.

In 2014, Whiteman went back to Sax-Zim with his mom to visit his aunt and her family. Whiteman’s friend, who is an avid birder, came along, and together they ventured into the bog in search of great gray owls.

They didn’t find any. But he says to be near their land — a place where he found refuge as a teenager — brought him great solace. He loved being there, and he was glad to leave.

For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.


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